• Email
  • Print

Judging the Age of Jackson: An Exchange

In response to:

Goodbye to the 'Age of Jackson'? from the May 28, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

In his smugly dismissive review ofWaking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson [NYR, May 28], Daniel Walker Howe uses a smokescreen of cavils to avoid confronting my book’s conclusions, which clash with his recent book,What Hath God Wrought.

I would relish the space to discuss every false allegation Howe raises. My book doesn’t equate the Liberty and Free Soil parties. Disagreement with Englanddid contribute to the Monroe Doctrine. I know Millard Fillmore was a Whig—my book simply ends two years before Fillmore took office. But let’s focus instead on larger, more substantive issues.

Howe wants to rehabilitate the Whig Party as the outstanding force for liberal politics and technological progress of the time. He aims to dismantle the work of diverse historians, including Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Sean Wilentz, who describe the Jacksonians as major proponents of democratic reform. Instead, he claims that the Whigs were the true heroes.

He demonizes the Democrats and caricatures Andrew Jackson as an illiberal, autocratic white supremacist. But as my book shows, the Jacksonians did not have a corner on white supremacy. There is no defending the outcome of Jackson’s Indian policies (though we could debate Jackson’s motivations, which Howe describes as, in effect, genocidal). Yet how does Howe explain Henry Clay’s assertion that the Indians were “destined to extinction” and “not,…as a race, worth preserving” (a claim that Howe’s greatest hero, John Quincy Adams, said had “too much foundation”)? True, Clay later changed, when politically advantageous. But Howe turns a complicated, unfolding national tragedy into a crude racial melodrama, featuring Whig heroes and Jacksonian villains.

Howe garbles the politics of slavery and race. White supremacy, sadly, permeated both parties. The slaveholder Clay, whom black abolitionists despised, called free blacks “the most corrupt, depraved, and abandoned” people in America. The leading current authority on Whig politics, Michael F. Holt, affirms that the wealthiest slaveholding plantation districts were Whig bastions, not Democratic.

Actually, the most visible Whigs—Clay, Webster, Taylor, and the like—were notable straddlers,not bold reformers, on divisive issues like slavery.

Howe finds an “impossible” contradiction in my appreciating both the abolitionist John Brown and the slaveholder Jackson. Can’t one admire Brown’s racial egalitarianism without utterly abhorring Jackson (or Thomas Jefferson, or any other slaveholder)? Howe falls into the trap of what Emerson called a “foolish consistency.”

Technological improvement, as Howe says, was Whig doctrine. But it is worth noting that Jackson spent more on internal improvements than all previous presidentscombined, and much more annually than all of his Whig successors except Fillmore.

Howe rejects my distinction between pre-Jacksonian and Jacksonian phases of American literature. “Tying this evolution to party politics doesn’t work,” he writes, since neither Thoreau nor Emerson was a Democrat, and Whitman left the party.

But my book states that Emerson the Transcendentalist was no Democrat; neither was Thoreau. Still, while Emerson called the Democrats “this rank rabble party,” he also declared that the party was “more magnetic than the Whig” and that “the Jacksonism of the country,” with its rough vitality, could save American writing from its “hollow dilettantism.” He later said that while the Whigs had “the best men,” the Democrats had “the best cause.”

Whitman, a Democratic politico, bolted the party in 1848 for the Free Soilers. So what? Can Howe seriously deny Jacksonian egalitarianism’s profound influence onLeaves of Grass ? Or on Melville’sMoby-Dick, with its rhapsody about the “great democratic God” who lifted Jackson from the pebbles and thundered him higher than a throne? Howe says that Hawthorne “took his literary inspiration from Puritanism, not Jacksonianism.” Since when has Howe rereadTwice-Told Tales orThe House of the Seven Gables ?

Howe denigrates as “fringe” the marginal but significant figures who, my book argues, spearheaded social change. But in seeking “admirable people” to replace Jackson, Howe himself includes figures like the revolutionary abolitionist David Walker and the feminist Lucretia Mott, who stood at the political margins. Talk about inconsistency.

Howe ignores how the roiling, sometimes vulgar currents of Jacksonian culture that subverted prim hypocrisy also affected the era’s lofty political, literary, religious, and philosophical themes. He finds it all so degraded—“superficial, sensational, and tawdry.” This Whiggish misreading of my book is unsurprising, given Howe’s unstinting pro-Whig partisanship.

My book tries to render fully an era that Thoreau called “restless, nervous, bustling, trivial,” a “confusedtintinnabulum.” Howe’s disdainful trashing of that effort brings to mind the disagreeable sanctimony that Hawthorne discovered in certain Whig circles, filled with “bores of a very intense water.”

David S. Reynolds
Professor, Ph.D. Program in English
CUNY Graduate Center, New York City

Daniel Howe replies:

David Reynolds’s letter seeks to shift attention from the shortcomings of his latest book to our disagreements over the merits of Andrew Jackson’s statecraft. My criticisms of his recent book are merely “cavils,” he charges, designed “to avoid confronting [his] book’s conclusions.”

Reynolds’s book was one of four that I reviewed in the essay to which he refers. All four of the books treat Andrew Jackson more sympathetically than I would. Yet I accorded the other three considerable respect, and though I did not pretend to agree with all their judgments, neither did I find them inaccurate, careless, or superficial. If Reynolds had been as responsible in his most recent historical writing as Jon Meacham, Robert Remini, and Walter McDougall were in theirs, I should have assessed his book more favorably.

I confronted Reynolds’s interpretion directly and quoted it in his own words. It actually has less to do with defending Jackson than with portraying antebellum America as “bumptious, nonconformist, roistering,” full of the bizarre, sensational, and freakish. I then explained why I considered this approach superficial and trivializing. The list of errors that I pointed out was exemplary, not by any means exhaustive.

Despite the deficiencies of Reynolds’s new book, I retain my admiration for much of his earlier work, as I also mentioned in my review.

  • Email
  • Print