BOOKS MAY 13, 1946
THE JACKSONIAN REVOLUTION rested on premises which the struggles of the thirties hammered together into a kind of practical social philosophy. The outline of this way of thinking about society was clear. It was stated and restated on every level of political discourse from presidential messages to stump speeches, from newspaper editorials to private letters. It provided the intellectual background without which the party battles of the day cannot be understood.
The Jacksonians believed that there was a deep-rooted conflict in society between the “producing” and “non-producing” classes—the farmers and laborers on the one hand, and the business community on the other. The business community was considered to hold high cards in this conflict through its network of banks and corporations, its control of education and the press, above all, its power over the state; it was therefore able to strip the working classes of the fruits of their labor. “Those who produce all wealth,” said Amos Kendall, “are themselves left poor. They see principalities extending and palaces built around them, without being aware that the entire expense is a tax upon themselves.”
If they wished to preserve their liberty, the producing classes would have to unite against the movement “to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful.” Constitutional prescriptions and political promises afforded no sure protection. “We have heretofore been too disregardful of the fact,” observed William M.Gouge, “that social order is quite as dependent on the laws which regulate the distribution of wealth, as on political organization.” The program now was to resist every attempt to concentrate wealth and power further in a single class.
The specific problem was to control the power of the capitalist 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 which were somewhat more complex. Jacksonian democracy was rather a second American 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.
LIKE ANY SOCIAL philosophy, Jacksonian democracy drew on several intellectual traditions. Basically, it was a revival of Jeffersonianism, but the Jeffersonian inheritance was strengthened by the infusion of fresh influences: notably the anti-monopolistic tradition, formulated primarily by Adam Smith and expounded in America by Gouge, Leggett, Sedgwick, Cambreleng; and the pro-labor tradition, formulated primarily by William Cobbett and expounded by G. H. Evans, Ely Moore, John Ferral.
The inspiration of Jeffersonianism was so all-pervading and fundamental for its every aspect that Jacksonian democracycan be properly regarded as a somewhat more hard-headed and determined version of Jeffersonian democracy. But it is easy to understate the differences. Jefferson himself, though widely revered and quoted, had no personal influence on any of the leading Jacksonians save perhaps Van Buren. Madison and Monroe were accorded still more vague and perfunctory homage. The radical Jeffersonians, Taylor, Randolph and Macon, who had regarded the reign of Virginia as almost an era of betrayal, were much more vivid in the minds of the Jacksonians.
The new industrialism had to be accepted: banks, mills, factories, industrial capital, industrial labor. These were all distasteful realities for orthodox Jeffersonians and, not least, the propertyless workers. “The mobs of great cities,” Jefferson had said, “add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” The very ferocity of his images expressed the violence of his feelings, “When we get piled upon one another in large cities as in Europe,” he told Madison, “we shall become corrupt as in Europe, and go to eating one another as they do there.” It was a universal sentiment among his followers. “No man should live,” as Nathaniel Macon used to say, “where he can hear his neighbors dog bark.”
Yet the plain political necessity of winning the labor vote obliged a change of mood. Slowly, with some embarrassment, the Jeffersonian preferences for the common man were enlarged to take in the city workers. In 1833 the New York Evening Post, declaring that, if anywhere, a large city of mixed population would display the evils of universal suffrage, asked if this had been the case in New York and answered: No. Amasa Walker set out the same year to prove that “great cities are not necessarily, as the proverb says, ‘great sores,’” and looked forward cheerily to the day when they would be; “great fountains of healthful moral influence, sending forth streams that shall fertilize and bless the land.” The older Theodore Sedgwick added that the cause of the bad reputation of cities was economic: “It is the sleeping in garrets and cellars; the living in holes and dens; in dirty, unpaved, unlighted streets, without the accommodations of wells, cisterns, baths, and other means of cleanliness and health”—clear up this situation, and cities will be all right.
Jackson himself never betrayed any of Jefferson's revulsion to industrialism. He was, for example, deeply interested by the mills of Lowell in 1833, and his inquiries respecting hours, wages and production showed, observers reported, “that the subject of domestic manufactures had previously engaged his attentive observation.” His presidential allusions to the “producing classes” always included the workingmen of the cities.
