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Allen C. Guelzo

Whiggish History

Three cheers for an anti-Jacksonian America.

Once upon a time, there was a Golden Age in American history. The only problem has been identifying when it happened. Or if it happened at all. Or what you mean by "Golden."

The first among American historians to draw the line between a irretrievably lost past and a ho-hum present was Frederick Jackson Turner, whose "frontier thesis" selected the Census Bureau's "closing" of the frontier in 1890 as the great divide between an American shaped by the rugged realities of frontier life into a towering figure of independence and self-sufficiency, and another American, ground up into pasty conformity by the orderly brainlessness of the industrial economy. American history, Turner said, begins with primitive settlements along the Atlantic coastline, and over time, those settlements experience "the familiar phenomenon of the evolution … from primitive industrial society, without division of labor, up to manufacturing civilization." But each time Americans reach westward from those developed beachheads to the frontier, they start over again, returning Americans to "continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society." Only now, with the closing of the frontier, there would be no more rebirth, and no more primitive simplicity. [1]

 The long-term message of the frontier thesis was that the "authentic" American was a pre-capitalist farmer, living a life free from the lure of getting and spending, and in righteous harmony with his community—a kind of Hull House with log cabins. The enemies of this social idyll were, first, the British imperial economy, and then the larger imperialism of the Industrial Revolution. Its defenders were the Jacksonian Democrats celebrated in Arthur Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson (1945), the rebellious Revolutionary militias glamorized by Gordon Wood in The Creation of the American Republic (1967), the communitarian Puritans who populated Kenneth Lockridge's A New England Town: The First Hundred Years (1970), and—most dramatic of all—the yeomen mourned in Charles Sellers' The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (1991). For Sellers, 1815 is the climacteric of  yeoman democracy, and Waterloo is the mills at Lowell, Massachusetts. Yeoman democracy prospered on the frontier after the Revolution, built on subsistence agriculture rather than the growing of crops for sale—and commodification—on distant markets: "Discouraging individuality and competitive striving," Sellers wrote, "the subsistence culture socialized its young to a familism of all-for-one and one-for-all … . All rendered their services, not to an impersonal market, but to meet immediate needs of lifelong neighbors, who usually furnished the raw materials and made return in farm produce or labor." But frontier democracy clashed with the ambitions of east-coast élites, who "wanted instead a 'republic' providing security of property, equal rights before the law, and a carefully restricted system of representation through which enterprising elites could shape the state to the market ambitions of capital." It was as though a casual, leering hippie commune in Ohio had been assaulted by a legion of prim, fastidious, anal-retentive bourgeoisie from Philadelphia. [2]

The farmers fought back, Sellers argued, using the western state legislatures to ban banking and corporations and using Andrew Jackson to veto programs of state-funded "internal improvements" whose sole purpose was to extend the tentacles of the market into the hinterlands. But the yeomanry lost, as the frontier always did. They lost because they were too wedded to private property, patriarchy, and white supremacy to recognize their natural allies in black slaves and Indian tribes. And so "corporate capitalism rides a spreading free market to world dominion, competitive stress intensifies, the fruits of free-enterprise autonomy sour with job flight and social breakdown, environmental disaster looms, politics gridlocks, and huckster-driven media increasingly dominate public consciousness." Sellers brought a coruscating literary fury to his Manichaean account of the struggle between good farmers and bad capitalists, and, armed with both substance and style, The Market Revolution almost single-handedly turned the period between the Revolution and the Civil War from the dry gulch of American history to its most sensational battleground. It was all a bit too much for Sellers' publisher, Oxford University Press, which had invited him to write the volume on the Jacksonian era—and not a historical jeremiad against capitalism—for its respectable but somnolent Oxford History of the United States. Oxford published The Market Revolution, but not as part of the series; the ticket for the official series volume on the years between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War instead went to Sellers' most patient but persistent critic, Daniel Walker Howe. [3]

Few American historians have achieved so much success with material which at first looked so unpromising as Daniel Walker Howe. In the years during which Howe was an undergraduate at Harvard and a graduate student at UCLA, American historians were convulsed in the pursuit of social history, a "history from below" to match the Sixties' pursuit of politics in the streets. Howe, contrariwise, wrote his dissertation at UCLA in 1966 on a chapter in American intellectual history, which was nearly as unproletarian a gesture as a graduate student could make. Its topic—moral philosophy at Harvard in the antebellum 19th century—could not have seemed less attuned to the times that were a-changin'. [4] But it led to a teaching job at Yale in American history and American studies, and to the exploration of yet another much-snubbed intellectual subculture, the Whig party, in The Political Culture of the American Whigs (1979), which was the first kind thing said about the Whigs since their demise as a party in 1856.

