Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Age of Jackson / Adrthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. -- Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1953, c1945.

The Age of Jackson is a classic work on the decades preceding the Civil War. Schlesinger provides a brief account of U.S. politics from Jefferson through John Quincy Adams, but launches the main of his work with the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Much of the work examines "the Bank War," between Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, on the one hand, and Nicholas Biddle, President of the Bank of the United States, and various members of the Federalist-Whig establishment on the other hand. Schlesinger does not overlook other important issues of the time, e.g., tariffs, nulification, class warfare, the Mexican War, and slavery.

The work is rich in detailed portraits of the eras most important figures and provides a careful guide through the kaleidascopic constellations of political alliances. The reader is emersed a time when national political parties were weak in comparison to state political parties, and when the county's leading politicians could (and would) split political parties and form new ones in pursuit of personal political gain. Along with the familiar "Democrats," "Whigs," and "Republicans," Schlesinger distinguishes such groupings as the "Cotton Whigs," the "Conscience Whigs," "Hunkers," "Barnburners," "Locofocos," "Free Soilers," the "Liberty Party," "Northern Democrats," "Southern Democrats," and the "Know Nothing Party." He is especially good at identifying the role of newspapers in promoting the views of one or another candidate, politician or political party.

What was most surprising to me was how much many of the leading figures of the time sounded like Marx. At least in their rhetoric, many politicians recognized the exploitation of the working class by newly rising corporate interests. Schlesinger quotes numerous politicians as dividing American society into the working class that produces wealth and the capitalist class that lives off of that production. For mainstream politicians of the time, wealth is a product of labor and its maldistribution is the measure of exploitation. In this respect, I am left wondering if Martin Van Buren was not our country's most radical president, and whether the power of corporations might not have been nipped in the bud had he been re-elected in 1840. Schlesinger attributes his defeat to the shrewd Whig strategy to paint William Henry Harrison as a commoner and the power of the Whig campaign treasury.

The last third of the book turns away from economic issues and recounts the struggle over slavery leading up to the Civil War. While interesting, the narrative is well known. I am not so well read as to say how much The Age of Jackson is responsible for that narrative, but surely much of it is in line with previous work on the Civil War.

Two figures stand out in Schlesinger's account that get well-deserved attention. One is David Wilmot, the radical Democrat responsible for introducing a bill to abolish slavery in the territories. The significance of this bill can not be understated. It, perhaps more than anything, was responsible for moving the issue of slavery from a matter for compromise to a nation-splitting controversy. The second figure is Frances Wright, a Scottish immigrant who was the darling of the working class, an early opponant of slavery, and an outspoken feminist. Schlesinger's picture of her is one of a late 20th century woman mysteriously born in 1795. For a fuller picture of this amazing personality, see Fanny Wright: Rebel in America.

I have wanted to read The Age of Jackson for many years. Having read it, I deeply regret waiting so long.

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