Daniel Gullotta’s Age of Jackson podcast is one of the few I listen to regularly. In 2021 I don’t have a lot of spare bandwidth to keep track of developments in my favorite field of American history, but I do listen to his interviews with new authors in the field to stay somewhat up to date. Listening to a book talk is not the same thing as reading a book, of course, but it is better than slowly having years of labor slip away from memory with disuse.
One of Gullotta’s most recent episodes is with Alan Taylor, who has made some fame for himself with his histories of the colonial era (American Colonies) and the revolution that followed (American Revolutions). I have read the first of these and can confirm that Taylor is an able writer. This episode is devoted to his newest book, American Republics, which extends his panoramic survey of North America from the founding right up to the eve of the American Civil War.1
David Gullotta interview with Alan Taylor, “Episode 132: American Republics, a Continental History, with Alan Taylor,” Age of Jackson Podcast, 21 May 2021.
I have not read American Republics, but I have read the other 500-1,000 page door stoppers that preceded it. Since the 1980s at least one historian a decade has risen up in a heroic attempt to survey the entire antebellum period on a single canvas. The first of these books was Charles Sellers’ 512-page The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. The Market Revolution was published in 1991, and was originally commissioned as part of the Oxford History of the United States series a decade earlier. While Oxford did publish Sellers’ book, the series’ editor felt that its Marxist framing did not gel with the other books in the series. The gap would eventually be filled (nearly two decades later, in 2009) by Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. In between the two comes Sean Wilentz’s 1,040-page The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. Wilentz’s book was a rare historical tome published as a trade hardback. It was published in 2005, but it, like The Market Revolution, was conceived and partially written in the decade preceding its publication.
While these three books cover approximately the same time period, the same personalities, and the same events, each tells a fundamentally different story. The men and women studied are largely the same, but who is counted a hero, and who a villain, changes wildly from one work to another.
Sellers’ villain is the marketplace. He faults not capitalists for the ills of the early republic, but capitalism, the impersonal, suprahuman forces of a “market revolution” that swept over American society in the antebellum era. He describes how little farmsteads and townships suddenly found themselves wired to a global economy: Where the American yeomanry had once been self-sufficient farmers in control of their own communities, they now found themselves dependent on flows of credit and capital from faraway lands. By the 1830s, prices in New Orleans were being set by exchanges in New York, goods grown in Ohio were being sold to London, and bank failures in Boston led to ruin in Kentucky–and everywhere else.
In Sellers’ eyes, Andrew Jackson and “The Democracy” (as the Democrats were then known) are best understood as a rebellion against capital. Their movement was a raucous attempt to roll the market revolution back. They stood for an America unsullied by industry. They self consciously represented a People victimized by financiers; they unconsciously represented those Americans who felt least at ease in the impersonal, unmoored, market-oriented world of capitalist striving. The Whigs, in contrast, defended the market revolution to the last. Whiggery was full of bankers, merchants, and factory owners; its strongholds were the places that stood to benefit most from market integration, as with industrializing New England or trade entrepots like New Orleans. In this contest the Jacksonians could win elections, but they could not win the broader the war. The market revolution could not be halted. Industrial capitalism is thus the most important legacy of the antebellum era. We live in the ruins of the failed Democracy.
Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy contends that modern America is a testament not to the failure of the Jacksonian cause, but its victory. The real significance of the Democracy, he insists, is found in its name: democracy. This is a story larger than one political party: as Wilentz narrates it, the fundamental trend of the antebellum era was the extension of fraternal and egalitarian norms through every sphere of American life. The smells and bells of the Anglican chapel were supplanted by the wild testimonies of the revivalist camp meeting; the old system of masters and apprentices gave way to a world of working men free to chase the highest wages. But nowhere was this maelstrom of bottom-up boundary-breaking clearer or more significant than in the world of politics.
Jacksonians identified themselves with, and subsequently benefited from, the expansion of the franchise. Theirs was a politics of the common man: they understood themselves to be tribunes of the People, majoritarians to the core. The remnant aristocracy were the champions of Whiggery. In the early days the Whigs were open about their opposition to mass participation in politics. Electoral defeat would soon teach them to wrap their elitism in popular trappings. Their survival strategy was sensible: If the Jacksonsians cast politics as an eternal war on unearned privilege, the Whigs would appeal to the masses by reframing political conflict as a moral war between virtue and license.
By making popular politics the touchstone of his book, Wilentz defends categories that would otherwise seem somewhat odd. Lincoln’s robust defense of majoritarianism elevates him to honorary member of the Democracy, though Lincoln would have sooner died than cast a vote for that party. Likewise, few other historians would couple anti-slavery John Quincy Adams with the pro-slavery John C. Calhoun, but both, in their own way, tried to stem the democratic tide. Both are vilified as enemies to the People.
