The Old Southwest in early American history is often associated by scholars with raucous, democratizing politics and national figures such as Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. J. Roderick Heller has made a valuable contribution to this literature with his biographical study of another important product of this region, Felix Grundy. The title of the work reflects the dominant theme of Grundy as an egalitarian and populist-minded politician consistently striving against centralizing and aristocratic policies. But, as Heller argues, this struggle was almost always conducted in a practical way, avoiding ideological rigor that would otherwise inhibit political expediency. Heller ably utilizes sources such as personal correspondence, newspapers, diaries, and government journals to trace Grundy's career.
In this work, Grundy is situated within the larger context of the increasingly democratic post–Revolutionary culture. Raised and educated in Kentucky, Grundy's political pedigree was shaped early by the Jeffersonian Republican cast of the state. This philosophy of "liberty and equality, states' rights, minimal government, low or no taxation, and legislative supremacy" was the ideological bedrock Grundy carried with him all the way to the U.S. Senate and a leadership role in the Democratic Party (p. 2). Heller repeatedly demonstrates Grundy's pragmatic egalitarianism throughout his career. While battling Henry Clay over the banking privileges of the Kentucky Insurance Company, Grundy opposed the concentration of power that existed in private banking but promoted banking in the interest of the small farmer and merchants in need of expansion capital. Attuned to the particular needs of a specie-poor West, Heller asserts that Grundy appreciated [End Page 253] "the importance of credit in an expanding economy and sought a balance between the need for a sound credit system and his fear of centralized control by the few" (p. 71). In the Tennessee legislature, Grundy became a primary proponent of debtor-relief and a new state bank to ease hardships resulting from the Panic of 1819. Grundy's opposition to entrenched financial elites in both states "marked him as a populist leader of the first rank" (p. 142).
Grundy's rise to national office paralleled the emergence of Jacksonian-era political structures and by the time of his arrival in the Senate he was a devoted Jacksonian. Heller emphasizes this loyalty as an inescapable reality for the heretofore independent-minded westerner. Old Hickory's influence in Tennessee politics was too obvious to ignore for one with such a practical, ends-oriented streak. Heller notes that "Grundy, who had been nobody's disciple, was now a Jackson lieutenant, and his political positions followed those of the Hero" (p.164). As a result, Grundy tirelessly sought the unity and harmony of the Democratic Party to avoid Whig ascendancy in state and national politics. The chapters on Grundy's national career further accentuate his ability to maintain political alliances with personality, wit, and intellect. Heller is clear that, despite these maneuverings, Grundy was consistently motivated by his egalitarian persuasion and rarely negotiated on that fundamental tenet of Jeffersonian Republicanism.
Heller has produced a valuable study for scholars of the Old Southwest and his work is a welcome update on Grundy. The last full biography was published in 1940, and, as a result, Heller is able to incorporate and challenge more recent scholarship as it relates to his subject. For example, he often adjusts interpretations put forth by his mentor Charles Sellers. Heller also succeeds in avoiding overly effusive or hagiographic representations of Grundy. From his unwillingness to attack slavery to his mismanagement of personal finances, Grundy does not escape untarnished. Overall, Heller portrays Grundy as both an agent and a representation of the democratic transformations occurring in the early American republic. Any student of American [End Page 254] history would benefit by consulting both the model and content of this biographical work.
William A. Stone is a PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. He is currently researching and writing his dissertation on Kentucky politics in the Early...