Sunday, April 29, 2012

Throes of Democracy


I think this is a marvelous history of the US. McDougall explores themes in US history which are much richer and deeper than a simple chronological tale.

I was particularly taken by his conclusion on the Age of Jackson. He says there is a "blind men and the elephant quality about Jacksonian scholarship," as one (Schlesinger) looks at the period as "a lower-class protest against monied elites," another (Sellers) sees "Jacksonians as crusaders vainly resisting capitalism," another (Turner updated by Beard) sees "pioneer farmers" as "the core of Jackson's constituency," and another (Meyers) "linked mechanics and farmers by defining Democrats as nostalgic Jeffersonians damning monopolies and corruption in the name of republican virtue." Hofstadter sees Jacksonians as "frustrated capitalists hoping to expand opportunity."  Finally, Fischer "portrayed the democracy as an alliance of the libertarian Scots-Irish and hierarchical Cavalier cultures against the "ordered liberty" upheld by heirs of the Puritans."

McDougall accepts, and rejects, all of these interpretations. It was not a single ideology that united Democrats but "rather moods of the sort that shaped the contemporaneous Romantic era in culture. Americans of many sorts were in one bad mood or another between 1819 and 1850.  They were against many things and sensed that Jackson was, too."

McDougall goes on to list the moods, sometimes resulting in contradictory positions, held by the Democrats and the Whigs. These themes are still resident in the body politic today, almost 200 years later.

Who were the Democrats? Democrats found unbearable "the real or imagined contrast between the myth of equality and the very unequal outcome of free competition in an era of blistering change. "Jackson rallied "the largest possible number of voters to oppose the smallest and vaguest of enemies." For thirty years party leaders "damned corruption, corrupt bargains, conspiracies, "monster" banks, "satanic" mills, monopolies, aristocrats, usurpers, speculators, stockjobbers, abolitionists and meddling self-righteous reformers. Democrats invited any voter with a grievance to assume he had been cheated, thwarted, exploited by powerful men who rigged the game in their favor."

Who were the Whigs? To the Democrats it was a "party of plutocrats, bluenoses, and their dupes." But to the Whigs they were the Party of Clay's "American System," high tariffs and internal improvements. "Whigs looked for the source of society's ills and found it inside individuals whose duty it was to purge their vices and serve the public good."

"Whigs wanted a people as good as their government. Democrats wanted a government as good as the people."

You can see some of the tenets of the current Democratic party in the Jacksonian Democrats. And you can see some of the tenets of the current GOP in the Whigs. But it's almost as if there is a cafeteria of themes, hopes, fears, ideas that remain the same, but the plate each party assembles changes over time.

The book is funny, as all great books are. I love this line, "Andrew Jackson entered the White House in a foul mood. Except for occasional sweet moments of vengeance he stayed angry for eight years."

It's a long book and heavy, literally, heavy. You know me, I love the look, feel and smell of books. But the weight was too much. I finished the first hundred pages or so and decided it was just too much weight to carry around. I'm reading the iBooks edition. I fear I will now be purchasing hardcover editions of books to put on the shelf and the iBooks edition for the actual reading. This means my book budget is about to increase 50%.


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