Martin Harvey

The Age of Jackson

(April 1946)

From The New International, Vol. XII No. 4, April 1946, pp. 119–122.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Age of Jackson
by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Little, Brown & Co., $5.00

The era of Jacksonian democracy is one of great importance in understanding the development of American capitalism and the history of the American working class. The importance of this period, however, is equalled by the misconceptions and distortions which have been broadcast about it. A significant contribution to the understanding of Jacksonian democracy has been made by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in his recent study, The Age of Jackson. The traditional analysis of Jacksonian democracy pictured Andrew Jackson as the son of the western frontier and the whole movement one of the western farmers, in alliance with the southern planters, against the capitalist East. Inevitable trimmings surrounding this picture were the explanations of particular policies on the basis of the personal characteristics, background and peculiarities of Jackson himself: his love for his wife and vindictiveness against those who slandered her (Jackson’s opposition to Clay and Calhoun), his loyalty to friends (the “spoils system”), and so forth and so on.

Schlesinger cuts away much of this trash. His major thesis is the relation between the Jacksonian democrats and the working class and labor movement of the cities of the east. While recognizing the support given the Jacksonians by the West and the South, he demonstrates that the heart of the Jacksonian program conflicted with these interests. Jackson’s stand against all “banks,” the extension of democratic rights, the ten-hour work day, abolition of imprisonment for debt and other demands of the Jacksonians had earlier been emblazoned on the banners of the working class. Important leaders of Jacksonian democracy came out of the labor movement and the workingmen’s parties; and the successor to the mantle of Jackson was not a frontiersman but the New York Democrat, Van Buren.

Yet, despite the contribution he makes, much of the significance of the period is not understood by Schlesinger. He accepts superficial phenomena at face value and ends by turning upside down the real significance of the Jacksonian movement. At bottom the fault lies with his conscious disavowal of historical materialism (page 432). He pays little attention to the basic movements of society at the time, the development of industry and the growth and organization of the working class. He bases his analysis largely on the writings of the Jacksonians and places an inordinate emphasis on the writings of the radical intellectual fringe of Jacksonian democracy. His point of view is that of a modem Roosevelt Democrat and he molds his analysis to conform to the needs of the present-day liberal.

The Age of Jackson pictures the Jacksonians as the leaders of a popular working class movement in much the same way that today’s liberal pictures Roosevelt as a working class leader. In vulgar terms this idea is presented by the labor leaders as “Roosevelt organized the CIO.” Schlesinger says of the Jacksonians: “Their aim was ... to preserve capitalism and keep the government out of the hands of the capitalists” (pages 338–339). This distortion of the role of the government is nowhere borne out by the history of the period.

The Crisis of 1819

In 1819, nine years before Jackson came to power, the United States was hit by the first capitalist crisis. This was essentially a phase of the world crisis which struck Europe with the end of the Napoleonic wars but was aggravated in the United States by the collapse of a huge speculative boom supported in part by foreign capital. The crisis of 1819 did more than testify to the subjection of the American economy to the laws of capitalism and the world market. It served as a spur to the cleansing of the economy and intensified the movement of capital to industry and production rather than commerce and speculation. It also served to wipe out the embryo labor movement that was forming in the years before 1819. But in wiping out the earlier labor movement (local trade societies which were largely benevolent rather than class struggle organizations) it made possible the establishment of a new labor movement on a higher level. The labor movement after 1819 quickly surpassed the earlier organizational efforts of the workers. While skilled journeymen were the first to organize, unions began to spring up among the newer factory workers. Even women workers in the textile mills organized into unions. In 1834, after a strike, 2,500 women formed the Factory Girls’ Association in Lowell, Mass. Total union membership in this period reached an estimated 300,000 in the seaboard cities in 1836.

This period was also characterized by the first attempts at the unification of the labor movement in one national organization. In 1834 the National Trades Union was formed representing city-wide union federations from New York, Brooklyn, Boston, Newark, Poughkeepsie and Philadelphia. In addition, the working class turned to political action through the organization of Workingmen’s Parties, to struggle for their demands. Mary Beard notes in her Short History of the American Labor Movement that:

“In at least fifteen states local labor parties were formed; at least fifty labor papers were founded to voice the aims and demands of labor; political organizations along the old, familiar lines of county and ward committees and conventions were established; and radical agitators demanding revolutionary changes came to the front” (page 36).

Demands of Labor

It was impossible for the labor movement of the 1820’s and 30’s to base itself on a conscious understanding of the nature of capitalism and the role of the working class. Capitalism was a lusty infant. The rising industrialism was threatening but unfamiliar. The working class was still a minority of the population and was in large part just immediately descended from the middle class and imbued with middle class ideology. But the position of the working class in society forced the workers as a class to struggle for the improvement of their social position. What is crucial to an understanding of the Age of Jackson – and what is completely lost to Schlesinger – is that the struggle to raise the social position of the working class at that time could only mean the struggle for the extension and democratization of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. This is indicated in the demands of the labor movement:

  1. Free public schools.
  2. Ten-hour work day.
  3. Mechanics lien law.
  4. Abolition of banks issuing paper money.
  5. Abolition of the militia system (under which exemptions could be bought by the rich).
  6. Abolition of imprisonment for debt.
  7. Abolition of chartered monopolies.
  8. Limitation of woman and child labor.
  9. Universal suffrage.

