If you like political history, you will almost certainly enjoy and respect these two well-researched and expertly crafted studies by accomplished [End Page 674] historians of the second party system. But if you are concerned about the future of political history, and the limits of certain genres, you may find yourself wondering where they leave the field.
These books are entries in two successful university press series that seek to bring monographic insights to broader audiences. Lynn Parsons’s study is part of Pivotal Moments in American History, and James Mc- Pherson, series editor with David Hackett Fischer, puts out the thesis without qualification in his introduction: 1828 marked “the death of the elitist political culture of the early republic and the birth of true democracy” (x). Parsons himself is more careful than that. He informs readers that there are ongoing debates about the significance of the election, the substance of Jackson’s politics, and the relationship between “Jacksonian” political culture and what came before. Jackson and Adams, he notes, shared much in the years before they became rivals. Both supported the War of 1812, both were expansionists; neither could be called an “anthropologist” with respect to Indians (47). Indeed, most of the book is about the highly contingent path to 1828, including the equally interesting (and arguably equally important) if somewhat anomalous election of 1824. We don’t even get to 1827 until more than two-thirds of the way into the text.
Parsons is especially insightful when focusing on Adams, his ideas and motivations, as readers of his earlier brief biography of Adams will expect. Despite his distaste for campaigning, Adams did “intrigue” for office. Nevertheless, the drama is largely in the setting up of an old-fashioned, quasi-Federalist Adams as a foil to a Jackson more in tune with the real America. (That this was the Jacksonians’ campaign message seems not to bother Parsons much.) Parsons describes the American System as a less than popular departure from founding-era republicanism. Parsons seems unaware of John Lauritz Larson’s demonstration in Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States (Chapel Hill, NC, 2000) that it was neither. And did newspaper editors really emerge as “effective partisans” for the first time in 1828?1 Similarly, we hear about “new forms of campaigning” in 1828 including the “banquets, parades, songs [End Page 675] and symbols” that a gaggle of early republic historians have found ubiquitous by 1801 (185).
In the end, Parsons relies on stereotypes about an earlier era with slow communications and republican culture in order to explain what was “modern” about Jackson and the “new era” he exemplified. There were certainly “modern” features to 1828, as historians since M. J. Heale at least have emphasized; in addition to those not-so-new features listed above, Parsons points to the all-important image of the candidate, an attendant anti-intellectualism, and the rise of the “liberty” versus “power” theme that may still structure ideological conflict. But one wonders if the demands of the series for a “pivotal moment” has not trumped Parsons’s better, judicious instincts, and even his sympathies for Adams, especially where he tends to bring up alternative interpretations, such as the importance of slavery, only to dismiss them as inconclusive, un-dramatic sideshows. In other words, the same Pivotal Momentism that makes Antietam the key turning point of the Civil War for McPherson, who had earlier carefully delineated four real turning points, or that makes Washington’s Crossing carry all the heroic and strategic weight of a six-and-a-half-year multifront Revolutionary War, requires that Jackson must have been revolutionary, democratic, modern, and truly American, despite any evidence to the contrary.2
Cole’s study is more...