More than kind, Political Culture of the American Whigs was a passionate argument for the depth and validity of the Whig ideology, both of which were attested to by the Whigs' success in creating an ambient culture of "mood, metaphors, values, and style" in order "to exhort, persuade, and conciliate." At a moment when other American historians were agog with Clifford Geertz-style anthropologies of working-class culture, Howe co-opted the festishization of "culture" and applied it to political ideas. For decades, the contest of Jacksonian Democrats and Henry Clay Whigs over banks, deposits, railroads, and canals had been endured as the ultimate dreariness in American historical writing. In one lapidary sentence, Howe re-cast it into a culture war: "The Whigs proposed a society that would be economically diverse but culturally uniform; the Democrats preferred the economic uniformity of a society of small farmers and artisans but were more tolerant of cultural and moral diversity." [5]

This tipped Howe's hand ever so slightly. He did not merely think the Whigs were interesting; he thought they were right. And in 1997, when he published Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, he dropped the mask entirely and re-affirmed "the place of morality and the 'moral sense' in the process of character-formation." What a "functioning democracy" needs is not the overthrow of the capitalist burden but "the habits of personal responsibility, civility, and self-discipline" which were the scorn of the New Left, but the backbone of the Whigs. [6]

There was about as much in common between Sellers' flower-child democracy and Howe's middle-class republic and as there would be between two contrasting versions of the Sixties, the one written by Tom Hayden and the other by Tom Peters. Not surprisingly, Howe found The Market Revolution's celebration of agrarian antinomianism and redneck hedonism "so heavily freighted with the determination to show that the market was undemocratic and inhumane, that it fails to convey a comparable understanding of the culture of the new middle class created by the market and embraced by many people." The antebellum America that Howe knew was a nation of vigorous, self-disciplined and optimistic individualists who conquered space and time in the pursuit of self-transformation. So, invited a decade ago by Oxford University Press to supply the volume Sellers had been originally commissioned to write, Howe has produced a resoundingly middle-class and Whiggish response to Sellers (and to Turner) in What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.

 "Response" may not be quite the word Howe would welcome, since he deliberately eschews the use of both "Jacksonian America" and "the Market Revolution" as useful descriptions of the antebellum republic. Andrew Jackson was a hero only to people like Charles Sellers; to others, he was "a controversial figure" who "opposed the inclusion of non-whites and women within the American civil polity" and whose "political movement bitterly divided the American people." And the "Market Revolution," if it was a revolution at all, had already occurred in the 18th century in America. Far from finding the market's dark energies locked in a death struggle with a heroic peasantry (in the style of Charles Deas' famous 1845 painting), "most American family farmers welcomed the chance to buy and sell in larger markets" and did not "have to be coerced into seizing the opportunities the market economy presented."

The Oxford American history series prides itself more on comprehensive narrative than single-argument ramming, and Howe certainly does his part by providing a generous census-taker's overview of the north American population, its health, and its occupations in 1815. America was not, he observes from the outset, a "relaxed, hedonistic, refined, or indulgent society" of Thomas Jeffersons or Rip van Winkles; it was a driving, get-ahead society willing "to innovate and take risks, to try new methods and new locations." Americans' nemesis was not the "market," but distance, and "with few exceptions, westward migrants worked impatiently to liberate themselves from the oppression of isolation." Much as the overwhelming majority of Americans were farmers, they were farmers who also participated in "small-scale commercial endeavor," and even the thousand-bale planters of the South, with their myriad slaves, were "modern, not medieval, in their sensibilities" and "operated at the very heart of the global market economy."

For all of its polite paeans to the virtues of these Protestant-ethic strivings, What Hath God Wrought offers an outsize, and sympathetic, account of the lives and struggles of Indians, black slaves, and women. Sympathetic, because Howe adroitly uses these certifiably oppressed minorities as a stick with which to beat Sellers' image of the Jacksonians as the last stand of egalitarianism. Far from being the paladin of democracy, Andrew Jackson was a man of "authoritarian instincts," and Jacksonian democracy's principal urge was "the extension of white supremacy across the North American continent." Far from being the candidate of the common man, Jackson was the candidate of "the common white man," and his electoral success was due in large part to the electoral votes he won in the South, based on the hypocritical 3/5ths clause of the Constitution.

Of course, the game of identifying Andrew Jackson with Bull Connor is not a new one (it appeared in full flower in Michael Paul Rogin's Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian in 1977). But its goal has usually been to lament that Jackson was a progressive who had simply not been progressive enough and only ended up as yet another Zinn-buddhist example of an America governed by "liars and killers," full of a "nationalist arrogance" that stands in the way of joining "the rest of the human race in the common cause of peace and justice." [7]

Howe uses exactly the same evidence to invert the Jacksonian identity. Jackson was never progressive, nor were his causes progressive, because genuine progressives are not the people Jackson (and Charles Sellers) championed—not "passive victims, uprooted prisoners of a premodern outlook … but resourceful, courageous, indomitable fighters." They are evangelicals, small-business owners, inventors, and entrepreneurs whose message would make Max Weber squeal with delight: "Work hard, be thrifty, save your money, don't go into debt" and "infuse the marketplace with moral meaning." Like the journeymen cordwainers of Newark, New Jersey, in 1835, they make war not on the market but on the "monopolies," which were "crippling the energies of individual enterprise, and invading the right of smaller capitalists."

