The Age of Jackson

By Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
AMERICAN democracy, under the impact of industrialization. of western settlement, and of plantation economy, passed through a crisis in the three decades after 1820. Despite the enormous weight of historical research expended in uncovering these developments, the era has often been misunderstood. The tendency to view Jacksonianism as a peculiar product of the western frontier, and the ready temptation to slip all issues into the neat categories, East versus West and agrarian versus urban, have imparted a special bias to the common, and even to the scholarly, conception of the struggles of these years.
This volume brings a fresh and stimulating approach to the whole subject. Mr. Schlesinger finds the mainsprings of economic and political unrest in the cities of the Northeast.
The striving of working people, oppressed by new developments in trade and technology and imbued with egalitarianism, supplied the élan for radical democracy. Attempts to appropriate the instruments of the state to the service of the toiling masses furnished its practical program. Urban laborers, mobilized in successive reform movements and drawing strength from alliances with other groups hostile to the encroachments of privilege upon liberty, presented a continual reminder that America’s heritage lay in equal opportunity.
Though there are differences of interpretation as to the relationship of the Democratic Party to the democracy of the age, the analysis of radical ideas and of their implications is brilliantly and convincingly presented. Nowhere, for instance, is the meaning of Jackson’s fight on the Bank of the United States, or the general significance of the currency question, presented as lucidly as here. Mr. Schlesinger writes with polish and with verve. He draws upon a wealth of detail which interprets rather than obscures, and succeeds in unfolding his story against the broad social background, high-lighted by colorful portraits of personalities.
This thoughtful account throws light on its period, but it raises also the general question of the place of reform in American democracy. Its author focuses upon political radicalism, and views alternative modes of action with distrust. Yet the immediate outcome of Jacksonian Democracy was not reassuring; the results for labor were meager, and many schemes — for example, free banking and general incorporation — became instruments of further exploitation in the hands of those at whom they were directed. Were not the visions of human dignity raised by Channing and Emerson, the practical benevolence of Tuckerman and Howe, as weighty in the evolvement of the promise of American life as the political movements, wrapped up in compromise and coercion, in which these men would not participate?