Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Jacksonian Promise (A Summary and Review)

The Jacksonian Era was a time of energy and exuberance that soared to heights that have remained unparalleled since their collapse into sectional discord after 1840. Today it is all too easy to criticize those years in which America first truly emerged as a nation and formed its unique character. There was the continuing brutality of slavery, the ongoing subjugation of women, and the persistence of intolerance for non-Protestants: issues that, logically speaking, should have been utterly inescapable in the egalitarian ideals of the Revolution. Added to all this came the sudden coercion of Eastern tribes to abandon their ancestral lands, a process that culminated in the infamous Trail of Tears, as well as the distance thundering of an Industrial Revolution that would yoke countless American citizens to an exploitative factory system and the caprices of distant markets.

Daniel Feller, associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico, nevertheless cautions against judging Americans of this period by modern standards: "Where historians once spied the flowering of America's promise, they now see the start of its descent. Calamity looms everywhere: in the ejection of Indians, the subordination of women, . . . " The reality is that every era has its gloom and doom, Feller counters, and none of this "justifies intruding our own doubts and despair upon a people who could not have imagined, much less share, them." The treatment afforded Jacksonian America in his book is therefore "thematic rather than comprehensive"; that is, he chooses to focus on the causes of contemporary events, as opposed to their reverberations down through the decades as components of such anachronistic concepts as "industrialization, modernization, capitalism, and market revolution." Drawing largely on works of present-day scholarship and primary sources accessible as modern editions – but especially on the latter – Feller has constructed a retelling of Jacksonian history through the eyes of the people who lived it.

The Jacksonian Promise (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1995) opens with a detailed description of the Jubilee. The fiftieth anniversary of American independence, which was technically 1826, was commemorated as nearly two full years of festivity and rejoicing that greeted the Marquis de Lafayette when he arrived in New York in August of 1824. The only surviving Revolutionary general would spend the thirteen months on a tour of the new country that showcased all America now had to offer as an independent and prosperous nation. In other words, the Jubilee was essentially a celebration of America's accomplishments and boundless potential, as well as the chance to exhibit these uniquely American characteristics to both Lafayette and the entire world.

Indeed, the lively national mood was such that even Robert Owens' New Harmony scheme earned a White House hearing. Of course, in any other period of American history Owens' communal Utopia would have been a fringe guru's fantasy at best, a treacherous defiance of society at worst. In 1824, however, his vision of "an immediate, and almost instantaneous, revolution in the mind and manners of society" was simply another expression of the millennial fervor that pervaded the new United States from the political elite to the common folk who assembled greeting parties and festivals to mark the Jubilee. Human and national improvement were inextricably linked, and for many Americans, fully and completely without limit.

Owens' New Harmony was extreme, but the Jacksonian United States was a nation confidently devoted to reform and experimentation, in addition to the elevation of character. Prisons came to be seen as institutions of social uplift rather than punishment, a singularly unheard of mission that inspired many incredulous Europeans to come see for themselves. It was not only criminals in need of reforming: in a land of unlimited opportunity for all, it only followed that the nation as a whole could be strengthened through positive change in the character of the poor, the mentally ill, the unemployed, and the Indians. A new generation of activists subsequently set to work establishing workhouses, insane asylums, almshouses, and orphanages.

The era also witnessed a proliferation of what Alex de Tocqueville immediately recognized as a new and exclusively American phenomenon: the voluntary association, dedicated to the personal and intellectual improvement of the individual. Founded in 1828, the American Lyceum, for instance, sponsored lectures on all manner of subjects, from literature to biology to politics. In a highly mobile nation, voluntary associations also absorbed newcomers and provided a sense of continuity. Women, meanwhile, were given the chance to pursue fulfillment outside the home by exercising what were seen as their special qualities of charity and sympathy. Coinciding with this spirit of voluntarism was the explosive growth of Protestant evangelism, which functioned in a manner akin to the secular social organizations. While preachers such as Lyman Beecher and Alexander Campbell were fired by a fervent sense of the imminent millennium, most Americans were continuously questioning and reexamining their spiritual beliefs. The established Calvinists sects soon found their authority slipping in the wake of an emotionally charged Second Great Awakening that flung charges of "aristocracy" at the religious establishment and stressed individual empowerment through personal conversion. The overall theme was one of action: the sinner must act to save both himself and his fellow countrymen. Reformers such as the wealthy Tappan brothers were therefore strongly encouraged by their faith to hasten the coming of Christ by exalting America to a veritable Kingdom of God.

