The uses of history

My current read is Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877, the second volume of Walter McDougall’s highly skeptical and hugely entertaining take on American history. At a time when bookstores are cluttered with ideologically tainted pseudo-history tomes like Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and Bruce Bartlett’s Wrong on Race, it’s a tonic to read this passage — McDougall’s warning shot across the bow of anyone who wants to carry contemporary political battles into the past:

Who were the conservatives and who were the liberals in this second party system? If one adopts twentieth-century definitions it might appear that the libertarian Democrats were the conservatives and the statist Whigs the liberals. But in the parlance of nineteenth-century Britain, where the labels originated, the reverse would be true.

In regard to slavery, free-soil Whigs would appear the liberals and the Democrats supporters of a racist status quo. But in regard to workers’ rights as understood later in the century, neither party was “progressive.” In regard to ethnic and religious tolerance the Democrats would appear the liberals, since they embraced Catholics and immigrants. But in regard to education and social reform the reverse would be true.

The only way to get a grip on the growing divide among Americans in the mid-nineteenth century is to purge our contemporary notion of the political spectrum and try instead to imagine the ambivalent anxieties of a freewheeling people with one foot in manure and the other in a telegraph office.

This excellent NYRB piece places McDougall’s book alongside other recent works on Jackson’s administration, including Jon Meacham’s Pulitzer-winning American Lion, and ends up concluding that any talk of an “Age of Jackson” or “Jacksonian America” is wrongheaded:

Jackson was a divisive figure who polarized people and whose policies as president proved as often harmful as beneficial. Taking Andrew Jackson to typify early-nineteenth-century America does a disservice to our country’s history, which has many interesting aspects and admirable people outside the orbit of Jacksonian Democracy (originally the name of the Democratic Party, not a general characterization of the United States). Most Americans today consider the abolitionists heroes, though Andrew Jackson hated and feared them. Other candidates for present-day honor include DeWitt Clinton, mastermind of the Erie Canal, built by the State of New York; Horace Greeley, crusading journalist; Horace Mann, advocate of state aid to the public schools that would create a literate citizenry; Lucretia Mott, Quaker feminist; and the black polemicist David Walker.

Jackson’s partisan rivals the Whigs, often disparaged simply as snobs who couldn’t reconcile themselves to equal rights, actually have a strong claim on our respectful attention. The Whigs (their name was the traditional one for critics of executive abuses in Anglo-American history) understood the benefits of economic development and wanted government at all levels to promote it. They, not Jackson, endorsed federal government intervention in the economy. When the stock market crashed in 1837–1839, the Whig leader, Henry Clay, declared the American people “entitled to the protecting care of a parental Government.” The Democrats, led by Jackson’s chosen successor Martin Van Buren, insisted that Washington observe strict laissez faire.

As L.P. Hartley said, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. Understanding that is crucial before trying to drawing lessons from the past. Otherwise, you’re apt to come out looking like a fool — or, worse still, like Jonah Goldberg or Bruce Bartlett.

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