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New Left Review 42, November-December 2006

Tom Mertes on Sean Wilentz, Andrew Jackson. A retouched portrait of the Democrat founding father—minus Indian massacres, slave exploitation and financial bubble.



Reviewing the wave of political upheavals around 1830 that overthrew the Bourbons in France, detached Belgium from the Netherlands, secured Catholic emancipation to Ireland, brought the Reform Bill to England and unleashed civil wars in Spain and Portugal, in his Age of Revolution Eric Hobsbawm saw the most radical popular advance of the time in the election of Andrew Jackson as President of the United States. Viewed comparatively, two landmarks of his presidency stand out. The electorate of 1828 that put Jackson into power, with a record 56 per cent of the vote, was by far the largest in history: over a million strong, it was three times the size of the American turnout in 1824. The mobilization that produced this majority, moreover, was the work of the first modern mass political party. The second development was more original than the first, but together they spelt a lasting transformation of American democracy, of whose importance posterity has never doubted. The reputation of the man personifying this change remains far more contested. In his own day, Jackson was hailed by many as a heroic democrat, the beau ideal of a self-made man who rose to the nation’s highest post as a foe of social privilege and slayer of the ‘monster bank’, saviour of the nation and fearless champion of the people. Others saw him as ‘King Andrew’, a divisive tyrant driven by petty personal prejudices, contemptuous of the law of the land and merciless to the weak, who debauched government with a spoils system and destroyed the nation’s prosperity with a fixation on hard money.

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Tom Mertes, ‘Whitewashing Jackson’, NLR 42: £3

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