Not yet inured to the rapid advance of technology and its transformative effects on daily life, Americans looked at internal improvements with nothing short of a similar religious enthusiasm. A widely disparate group of federal statesmen – including Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and John Calhoun – called for a coordinated program of national development Calhoun dubbed the American System. The destiny of the United States was a broadly national one that called for extensive use of federal power. Although the American System ultimately met defeat in the wake of rising sectional sparring and the resurgence of traditional localism, this resistance was incited not by an opposition to progress itself but grew instead out of Americans' desire to direct and define their own brands of progress.

In its time, however, the drive for national improvement was a potent and pressing one. With 8 million inhabitants spread over thousands of miles of seacoast, mountains, forest, and frontier, the primitive state of communication and transportation in 1815 stood as a considerable impediment to American dreams of national greatness. As Frederick Jackson Turner would note much later 1893, it has always been the continued growth of America in the nineteenth century that motivated countrywide dynamism and development: "The peculiarity of American conditions is the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people – to the changes involved in crossing a continent [and] in winning a wilderness. . ." The desire to cash in on future western trade was certainly the primary impetus for the Erie Canal, that great engineering triumph of the Jacksonian age. Despite a significant amount of fuzziness with regards to financial and construction details, as well as the unprecedented scale of the plan, New York pushed ahead alone in 1817. Their great risk paid off: within three years the canal's central station was finished and the proceeds from its tolls had already surpassed even the interest on the loans the state had taken out for the project. The Erie Canal's completion in 1825 was marked by a frenzy of self-congratulation in New York that precipitated a "canal fever" in the rest of the country. To many, it was America's unique national character and the purity of its political institutions that had enabled the success of such a grand design. By 1834 the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal was even longer than the Erie and had twice as much lockage, yet at the same time in Baltimore, ninety-year-old Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, was laying the foundation of a railroad.

The steamboat, meanwhile, had already deeply impacted the West, which had long been dependent on the ponderously slow and exorbitantly expensive flatboats. Feeling cut off and isolated from the rest of the country, "the steamboat appeared as an angel of deliverance," slashing travel time in half and enabling the shipment of myriad goods. As improved transportation and communication tied distant communities together, the fad of "town promotion" took hold as each nascent hamlet imagined itself as "another mighty city, destined to be a future metropolis – a depot of trade, hive of manufacturing, seat of government, citadel of learning and the arts!" In the end, most places had to settle for the modest prosperity of the county seat or market town, but there was indeed a time when Lexington, Kentucky could acclaim itself the "Athens of the West."

In manufacturing, the United States lagged significantly behind Great Britain, although its youthful versatility and willingness to experiment had always encouraged native inventors such as Eli Whitney. Although many looked with trepidation at the impoverished gloom of industrial English cities such as Manchester, still others saw the promotion of homegrown manufacturing as a patriotic endeavor to promote national self-reliance, expand the domestic market for farm goods, give work to the poor and idle, and to foster all-around prosperity. Briefly set back by the depression of 1819 and the postwar renewal of trade with Britain, modest industrial establishments were nevertheless already dotting the American landscape by the mid-1820s, particularly in Lowell Massachusetts, where Francis Cabot Lowell's mills quickly and easily overcame the British textile industry's half-century head start.