Daniel Walker Howe has no patience for this sort of thing. Howe admires Adams for precisely the reasons Calhoun reviled him, and goes so far as to dedicate What God Hath Wrought to the one-term President. Howe’s book is in part a reaction to both of the works that came before it: it was less a market revolution that transformed American life, Howe argues, than a revolution in transport and communication. What God Hath Wrought begins with the Battle of New Orleans, a battle that only occurred because Washington and London could not get word in time to their generals that the war was over; its title is lifted from the message of the first telegraph sent in the United States (in 1844). What a change to live through! Antebellum America was a society being woven ever closer together. The great question of the era was what kind of society it would be.
Both the Whigs and Democrats had grand visions for their country’s future: for the Democrats, greatness would be found in conquering space, extending the domain of liberty to vast new vistas. The Whiggish vision looked inward. They smiled on the new technologies then weaving America into closer Union, and sought to aid them with government-funded “Internal Improvements.” But the Whigs did not just seek to improve America’s infrastructure: they were committed to “improvements” in just about everything. Prison conditions, school instruction, religious devotions, factory conditions, the relationship between the sexes–if Americans were involved in an affair, then another batch of Americans would soon arrive on the scene, eager to improve it. Zion was in reach, this generation believed, if only Americans could pull together to build it!
While most of these do-gooders were Whigs, it was rarely state agents that took the lead in American improvement. Many of the big changes in American society occurred just outside of the boundaries of the properly political. Howe’s blending of social, cultural, and political history here is especially skillful.2 But his attention to the social foundations of antebellum politics is somewhat a function of his choice of heroes: Whiggery was as much a moral sense as it was a political program, and the Whigs were ultimately more successful as a cultural force than as a political party.
I am not sure I have read a synthetic history that blends these topics more skillfully. The only books that immediately come to mind as fair competition are William Freehling’s two-volume Road to Disunion, which traces the cultural and political currents of the American South during this same era, and F.W. Mote’s Imperial China, 900-1800.
Howe understands the liberty of the Jackson-man as the liberty of the autonomous white man. The Whigs were more willing to grant cultural authority or political power to those excluded from the hated Democracy, provided they spoke the right moral language. In Whig eyes the five “civilized” tribes deserved their lands by dint of being, well, civilized. Whigs were horrified by their treatment on the Trail of Tears; the Democracy met Indian Removal with cheers. The Whig Party leaned north, and thus claimed a larger percentage of anti-slavery folk; the Democracy leaned south, and birthed most of slavery’s defenders. Women often led reform movements, and were given a far larger place in Whiggish intellectual circles than Democracy men would ever allow. If the Whig leadership was patronizing to these women, Native Americans, and free blacks–well, they were patronizing to everyone! Howe does not deny this: he admits the Whigs were genuine elitists. But it is clear that Howe sees in Whiggery a glimmer of the nation yet to be. Beneath the Whigs’ elitism was a coalition of Americans who understood that patriotism does not mean preserving the American way of life, but improving it. This way of thinking is another legacy of the antebellum era.
Each of these three books is hundreds of pages long, packed with data and anecdote. I am afraid my capsule summaries might mislead readers into thinking these histories are partisan hack-jobs. This is not true. All attempt to be fair minded; all have interesting, nuanced things to say about even the “villains” of their chosen tale. These are histories written as history should be.
But it is hard to miss just how closely each of these books tracks the concerns of its moment. One can follow the mood of America’s liberal intelligentsia decade by decade through these volumes. Sellers, a leftist writing in the shadow of the Reagan, sees capitalism as the most important inheritance of the antebellum era. The antebellum fight against the market was a noble but ultimately doomed endeavor. Something similar could be said about the electioneering of Walter Mondale.
Sean Wilentz is a more political creature than Charles Sellers was.3 He is a personal friend of the Clintons, and began his career as a public intellectual (if not as a historian) defending the Clinton presidency. That was the age of democracy triumphant. Wilentz’s book can be understood as the origin story of the democratic wave that swept the world in the ’90s. Like all good Clintonites, Wilentz made his peace with the marketplace. Thus the villain of the The Rise of American Democracy is not the nebulous yet nightmarish market that Sellers fears. Yet if Wilentz does not posit a zero-sum relationship between capital and democracy, he does vilify monied interests who use their wealth to thwart the common will. The parallels with the modern day are obvious: just as the money power opposed Jackson’s Democracy, so big business arrayed itself against Clinton and his party. In a 2005 New York Times piece Wilentz completes the analogy: like the Whigs, Bush and company relied on culture war posturing to curry favor with voters who would otherwise recognize them as class enemies.4
For a good review, see Timothy Shenk, “The Partisan,” The Nation, Oct 2019
Sean Wilentz, “Bush’s Ancestors,” New York Time Magazine, 16 October 2005.