The real transforming novelty of the no-longer-Jacksonian decades is rather to be found in a revolution in communications—an assertion which is bound to ring true to a generation bred on sympathy for the capacities of communications technology. What Howe has in mind is not only the economic communication represented by canals, railroads, and "internal improvement" schemes but also the cultural communication of reform and religion. (Hence, Howe's opening scene is not—as it is in Sellers—Andrew Jackson at New Orleans, but Samuel F.B. Morse at the key of the telegraph, tapping out his theological message of marvel, "What Hath God Wrought?"8) The transformation of newspapers from commercial advertising sheets into news media occurred on the back of the invention of the steam-powered cylinder press and thus broadened the Habermasian "public sphere." The canopy of telegraph wires which in 1846 extended only over 146 miles became ten thousand miles by 1850. "To improve the means of communication, then," Howe approvingly quotes Michel Chevalier, "is to promote a real positive, and practical liberty; it is to extend to all the members of the human family the power of traversing and turning to account the globe which has been given to them as their patrimony."

I doubt whether the shade of Frederick Jackson Turner will extend a generous hand to Howe, or move over willingly to share the podium of his Pulitzer Prize (which Turner won in 1933 and which Howe won earlier this year). The instinct of the Progressives was to see themselves as honest brokers between rapacious robber-barons and a down-trodden working class, but it was never entirely clear whether the Progressives' motives emerged from genuine Christian empathy or from the impatient contempt of the middle classes for the nouveau riches who had shown such bad form in acquiring all that pretentious property. In the conventional telling of the Industrial Revolution, a tiny bourgeoisie latches onto the technological transformations of the Industrial Revolution as the lever they will use to overturn the fat-bottomed aristocrats. The aristocrats respond by whipping up the king-and-country crowds to break the shop-windows of the bourgeoisie, or informing them loftily that they are merely tradesmen who do not really understand the ways of the poor. Efficiency and probity, those classical bourgeois virtues, begin as revolutionary tools. But when it appears by the 1850s that the sans-culottes are as uninterested in efficiency and probity as the aristocrats, but are a lot more numerous and threatening, the bourgeoisie strikes a seminal bargain with the aristocrats: the creation of the Bismarckian welfare state serves to pacify the workers, while the bourgeoisie and the aristocrats continue to enjoy their privileges and their hostility.

This a lovely fable, but it suffers from a preposterous simplification of the mentality of the bourgeoisie. For the bourgeois mind turns out to be substantially more complex than its cultured despisers would have it be, and the best proof of that lies in how many of the cultured despisers are members of the bourgeoisie themselves. This is especially true in America. The American republic lacked an aristocracy, but it had bourgeoisie aplenty, so the middle classes in American history had to do double duty: they had to be the oppressor of the working class, while at the same time criticizing themselves for doing it. This is why the most revealing line in the entire prosy landscape of the Port Huron Statement in 1962 was its candid admission that the New Left was drawn from "people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit." Much as they liked to think of themselves as revolutionaries, the New Left were the prisoners of a bourgeois mentality, and their "modest comfort" was precisely what enabled them to look down upon others who thought "modest comfort" was not a bad thing and re-imagine themselves as a "vanguard"—which is to say, an aristocracy, predicated on intellect.

America was born modern, and born bourgeoisie, and the best evidence for that is in Howe's book. Those who hope to act out the fantasy of Christian socialism or the Social Gospel or evangelical environmentalism are, like Diana Oughton and Bill Ayers, drawn to those fantasies precisely because they aspire to ascend to the changeless realm of the aristocrat, marked now not by ermine robes and coronets but by prestige compassion and the no-fault templates of sociological analysis. Too bad for them. They assault their jailer, but they remain in jail.

Allen C. Guelzo is Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and director of the Civil War Era Studies program at Gettysburg College. He is the author most recently of Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America (Simon & Schuster).

1. It did not escape Richard Hofstadter's notice in The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1968) that Turner was falling back on the "romantic primitivism" of the "Teutonic myth" so aggressively promoted by Tacitus and adopted as a staple by German Romantics in the 19th and 20th centuries.

2. Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 11, 13, 31-33; Sellers, "Capitalism and Democracy in American Historical Mythology," in Melvin Stokes and Stephen Conway, eds., The Market Revolution in America (Univ. of Virginia Press, 1996), p. 314.

3. Among other dissenters from the Sellers' decision to "paint in darker shades" is Daniel Feller, The Jacksonian Promise: America, 1815-1840 (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995); more sympathetic to the "Market Revolution" is Harry Watson, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990). Sean Wilentz, in The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (Norton, 2005), does not necessarily disagree with Sellers' concept of a "Market Revolution" but complains that Sellers' tendency to see it primarily as a Kulturkampf pulls attention away from "the play of politics" and political ideology.

4. Published in 1970 as The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861 by Harvard University Press

5. The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 20. I do not mind saying that this is one of my ten desert-island books.

6. Making the American Self: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Harvard Univ. Press, 1997), p. 269.

7. Howard Zinn, "America's Blinders," The Progressive (April 2006).

8. Although, almost inevitably, Jackson and his motley array of Kentucky sharpshooters and bayou pirates make their appearance as soon as the Morse code of Howe's introduction is over, almost as though they had been lifted out of Cecil B. De Mille's The Buccaneer.

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