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Goodbye to the ‘Age of Jackson’?

Andrew Jackson

by Robert V. Remini
Palgrave Macmillan, 204 pp., $21.95

During the years between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War of 1846, the United States underwent a great transformation. In 1815, at the close of the second war with Britain, the US was what we would call a “developing” country. Most people worked in agriculture, often on semisubsistence family farms, eating food they grew, their lives governed by the weather and the hours of daylight. It was the slowness and uncertainty of transportation and communications that kept their lives so primitive. Only people who lived near navigable water could readily market crops; others relied heavily on barter with their neighbors and the local storekeeper. Only luxury goods could bear the cost of long-distance transportation on land, and information from the wider world was among the most precious of luxuries.

Thirty-three years later, in 1848, at the end of the war with Mexico, much had changed. The United States had become a transcontinental major power. Its expanded empire stretched from sea to sea, integrated by revolutionary innovations in transportation and communications. These included the railroad, the telegraph, the steamboat, the Erie Canal, the steam-operated printing press, and innovations in papermaking. The mechanization of agriculture had begun, with Cyrus McCormick’s invention of the reaper in 1831 and John Deere’s steel plow in 1837. Techniques of mass production, even more important than mechanical inventions, were starting to transform manufacturing’s age-old artisan traditions.

These innovations not only raised the standard of living but also fostered the growth of democracy. Improvements in communications rescued people from the tyranny of isolation. Cheaper paper, more efficient printing, and faster transportation encouraged the proliferation of newspapers and magazines. These could be distributed through the mails thanks to federal policies that multiplied small-town post offices and subsidized printed matter with low postage rates. The press in turn facilitated the development of nationwide mass political parties. Many newspapers were put out by political parties (or factions within parties) and existed more to voice a point of view than for commercial reasons. American democracy expanded as rival candidates exploited the newspapers and magazines to appeal to the nationwide public. Andrew Jackson filled his “kitchen cabinet” of informal advisers with newspapermen. By 1840, as many as four out of five qualified voters were going to the polls—a far higher level of participation than has been achieved by the expanded electorate of recent decades. Mass democracy had replaced the patrician republic created by the Founders.

Since this “middle period” in American history is so interesting and important, why does it get so little attention compared with the Revolutionary era of the Founders and the time of the Civil War? Even academic historians have had little to say about it in recent years, if one may judge from the number of papers presented at meetings of the Organization of American Historians. The answer seems to have something to do with the identification of this period as “the age of Jackson” or “the Jacksonian era.”

Andrew Jackson has long been at the center of attention for the years from the War of 1812 to the war with Mexico. Rising to a position of political dominance in a peaceful revolution, he has seemed to personify the common man as an American hero. Over the years the identity of this “common man” has shifted. For the Progressive historians Frederick Jackson Turner and Vernon Louis Parrington in the early 1900s, the common nineteenth-century American was a frontier farmer. For the New Deal Democrat Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., he was an urban workingman. Still, Jackson could be portrayed by all three as the leader of a democratic movement.

During the past half-century the records of many national heroes have come under challenge, and none more so than Andrew Jackson’s. Historians noticed that Jackson, the symbol of American democracy, was an ardent white supremacist. Upon assuming the presidency in 1829, Old Hickory’s highest priority was “Indian Removal”: the expulsion of the Native Americans who lived east of the Mississippi to designated areas west of the river. Against strong opposition, Jackson pushed his removal measure through Congress by narrow margins and then enforced it ruthlessly. Turner, Parrington, and Schlesinger all ignored Indian Removal when writing about Jackson’s presidency; more recent historians could not do so.

Jackson was not only a slaveholder himself but a strong defender of slavery against its contemporary critics. In 1835 abolitionists began to mail their literature to prominent Southern whites who they hoped might be open to persuasion. Jackson interpreted their action as inciting the slaves to rebellion; he expressed his loathing for the abolitionists vehemently, both in public and in private. With the President’s full support, Postmaster General Amos Kendall encouraged local postmasters to censor the mails. When Congress responded with a statute mandating that mail be delivered to its addressee, Jackson’s administration ignored it.

Jackson’s embrace of class conflict has endeared him to some liberal historians, notably Schlesinger. When vetoing the bill extending the charter of the Second Bank of the United States, Old Hickory wrote this memorable denunciation:

The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions…. But when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers—who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.

