Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Andrew Jackson, James Parton and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

The Claremont Institute has made publicly available a wonderful article on Andrew Jackson and Andrew Jackson historiography by Daniel Walker Howe: The Ages of Jackson.

I'm not sure which part I enjoy most. One candidate is a passage that highlights the virtues of Nineteenth Century biographer James Parton, whom I have mentioned several times:
I asked each of the three editors, so familiar with the documentary sources of Jackson's life, which of the many Jackson biographies was their favorite. All picked the same one: Life of Andrew Jackson by James Parton, published in three volumes between 1859 and 1861.

Parton wrote a number of biographies, bestsellers in their time, but Jackson's has remained his best known. He relied closely on documentary evidence, which he sometimes quoted at length and supplemented by interviewing surviving participants. Every later biographer has relied considerably upon him. Parton was critical of Jackson's presidency, especially the "spoils system," instituted by wholesale removals of federal employees down to the level of local postmasters, whom Jackson replaced with his own followers. Parton called this practice "an evil so great and so difficult to remedy, that if all his other public acts had been perfectly wise and right, this single feature of his administration would suffice to render it deplorable." Later in the 19th century, legislation would create the tenured civil service to prevent wholesale partisan removals of the kind Jackson practiced, and more meritorious kinds of removals as well.

But I probably prefer the part where Howe kicks around pseudo-historian and pompous blowhard Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s The Age of Jackson:
Schlesinger promoted a Jacksonian Democracy that was primarily an expression of eastern workingmen's resentments. Taking some of Jackson's class—conflict rhetoric with new seriousness, Schlesinger declared that Old Hickory's "war" on the national bank rallied eastern workers against the changes being promoted by capitalism. Industrialization was rendering their artisan skills obsolete and reducing once-proud craftsmen to the status of assembly-line wage earners. Jackson's chosen successor in the White House, Martin Van Buren of New York, exemplified for Schlesinger the climax of the transformation of the old agrarian republicanism of Jefferson into a modern working-class democracy (or rather, Democracy, for the antebellum Democratic Party called itself "the Democracy" with a capital "D.")

Schlesinger took his refusal to acknowledge the role of the frontier to such an extreme that he never even mentioned Indian Removal, the number one item on the agenda of Jackson's first term in office. In a single allusion to the Supreme Court decision in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) that vindicated the Cherokee Nation's treaty right to refuse removal—a decision that President Jackson famously felt free to ignore—Schlesinger simply calls it "the case of the Georgia missionaries." An unwary reader would have no inkling of all that the case involved. Indian Removal was by no means overlooked by historians at this time; Marquis James had recently treated the subject. Similarly, Schlesinger also ignored Jackson's personal slaveholding, public support for slavery, and attempts to ban criticism of slavery from circulating through the mails. Schlesinger preferred to avoid any topic that might cast doubt on his characterization of Jackson as an appropriate hero for New Deal liberals. His work on Jackson became the first of a long series of volumes that established him as the more or less official historian of the Democratic Party.

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