History and Historians, Ten Things I Hate About You

Muddy Whigs, Stuck Wheels

Muddy Wheel

Sorry for the long(ish) absence. I have been lost in the unruly reeds of the Serial Set, ladies and germs, a wanderin’ in the wilderness of Congress’s forgotten backlot. I have seen many things, horrible things, in that slushpile: innumerable, ungainly, uncollated reports sprouting anteDeweyvian reference numbers, all housed with an organization scheme only a Melville could love in its Eris-inspired and Demos-driven multiplicity. (His erstwhile namesake, Melvil, would’ve hated it).

It’s not pretty, folks. Not pretty ‘t’all.

But I come bearing new loads of data, new sand and clay to be mixed with the brackish water of intellect and baked into scholarly bricks, and then built into a sturdy House of Monograph, shelter for kith and kin, and possibly even a way to pay rent.

Stuff for my dissertation, I mean. Not just ridiculous extended metaphors.

But that’s not what I came to discuss today. No, what interests me today is this: Daniel Howe, “Goodbye to the ‘Age of Jackson’ ?” New York Review of Books, May 28, 2009.

Howe is an eminent historian — preeminent, even, as not only is his most recent book part of a field-defining (if staid) series, but it won the Pulitzer prize in History. Like all of the books in the Oxford series, the interpretation Howe puts forward in What Hath God Wrought is intended as a master synthesis of the existing literature, the new foundation for all work to come. The NYRB review is a restatement of that larger project in miniature.

My concern with this particular article is not his critique of the books under review, per se, but rather an argumentative tack he makes along the way – a restatement of that made in the larger work.(1).

Put simply: Howe replicates a general feature of the political historiography of the Jacksonian era that drives … me …nuts.(2).

Like many other would-be synthesizers of the period, Howe maps contemporary political labels onto the political parties and personalities of the second party system – the Democrats and the Whigs – while trying to claim he’s doing the opposite. This effectively trades any development in the historiography, by way of synthesis, for retrenchment. This leaves us on the other side of the ditch, but still stuck in the mud.

I think the clearest example of this comes near the end of the review. Howe approvingly quotes Walter McDougall’s take on Jacksonian era political ideology:

McDougall’s characteristically imaginative assessment of the two political parties of the middle period deserves quoting at length:

Who were the conservatives and who were the liberals in this second party system? If one adopts twentieth-century definitions it might appear that the libertarian Democrats were the conservatives and the statist Whigs the liberals. But in the parlance of nineteenth-century Britain, where the labels originated, the reverse would be true.

In regard to slavery, free-soil Whigs would appear the liberals and the Democrats supporters of a racist status quo. But in regard to workers’ rights as understood later in the century, neither party was “progressive.” In regard to ethnic and religious tolerance the Democrats would appear the liberals, since they embraced Catholics and immigrants. But in regard to education and social reform the reverse would be true.

The only way to get a grip on the growing divide among Americans in the mid-nineteenth century is to purge our contemporary notion of the political spectrum and try instead to imagine the ambivalent anxieties of a freewheeling people with one foot in manure and the other in a telegraph office.

So far so good (and sooo nested). Howe, via McDougall, seems here to be recommending (so far!) a fresh approach to the politics of the past, by refusing to fill new wineskins with old wine. But then what does he go and do? Urgh, not that. (emphasis mine)

Jackson’s partisan rivals the Whigs, often disparaged simply as snobs who couldn’t reconcile themselves to equal rights, actually have a strong claim on our respectful attention. The Whigs (their name was the traditional one for critics of executive abuses in Anglo-American history) understood the benefits of economic development and wanted government at all levels to promote it. They, not Jackson, endorsed federal government intervention in the economy. When the stock market crashed in 1837–1839, the Whig leader, Henry Clay, declared the American people “entitled to the protecting care of a parental Government.” The Democrats, led by Jackson’s chosen successor Martin Van Buren, insisted that Washington observe strict laissez faire.

The American experience between 1815 and 1848 did much to shape the country we live in. Social reform, religious zeal, large-scale immigration, wild swings of the business cycle, wars brought on by executive power in the face of severe moral criticism—these and other issues bear a surprising resemblance to some we face today. They can well bear reexamination by historians and citizens who seek to understand the past and its effect on the present. Such a reexamination may reorient the conventional definition of a “Jacksonian” period and provide a new perspective on the politics of that time. Who knows, today’s liberals might find many of their sympathies engaged not by Jackson’s Democrats but by the Whig party of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and the young Abraham Lincoln.

