Posts Tagged ‘Jacksonian Democracy’

A true history of the Jacksonian era

July 10, 2014

WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by David Walker Howe (2007)  is a masterly synthesis of political, economic, military, social and cultural history, throwing new light on many aspects of the so-called Jacksonian era of American history.  Howe dedicated his book to John Quincy Adams, and asserts that Adams, not Jackson, represented what was best and most important in this era.

I once thought, along with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in The Age of Jackson and innumerable Democratic speakers at  Jefferson-Jackson Day picnics, of Andrew Jackson as a champion of working people, or at least of white working men, and of the Democratic Party of today as a continuation of the Democratic Party of that era.

        I modified that view over the years without entirely giving it up, but Howe’s book shows me how completely wrong it was, and also what a mistake it is to project the political divisions of the present onto the past.  The basic principle of Jackson’s Democratic Party was white supremacy.

White men, regardless of social status or economic class, were regarded as equally superior to blacks, Indians and Mexicans.

Jackson’s deeds as a slave owner and Indian fighter were as historically significant as his campaign against the Bank of the United States.  The Cherokee, Creek and other Indian tribes once held legal title to most of the land area of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and large sections of other states.

General Jackson’s defeat of the Cherokee and Creek and President Jackson’s support of Indian Removal opened up the Deep South to cotton cultivation, giving slavery a new lease on life.  Cotton quickly became the leading U.S. export crop, and the availability of cheap high-quality cotton provided the basis of the British and New England textile industries, the leading manufacturing industries of their day, so this was an important historical event.

Jackson’s vision of the United States was like Thomas Jefferson’s – a nation of independent white farmers and craftsmen, independent of governmental authority or exploitation by government-chartered banks and corporations.

His opponents, the middle-class Whigs, believed in progress through improvements in technology, infrastructure (canals and railroads), public education and humanitarian reform. Most Whigs were not abolitionists, but most abolitionists were either non-political or Whigs.

Evangelical Protestantism in this era was a strong force for progress, according to Howe.  Protestantism, progressivism and patriotism were not at odds; neither were self-improvement and social reform.  Most evangelical Protestants, in Howe’s telling, regarded them as part of the same thing.  They thought the Second Coming of Christ was coming soon, and they thought they could hasten it by becoming better people and making the world a better place.  This is very different from the defensive evangelical Protestantism of our own day.

Most of the great Unitarians and Transcendentalists also were Whigs.  Most Catholic immigrants, believing in a different theology and in conflict with native-born Protestant workers and business owners, were Democrats.

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