There was a vague shadow cast over this early success, however, as more and more Americans pondered the intersection of the rights of property and democracy with the promotion of enterprise and industry. Pre-Revolutionary political and economic thought, inherited from England, had stressed harmony and the preservation of order. The British government structure, for example, stressed the balance of power between royalty, nobility, and the commoners; the influence of each held in check by the other three to both preclude the spread of tyranny, oligarchy, or mob rule and to ensure a tranquil society. Factions, interests, and pressure groups were undignified disruptions that were appropriately dismissed even by Revolutionary patriots such as George Washington. Just as this static view of government was nonetheless soon threatened by the Federalist controversy of the Jefferson administration, so too did related issues arise concerning private land and the legitimacy of business contracts. Courts now viewed property not as something to be guarded and preserved, but as an active entity to be developed as the owner saw fit. The law had become a means to promote trade and industry for the public good. A more libertarian approach was also adopted with regards to business contracts, which became the sole responsibility of the parties involved. The court's role was to enforce the results of private negotiation, not to guarantee fairness and good faith. Although this new line of thought inevitably produced losers as well as winners, it also removed restrictions on ambitious businessmen, traders, and entrepreneurs.

This also led to the expansive growth of individual enterprises, necessitating new business structures. An organization capable of pooling vast amounts of capital under unified control and ensuring the business's survival following its investors' deaths was needed, and the old state charter companies provided inspiration. The modern corporation was born as the Boston Manufacturing Company that founded Lowell. Economic growth also required capital and credit, as Americans' thirst for land and goods exceeded their means. Additional banks were quickly chartered, prompting Congress to join in and create a second Bank of the United States as a sort of overarching regulatory body above the state banks. All this activity nevertheless reflected a lack of sound credit, yet a surplus of paper money was printed even as the Bank of the United States failed to demand adequate specie reserves. When British cotton prices suddenly and inexplicably sagged the debt-heavy American economy collapsed in what came to be called the Panic of 1819. An astonished citizenry began to look around, reevaluate their own behavior, and assess blame.

Many saw the Bank of the United States as the primary culprit, including, most famously, President Andrew Jackson. At the same time, this was only one issue that rose during his two terms in office from 1828-1837. The only American to have an era in national history named for him, Jackson's administration actually began shrouded in mystery. It is questionable if even he knew exactly what he was doing. He did, however, come into office with a strong set of views and opinions. Despite his wealth and urbane manners, Jackson had come from humble cabin stock. He had fought brawls, duels, and wars, had never been abroad, and spoke only English. The deal brokered between Henry Clay and John Adams that had secured Adams the 1824 election (in exchange for Clay's support of Adams' treasured American System) left Jackson with the conviction that a shadowy league of "aristocrats" was conspiring against him. He appropriately despised anything that struck him as unduly elitist or patronizing to the common man, particularly those affluent Protestant evangelizers telling other Americans how to live their lives.

Despite his initial support of national internal improvements, the ongoing controversy over the protective tariff that had sparked the early stages of sectional discord soon forced him to reconsider the issue. Western states wanted more encouragement for migration, while the older states preferred to see federal money pay for the national debt and fund schools and internal improvements. In the midst of this regional rivalry came South Carolina's Exposition and Protest, secretly authored by Vice President Calhoun, which asserted the right of the individual state to declare any hated federal law null and void. To Jackson this was treason and national unity far outweighed any schemes for development. Although he successfully disengaged the tariff from national improvements by distributing surplus federal funds to the states, neither side was satisfied until the Compromise of 1833, which gradually lowered tariff rates over the next nine years. Although the issue seemed settled, the alliance of Clay and Calhoun, long at odds with one another, had laid the groundwork for future anti-Jackson coalitions. Of course, the settlement of the West, the rise of manufacturing, and the improvement of transportation had long escaped federal control anyway.

