Several NAS members recently finished reading Arthur Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson together, for fun. We thought we’d write up some of our thoughts on the book—since we are in the Year of Jackson Redivivus.
At the conclusion of The Age of Jackson, Schlesinger makes three radical claims in succession. The first is that the “tradition of Jefferson and Jackson,” by which Schlesinger means the struggle between competing classes, is bound to endure because “liberal capitalistic society” was created through “the internal necessities of such a society.” The idea that this struggle between classes is an inherent part of democratic governance is a radical claim, and one that cannot be divorced from the time when Schlesinger wrote this, in the fall of 1941.
Schlesinger goes on to say that American democracy views this struggle not only as inherent but as “a positive virtue — indeed as the only foundation of liberty.” The basis of liberty, no longer based in equality under the law or respect for private property, has become simply the struggle between classes. Schlesinger closes this one-two punch with the finishing blow, identifying the business community as the most powerful of these competing interests, and framing the history of liberalism in America as “the movement on the part of the other sections of society to restrain the power of the business community…. [This] has been the basis of American liberalism.”
These claims were revolutionary at the time, and they provided much of the intellectual framework for FDR’s New Deal programs. These were made all the more powerful by positioning them as the right and proper end of American liberalism.
America today faces a similar question. The rise of President Trump has caused many to question the survival, not only of the Republican Party, but also of the tradition of American liberalism that prized character as a key aspect of leadership. For progressives on the other hand, the strong showing of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party’s primary contest has renewed calls to challenge business leaders and the wealthy for perceived misuse of their power and influence. With the debate over President Trump’s tax plan, one of the most prominent examples of Schlesinger’s business community was actively pushing for legislation that many see providing direct benefits to the President himself and to others amongst the wealthy elite. Perhaps Schlesinger was right, and perhaps he was wrong. Regardless, it appears that many today react as if he were correct. With the rising clamor over the increasing divide between rich and poor, and the increasing calls for accountability for the super-rich, the struggle against the wealthy elite has come to define our current political context.
Dion J. Pierre
Reading Arthur Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson is like rummaging through a time capsule. In an age when Jacksonian politics vexes policymakers across the spectrum, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when rustic wasn’t a synonym for deplorable.
Schlesinger expertly maps how Jacksonian instincts—pessimistic, tribal, egalitarian and class conscious—set the tone of policy debates over issues such as trade, suffrage, and emancipation.
Conservatives reading The Age of Jackson in the Age of Trump should read Schlesinger’s book with interest. Although Schlesinger attempts to connect Jacksonian politics to FDR-Liberalism, Jacksonians currently reside in the party of Reagan. This makes for an uneasy coalition. Jacksonians’ soft mercantilism, hostility against tax cuts for the wealthy, and open-door-immigration undergirded Mitt Romney’s underwhelming primary race in 2012 and catapulted Donald Trump to the presidency.
The cancellation of the Trade Pacific Partnership, Marco Rubio’s refusal to vote for the GOP’s tax reform bill without a provision for expanding the child-tax-credit, and the ascendancy of political figures such as Tom Cotton tell us that the Jacksonian sensibility remains a potent force in American politics. This is nothing to scoff at. Just as Jacksonian politics defined the 19th century, it will redefine the Republican Party in the 21st century.
Read Schlesinger, and you’ll find out …
… slaveholders are the source of Occupy Wall Street rhetoric, and any good class warrior ought to defend statues of Roger Taney to the death
... Ron-Paul-ish distrust of banks is impeccably Jacksonian, and has a good, solid meta-presumption behind it: It don’t matter what the bankers say, they’re clever enough to trick you. Or as Woody Guthrie put it, Some will rob you with a six-gun, And some with a fountain pen.
… the book really should have been called The Age of Van Buren, and the less charismatic successor often does more to institutionalize the revolution. Paging John Major and Mike Pence. Or Tom Cotton?
… marquee-names in revolutionary coalitions don’t always get they want. Jacksonian farmers didn’t sign up for hard money, but they got it good and hard. Today’s deplorables? This tax bill ain’t the Trump Revolution they was promised.
… the revolution always has a role for a politically-committed intellectual or two. George Bancroft & suchnot did the job for Jackson; Schlesinger was auditioning under Roosevelt and he finally got the gig of court historian for Kennedy. And for the Age of Trump? There’s tut-tut-tut and whatzizname, and likewise you-know-who.
… Nicholas Biddle was the Resistance against Jackson, and his fanatical obduracy did him no favors in the long run.
… they had better names back in the Age of Jackson. Alt-Right, shmalt-right, I want to be a Locofoco. And Orestes Brownson is a feather more euphonious than Mencius Moldbug, although it’s a close call.
I had to wonder about the level of familiarity with American history that the book presupposed upon its publication, since it was not written for an academic readership. For that matter, I also wondered what “standard” academic writing might have looked like back in that day, in view of how turgid, obscure it has become in this one.
I couldn’t really escape the impression that the book was a prime specimen of a book about the past written with a view to influencing the present. No doubt the author was quite familiar with Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History, and no doubt he didn’t intend to exemplify it. But I think that’s exactly what he’s done with this work, as he did with virtually all of his others: “interests” controlled by big, bad, wealthy men, pitted against the little man who is succored and vindicated by a champion of outstanding character and virtue, AJ/FDR. I should mitigate my complaint however: if I had to choose between this book and the Howard Zinnish works which currently dominate the study of history at every level, I’ll gladly take the Age of Jackson, which doesn’t repeat “race, gender, and class” endlessly. A truly blessed relief.
Image Credit: Public Domain.