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The Ages of Jackson

My involvement with the age of Jackson began more than half a century ago. Seeking a subject for an honors essay as an undergraduate at Harvard College in the autumn of 1937, I chose the formidable nineteenth-century American intellectual Orestes A. Brownson. Brownson was a man of many careers—preacher, editor, Transcendentalist fellow traveler, Jacksonian reformer, Catholic convert—and an episode in his Jacksonian phase struck me as of curious interest.

In 1838 Brownson’s services in the Jacksonian cause had been rewarded by his appointment as inspector of a government hospital. The arrangement permitted him to continue editing a magazine; and when Jackson’s friend and successor President Martin Van Buren ran for reelection in the picturesque “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” contest of 1840, Brownson created considerable embarrassment for his fellow Democrats by writing an inflammatory essay entitled “The Laboring Classes.” After describing the exploitation of the workers, Brownson raised the specter of “that most dreaded of all wars, the war of the poor against the rich, a war which, however long it may be delayed, will come, and come with all its horrors.” To avert that war, he said, the age must recognize its historic responsibility. “Our business is to emancipate the proletaries, as the past has emancipated the slaves.”1

Reading “The Laboring Classes” a century later, I was struck by Brownson’s drastic class analysis. How had it come about that, eight years before Marx and Engels produced The Communist Manifesto, a Jacksonian Democrat in far-off America expressed such “Marxist” views in such “Marxist” language? Brownson, moreover, had received his government job from the historian George Bancroft, who, as collector of the port of Boston, was Van Buren’s man in Massachusetts, and Bancroft evidently thought along similar lines. “The feud between the capitalist and laborer, the house of Have and the house of Want,” Bancroft had written, “is as old as social union…. It is now for the yeomanry and the mechanics to march at the head of civilization. The merchants and the lawyers, that is, the moneyed interest broke up feudalism. The day for the multitude has now dawned.”2

Jackson had conventionally been seen as a champion of the frontier; his presidency as the eruption of the backwoods west into national power. Yet it appeared that eastern intellectuals like Brownson and Bancroft had their own stake in the Jacksonian uprising. Moreover, was not someone like Henry Clay of Kentucky quite as representative of the frontier as Andrew Jackson of Tennessee? And Clay, as the champion of the American System of national development, based on the protective tariff, the United States Bank, and federal aid for internal improvement, was Jackson’s mortal political antagonist.

If Jacksonianism meant no more than the surge of uncouth backwoodsmen onto the national scene, why were so many leading writers and artists of the day—not only Bancroft and Brownson but James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Cullen Bryant, Washington Irving, Walt Whitman, James Kirke Paulding, the actor Edwin Forrest, the sculptors Horatio Greenough and Hiram Powers—ardent Jacksonians? And if the frontier was the force driving the Jacksonian upheaval, how to account for the preoccupation in the pamphlet literature by Jackson’s supporters with problems of a commercial society—with monopoly, with banking, with the business cycle, with the unequal distribution of the fruits of labor, with workingmen, with trade unions, with class conflict? How to account for the hatred the business community showed for Jackson and his works?

The Age of Jackson sought to combine narrative and analysis in a fresh look at the Jacksonian revolution. Historians had nearly all agreed that Jacksonian democracy was a frontier phenomenon, but they had vigorously disagreed on whether this was a good or bad thing. Judgment on the merits had varied according to the political climate. When Jackson was in the White House, respectable opinion had seen him as a rude and violent westerner who introduced the spoils system, wrecked the banking system, invited the unwashed mob to Washington, and hastened the degradation of the democratic dogma. This was the view expounded more genially by James Parton a quarter century later in his delightful and still valuable three-volume biography of Jackson (1860–1861). It was reaffirmed in the long conservative interlude after the Civil War by the sociologist William Graham Sumner in the incisive biography he wrote for the American Statesmen series in 1882.

The Populist revolt in the 1890s followed by the Progressive movement in the early twentieth century generated new perspectives. Frederick Jackson Turner argued the decisive significance of the western frontier in the rise of American democracy. Charles A. Beard offered an economic interpretation of the Constitution and analyzed the economic origins of Jeffersonian democracy. A new school of Progressive historians, seeking precedents for Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, ironically found more to praise in Jackson than TR and Wilson had done in their own days as historians. John Spencer Bassett in his excellent scholarly biography (1911), while expressing reservations about some of Jackson’s actions and policies, was typical in saluting “his brave, frank, masterly leadership of the democratic movement which then established itself in our life.”3 Writing a quarter century later under the shadow of the second Roosevelt, Marquis James in his vivid and detailed biography (1933, 1937) was almost unreserved in commendation.

Still, the Progressive historians mostly agreed with their conservative predecessors in seeing Jacksonian politics as essentially a conflict of sections rather than of classes and the Jacksonian victory as a triumph of western ideals. Beard in his Rise of American Civilization described the Jacksonian movement as “a triumphant farmer-labor party,”4 but even Beard held to the Turner thesis of the frontier origins of Jacksonian democracy.

The Age of Jackson took a different tack. It argued that more could be understood about Jacksonian democracy if it were regarded as a problem not of sections but of classes. As Jacksonian policies evolved, I contended, they were increasingly shaped not by the needs and demands of the frontier but by the needs and demands of workingmen, small farmers, and intellectuals in the East. Class conflict, for example, was hardly a feature of the far frontier, yet it was a favorite Jacksonian theme. Frontiers breed equality and individualism. Class resentments arise in a developed and stratified economic order. It was the East, not the frontier, that had the bitter experience of shrinking opportunity, growing inequality, and hardening class lines. The Age of Jackson further contended that Jacksonian democracy constituted the second phase, Jeffersonianism having been the first, of the perennial struggle between the business community and the rest of society for control of the state, a struggle I saw as the basic meaning of American liberalism and as the guarantee of freedom in a capitalist democracy.