IN SEVERAL RESPECTS, then, the Jacksonians revised the Jeffersonian faith for America. They moderated that side of Jeffersonianism which talked of agricultural virtue, independent proprietors, “natural” property, abolition of industrialism, and expanded immensely that side which talked of economic equality, the laboring classes, human rights and the control of industrialism. This readjustment enabled the Jacksonians to attack economic problems which had baffled and defeated the Jeffersonians. It made for a greater realism, and was accompanied by a general toughening of the basic Jeffersonian conceptions. While the loss of “property” was serious, both symbolically and intellectually, this notion had been for' most Jeffersonians somewhat submerged next to the romantic tinge of the free and virtuous cultivator; and the Jacksonians grew much more insistent about theories of capitalist alienation. Where, for the Jeffersonians, the tensions of class conflict tended to dissolve in vague generalizations about the democracy and the aristocracy many Jacksonians would have agreed with A. H. Wood's remark, “It is in vain to talk of Aristocracy and Democracy—these terms are too variable and indeterminate to convey adequate ideas of the present opposing interests; the division is between the rich and the poor—the warfare is between them.”
This greater realism was due, in the main, to the passage of time. The fears of Jefferson were now actualities. One handled fears by exorcism, hut actualities by adjustment. For the Jeffersonians, mistrust of banks and corporations was chiefly a matter of theory; for the Jacksonians it was a matter of experience. Jefferson rejected the Industrial Revolution and sought to perpetuate the smiling society which preceded it (at least, so the philosopher; facts compelled the President toward a different policy), while Jackson, accepting industrialism as an ineradicable and even useful part of the economic landscape, sought rather to control it. Jeffersonian democracy looked wistfully back toward a past slipping further every minute into the mists of memory, while Jacksonian democracy came directly to grips with a rough and unlovely present.
The interlude saw also the gradual unfolding of certain consequences of the democratic dogma which had not been sp clear to the previous generation. Though theoretically aware of the relation between political and economic power, the Jeffersonians had been occupied, chiefly, with establishing political equality. This was their mission, and they had little time to grapple with the economic questions.
But the very assertion of political equality raised inevitably the whole range of problems involved in property and class conflict. How could political equality mean anything without relative economic equality among the classes of the country? This question engaged the Jacksonians. As Orestes A. Brownson said, “A Loco-foco is a Jeffersonian Democrat, who having realized political equality, passed through one phase of the revolution, now passes on to another, and attempts the realization of social equality, so that the actual condition of men in society shall be in harmony with their acknowledged rights as citizens.” The Jacksonians thus opened irrevocably the economic question.
A SECOND SOURCE of inspiration for the Jacksonians was the libertarian economic thought stirred up by Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations. Believers in the myth of Adam Smith, as expounded by present-day publicists both of the Right and of the Left, may find this singular; but the real Adam Smith was rich in ammunition for the Jacksonians as for any foe of business manipulation of the state.
The Wealth of Nations quietly, precisely and implacably attacked the alliance of government and business, showing how monopoly retarded the economic growth of nations and promoted the exploitation of the people. It was, in effect, a criticism of the kind of mercantilist policy which, in modified form, Hamilton had instituted in the Federalist program of the 1790’s. Smith’s classic argument against monopoly appealed strongly to the Jacksonians, and his distinction between productive and unproductive labor converged with the Jacksonian distinction between the producers and the non-producers. They adopted his labor theory of value, in preference to the physiocratic doctrine which argued that value originated exclusively in land, and toward which Jefferson leaned. Smith's currency views were on the moderate hard-money line, favoring the suppression of notes under five pounds. And, contrary to the Adam Smith of folklore, the real Smith did not object to government intervention which would protect, not exploit, the nation. “Those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals,” he wrote, discussing the question of banking control, “which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments; of the most free, as well as of the most despotical.” His advocacy of education and his general hope for the well-being of the farming and laboring classes further recommended him to the Jacksonians.
A THIRD IMPORTANT stimulus to the Jacksonians was the foaming tide of social revolt in Britain, reaching them primarily through the writings of William Cobbett. As the “Peter Porcupine” of Federalist journalism, Cobbett had been an early object of Jeffersonian wrath. But, on returning to Britain after some years in America, Cobbett discovered that the conservative values he had been so stalwartly defending were rapidly disappearing before the smoky ravages of industrialism. He gave splendid and angryexpression to the hatred of independent workingmen for the impending degradation, and his fluent, robust, abusive prose created a new political consciousness among the common people of Britain.
A vehement advocate of the rights of workers to the full fruits of their industry, and a savage enemy of the new financial aristocracy, he found a rapt audience in America, especially in the labor, movement. Paper Against Gold, reprinted in New York in 1834, helped the hard-money campaign. William H. Hale of New York, the author of Useful Knowledge for the Producers of Wealth, and Thomas Brothers, the editor of the Radical Reformer of Philadelphia, were perhaps his leading disciples, but his unquenchable vitality inspired the whole radical wing.
Cobbett on his part watched events across the Atlantic with immense enthusiasm. Jackson's fight against the Bank stirred him to the inordinate conclusion that Jackson, was “the bravest and greatest man now living in this world, or that ever has lived in this world, as far as my knowledge extends.”
