Thursday, April 6, 2006

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 - April 6: Contradictions of Jacksonian democracy

Sean Wilentz in Andrew Jackson (2005) gives a good summary of the contradictions of Jacksonian democracy that would eventually split the Jacksonian movement and the Democratic Party:
As Jackson noted in his farewell address, sectional divisions over slavery and democracy directly threatened his very conception of democracy. For Jackson, the confrontations were artificial, whipped up by ambitious demagogues in order to distract the electorate from the truly important division between the privileged few and the humble many. But slavery and its expansion were not artificial issues; they were redefining how Americans thought about the few and many; and these clashing views cut to the heart of how Americans thought about democracy. ...
Two decades would pass before the clash between the northern democracy [i.e., the Democratic Party] and the southern democracy shattered Jackson's Democratic Party in all but its name. Yet in the most profound irony of all, the widening of democratic politics that (as Herman Melville would later write in Moby-Dick) "didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles" and "thunder him higher than a throne" would also render that conflict irrepressible. By expanding popular politics and enshrining the popular will, Jackson and his followers exposed the political system to precisely the kinds of agitation they (and their Whig Party adversaries) hoped to keep forever out of national debates. Using all of the electioneering techniques pioneered by the Jackson Democrats, new movements, factions, and parties would arise and amass popular support over issues connected to slavery - and would elect candidates to national office dedicated solely to addressing whether slavery threatened or embodied democratic values.
Jackson lived long enough to feel these early tremors of the crisis of American democracy over slavery, and he would try to still them with all the strength he could muster. He would never fully comprehend how his own democratic achievements had brought them about, and lead his countrymen, North and South, to begin questioning whether democracy could endure in a nation half slave and half free, a house divided against itself.  (my emphasis)
Wilentz in his Jackson biography does anexceptionallygood job of describing how Jackson and his movement not only made consciously and deliberate choices.  But they also set processes and conflicts in motion whose implications they didn't comprehend and whose further results they could only dimly predict.
These passages from Wilentz are also reminders that in understanding the Civil War and the conflicts over slavery that led up to it, it's important for us to keep in mind that what may look to us like an inevitable process did not appear so to its participants.  Even for the strict Calvinists like John Brown, who believed that God at least had pre-ordained the entire course of human history down to the last detail.  God may have known the future.  But Andrew Jackson, John Calhoun and John Brown did not.
And on the issue of slavery, we are inclined today to view the issue as one of good and right (emancipation) versus evil and cruelty (slavery).  And indeed it was.  Nor is that an anachronistic view, reading current values and assumptions into the past.  There were many Americans and certainly many people in the rest of the world in the time of Andrew Jackson who viewed slavery as a sinful evil.
But the actual participants in the events of those years in the United States didn't have the luxury of making entirely clear-cut choices in the practical issues that slavery presented.  Jefferson, the staunch opponent of slavery, feared the implications of the Missouri Compromise because it was made under a series of assumptions very different that how he had always conceived states rights as a defense of democratic and personal liberties against a potentially tyrannical federal government.
Jackson never faced a direct choice of freedom versus slavery.  But when he found himself in a position in the nullification crisis where he had to defend democracy against a slaveowners revolt, he came down hard on the side of democracy.  His action didn't free a single slave.  But would a genuine opponet of slavery like Thomas Jefferson have been willing to take such a clear stand in asserting federal power against a state's claim to the right of nullification?
The quotes are also a reminder of how important to the future course of events Jackson's stand against secession in the nullification crisis was.  Jackson certainly didn't intend to set off a three-decades-long process of escalating tensions over slavery.  On the contrary, he aimed at calming such tensions down.
But the content of his actions went far beyond their intent.  By establishing the notion of Union and democracy as inseparable, he set the stage for the position that the defenders of democracy and American unity would eventually take when matters reached the point that either democracy or slavery would have to die out.
An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.

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