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The Age of Jackson

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Essay title: The Age of Jackson

The Age of Jackson by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is a book that is best described as a history of ideas, and particularly of the idea of democracy as it expanded in the 1830s and 1840s, embracing universal suffrage and economic as well as political egalitarianism. The book very much reflects the time in which it was written and the debates which it was part of, and, like much history of the period, seeks to refocus discussion of American history away from themes of frontier and nationalism.

Schlesigner's voice in the book is clear and open. His own biases and prejudices are on the surface, not hidden and not given any claims of a "disinterested" scientific approach. Yet his research and his mustering of support are thorough and meticulous, and he is just as clear in discussing the shortcomings of his analysis (such as in the closing chapters) as in describing the shortcoming of other's analyses.

His fundamental argument is that the Jacksonian intellectual tradition was the first American intellectual tradition to clearly recognize a need for economic as well as political egalitarianism, and the first to make good on the fundamental concept that "All men (still men in the Jacksonian age) are created equal." He focuses on the entire intellectual movement of Jacksonian Democracy, not exclusively on the General himself, and shows the differing currents of thought and how they interacted to create a policy that fundamentally based itself on addressing a conflict between classes.

Schlesinger's project does have difficulty in dealing with reactions to slavery, which cut across class and ideological lines, and he wrestles through this to recognize in the end that a fundamental conflict of the time was the conflict between a sectionally and ideologically motivated politics, resulting in much "crossing of aisles" and in radically different alliances in the 50s and 60s than existed in the 30s and 40s. Perhaps, however, it is just as important to examine ideologies that go beyond the Jacksonian economic perspectives and focus on underlying religious and moral views. Schlesigner also wrestles briefly, and less successfully still, with the impact of immigration and the opening of the frontier on the development of American political ideas. In doing so, at the end of the book, however, he is more laying out the areas needing further work than attempting to actually tackle the issues in detail.

Some of the many strengths: Schlesigner provides us with the most coherent discussion before or since of the failure and demise of federalism, gives us the best history before or since on the battles over the 2nd National Bank, and brings out significant parts of the Jacksonian inheritance that had long been underappreciated. He incorporates original material into his work in a way that animates the material, makes it clearly understandable, and provides it context. Perhaps most importantly

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