- Whigging Out:Controversy in the Age of Jackson
Angry at banks, corporate greed, and government corruption? Surprised by the public smearing, racist attitudes, and superficial morality in presidential elections? Distressed by incivility, polarized inflexibility, and partisan news sources of our time? Historians can trace these contemporary concerns to their emergence in the early United States. In four recent works, leading historians turn their attention to the period formerly known as the Age of Jackson (roughly 1815-1848) to trace the rise of the market and the emergence of rowdy democratic politics.1 These historians explicitly connect the remarkable transition of those times to the present. They show the precedents for our vicissitudes, and at the same time, they foster a deeper understanding of and appreciation for a critical spirit that lurks in U.S. public discourse. For contemporary readers interested in public controversy within U.S. electoral politics, these books form a rich resource.
Each book deals with Andrew Jackson's road to the White House, with two taking the campaign proper as their topics. All of the books embrace the idea that the election of 1828 changed American democracy through a reconstitution of U.S. political style. More specifically, new genres of discourse, different patterns of circulation and display, and routine personal attacks changed the tone of Whigs and Jacksonians. Candidates' campaigns smeared the opponent's family reputations, newspapers revealed presidents as morally unscrupulous, and personal image carried political issue. These practices inaugurated the modern era of electoral democracy, featuring two candidates with strong networks of partisan support.
Moreover, reading the four books together makes obvious a shared concern over capitalism and democracy as contested cultural discourses. The ideological struggle between Whigs and Democrats, both inheritors of the classic republicanism of the founders, can be read as a forecast of the social and economic disputes of U.S. history. Their opposing logoi (symbols, arguments, and worldviews) gave textual display to what today is accepted, perhaps regrettably, as socioeconomic fact. Howe and Parsons, especially, reveal the nuances of public controversy in superb narrative style.
These histories use the richness of the era to show how different interpretations of a political heritage can divide a nation so strongly. While Whigs used republicanism to move the nation forward in large economic and social programs, Jacksonians used rhetorical appeals to republican simplicity to ally with poor voters and enhance economic freedoms for Southern slaveholders, frontiersmen, and speculating Northern entrepreneurs.2 The differences between these worldviews gave historians a way to understand [End Page 482] the motivations of political actors as they used rhetoric to seek office, garner power, and shape political culture. Understanding historical controversy thus requires sensitivity to the way contingent issues become determined through celebrity political style, through connection to community hopes and needs, and through public debates in which some arguments triumph over others.
Each author makes a bold central claim that challenges our perspective on a variety of twenty-first century crises as well as our perspective on the past. Larson's The Market Revolution in America bolsters Charles Sellers's original thesis that the market underwent a "revolution" that brought modern capitalism to the forefront of American life, not always for the better. Howe's What Hath God Wrought, more sympathetic to the market as a project undertaken by progressive citizens, highlights technological changes and social movements that made the era unique. Cole's Vindicating Andrew Jackson analyzes the 1828 election to show that Jackson and his supporters were in fact the...