Victory or partial victory in the achievement of almost all of these demands characterized the Jacksonian period. These demands were the heart of the great democratic movement. What is important to understand is the relation between the program of the labor movement and the capitalist class on the one hand and the government of the Jacksonian Democrats on the other. This relation can be seen most clearly through the struggle around the second Bank of the United States, one of the major issues during the Jackson administration.

The bank had been chartered by Congress in 1816 for twenty years. The charter set the bank up as a private institution with the federal government owning a minority of the stock and having a minority of the directors. The bank could issue paper money backed by its assets and was tremendously strengthened by the federal government’s use of the bank as a depository for government funds. From its headquarters in Philadelphia and through its branches the bank wielded tremendous power – economic and political. It subsidized newspapers and magazines throughout the land and bought out state and federal politicians with generous loans and outright retainers. (Senator Daniel Webster was on the bank’s payroll and was the bank’s most ardent defender in the Senate so long as his retainer was received.) Its economic power was keenly felt by western farmers when it intensified the crisis of 1819 in the west by the drastic contraction of its paper money. The general practices of the Bank of the United States, in particular, the issuance of paper money, were followed in a more restricted sphere by the numerous state banks which were given monopolistic charters by the state legislatures.

Opposition to the Bank

Schlesinger points out that a twofold opposition arose to the Bank of the United States. The west and south bitterly attacked the control exercised by eastern capital over their destinies. They objected to the discrimination of the bank in favor of eastern land speculators at the expense of western farmers and southern planters. As debtors, however, they favored the inflationary practices of the state banks which, moreover, supported the activities of local speculators.

The second and more fundamental opposition came from the workers of the east. The working class went along in the general attack on the Bank of the United States. But it had an additional objective. The speculative activity of the bank and the indiscriminate issuance of paper money resulted in mounting inflation and skyrocketing prices which continually surpassed any wage increases that the workers were able to win. The working class was thus against the Bank of the United States but also against the issuance of paper money by any bank. This “hard money” program (the use of gold and silver exclusively in the lower denominations and exclusive control over the currency by the federal government) was the core of the workers’ opposition to the bank.

Jackson and Van Buren, as Schlesinger accurately establishes, based themselves on hard money program. With the greatest political finesse they chose the Bank of the United States as their first target and rallied workers, farmers and planters against it. After the demise of the Bank was virtually assured, they proceeded to the second stage: the withdrawal of federal funds from the state banks, the establishment of a sub-treasury system and exclusive federal control over the currency. With this the early alliance was broken. The South under Calhoun became increasingly hostile to the administration and the western farmers and speculators found their Jacksonian ardor cooling.

All this is made clear in The Age of Jackson. But Schlesinger’s conclusion is that Jackson represented the working class against the capitalists. It is true, of course, that the capitalists were overwhelmingly united against the Jacksonian program. What Schlesinger fails to understand, however, is that the existing forms and usages of capitalism had come into conflict with the further expansion of the capitalist system, had become a fetter on that system. The anarchic system of bank money had been adequate for a commercial capitalism in which sufficiently large masses of capital could be accumulated through speculation. But just as speculation can lead to the quickest accumulation of masses of capital, it can lead to their quick dissolution, A much more stable financial system was required to encourage long term investment in productive capital and to make possible the much larger accumulations which industrial capital requires. The program of Jackson, therefore, was precisely the most far-sighted program of American capitalism.

But then why couldn’t the capitalists themselves see this? Because most of the existing capitalists would be adversely affected since it was they who dominated and benefited from the banking system. And (partly as a result of this) because of the natural conservatism and fear of change which characterizes the big capitalists. The big bourgeoisie can only rarely see beyond the end of its nose. It is because of this that the state most truly acts as “the executive committee of the ruling class.” Not by virtue of its representing the majority opinion of the capitalist class but because it can most clearly see the real, the long range, interests of the ruling class as a whole. Just as Roosevelt on many occasions forced through drastic measures to protect and stabilize capitalism against the wishes of the big capitalists, so Jackson, in his day, fought for a strengthened expanding capitalism against the capitalists.

Workers Form Mass Base

The working class provided the motive power for the Jacksonian program. And this, too, is not unique. In all the greatest bourgeois revolutions, in England, in France, in the American Revolution, the big bourgeoisie, tied to the past with a thousand threads, feared the revolution, resisted it at every step. It remained for the lower middle classes and, to the extent that it existed, the working class, fighting for their own position in society, to carry the revolution through.

