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Insightful Take on the Jacksonian Party System,
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This review is from: Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America (Paperback)
If 1776 marks the birth of the American democracy, the young Republic came to age during the antebellum years of the early 1800s. The period is one of the most colorful in American history, its characters rowdy, its politics partisan, and its age one of incredible change. Classifying and explaining these changes has been a task American historians have taken to with gusto. Harry L. Watson's LIBERTY AND POWER: THE POLITICS OF JACKSONIAN AMERICA is an exemplary model of what the best of these historians can write.
Watson's thesis rests on the claims made by another historian of early America, named Charles Sellers, in his book The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. Sellers argues that antebellum America was profoundly changed by a 'market revolution'. Americans of this time were witness to many great societal and economic changes: canals, roadways, and railways were built, foreign capital and credit flooded the economy, communications technology and methods improved dramatically, and industrialization began to change the face of America's cities. These collective changes transformed an agrarian American economy that had been built on the isolated yeoman farmer into a economy whose driving engine was capitalism and whose markets tied Americans to economic shocks across the world.
In crafting his thesis Watson takes all of these claims at face value. Those who argue with the idea of a 'market revolution' will thus have much to disagree with in this book. I have little reason to disagree, however; Watson devotes the first chapter of the book to explaining the economic changes of the period, and does so in an entertaining, informative, and convincing fashion. He focuses on how Americans themselves felt about the economic changes of their period. Some saw it as a time of great improvement and progress; others saw in these changes a deterioration of what had made the United States great. Watson contends that these opposite reactions to America's social transformation were fuel behind the divisive partisan politics of the day and the party system these politics created.
The drama came about, Watson contends, because of the lens Jacksonian statesmen used to understand political realities of their world: republicanism. As with their revolutionary fathers, men of the antebellum looked upon liberty as the highest aim of state, and understood it to be "the power of self control in self governing communities" (44). The purpose of the statesmen, therefore, was to facilitate those conditions in which liberty could thrive and tyrannical power could not take root. They saw the issue in (for the average 21st century American) a very moral way. Only a 'virtuous' and 'moral' people would appreciate freedom, and only they would have the strength and independence to ward off corruption and tyranny. Thus anything that sapped the independence or reduced the virtue of the citizenry should be opposed, and anything that strengthened the citizenry's free exercise of their rights was to be championed.
The problem was that antebellum politicians did not agree on whether the vast social changes of their time were promoting virtue and liberty, or if they were sowing the seeds of dependence and corruption. Those hostile to the economic transformation feared that if yeoman farmers lost their economic independence they would lose their political independence as well, forfeiting their freedom to the whims of the market and ominous 'monied interests' that aimed to dominate the government and the country. These folks tended to vote for the Democrat Party. The Whigs, in contrast, attracted to their cause those who saw an exciting new world being created on American soil; for them, it was the government's duty to support these "improvements" in every way it could. For these men progress was empowering: these changes would bring increased wealth and personal freedom to everybody, even if it came at the cost of economic independence. These tensions drove the unsettled American people to the polls as politics had never hitherto done, and created the truly democratic two-party political system that America still calls her own.
I found Hanson's arguments convincing and I am grateful he was able to weave his thesis into a narrative accessible as this one is. Moreover, LIBERTY AND POWER forced me to reevaluate several assumptions that had been guiding my thoughts about the antebellum world. I am particularly grateful for his description and analysis of the origins of the two party system. It changed the way I think about men like Martin van Buren and Andrew Jackson. Knowing, as we do, that their side was fighting against the tides of history and that the economic changes that were sweeping America were there to stay, it is easy to see them and their political movement as reactionary and out of touch. But as Hanson points out, they were really very visionary men. Between the two of them American mass democracy was born. I had previously assumed that van Buren's adoption of hard-lined party politics was simply a cynical ploy for power, Hanson shows that the Democrats' practice was rooted in a well thought out political philosophy that sought to empower the common man and to create a system where the electorate did not get caught up in the politics of personality but in platforms and issues. Towards this end Jackson and van Buren were visionary indeed. The system they set up still runs, relatively unchanged, nearly 200 years later.
LIBERTY AND POWER: insightful in its analysis, concise in its presentation, Hanson clearly is not trying to write a 'popular' narrative, but manages to write an engaging and convincing work of political history. It is well worth the read if that is your kind of thing.