Book Review - Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America
In Harry L. Watson's Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America, the second party system era is examined on a national level (following up from his regional study of Cumberland County, North Carolina, during the same period of time), providing a rough overview of Jacksonian politics in general. Issues such as nullification, the Bank War, and Andrew Jackson himself are addressed in a detailed, yet unspecialized way, providing the reader with a passing glimpse at the entire era and how its politics affected the cultural and social landscape of America. Watson's thesis is that, despite the typical challenges that Jacksonian Democrats presented to the elitist traditions of American society during the early 19th century, "at the same time, the rise of new party institutions tended to channel popular democratic energies in conservative directions, giving recognition to popular feelings while blunting their potentially disruptive consequences" (Watson, p. 13). In essence, Watson demonstrates that Jacksonian Democracy still contains the basic elements of racism and xenophobia that came part and parcel with the principles of manifest destiny.
Watson's work generates a portrait of Jacksonian politics that is generally earnest and well-meaning; the author pays Jacksonian Democrats the highest compliment by treating their statements and positions with the utmost seriousness. Democratic notions of equality and liberty are recognized deeply by Watson, who notes that these principles were not empty gestures, but discrete mission statements during the Jacksonian Era. Despite this, Watson maintains a moderate amount of skepticism about the effectiveness of said policies, as Democratic beliefs often belied their actions.
When it comes to Andrew Jackson himself, Watson depicts the president as a representative of smaller economic producers, protecting these interests against the inevitable changing of economic development. This put him in direct opposition to the progressive Whigs, who championed these advances. Jackson was no friend of states' rights, as Watson reminds the reader: "Jackson was determined to preserve the Union and to make the federal government - in its proper sphere - superior to the power of the states" (p. 132). This meant resisting all forms of privatization and the establishment of an organized commercial economy; Jackson's modus operandi was to maintain the economy as a series of independent producers who would be left alone by the government. "Jackson associated government assistance to the Market Revolution with long- and short-term forms of 'corruption,' the traditional bane of republican government, and he regarded its advocates with deep suspicion" (p. 133). Watson's depiction of Jackson as a principled, but paranoid, president maintains the flawed-but-honest perspective he maintains toward the Democrats.
Furthermore, Watson's perspective on the Whigs allows for new interpretations of party thought to be reframed in light of the values of traditional Republicans. As the author notes, "Whig republicanism embodied a transformed cultural tradition, with significant new elements that had not appeared in the eighteenth-century version (Watson, p. 220). Watson's perspective on the Whig voter of the time was that of an individual who was "neither a patriarchal squire nor a deferential yeoman," but rather "a sober and hardworking husband and father, energetic and conscientious on the job, attentive to the needs of his family and receptive to the sanctifying power of faith" (p. 220).
Watson's investigation of the party system also covers ethnocultural factors, of which there were many; the Jacksonian era was replete with race and cultural politics that embodied the philosophies of their respective political parties. At the same time, though Watson acknowledges that they exist, his argument is that they "only tended to reinforce the previously established patterns of Jacksonian politics" (p. 195). The aforementioned resistance in moving from an agrarian economy to a market economy is one of the major tensions of the Jacksonian era explored in the work. Watson notes that Jackson's resistance to these changes led to distinct North/South divisions in party politics: "in the south, sympathy for nullification drove many formerly Jacksonian planters to the Whigs, while Democrats won converts by appealing to up-country farmers who resisted the market economy and despised the power of plantation districts in matters of state politics" (p. 196). This constant push and pull between old and new market forces helped to define the Jacksonian era's politics, according to Watson, and established North/South animosity that would endure for decades to come.
Watson's contribution of his own cynicism and honesty about Jacksonian-era Democrats fits wonderfully into the historiography of the Jacksonian Era. Unlike other historians, who have not taken seriously the image of Jacksonian politics that emerged at the time, Watson reminds the reader of the party's failings (including their poor treatment of free blacks, Indians and slaves). These efforts ensure a greater deal of objectivity than the reverent tone that often plagues other work in the field. Watson also contributes further to the discussion of Jacksonian treatment of Native Americans and freed slaves, as the duplicitous and imperialistic nature of manifest destiny is touched upon (while not going into as much detail as scholars like Horsman (1981)).
Watson's work is written in a formal, chronological narrative, lending his research a needed sense of flow and context. The book itself works its way from the 1824 election to John Tyler's presidency, with only the introductory and concluding chapters (three in total) establishing the general timbre of the work. His work also incorporates the work of many different social historians as well, discussing issues of northern evangelicalism and how women's lives in American politics began to develop during this time. Watson's true talent is in making the topics at hand seem fresh and accessible to readers of all levels: both novices and seasoned scholars alike can find new and fascinating information in this work. The writing of this book is tailor-made to toe the line between introduction of major aspects of Jacksonian Democracy and detailed investigation into the complex politics which comprised many major policy decisions.
In conclusion, Liberty and Power provides a strong entry into the historiography of Jacksonian-era politics, providing a brief overview of Jacksonian Democrats' policies and principles, warts and all. Because of this vast subject matter and the sheer number of topics on which he chooses to elucidate, there is little time or room for Watson to stop and investigate challenges to his interpretation of the era. As a result, the book can come across as a bit one-sided, with little to round out his own conclusions about Jacksonian politics. Despite this, Watson's work is well-supported and sufficiently detailed to provide a fantastic overview of Jacksonian politics.
Horsman, R. (1981). Race and Manifest Destiny: Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Harvard University Press.
Watson, H.L. (1990). Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America. Hill and Wang.