Howe represents an important shift in the liberal understanding of both American history and liberals’ own place in it.5 This shift is broader than Howe’s book: the same dynamic can be seen in the popularity of Ron Chernow’s best selling biographies of Hamilton and Grant, Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty! textbooks, the HBO miniseries John Adams, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.
In the aughts Democrats who previously identified with founders of their party slowly started to identify with the Democracy’s opponents. The most dramatic reversal was the intelligentsia’s estimation of Andrew Jackson: Under Bill Clinton, a bust of Andrew Jackson graced the Oval Office. By the mid 2010s, however, the party was phasing out its “Jackson-Jefferson dinners.” Liberals were soon agitating to kick Jackon’s image off the $20 bill. It was Donald Trump, not Clinton’s Democratic heirs, who returned Jackson’s image to the White House.
Another important parallel between the world Howe experienced when writing What God Hath Wrought and the depiction of the America found within its pages: the importance of advancing communication technology. When What God Hath Wrought was published, “Web 2.0” was only a few years old. Howe never says that the telegraph was to the antebellum what the internet and social media are to us today, but it is not surprising that someone whose life has been transformed by the latter should pay special attention to possible antecedents.
Slavery accounts for much of this change. In 2003 a Democratic presidential frontrunner could cause controversy by stating that he wanted to be “the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,” but saying so would not torpedo his candidacy.6 But the “emerging Democratic majority” was a multi-racial coalition; in 2008 Democrats nominated their first black presidential candidate. Six years later that was no longer true. Even mild hints of racial bigotry were now non-negotiable disqualifiers in liberal social circles; slave-ownership took on a similarly disqualifying role when picking historical heroes. Thus Thomas Jefferson is displaced in the liberal imagination with arch-elitists (and previous arch-villains) Hamilton and Adams.
The candidate in question was Howard Dean. “Democrats Battle Over Confederate Flags,” CNN, 2 November 2003
But there was another, subtler shift driving this change. In the 2000 election, West Virginia’s rightward tilt surprised both Republicans and Democrats. Thomas Frank’s screedish What’s The Matter With Kansas? captured the frustration of liberals in this era, a time when traditionally blue states were flipping red: don’t these working class voters understand that we are the ones on their side?! Yet if the liberal-left aspired to be on the side of the working man, it was decidedly not of his side.
Realities Democratic pollsters were struggling to deal with in the early aughts are now self evident verities: The 21st century liberal is both urban and urbane. Liberals are over-represented in the professions, among the teachers and professors, and other sorts of white collar work. They are the winners of the 21st century’s market revolution–or at least the people best psychologically adapted to deal with the vast economic changes globalization has wrought. They define themselves as properly educated citizens: responsible, caring, and community oriented.
In other words, they are a lot like the antebellum Whigs.
Wilentz argued against this notion by claiming the Whigs were defined by their economic privilege.7 “Most deeply separating the Whigs from twentieth-century liberals,” Howe wrote in an earlier book, “were their moral absolutism, their paternalism, and their concern with imposing discipline.”8 Yet in the mid-Obama years neither claim still sounded too convincing. By 2014 or so both money and moralism were unequivocally on the side of Tribe Blue. It is hard to read this decade’s complaints about white liberal paternalism without concluding that the paternalistic spirit of Whiggery also lives proud among the liberal faithful.
Wilentz, “Bush’s Ancestors”
Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 20.
Those complaints about paternalism point to the next turn in the liberal-left consensus, and it is here we must return to Alan Taylor’s American Republics. As I said before, I have not read this book. I have only listened to Taylor give an interview on its contents and read a few reviews. Readers who have finished the book should correct the summary that follows where it errs.
Taylor’s new book continues the continental focus of his past offerings. Events in Canada, Mexico, Haiti, and among various Native American tribes are given equal space in Taylor’s histories; these are histories of the American people that de-center America. But the republics of Taylor’s title do not just refer to polities outside of Union borders. The Union itself was a pastiche of hostile peoples and states. Conflicts between these states (e.g. the Hartford Convention, the Nullification Crisis, the run-up to the Civil War) and rebellions against the federal government (e.g. the Whiskey rebellion) are emphasized. Taylor’s America is always one crisis away from dissolution. Neither the Whigs nor the Democrats are heroes in Taylor’s telling. Almost all white Americans, regardless of section or station, were irredeemable white supremacists. Even in the northern states, the expansion of white democracy went hand in hand with growing restrictions on free blacks. Contra Howe, John Quincy Adams was an outlier to Whiggery: most of the Whig presidential candidates owned slaves. This was inevitable. Both parties were national coalitions. To keep their southern wings happy, both parties were complicit in slavery. Everyone was compromised and everything was rotten. If any heroes are found in this story at all, it is the leaders of the republics vanquished or sidelined by the United States: the fledgling republic of the Cherokee, the Haitian leaders in Port-Au-Prince, and so forth.