Though presented as a compromise, Jackson's axing of the American System actually reflected an overall sociopolitical philosophy that would today be labeled as libertarian. The crux of his assault on the Bank, and the reason he turned on the American System, was the essential corruption of a privately owned and managed entity performing public functions. In other words, a few could be enriched at the cost of the many if only they could muster the proper rhetoric of "national destiny" and "national improvement." Let the people alone, Jackson believed, and they themselves will lead the country to greatness; the government should not have to corral this dynamic energy that was inherent to the American citizenry. The federal promotion powers granted under the American System, he felt, could never be distributed fairly. Jackson's attacks on privilege soon extended to the supposed clandestine power wielded by "great money corporations" (state and federal chartered corporations were especially odious) over "the planter, the farmer, the mechanic, and the laborer," as he put it in his 1837 Farewell Address. He also drew a moral line between legitimate and illegitimate business; in the latter category were bankers, speculators, and all manner of "parasites and papermongers."

Jackson's ardent faith in the common folk sadly did not extend to Native Americans (or, as a slaveholder, to African-Americans). He had clashed with the evangelizing reformers over many issues, but his Indians policies drew him the most intense criticism from religious circles. Despite his rejection of the American System, Jackson maintained his faith in the exorable march of American progress and the Cherokees, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Choctaws – the last of the large landholding tribes east of the Mississippi – only stood in the way and endangered themselves in the process. To Jackson, the Indians were children who needed the governance and guidance of a stern but kindly father, who was only acting for their own good by generously giving them new land beyond the reach of civilization where they could work to acquire its skills and arts while avoiding the tragic fate of those other tribes who had tried too hard to confront it. It was Jackson's version of tough love.

The Cherokee felt otherwise and took their case to the Supreme Court when the state of Georgia seized their lands and dissolved tribal authority. Although Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) came down in Georgia's favor, Chief Justice Marshall nevertheless acknowledged the justice of the Cherokees' case while at the same time concluding that they constituted a "dependent domestic nation"; that is, their relation to the United States was one of pupilage. The Court did, however, strike down a Georgia law regulating passage into Indian country with Worchester v. Georgia the following year. Still, Georgia, with Jackson's assistance, evaded ruling, and worked with the federal government to pressure the Cherokee to leave the state. Exploiting divisions within the tribe, Jackson signed a removal treaty with a minority faction and the Cherokee fate was soon sealed with the Trail of Tears under Jackson's successor, President Martin Van Buren.

Protestant reformers, including the Tappan brothers and prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, vigorously fought the federal government's abuse of the Indians, revealing divisions within Jackson's own society. Even deeper ruptures in American religion, politics, and culture were slowly making themselves known by the end of his presidency. Following his retirement in 1837, myriad Jackson opponents coalesced into the Whigs, a party in direct opposition to Jackson's Democrats. Meanwhile, the depression of 1840, the worst yet to hit the United States, forced a reevaluation of America and its character and promise, leaving many to conclude that perhaps they had overstated their country's exemption from the follies and troubles of the Old World. Voluntary societies folded and the eagerness to experiment dissipated. Above all this loomed the issue of slavery, made all the more pressing in the wake of Nat Turner's revolt. The South solidified its position, even becoming downright reactionary and praising those systems of hierarchy and social stasis that America had always condemned in Europe. With civil war on the horizon, the early giddy freedom of a young United States was gone, perhaps forever.

Feller's The Jacksonian Promise is a neat little book that succinctly summarizes the personality and events of a culture that flourished briefly before falling into sectional strife, warfare, and, finally, large-scale industrialization. My only complaint is that he spent comparatively little time on African-Americans other than to discuss early schemes for African colonization and the controversies over slavery. In his rush to celebrate the zing and zip of Jackson's era he seems to have somewhat neglected its more unsavory aspects. The Jacksonian Promise is nevertheless an excellent choice for an undergraduate course, as well as the casual aficionado of history, due to its engaging readability and short length.


Mrs. C said...

Good luck with that interview, ELF--I will be back later to actually READ this post. No time at the moment, but hadda let you know I'm sending good vibes your way.

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