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  • A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy
  • Richard Latner
A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy. By Donald B. Cole. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004. Pp. 332. $59.95.)

Although now largely forgotten, Amos Kendall had more than his fifteen minutes of fame. Among the most influential members of Andrew Jackson's "Kitchen Cabinet," his name was broadcast throughout the country, newspapers often referring to him simply as "Amos." Harriet Martineau famously described him as the person "supposed to be the moving spring" of Jackson's administration. He was "the thinker, planner, doer; but it is all in the dark" (1).

Although specialists have given attention to Kendall's political activities, they have rarely noted other dimensions of his life. During the 1850s, he was instrumental in establishing the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind, the school that became Gallaudet College. The considerable financial resources that he made available to this cause came in large measure from his association as business agent for Samuel F. B. Morse and his telegraph.

Despite such a promising subject, until now no full-scale biography of Amos Kendall has been published. Whatever the reasons for this astonishing neglect, the good news is that this embarrassing lacuna has been filled. Donald B. Cole's splendid book is carefully researched, detailed yet boldly interpretive, and gracefully written. It balances Kendall's private and public life and explores his philanthropic and business pursuits along with his political contribution.

Kendall was born toward the end of the eighteenth century to a modest farming family in Dunstable, Massachusetts. Over the course of his life, the new nation experienced tremendous change, its political institutions swept by democratizing currents and its colonial economy and social structure released by migration and modernization. Cole skillfully contextualizes Kendall within these broader developments without losing sight of the complexity that constitutes his personal journey. Physically unfit for farming, the precocious Kendall managed his way through Dartmouth College and began to study law before he joined the multitude of young New Englanders seeking better opportunities in the West. For a variety of reasons, he ended up in the old Southwest, a "Yankee in Kentucky," finding employment as a tutor in Henry Clay's family. After much experimentation, this moralistic scion of Puritan stock found his calling in newspaper editing and politics. Gradually abandoning the more staid republicanism of his father, he adapted to the emergent more boisterous, voter-oriented, and partisan style of politics. By the late 1820s, he was a leader of Kentucky's Relief Party, where his appeals to ordinary people, his democratic assaults on wealth and privilege, his intelligence, and, at times, his unscrupulousness brought him to the attention of Andrew Jackson. Once in Washington, he contributed significantly to the institutionalization of the Democratic party, and he helped formulate its ideological opposition to privilege and its solicitude for the South. [End Page 184]

Kendall's political influence lifted him into Jackson's cabinet as postmaster general, but it did not survive into the Van Buren succession, and he eventually resigned his position. Now a political outsider and financially strapped, Kendall found a new, more lucrative outlet for his talents when he met Morse in the winter of 1845. As Cole observes, Kendall's attraction to the telegraph was a natural one. As editor, speechwriter, and postmaster general, he was intimately associated with the changes in communication and transportation. By the time he stepped away from this venture, he "had risen from an unemployed politician to a businessman of considerable means" (266). When the Civil War began, he remained a true disciple of Jackson. As a War Democrat, he denounced secession, supported the Union, and opposed emancipation and racial equality.

Cole draws out a number of compelling themes in Kendall's life. He was, in Cole's words, "the classic American self-made man" as well as "the classic Jacksonian" (4). Without entirely abandoning the more circumscribed, republican world of his past, Kendall adapted to the emergent market society and the mass party system. To his credit, Cole does not try to shoehorn Kendall into...