The connections between Taylor’s antebellum and the America of 2021 are obvious. At a time when American partisans seem to live in different countries, in a day when liberals worry over insurrection, riot, and the possibility of civil war, Taylor tells of an America hopelessly divided, an unstable conglomeration of peoples pretending to Union. When the right chants “America First,” Taylor goes out of his way to write a history that describes the United States as one republic among many. Brutality and bigotry are the defining characteristics of Taylor’s antebellum; unsurprisingly, these are the same traits the new anti-racist literature describes as defining America today. If Daniel Walker Howe’s What God Hath Wrought channeled the carefully considered optimism of the early Obama voter, American Republics captures the unremitting bitterness of the liberal under Trump. As with the historians that came before him, Alan Taylor is as much a mirror for the anxieties of his own age as a window into the worries of the past.
So what is to be gained from this historiographical tour? Many lessons might be had, but here is the one that strikes me strongest: there is something terribly arbitrary in the historian’s craft. Historians have long known this. It is one of core ideas that collegiate historians try to drill into the heads of young undergraduates. Every work of history says as much about the age in which it was written as it does the age it narrates.
This is unavoidable. I wonder, however, if this reality is not partly responsible for history’s reduced stature in the public eye. Intellectual life in 21st century America has been dominated by two sorts: psychologists, neuroscientists, statisticians, data analysts, and social scientists on the one hand, and critical theorists coming from the fields of law, communications, and gender or race studies on the other. The second group promises to dispel the illusions that charm us. Their methods reveal the strings behind the puppetry. The first group sells itself with a similar appeal. They promise to find unseen patterns within the madness, to reduce rhetoric and its sophistry down to clean equations, propositions, and data sets. Their hope is to strip stories down to the truth, transforming subjective arguments into falsifiable hypotheses.
Whether either group succeeds in its aims is a discussion for another day. For the purposes of this essay, it is enough to note that these supposedly antithetical approaches to understanding truth are born out of shared distrust. Both tribes despise the Muse. The low prestige of the poet, playwright, critic, and novelist in our public debates are one expression of their disdain.9 But was not Clio one of the Muses? What is a historian, if not a weaver of words, a teller of tales? The historian’s role is to select and arrange fragments of the past into a coherent narrative frame, reducing a universe of detail down to a story the human brain can comprehend.
A serious question: who is the last play-wright, poet, or literary critic that the ‘educated public’ could recognize by name? None this century. Magazines like the Atlantic wastes pages upon pages on click-bate reviews of the newest Marvel product, of course, but nowhere in that morass will you find a man or woman with the public stature of a Lionel Trilling or a Harold Bloom. Novelists have greater name recognition, but only that. When a famous novelist opines on public affairs they are usually portrayed as celebrities stepping out of their lane.
The four books discussed here display both the weaknesses and strengths of the historian’s craft. Each of these historians did their utmost to write the truth, as they understood it. But truth, as they understood it, meant truth as embraced by a particular class milieu at a particular point of time. These understandings are not stable. Little surprise that each of these book reads as a repudiation of that which came before it. Intellectual fashions are a bit like smoke signals: just as the shape is thick enough to discern, it begins to wisp away.
Knowing all of this it is difficult to take seriously the historian who starts their 24-message twitter thread with the words “Hey, historian of X here!” It is simply too easy for historians to see in the past confirmation of treasured collective opinions about the present. Clio is a fickle god: no historian in her service can escape fashion’s capricious call.
Yet for all of this I cannot condemn the historian. The historian has one advantage over her contemporaries: what she labors over will last. Beneath the framing and the grand conclusions of big books like these lie years of work. Days spent in archives, weeks spent collecting quotes, citations, and statistics, months spent sewing these chosen beads into a common thread: that stuff lasts. Decades from now Antebellum America will have been forced through three or four more grand rethinks. But when that day comes, I urge you to strip the packaging away: beneath it you will find the same citations, the same statistics, and the same quotations assembled by the Sellers, Wilentzs, and Howes of today.
Below Clio’s ever changing face lies the less sexy, but perhaps more serious, side of the historian’s craft. This is history as the slow accumulation of facts, connections, and observations. A historian writes with full knowledge that the story she weaves will be overturned by the next generation of writers. Her only compensation is the knowledge that the research beneath her story will persist for generations. History’s outward dress may change with fashion, but beneath that lies something fuller and deeper, a foundation that only strengthens with the passing seasons. It is for this cause historians give their lives to Clio’s service–and resign themselves to echoing the fashions of their day.
To read other historiographical essays at the Scholars Stage, see the posts “Spengler and the Search for a Science of Human Culture,” “Why Do We Know So Little About China’s WWII?,” and “East Asian Military History – A Few Historiographical Notes.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.