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Reviews of David S Reynolds’s “Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson” remind us of a boisterous, chaotic and sometimes bizarre period in our history.
Reynolds, a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author of “John Brown, Abolitionist,” writes about the period between the foundational era of the Fathers and the Civil War — a historical black hole in the minds of many Americans. But a spate of books is being published about these years.
John Steele Gordon calls Reynolds’s book “a terrific introduction” to this once ignored period, a time increasingly recognized as foundational to modern America.
And Jay Winik writes, “Far more than just a political story or, for that matter, a story of Andrew Jackson, Reynolds’s book shines a bright light on the cultural, social, intellectual and artistic currents buffeting the nation.”
Nothing in America during this period seemed to stand still, says Winik, and nothing was straightforward. America saw a remarkable transformation: in 1815 there were only 18 states; by 1848 there were 30.
Florida, Texas and great stretches of the North-and Southwest were added to the national territory, while population increased from 8 million to nearly 23 million very diverse people.
Canals, turnpikes and steamboats were helping stitch a disparate country together. Mr McCormick’s reaper, Mr Morse’s telegraph and Mr Colt’s pistol brought about major adjustments in people’s approaches to life and work. Materialismwas running rampant, as was ambition and self-confidence. Groups founded utopian communities; tens of thousands attended religious revivals where people spoke in tongues and fell to the ground howling. Joseph Smith founded the Mormons, and William Miller the Adventists. William Miller pinpointed the exact year when Christ would return: between March 1843 and March 1844.
It was a go-go, eccentric age. Mesmerists claimed they could travel through time and magically heal patients. Phrenology was the rage: people claimed they could read a person’s character by the bumps on their skulls. Health regimens were popular. Dietary nostrums promoted included the cracker developed by Sylvester Graham.
Tabloids abounded with bizarre stories, true and untrue. P T Barnum made huge sums feeding the public’s craving for the melodramatic and freakish. The nation was awash in sensationalism.
But at the same time, there was a countervailing strain in the national mood. Thoreau and Edgar Allan Poe longed for a simpler more reflective time. Burgeoning social reform movements resulted in such things as sign language and schools for the deaf.
At the same time Native Americans were being marched to their deaths along the Trail of Tears. Plans were being laid to ship free blacks to Africa.
As the country became richer and more diverse, industry developed in the North, cotton spread in the South, and the great Midwest grew massive fields of grain. Railroads eventually began to weld markets together.
America increasingly established itself as a player on the world stage. The Monroe Doctrine came into being, and John L O’Sullivan gave us the phrase “Manifest Destiny.”
While Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C Calhoun all wanted to become president, Jackson made it. And if average Americans saw Andrew Jackson as “Everyman writ large,” the Whig party saw in him an unbridled despot.
Writes John Steele Gordon about Jackson:
He was the first president to be born poor, the first not to come from Virginia or Massachusetts. He shaped the future of American politics so profoundly that the great 19th-century historian George Bancroft thought him the last of the founding fathers. It was in Jackson’s time that property qualifications for voting were largely abolished and what we would recognize as democracy (at least for white men) took firm hold. The modern two-party system evolved in this period as well, as Jackson became the father of the present day Democratic Pary. And in the 1850’s the Whigs would give way to the Republicans.
“Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson“, by David S Reynolds is published by Harper Collins at $29.95.
Also on this topic see these recent books:
- “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848,” by Daniel Walker Howe, which won a Pulitzer Prize.
- “Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877” by Walter A McDougall.
- “The Rise of American Democracy” by Sean Wilentz, Princeton historian.
sources: book reviews by John Steele Gordon (22/3/08) and Jay Winik (10/26/08) in the NY Times. www.nytimes.com John Steele Gordon is a contributor to “Commentary.” Jay Winik is the author of “April 1865: The Month That Saved America,” and most recently “The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800.“
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