Andrew Jackson, the Democrats, Sean Wilentz, and Slavery

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Gentle Readers, for nearly the past month, I’ve read Sean WilentzRise of American Democracy. Wilentz surveys American political history from 1800 to 1860. I thought to read it as a companion volume to David Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, a much broader survey of the period from 1815-1848. Either book would easily maim pets or small children, but they have little else in common. Wilentz and Howe talk almost completely opposite positions about the democratizing trend of the age, right down to attributing it primarily to different parties. Wilentz locates democracy in Andrew Jackson’s Democracy. Howe finds it in the evangelical reform associations that concentrated on the Whig side of the aisle. I concur with most present historians of the era that Howe has it more right than Wilentz, though both have significant blind spots.

I may write a comparative post about the two books at some point, but today I want to delve into an issue I came across while reading Wilentz. I have found him hard going, very unlike Howe. Some of that comes down to one’s taste in prose, but more often I find myself silently arguing with the text. Wilentz proudly declares himself a partisan for Andrew Jackson, a popular enough sentiment in decades past. He casts his work as a modern version of Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson, a similar lionizing of the man and his movement. Given Jackson’s career, this presents difficulties for a reader of modern sensibilities. Wilentz skips past some of that, summarizing the military actions that made Jackson infamous in roughly as much space as he spends on the general’s health. This leaves his critics to come across as paranoid aristocrats. He does take seriously Jackson’s involvement in Indian removal and makes few excuses for it, though he does downplay Jackson’s personal responsibility and emphasize how Jackson understood removal as a benevolent act.

Even more implausibly, he refuses to consider Jackson or his movement as proslavery. Wilentz doesn’t deny that the Democracy had a proslavery wing, just as the Whigs did. In the Lower South, though not elsewhere, Wilentz calls that wing’s politics master race democracy. But he denies that that those Democrats exerted a decisive influence, at least as late as 1850, and considers it an outlier from the Democracy rather than its central theme. He would thus reject Howe’s characterization of the movement as a whole:

One policy that the Democratic Party embraced consistently was white supremacy. The centrality of white supremacy in Democratic policymaking helps explain that party’s hostility toward Clay’s American System. Democratic suspicion of government aid to internal improvements reflected not a horror of the market revolution but a fear that such a program might threaten the institution of slavery. The danger, from the slaveholders’ point of view, was twofold. In the first place, national plans for internal improvements might be designed to wean areas in the Border States or Upper South away from slave-based agriculture toward a diversified economy in which slavery would become vulnerable to gradual emancipation. In the second place, national plans for internal improvements set a precedent for federal activity that might encourage interference with slavery— for example, by exercising the interstate commerce power over the interstate slave trade. Jacksonians welcomed transporting farm products to market, so long as it could be done without the centralized planning that raised the specter of emancipation.

I find very little to disagree with in Howe’s interpretation, which he supports generously throughout his formidable tome. I felt the temptation to dismiss Wilentz as a shameless partisan more interested in vindicating his heroes, but one can say that about any historian. Every work of history includes an argument and to a large degree flows from it. Bad histories do exist, but bad history means more than history with which the reader disagrees. A bad history should have serious methodological or evidential issues, at least. Wilentz may have a few of those. I understand that historians of the Early Republic don’t think highly of his treatment of the Jeffersonians, with some criticisms reaching to that point. I don’t know enough about the period to feel confident saying for myself, or even that I could spot the problems without help.

I feel much more confident in disagreeing with Wilentz about what one must do to earn proslavery status. It came to me only when Wilentz laid down his criteria firmly, in a discussion of contradictions within the Jacksonian coalition:

The politics of antislavery exposed another side of Jackson’s coalition. Jackson and his party were decidedly hostile to antislavery radicals. Without endorsing Calhounite pro-slavery positions, the unapologetic slaveholder Jackson, especially in the postal controversy, tried to silence the immediatist agitators, even if it took a federal censorship law to do so. Those efforts only reinforced the radical abolitionists’ conviction that Jackson himself, as well as his party, was no better than any of the other slavocrats, and that their professions to democracy and equality were vitiated by their racism and self-interest.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Wilentz presents no facts here to quarrel with. Jackson absolutely and purposefully alienated abolitionists. This makes him at least to a small degree proslavery, given his fight against the institution’s foes, but we could say the same of David Wilmot, who bragged about fighting abolitionists:

Is there any complexion of Abolitionism in this, sir? I have stood up at home, and battled, time and again, against the Abolitionists of the North. I have assailed them publicly, upon all occasions when it was proper to do so.

Calling Wilmot and others like him both proslavery and antislavery might cover the bases, but it invites confusion and misunderstanding. As Wilentz notes, attacking abolitionists did not make one a Calhounite. Surely Jackson’s ownership of slaves implicates him further, all the more so because he did not inherit them or have trouble emancipating them due to restrictive laws, but rather eagerly sought out human property with which to enrich himself. That alone would make him fairly proslavery in my book, possibly closer to a Calhounite on the subject than not.

