Commentary Magazine

The Age of Jackson, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

Liberalism’s Ebb And Flow

The Age of Jackson.
by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1945. 577 pp. $5.00.

History does not repeat itself, although the recurrence of events widely separated in time and having aspects of similarity, might cause one to think that it does. Accordingly, there seems to be a pattern underlying the rise and fall of successive liberal movements in American history. The earliest American liberal movement culminated in the winning of independence from Great Britain; another swept Jefferson into power in 1800; still another brought Jackson to the presidency almost three decades later. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln rode the crest of a wave of radical Republicanism and in 1912, Woodrow Wilson and the philosophy of the New Freedom were given a mandate from the American people. The most recent liberal resurgence marked the rise of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal program.

The Revolution of 1776 ended with the adoption of the conservative Constitution of 1789; Jeffersonianism, which drove the Federalists out of power at the turn of the century, was on its way to defeat and betrayal by the time of the outbreak of the War of 1812. The Jacksonian upsurge was followed by the dull complacency of administrations which left so little impress upon the American mind that the very names of the presidents between 1840 and 1860 are recalled only with difficulty. Lincoln’s successors were hardly distinguished for their social philosophy and there was not a “people’s president” in the White House until Theodore Roosevelt. The latter had no social program, but his vigorous personality, combined with the force of circumstances, made it appear that he had one. Wilson’s broad and humanitarian national and international vision was followed by the generally limited perspective of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Finally, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s political career was long enough to enable him to renounce New Dealism as a theme in the 1944 election campaign.

Why this liberal cycle instead of a persistent, ever-broadening stream of protest culminating in a final cleansing of the temple? There are a number of explanations: (I) Our history shows that the abundance of the American economy took the edge off what the historian, James Schouler, called “the spirit of envious democracy,” except for sporadic outbreaks in times of political and economic crisis. (2) There has been a significant poverty of liberal thinking and liberal program. We have had some great liberal leaders, but the record is also replete with those who struck their colors when confronted with crisis or power situations, seemingly unconscious that their ideological and actual positions were in conflict. A surprising number of liberals, in old age and disillusion, have sought solace in revealed religion. (3) Successful liberal movements have been traditionally coalitional in character and represent a variety of motive and interest, some altruistic, and others not so.

It is no accident that the principles of Jeffersonianism were betrayed by Jefferson’s own heirs; that the party of Jacksonian egalitarianism of the thirties became the standard bearer of the slavocracy during the forties and fifties; that the radical Republicanism of the fifties and sixties gave way to the Republicanism of the robber barons; that Roosevelt’s supporters included right-wing Democrats and progressives. The comment of Nathaniel Macon, stalwart Jeffersonian, seems applicable: “A half reformation like a half revolution never produces lasting benefits; it leaves half the bad seed, to sprout & produce an unprofitable crop, & the cockle if not destroyed ruins the wheat.”



Schlesinger has written an excellent book about the trials of liberalism in the age of Jackson. Particularly noteworthy is his use of a class interpretation of Jacksonian democracy rather than the “frontier” interpretation which for a generation dominated American historical writing. The “specific problem” of Jacksonian democracy, Schlesinger writes, “was to control the power of the capitalistic groups, mainly Eastern, for the benefit of the non-capitalist groups, farmers and laboring men, East, West and South. The basic Jacksonian ideas came naturally enough from the East, which best understood the nature of business power and reacted most sharply against it. The legend that Jacksonian democracy was the explosion of the frontier, lifting into the government some violent men filled with rustic prejudices against big business does not explain the facts. . . . Jacksonian democracy was rather a . . . phase of that enduring struggle between the business community and the rest of society which is the guarantee of freedom in a liberal capitalist state.”

The “enduring struggle” between liberalism and predatory economic interest, according to Schlesinger, has been a significant factor motivating democratic survival in America. Throughout our history, whenever capitalism made a particularly bad mess of things, liberalism would gather its forces and set matters right, aiming to save and not, as the reactionaries would have us believe, destroy capitalism. Then liberalism would recede when power again accrued to the capitalists as if by some law of political gravitation.

But what of the present? It would seem that each successive economic and political crisis has had a more serious effect upon national well-being than its predecessors. Are the forces of liberalism sufficient in strength, number and program to cope with the progressive intensity of the economic crisis of our system? Is the Jacksonian heritage of conflict between liberalism and reaction, out of which democracy emerges in a manner almost Hegelian, adequate to the modern age? For this is the era of the science of demagoguery, of fabulous progress in technology, and of the atomic bomb. One more bungle and there may remain no civilization for the liberal cycle to repair.

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