Book Reviews of The age of Jackson

The age of Jackson
The age of Jackson
Author: Arthur M Schlesinger Jr
ISBN: 457977
Publication Date: 1989
Pages: 577
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Book Type: Hardcover
Large Print: Yes
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This book is a classic of American History, and is very much a chapter in Schlesinger's broader project of discovering the roots of (then-) modern liberalism through history. This is a book that is best described as a history of ideas, and particularly of the idea of democracy as it expanded in the 1830s and 1840s, embracing universal suffrage and economic as well as political egalitarianism. The book very much reflects the time in which it was written and the debates which it was part of, and, like much history of the period, seeks to refocus discussion of American history away from themes of frontier and nationalialism.

There are several things this book is not:

This book is not a comprehensive history of the period;
it is not even a social or economic history of the period;
it is not a biography of Jackson (indeed, Martin Van Buren may well receive more ink than Jackson in this book); and
it is not an attempt to write a definitive work; rather, it is a voice in a rather lively debate.

Schlesigner's voice in the book is clear and open. His own biases and prejudices are on the surface, not hidden and not given any claims of a "disinterested" scientific approach. Yet his research and his mustering of support are thorough and meticulous, and he is just as clear in discussing the shortcomings of his analysis (such as in the closing chapters) as in describing the shortcoming of other's analyses.

His fundamental argument is that the Jacksonian intellectual tradition was the first American intellectual tradition to clearly recognize a need for economic as well as political egalitarianism, and the first to make good on the fundamental concept that "All men (still men in the Jacksonian age) are created equal." He focuses on the entire intellectual movement of Jacksonian Democracy, not exclusively on the General himself, and shows the differing currents of thought and how they interacted to create a policy that fundamentally based itself on addressing a conflict between classes.

Schlesinger's project does have difficulty in dealing with reactions to slavery, which cut across class and ideological lines, and he wrestles through this to recognize in the end that a fundamental conflict of the time was the conflict between a sectionally and ideologically motiviated politics, resulting in much "crossing of aisles" and in radically different alliances in the 50s and 60s than existed in the 30s and 40s. Perhaps, however, it is just as important to examine ideologies that go beyond the Jacksonian economic perspectives and focus on underlying religious and moral views. Schlesigner also wrestles briefly, and less successfully still, with the impact of immigration and the opening of the frontier on the development of American political ideas. In doing so, at the end of the book, however, he is more laying out the areas needing further work than attempting to actually tackle the issues in detail.

Some of the many strenghts: Schlesigner provides us with the most coherant discussion before or since of the failure and demise of federalism, gives us the best history before or since on the battles over the 2nd National Bank, and brings out significant parts of the Jacksonian inheritance that had long been underappreciated. He incorporates original material into his work in a way that animates the material, makes it clearly understandable, and provides it context. Perhaps most importantly of all, he contributes a voice to American history that is personal and open, and puts the biases and personal intellectual struggles of the writer on display as part and parcel of his analysis.

Since Schlesinger's time, much has changed, but, in the developing debates Jacksonian Democracy is perhaps even more relevant. For example, there is again an alliance between economic and religious conservatives as there was in the Harrison/Van Buren election. Other reviewers have criticized, for example, Schlesigner's finding of common cause with the radical Jacksonians given Schlesinger's prediliction for "big government" liberalism; yet Schlesinger is very clear and insightful in showing how that the Jacksonian opposition's early view of limited government was inspired by the clear alliance of government and business at the time to the detriment of the common person, and that the view of government involvement developed significantly as the Jacksonians consolidated power and then watched it dissipate. We are once again in an era where the conservative party is increasingly the party of a bigger, more expansive and intrusive government, one which actively promotes policies geared toward conservative causes and business interests, and where liberals are, once again, more often the voice of governmental restraint. Schlesinger's analysis is helpful in tying together the development of differing approaches to government all in a common attempt to serve and respond to egalitarian social concerns. Schlesigner also is careful to call out the discontinuities between Jacksonian Democracy and the New Deal, highlighting in particular the struggles of the Jacksonians with industrialization, immigration and slavery.

While this book is highly recommended for all, and, indeed, is among the very best American History works, it is particularly recommended for those seeking intellectual roots for egalitarianism.