Schlesinger has his fingers on the key to the understanding of the relation between the capitalists, the state and the working class but is unable to grasp it. In discussing the fight against the monopolitic corporation charters, which restricted the development of capitalism in a manner similar to the banking system, he points out that the Jacksonians fought for general incorporation laws which would allow anyone to start a corporation. He attributes this to the desire of the government to extend democracy and protect the workingman. But he is confused by the result. “The fate of the Jacksonian economic legislation,” he says, “was that common historical irony: it on the whole prompted the very ends it was intended to defeat ... Capitalism, in the end, gained a new moral force from the incorporation laws” (pages 338–339). He doesn’t stop to consider the validity of the “ends” which he attributes to the Jacksonians.

To examine the other points of the Jacksonian program in this light is impossible in such limited space. The pattern, however, is the same. To round out the picture we need only turn to the one plank in the working class program which flowed solely from the need., of the working class: the ten hour day. Here, again, Schlesinger places the Jacksonians at the head of the movement and credits Van Buren with leading the fight for the ten-hour day, introducing as evidence Van Buren’s executive order instituting the ten-hour day on federal public works in 1840, the last year of his administration. Ignored is the long and bitter struggle of the working class in the years preceding the executive order and the fact that the executive order was not effectively enforced until later, when the workers exerted additional pressure. In a like manner present day liberals ignore the valiant labor struggles of the 1930’s and the March on Washington Movement of 1940 and credit Roosevelt with the Wagner Labor Relations Act and the Fair Employment Practices Committee.

There are two other questions which Schlesinger treats which have great significance and are especially pertinent today. One is dealt with in a chapter on the Whig Party, gradually changed its political propaganda from an open defense of the rule of capital to the glittering generalities so familiar today: the “peepul,” democracy, home, patriotism – these were the new slogans. To Schlesinger’s credit, he notes the change – but is blind to what it signifies. Says Schlesinger:

“The metamorphosis of conservatism revived it politically but ruined it intellectually. The Federalists had thought about society in an intelligent and hard-boiled way. Their ideas had considerable relevance to the conflicts and tensions of the life around them. But the Whigs, in scuttling Federalism, replaced it by a social philosophy founded, not on ideas, but on subterfuges and sentimentalities” (page 279).

Degeneration of American Politics

His praise of the Federalists is entirely justified. The great Federalist statesmen, Hamilton, Madison and others, had the dearest picture of capitalist society. The Federalist Papers, written by Hamilton, Jay and Madison, could well rank as a textbook on the nature of the state. Even the Jeffersonians of that day, although with less theoretical clarity, presented a valid picture of capitalist society. With the first Jackson campaign, however, there was indicated the tendency toward the brawling, meaningless political campaigns that soon characterized American politics, a tendency that was completed in the Whig campaign of 1840 in which William Henry Harrison was swept into office on the slogans of hard cider and a log cabin and “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!”

Why this change? Was it caused by the intellectual degeneration of the leading politicians? Not at all. There is an excellent and practical reason for the change: the rise of the working class. At the dawn of capitalism, when the only serious antagonist to the capitalist class is reactionary feudalism (which was a threat on the American continent), the rulers can afford to speak the truth. With the growth of the working class in numbers and the development of its organizations, there rises the instrument for their overthrow. From this comes the desperate need to hide the real nature of capitalism, to bury the truth beneath “subterfuges and sentimentalities.” It is no coincidence, therefore, that the Jacksonian period, which witnessed the remarkable growth of the American working class and its powerful intrusion on the national scene, should also be the period in which demagogy and bribery should first establish their uninterrupted rule in American politics.

The second question of interest is the parallel Schlestinger draws between Jacksonian Democracy and the Roosevelt New Deal. Schlessinger’s uncritical defense of the Jackson Democrats is in reality (and in places almost openly stated by him) a defense of the New Deal. Having assumed an identity between Roosevelt and Jackson, Schlesinger goes to great lengths to defend the Democratic Party tradition, distorting history to the point of crediting the Jacksonian Democrats with the initiative in organizing the anti-slavery movement and founding the Republican Party. Despite this, however, there is some validity to the analogy. The similar relation in which Jackson and Roosevelt stood to the capitalist class was considered above. In addition, there are some superficial facts which point to a parallel: both ruled during periods of change and crisis; both, as individuals, were mediocrities before they achieved the presidency and the greatness in each was brought out by the times in which they lived and the problems with which they were faced.

But there is a fundamental difference between the two periods which must not be lost sight of. The age of Jackson was the age of expanding capitalism, an age in which the tremendous resources of the American continent and the rapidly expanding productive forces could be used, even though in vastly different degrees, to improve the condition of all classes. The gains, political and economic, which the working class and the people as a whole won in the Jacksonian period were genuine and sweeping. It was this which gave to Jacksonian democracy the character of a broad popular movement, a genuine people’s movement. But the age of Roosevelt is the age of dying capitalism, an age in which society is torn by deep-going and permanent crisis, by bloody wars, by the most profound insecurity. The role of Jackson was to release the expansive powers of capitalism. The role of Roosevelt was to preserve the bonds with which capitalism today confines and restricts society. Under Jackson progress was in the direction of capitalist development. Under Roosevelt progress lies only in the overthrow of capitalism.

Last updated on 12 March 2017