The radical democrats had a definite conception of their relation to history. From the Jeffersonian analysis, fortified by the insights of Adam Smith and Cobbett, they outlined an interpretation of modern times which gave meaning and status to the Jacksonian struggles. Power, said the Jacksonians, goes with property. In the Middle Ages the feudal nobility held power in society through its monopoly of land under feudal tenure. The overthrow of .feudalism, with the rise of new forms of property, marked the first step in the long march toward freedom. The struggle was carried on by the rising business community—”commercial, or business capital, against landed capital; merchants, traders, manufacturers, artisans, against the owners of the soil, the great landed nobility.” It lasted from the close of the twelfth century to the Whig Revolution of 1688 in Britain.
THE ARISTOCRACY OF CAPITAL thus destroyed the aristocracy of land. The business classes here played their vital role in the drama of liberty. The victory over feudalism, as the Democratic Review put it, “opened the way for the entrance of the democratic principle into the government.” But the business community gained from this exploit an undeserved reputation as the champion of liberty. Its real motive had been to establish itself in power, not to free mankind; to found government on property, not on the equal rights of the people. “I know perfectly well what I am saying,” cried George Bancroft, “and I assert expressly, and challenge contradiction, that in all the history of the world there is not tobe found an instance of a commercial community establishing rules for self-government upon democratic principles.” “It is a mistake to suppose commerce favorable to liberty,” added Fenimore Cooper. “Its tendency is to a moneyed aristocracy.” “Instead of setting man free,” said Amos Kendall, it has “only increased the number of his masters.”
The next great blow for liberty was the American Revolution, “effected not in favor of men in classes; . . . but in favor of men.” But the work of Hamilton halted the march of democracy. “He established the money power,” wrote Van Buren, “upon precisely the same foundations upon which it had been raised in England.” The subsequent history of the United States was the struggle to overthrow the Hamiltonian policy and fulfill the ideals of the Revolution.
What of the future? The Jacksonians were sublimely confident: history was on their side. “It is now for the yeomanry and the mechanics to march at the head of civilization,” said Bancroft. “The merchants and the lawyers, that is, the moneyed interest, broke tip feudalism. The day for the multitude has now dawned.” “All classes, each in turn, have possessed the government,” exclaimed Brownson; “and the time has come for all predominance of class to end; for Man, the People, to rule.”
This was not simply a national movement. It was a movement of all people, everywhere, against their masters, and the Jacksonians watched with keen interest the stirrings of revolt abroad. Jackson and his cabinet joined in the celebrations in Washington which followed the Revolution of 1830 in France; and Van Buren, as Secretary of State, ordered the new government informed that the American people were “universally and enthusiastically in favor of that change, and of the principle upon which it was effected.” (The Whigs, on the other hand, in spite of Clay’s support of national revolutions in Greece and South America, remained significantly lukewarm.) Lamennais, the eloquent voice of French popular aspirations, was read in Jacksonian circles. The Paroles d’un Croyant influenced Orestes A. Brownson, and in 1839 Le Livre du Peuple was published in Boston under the title of The People's Own Book, translated by Nathaniel Greene, postmaster of Boston and brother of Charles Gordon Greene.
Democrats followed with similar enthusiasm the progress of the Reform Bill in England, while the Whigs sympathized with the Tories. The Chartist uprisings at the end of the decade were greeted with delight by the Democratic press. British reformers returned this interest. Not only Cobbett and Savage Landor but the veteran radical Jeremy Bentham observed Jackson's administration with approval. Bentham, a friend of John Quincy Adams, had been disappointed at the triumph in 1828 of this military hero; but in 1830 he heard read aloud Jackson's first message to Congress. The old man was highly pleased to discover greater agreement with the new President than with the old. Later he wrote that lengthy and cryptic memorandum entitled Anti-Senatica, intended to aid Jackson in the problems of his administration.
JACKSONIANS EVERYWHERE HAD this faith in the international significance of their fight. For this reason, as well as from a desire to capture their votes. Democratic leaders made special appeals to newly naturalized citizens. Where many Whigs tended to oppose immigration and demand sanctions against it. Democrats welcomed the newcomers with open arms and attacked the nativist agitation. The United States must remain a refuge fromtyranny. “Thecapitalist class” said Samuel J. Tilden, “has banded together all over the world and organized the modern dynasty of associated wealth, which maintains an unquestioned ascendancy over most of the civilized portions of our race.” America was the proving-ground of democracy, and it was the mission of American Democrats to exhibit to the world the glories of government by the people. They were on the spearhead of history. They would not be denied. “With the friends of freedom throughout the world,” declared Theophilus Fisk, “let us be co-workers.” “The People of the World,” cried Fanny Wright, “have but one Cause.”