Like historians before me, I too was reflecting the politics of my time. Growing up in the 1930s, I was conditioned politically by the passions of the New Deal era. J. Franklin Jameson said of George Bancroft that his history voted for Jackson. Some have said of me that my history votes for FDR, and I guess there is something to that.5

Conservatives in the angry 1930s used to fulminate against the New Deal as “un-American.” I wanted to show that, far from importing foreign ideas, FDR was acting in a robustly American spirit and tradition. Jackson’s war against Nicholas Biddle and the Second Bank of the United States as the instrumentality of the concentrated money power seemed an earlier and simpler version of the battles waged by Roosevelt against the “economic royalists” of my own day for control of national policy. The two presidents, it appeared, had much the same array of supporters and much the same array of enemies. (Years later I came upon a letter FDR had written to Colonel Edward M. House, Woodrow Wilson’s homme de confiance, in November 1933. “The real truth of the matter,” Roosevelt told House, “is, as you and I know, that a financial element in the larger centers has owned the Government ever since the days of Andrew Jackson—and I am not wholly excepting the Administration of W. W. The country is going through a repetition of Jackson’s fight with the Bank of the United States—only on a far bigger and broader basis.”6 )

The Age of Jackson was published in September 1945 while I was still in the army in Europe. The first reviews appeared two weeks after the surrender of Japan. Victory had vindicated the cause of liberal democracy. Now the question of democracy’s capacity to manage an uncertain future was much in people’s minds.

It was a propitious moment for a book about the American democratic tradition. Some families sent it to sons or husbands overseas who, like the author, were awaiting redeployment to the United States and demobilization. Over the years people have told me how they read The Age of Jackson in the South Pacific or the Aleutians or on transports on the way home.

Among historians The Age of Jackson has had its ups and downs. Its great value was that it helped reawaken professional interest in a complex and abundant period of American history. It stirred controversy, and controversy is always fruitful for historians. The initial reception was friendly. But soon objections were filed against one or another aspect of the book’s argument. By the early 1950s, the New Deal impulse was running its course. The nation was tired of wrangling and eager for healing. The onset of the cold war increased the felt need to affirm national cohesion and unity. President Eisenhower embodied the new mood. Progressive history, with its emphasis on conflict, began to give way to the delineation and, for some historians, celebration of the American consensus.7

Consensus historians contended that the beliefs that united Americans—private property, free enterprise, individual opportunity, limited government—were far more significant than the arguments that occasionally divided them. Those notorious confrontations beloved of progressive historians—between Jefferson and Hamilton, or Jackson and Nicholas Biddle, or FDR and Herbert Hoover—were dismissed as no more than family quarrels. Unlike the great revolutions of Europe, American political conflicts, the Civil War always excepted, were over nuances, not over basic shifts in ideas and power.

Scrutinized through the lenses of consensus history, the fierce political and ideological battles of the age of Jackson evaporated into inconsequence. Jacksonian Democrats and their Whig opponents, Richard Hofstadter and Bray Hammond explained, were all entrepreneurs together, all expectant capitalists, all plunged in the acquisitive scramble, all men on the make fighting sham battles to advance individual fortunes. Or, in Lee Benson’s version, ethnicity and religion were far more powerful determinants of voting than economic interests or political ideas. As for the drastic ideologies and the fusillades of apocalyptic denunciation, this alarmist rhetoric, as Benson put it in a major tract of the ethnocultural school, was no more than “campaign claptrap.”8 The consensus interpretation was eventually pressed to the point where it almost obliterated the differences between the Jacksonians and the Whigs and left the bitter political tone of the age of Jackson a mystery.

  1. 1

    Orestes A. Brownson, “The Laboring Classes,” Boston Quarterly Review (July 1840).

  2. 2

    Bancroft to the Workingmen of Northampton, October 1, 1834, Boston Courier, October 22, 1834; Bancroft to Brownson, September 21, 1836, H. F. Brownson, Orestes A. Brownson’s Early Life (H. F. Brownson, 1898), pp. 179–181.

  3. 3

    J. S. Bassett, The Life of Andrew Jackson (Macmillan, 1911), p. 750.

  4. 4

    Charles A. and Mary Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, Volume I (1927; revised edition, 1933), p. 542. Beard had at one point planned to carry his study of Jeffersonian democracy into the Jacksonian era, and he very kindly lent me his notes on this period. While admiring their tidiness and legibility, I did not in fact find them especially useful for my purposes.

  5. 5

    J. Franklin Jameson, The History of Historical Writing in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1891), p. 107; Alfred A. Cave, Jacksonian Democracy and the Historians (University of Florida Press, 1964), p. 52.

  6. 6

    Roosevelt to House, November 21, 1933; reprinted in F. D. R.: His Personal Letters, 1928–1945, Elliott Roosevelt, ed., Volume I (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1950), p. 373.

  7. 7

    Two historians who made notable contributions to the consensus interpretation of Jacksonian democracy—Richard Hofstadter in his influential essay on Jackson in The American Political Tradition (Knopf, 1948) and Edward Pessen in his voluminous and useful writings on the Jackson era—defined the consensus from a critical perspective and deplored it.

  8. 8

    Lee Benson, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy (Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 81. This book oddly based its analysis of Jacksonian democracy not on the election of 1832 but on the election of 1844, after the ideological passions had subsided. It was as if someone had based a book called The Concept of the New Deal on the politics of the 1950s rather than on the politics of the 1930s. It is when class and interest politics recede that cultural politics—ethnicity, religion, social status, morality—come to the fore.

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