Wilentz doesn’t think so. Rather it seems to him that unless one makes explicit Calhoun-style positive good arguments in favor of slavery, one doesn’t qualify as proslavery. In other words, one must adopt the most radical proslavery position available to get the title. None of us would probably shed any tears at the excommunication of John C. Calhoun from the antislavery ranks, least of all the man himself. Maybe the fact that Jackson, and other Democrats thereafter, did not consistently argue for the wonders of slavery makes them less radical than Calhoun, but does that really exculpate them? We credit antislavery Americans who condemned abolitionists for their position, even if we find it unsympathetic. That allows for degrees of distinction in opposition to slavery. Might we not do the same with degrees of proslavery sentiment? Wilentz appears willing to grant that range of opinion to slavery’s foes, but not as much to its friends.

Wilentz admits that slavery and race played their part in shaping the Democracy, but only to excuse them:

To halt abolitionist agitation and quiet southern counteragitation, both Jackson and Van Buren attacked the abolitionists’ civil rights, in the mails and gag-rule controversies […] northern Democrats did take the lead in disenfranchising blacks (as in Pennsyulvania in 1837-38), even as they celebrated the growing political impact of lower-class white men.

None of this, however, made the Jacksonians a pro-slavery party-or even, as one milder critic has argued, “functionally pro-slavery”-fighting a proto-abolitionist Whig Party in order to protect a status quo that left the slaveholders the dominant class in American politics. The Jacksonians did not oppose interference with slavery where it existed, or obstruct the abolitionist efforts to arouse the South, because they wished to sustain the slaveholders as a national ruling class. They wanted, as the Whigs did, to keep slavery out of federal politics to protect constitutional order, national harmony, and party unity. Sustaining the slaveholders’ power was the goal of Calhoun and others

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

This contradicts itself so markedly that one wonders how, or if, Wilentz failed to notice it. A functionally proslavery movement would, through its actions and inaction, serve to protect, perpetuate, and possibly expand slavery. It need not intend specifically or primarily to do so in order to manage the task functionally. Preserving the status quo in Antebellum American did just that. That the Whig mainstream felt similarly tells us that proslavery Whigs existed as well, a fact Wilentz eagerly points out later in the same paragraph. There he credits John Tyler, certainly a proslavery man but a fairly dubious Whig. (The party ultimately expelled Tyler, during his presidency, and by the time he left office he had a largely Democratic administration.) Wilentz does note that Calhoun came back to the Democracy in a quest to transform it into a more explicitly proslavery vehicle, but would we expect him to have chosen the less hospitable of the two parties for that project?

People can disagree about where to draw interpretive lines. We must admit to the fuzziness of every boundary, given the complexity of the past and its population of inconstant human beings. Historians have excused inaction on slavery from exponents of the necessary evil argument. They had slavery, but couldn’t see a way out and had some misgivings. Those misgivings rarely, if ever, drove them to challenge slavery where it existed. Rather acting out their supposed sentiments fell to other people, of some future generation or distant place. If we credit their rhetorical qualms, then we should weigh them against their practical outcome: the perpetuation of slavery.

Wilentz draws his proslavery lines so precisely that they read more as tools for exculpation than understanding. Anybody can be antislavery, but it takes a real zealot to manage proslavery. You’ve got to know your Calhoun and show it off. One has to work hard for the title, even though accepting the existence of slavery represented the status quo position. Such a framework might make sense today, when few will openly advocate for slavery and most of us imbibed abolition as a national achievement, but hardly seems suited to the nineteenth century. Rather it seems Wilentz purposefully construed only the most radical proslavery position as proslavery in order to avoid applying the term to the movement that has his sympathies.

He could have done better. On other fronts, Wilentz makes worthwhile points. To Howe, class doesn’t seem like a particularly relevant metric in democratizing. Wilentz thinks otherwise and argues well for the position. Neither historian eagerly handles the ugly side of their preferred movement’s politics, but Howe does a much better job of acknowledging his. Wilentz only seems able to raise the subject in order to minimize it or make excuses, most critically on slavery and race. On less fraught issues, like patronage, he even finesses the matter through outright silence. I don’t know any way to explain this all except that Wilentz decided a priori in favor of Jacksonian Democracy, then contorted around inconvenient facts until he had something that seemed halfway plausible.

I find myself entirely in agreement with Kevin Gannon over at the Junto:

Wilentz’s entire corpus is predicated on the argument that Jacksonian Democracy, in its most Schlesingerian sense, was the motor that drove the inexorable “Rise of American Democracy.” To believe this, though, one has to soft-pedal (at best) the racialized, herrenvolk nature of that Democracy; see the Free-Soilers as the true representatives of the Jacksonian creed instead of actual Jacksonians like James Polk; and argue the moderates and conservatives within Whiggery and abolitionism sped the cause of freedom rather than delayed it.


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