Book Review: The Jacksonian Era 1828-1848
In The Jacksonian Era, 1828-1848, Glyndon G. Van Deusen examines the Jacksonian period in detail, defining it as the period of time between Jackson’s 188 election to Zachary Taylor’s 1848 election. Van Deusen provides us with a chronological look at the diplomatic and political events that took place during that time, though in an incredibly economical way. Politics takes a front seat to social and economic changes, the latter only showing up when they relate directly to the former. As such, the tariff, bank issues and the issue of western expansion are explored in detail and as expected, while the antislavery and abolitionist movement are explored insofar as they relate to votes. Very little about the literary and artistic output of that period of time is elucidated upon, except for a brief blurb on one early page: “American society furnished opportunity and stimulus for a literary movement headed by Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Margaret Fuller” (Van Deusen, p. 2). By dismissing it, Van Deusen confirms that the Jacksonian period “was mainly absorbed in the strenuous pursuit of material gain” (Ibid.) The first chapter establishes right away that the author’s primary concern is to provide the reader with a rough summary of merely the political advancements seen throughout this period. According to Van Deusen, the Jacksonion period can be illustrated by the way in which political parties are realigned, and how they are eventually dissolved by the 1848 election. In addition to that, the powerful and enigmatic figure of Andrew Jackson helps to define the period as well.
Van Deusen, throughout the book, attempts to provide a complete and detailed description of American politics, both outside and inside its borders, in this particular era. Though the chronological treatment of the material makes sense on the surface by showing when events occurred, but it can run the risk of leaving many important issues to be resolved in a scattershot fashion in different sections. For example, page 139 introduces the MacLeod affair with Canada, but it is not fully resolved until a much later section, after the 1840 election.
At the same time, Van Deusen’s book also raises the question of his perspective; though providing a dry and informative account of the politics of the era, very little point of view is offered to contextualize or analyze the events of the Jacksonion period. The result becomes a bit encyclopedic, something full of information but bereft of actual content or thesis. He imposes no imagination or clarity of thought on the information dump that he offers us in the book, leaving little mark of his own. Apart from the preface and conclusion, we get no real evidence of his major thesis contained in those sections – he states that, in this period there was no “significant sentiment for the abandonment of the democratic process” (Van Deusen, p. 266). However, the body of the text seems to imply as though the democratic process itself survived only by abandoning real issues that the nation faced, leaving it in much more dire straits than his conclusion seems to imply. By stating the thesis in the bookends of the text, and not supporting it throughout its contents, Van Deusen fails to convince us of little other than the veracity of the events he describes.
The biggest problem with the text is its seeming removal of all things that do not relate directly to party politics; it does not really tell us the tale of the Jacksonian ‘era,’ instead focusing primarily on the history of politics at the time. This creates a unique difficulty with relating to the facts in this case, as Van Deusen does not give us a reason to understand the significance of these policies; the Jacksonian politics of the time were all about the expression of feelings and attitudes, as much as they were how state business was conducted, something missing in Van Deusen’s tome. While Van Deusen’s book is an excellent database of facts and chronology, it does not imbue those facts with meaning. Nothing about the education or social lives of the constituents of the Jacksonian period is given more than a surface glance, nor is the sociopolitical reasons behind many of the reform movements that cropped up in the period. All that is stated is that they exist, and nothing further is given to us besides that.
As an entry in the historiography of the Jacksonian period, it is excellent at one thing only: as a tome of dry information used to verify that these events and pieces of legislation occurred in these particular years. However, if one is looking for context, meaning and significance of these events, one must supplement Van Deusen’s book with other works, like those of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Blau. In the preface to the book, Commager and Morris state that the work ahead is “a judicious reappraisal of the new history, a cautious application of the new techniques of investigation and presentation, and a large-scale effort to achieve a synthesis of new findings with familiar facts” (Van Deusen, p. x). However, in the book to follow, this is not seen; the familiar facts are there, but nothing new is found in them. Works like Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy seek to combine the legislative with the social advances in the era, to provide a cross-section of the era itself – including its people. This kind of comprehensive and meaning-imbued analysis of the period is missing in Van Deusen’s work.
In conclusion, The Jacksonian Period 1828-1848 is an interesting attempt to take the cold, calculated facts about the political life of these twenty years of history and make a comprehensive historical book about them. Despite this efficiency and the simplicity of the chronological treatment of history, Van Deusen’s book lacks the depth and the cultural connections that would provide true meaning to the facts being described. Events are described in terms of their relationship to politics, and political parties’ constant squabbling is not given the appropriate context to stand on its own. In essence, Van Deusen seems to imagine America as not a nation of citizens governed by a government, but a series of political parties bickering with each other over superiority and power. In reality, these parties were fighting for interests that served the greater good, but that context is narrowed down to merely what it means to the politicians. By leaving the citizens, and American life in general, out of the equation, Van Deusen seems to miss the connecting-of-the-dots that makes a worthwhile historical text.
Blau, Joseph L., ed. (1954). Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy: Representative Writings of the Period 1825-1850. Bobbs-Merrill Company.
Van Deusen, G.G. (1959). The Jacksonian Era 1828-1948. Harper-Collins.