It should be evident that Jackson’s notion of class did not pit the propertyless against capitalism, but (as the historian Richard Hofstadter long ago pointed out) rallied believers in bourgeois values to denounce government favoritism to a privileged few. Beginning with Edward Pessen’s study Jacksonian America in 1969, the claim of Jackson’s political movement to egalitarianism has been under serious challenge.

With regard to gender, Andrew Jackson proved a staunch defender of patriarchy. “I did not come here [to Washington] to make a Cabinet for the Ladies of this place,” he declared in reaction to a group of Democratic women who shunned the wife of his secretary of war, John Eaton, because of allegations that she was sexually promiscuous and that her affair with Eaton before their marriage had driven her first husband to suicide. As the scandal grew more intense, Jackson told his cabinet members that he expected them to keep their wives in line. Rather than admit the existence of a social sphere in which women exercised autonomy, Jackson then replaced his entire cabinet.

As Jackson’s standing in the American democratic pantheon has been shaken, public interest in the middle period of US history as a whole has diminished. Without Old Hickory as a unifying focus, no alternative intepretation of the era has yet captured the popular imagination. To be sure, efforts have been made to reconstitute the “Jacksonian” character of the time. In 1991 Charles Sellers described his vision of an evil “Market Revolution” forced upon unwilling, noncommercial farm families—a vision that resembled that of Vernon Parrington to a surprising extent. In this morality play, Jackson led the vain but heroic resistance to commercial capitalism.

However, economic historians have not confirmed Sellers’s celebration of subsistence farming, and have pointed out that Americans were dealing in a global market as early as colonial times. As recently as 2005, Sean Wilentz restated Schlesinger’s interpretation of Jackson as the cutting edge of “the rise of American democracy.” But Wilentz has moved away from the history of the nineteenth century, as did Schlesinger himself, and into the politics of the present. For the most part, both historians and the general public have found it harder and harder to regard Jackson as an authentic democratic hero.

Against this historiographical background, we now have Jon Meacham’s American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. One can only marvel that the editor of Newsweek finds so much time and energy for historical research and writing. Like Meacham’s other books, his new one is well written and reflects study of original manuscript sources. It contains more personal detail and charming anecdotes about White House life in the Jackson years than any other book since Marquis James’s Andrew Jackson: Portrait of a President (1937). Meacham places himself in the mainstream of present-day American liberalism. Accordingly, he makes no effort to defend Indian Removal, justly concluding, “There is nothing redemptive about Jackson’s Indian policy.”

Meacham is loath to admit, however, that there was a difference between the Indian policy pursued by Andrew Jackson and that of his predecessor and political opponent, John Quincy Adams. Jackson zealously pursued Indian Removal as a major goal of his administration. On the other hand, Adams tried as president to respect the Indians’ treaty rights as best he could even while recognizing that the behavior of their white neighbors made this very difficult. After Jackson’s inauguration, Adams saw that the Indians were likely to lose their land, but he wanted to expose the “perfidy and tyranny of which the Indians are to be made the victims.” Jackson rejoiced in Indian Removal as a triumph for himself, his party, and US national interests. His instructions to the army officers who carried it out always emphasized haste and sometimes economy, but never the need for humanity, honesty, or careful planning. Adams recalled Indian Removal as “a perpetual harrow upon my feelings.”

Meacham’s evaluations of Jackson’s other policies in office vary. Arthur Schlesinger had glorified Jackson’s “war” on the national bank as an attack on big business that prefigured Teddy Roosevelt’s assault on “malefactors of great wealth.” Meacham adopts a more detached and judicious perspective. “On balance,” he writes,

it seems most reasonable to say that the nation’s interests would have been best served had the Bank been reformed rather than altogether crushed, but balance was not the order of the day once Jackson decided—as he had done early on—that the Bank was a competing power center beyond his control.

Meacham praises Jackson’s handling of the Nullification Crisis of 1832–1833, as everyone does today, and as even the opposition party did at the time. South Carolina “nullified” two federal tariff acts when a special convention declared them null and void within that state. Jackson’s credible threat of military action to enforce federal law combined with Henry Clay’s famous aptitude for compromise resolved the crisis with the promise that the tariff would be gradually lowered. On the other hand, Meacham grants that Jackson’s Specie Circular of 1836—which required payment for government land in gold and silver and not paper currency—nudged the country into a sharp recession that turned into a prolonged depression. In short, Meacham’s verdicts on Jackson’s presidential policies are mixed and restrained.

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