[Marxism] Sean Wilentz on Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 17 16:32:42 MDT 2005

There's an article by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz in Sunday's NY Times 
titled "Bush's Ancestors" that tries to draw analogies between the 
Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs, who are, as the article's title 
implies, predecessors of the current gang running Washington.

Wilentz informs us, for example:

 >>A century and a half before Reagan's election, the Whigs worked out the 
basic ideas of supply-side, trickle-down economics. They acclaimed the 
romance of risk and private investment and a compelling but simplistic view 
of America as, in one widely used Whig phrase, "a country of self-made 
men." These views would reappear in Reagan's and Newt Gingrich's 
celebrations of a coming "opportunity society," later reformulated by 
George W. Bush as the "ownership society." The Whigs also dismissed the 
Jacksonians' attacks on the privileged classes as demagogic - much as Bush, 
running in 2000 as a unifying "compassionate conservative," labeled his 
opponent's criticisms of corporate power and tax breaks for the wealthy a 
mean-spirited effort "to wage class warfare to get ahead."<<

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/16/magazine/16essay.html

Wilentz does not exactly make clear whether there was anything more than 
demagogy at work in Andrew Jackson's "attacks on the privileged classes." 
Since an analogy was drawn with what Bush described as Kerry's attempt "to 
wage class warfare to get ahead," one must ask whether Wilentz believes 
that Kerry was a latter-day Eugene V. Debs, not to speak of FDR. If so, it 
was lost on pundits such as Thomas Frank who wrote an ocean of words 
lamenting Kerry's refusal to do exactly that.

Although I have not read Wilentz's book (and don't have plans to), the 
Nation Magazine review by Anatol Lieven indicates that Wilentz is not 
exactly a gushing cheerleader for Jackson in the style Arthur Schlesinger 
Jr. made famous. Levien writes:

 >>Wilentz's treatment of the Jackson era bears comparison with a classic 
of American historical scholarship, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s Age of 
Jackson, published six decades ago. Like Schlesinger, Wilentz takes 
Jacksonians' commitment to democracy seriously and, like him, finds the 
roots of democratic radicalism in popular struggles, especially on economic 
matters, led by the "city democracy," not by Western frontiersmen. But 
Wilentz's account also shows how the writing of history has changed since 
1945. Schlesinger ignored Indian removal, a central event of the 1830s. 
Despite his overall sympathy for the Jacksonians, Wilentz offers a powerful 
indictment of the policies that produced the Trail of Tears. Even more 
striking, Wilentz places the issue of slavery at the center of his account. 
The rise of American democracy, he shows, went hand in hand with the 
expansion of slavery and the consolidation in the South of the most 
powerful slave society the modern world has seen. The conflict between the 
slave South and free-labor North over the meaning of American democracy 
eventually led to civil war.<<

full: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20051031/lieven

While Wilentz is certainly an improvement over Schlesinger, you have to go 
to Harry Braverman who wrote the following critique of Jacksonianism when 
he was an activist in the Trotskyist movement:

 >>In order to govern the bourgeoisie "by their white slaves," the planters 
from Jefferson's day on, built a northern party machine of a type familiar 
to this day in the Democratic Party. Politicians of the modern type began 
to make their appearance. Aaron Burr had been Jefferson's chief lieutenant 
on the Northern field. Martin Van Buren, operating through the Albany 
Regency and Tammany Hall, was Jackson's man Friday. Each was awarded the 
Vice-Presidency. Van Buren exemplified the increasing importance of the 
Northern auxiliary when he succeeded Jackson to the Presidency.

The Jackson and Van Buren groupings, joined by a clamorous farmer element 
led by such men as Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Colonel Richard M. 
Johnson, formed a national grouping in the Democratic Party which conducted 
politics by carefully watching the movement of the popular masses. Their 
activity, well-adjusted to the new currents which the old time politicians 
could scarcely comprehend, much less navigate, raised behind them a 
sweeping national mass movement. Here the great achievement of 
Jacksonianism emerges. It inaugurated in national politics that pattern 
which has endured to the present: the rule of an exploiting class concealed 
behind the appeal to the common man.<<

The rule of an exploiting class concealed behind the appeal to the common 
man? Wilentz is right about one thing in his metaphor-mongering. Based on 
this criterion, Andrew Jackson was the John Kerry of his day. 

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