Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Age of Jackson - Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

The battle between the differing ideals of Thomas Jefferson's small-government notions, with freedom and energy based in the hands of the decentralized electorate, and Alexander Hamiliton's Federalism, which recognized the needs for a strong centralized government around which the states would have to orbit, would only begin to be settled by the generation which succeeded the Founding Fathers. As the young nation battled over the less revolutionary issues of governance and domestic tranquility, the form and function of American government and society would begin to take lasting shape. Such becomings, Schlesinger argues, could not be understood isolated from the rise of industrialism, and the awakening of class consciousness which attended it. Debates centering upon issues such as the Bank of the United States, the Free Soil difficulties (and eventual violence), the annexation of Texas, the American System, and the Tariff of Abominations (to name just a few) are best understood as a young nation not only trying to negotiate the civil relation to government, but also between the classes. Would power be vested in manhood, or in property? While we may know the country's answer to this question (how certain are we really that the people won-out?) the years of Jacksonian America were a time when these contestations were far from settled.

To historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr's way of telling it, Andrew Jackson's founding of a vigorous and powerful executive branch upon the will of a democratically empowered electorate, was to set the standard for how America would come to expect the relationships between democratic and republican principles to be negotiated. More than any other single time period, it was the Age of Jackson, and the years which followed it, which set the course for American government as part of American society.

While it may be tempting to see these largely democratic principles as the spawn of Jeffersonianism, Schlesinger reconciles Jefferson's calls for limited government with the strong unifying power of the federal system which the country felt in 1944, and which we feel still today. The rise of industrialism and the centralization of populations, coupled with the coming storm of civil war, meant that Jefferson's ideal (over-emphasized by many) of a country composed of yeoman farmers would prove largely impossible. As wealth became divorced from the land, and was refounded in the cities, it was no longer enough to say "that government is best which governs least." Were the government to continue to retreat from the civic sphere, it would only ensure the rampant growth of industrial wealth, further vesting power in the upper class. Such would sound the death-knell of Jefferson's democratic principles.

Though the author of the Declaration of Independence could not have foreseen such eventualities, during the Age of Jackson Jeffersonian democracy would become unified with a vigorous and powerful executive branch. Were either capital or labor, during these crucial years when their relationship seemed still in its birthing pangs, to fully gain the upper hand over the other, the history of the United States would look very different. The changing arenas of presidential and congressional politics throughout this age simultaneously responded to and altered social and business spheres. Yet the age was governed largely by democratic principles responsive to Washington as the seat of power. As the electorate struggled to reorient itself to a changing world, so too would the political sphere be transformed. Much was uncertain during these formative years, yet they can be properly termed the Age of Jackson because the tenor of American class and political contests cannot be understood without reference to the role the Jackson played in founding the power of a strong central government directly upon the will of the people. This centralized American democracy still exists today.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Great Triumvirate - Merrill D. Peterson

The American Revolution may have been a fundamental break – one setting not only the infant nation, but indeed the entire global dialogue concerning democracy along a new path. The founding fathers were a generation which hewed and built a government unlike any of its age. Their works and deeds resound through the ages, as do their names. Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Franklin; for most Americans these require no introduction. Through the years of that first generation the country’s laws and government would take shape. Before the court of Marshall, in the doctrine of Monroe, along the journey of Lewis and Clark, the country as a land and an idea would emerge. Yet it was only with the passing-away of this first generation that the first few staggering steps of the country could be transformed into the assured pace of a certain nation. If America was to be a grand republic, and not simply the bright flash of a single generation, then it would be the free-born sons of the revolution who would make it so. The country could only be truly forged once it dealt with the business, less of creation, and more of persistence.

From the presidency of John Quincy Adams, to the years of the Fillmore administration, three men would do more to shape and define the country’s ideals, values, and extent than any others. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina represented not only the three regions composing the young states (New England, the West, and the South, respectively) but also three ideals of the republic which would be contested in front of the courts and underneath the Capitol dome. While Webster embodied the Federalists’ call for a stronger union, Calhoun’s states’ rights southerners fought for the preservation of their own way of life. In-between was the star of the West, the voice of union and compromise, Henry Clay. Each, in his own way, would take up his own banner, and the banner of diverse causes; each with one foot planted firmly in the foundations of the past, while simultaneously striving towards what they believed was both a proper and necessary future. Both the originality and the difficulty of the American Constitution can be understood through the differing interpretations these three gave to it. While their conclusions and moralities may occasionally seem outmoded – perhaps even quaint to the modern ear – we cannot disagree that each latched upon a crucial strain of thought in the nation’s founding documents. Their status as great minds is assured. That the words and ideas which founded the republic can be so diversely meaningful and open to interpretation may do more to support the continuation of the American republic than the work of any person, or the protection of any force. Through their struggles, Webster, Clay, and Calhoun not only helped to forge the nation, they served as exemplars for how the country might be continually renewed.

While the evolving political climates of their time would variously place each at odds with the other, these climates would also create strange bedfellows and unlikely alliances. The capriciousness of changing parties, and the turbulence of the era, may have led the country to select more belligerent or politically-minded executives. It was, through no small fault of the mansion’s tenants, the era of a diminished White House. While each of the triumvirate would repeatedly try for the country’s top post, and variously be humbled, humiliated, debased, and denied in their attempts, this was not the era of the powerful presidency. It was within the Capitol that the great debates would take place; from which the edicts shaping the coming generation would issue. At no other time has America more closely embodied a true republic. At the height of congressional influence three men stood head-and-shoulders above the rest. Webster, Clay, and Calhoun: each is celebrated and lauded, denigrated and excoriated. Each similarly provides a multitude of interpretations down through the ages. Thus we may say that they have truly joined the American pantheon. Together they support our own continual re-founding of the nation.