Aargh arg arg arg aaargh

He’s done just what McDougall warned us not to do — and not once, but twice! First, he identifies the Whigs as a statist party (“entitled to … a parternal Government”) and the Democrats as “strict laissez fair” (wink wink, nudge nudge current financial crisis). And he then suggests that “today’s liberals” (more unsubtle solicitation of subscribers to the NYRB?) take another look at what amounts to a pantheon of acceptable Whigs.

This, I would say, is evidence that Howe has failed at synthesis. What he has produced instead – and very ably – is an antithesis.

Howe’s interpretation is the mirror image of his chosen foils: narratives that focus on Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party, known best in their modern form in the works of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (The Age of Jackson), and Sean Wilentz (The Rise of American Democracy). Schlesinger fairly explicitly, and Wilentz only a hair’s breadth less so, are engaged in unearthing the vital and virtuous memes of American politics – vital, both (so they claim) to the early and antebellum republic, but even more so to today. To oversimplify: Schlesinger and Wilentz were looking for the seeds of post-New Deal democractic politics, and found class conflict resolved through increasing democratic participation. Howe went looking for deeply moral technocrats, and darn it if he didn’t find Samuel Finley Breese Morse.

The chief interpretive payoff in all of these works is to make the past a vaguely familiar, vaguely partisan prologue.(3). This, I believe, is a choice made both consciously and unconsciously. Consciously, insofar as it seems driven partly by considerations of narrative and marketing – an effort to make the book comprehensible to non-specialists. And while I think that goal laudable, in the end the method fails, because it doesn’t teach you anything; it just confuses.

Unconsciously, in that I think these choices of one side (the Whigs) over the other (the Dems) boils down to an idiosyncratic personal affinity. That is, I think the choice to structure the interpretation as a political analogue, as well as the choice of political analogue derives from which historical characters appeal on a personal level to the researcher, for reasons of politics, certainly, but also personality.

They’ve each met someone in the archives they liked. For Schlesinger — and more recently, Wilentz — it’s Jackson or Van Buren who seems like the guy you’d want to split a six pack with (or, well, shots of whiskey). For Howe, it’s John Quincy Adams (and perhaps just weak tea) — and if you think I’m joking about that last bit, check out the dedication in What Hath God Wrought (sadly, not included in Amazon’s sneak peak).

I think this is a common reaction to archival research. You can only read so much of dead people’s mail before you begin to think of them as friends (or, in some cases, enemies). And that, in turn, shapes your interpretation, particularly when you’re writing in a character driven genre, like narrative political history. You need sympathetic protagonists, after all.

The problem that I have with all of this is that, while I am not opposed to analogy as an explanatory device, I think in this instance it’s a counterproductive one. As L.P. Hartley’s old saw has it, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This is not the impression one gets from reading Howe, et al.

What’s interesting – no, what’s useful – about studying this era of US history is that it’s different. Things aren’t sorted the way they are now; ideas and impulses we regard now as antipathetic – support for slavery and deep-rooted belief in democracy, fanatic religious faith and adulation of science – were not only combined in single individuals, they shaped entire political movements, and determined national policy.

Put another way, looking at this era shakes us up, forces us to reconsider our categories. It reminds us that the state of things now wasn’t predetermined, that we got here (wherever here is), because of the actions of people whose motives were wholly different than our own.

(Okay, so maybe I am opposed to analogy as an explanatory device. So sue me.)

Now, I know that is probably an unsustainable goal in a narrative history written for a lay audience. But that begs the question of the expected audience for Howe’s book and others like it – clocking in at just under 1,000 pages, and keenly invested in an ongoing historiographical debate, it seems written for nerds like me, not your average educated Martian. And considered in that light – as a synthetic approach to the existing literature, it doesn’t work. The wheels are spinning, but we’re still stuck in the mud.

(1). I think Howe probably gets them about right: Meachem’s is a middlebrow paean to Jackson, Remini’s a thorough retread of old ground, Reynolds evocative, if riddled with errors, and McDougall the only truly interesting scholarly work.

…or, as Howe would have it the “middle period” of American history (“middle” because sandwiched between The Founding and The Civil War, i.e. Our Glorious Nation’s Glorious Birth and ReBirth, Respectively).

(3). This is a symptom that shows up in other parts of Howe’s interpretation, like the opening paragraph of his review:

In 1815, at the close of the second war with Britain, the US was what we would call a “developing” country. Most people worked in agriculture, often on semisubsistence family farms, eating food they grew, their lives governed by the weather and the hours of daylight. It was the slowness and uncertainty of transportation and communications that kept their lives so primitive.

Well…in a weak sense, yes. The US was, as Howe goes on to point out, pretty backward by today’s technological standards. It exhibited the characteristics of an undeveloped society, so called.

But…in a strong sense, no. Here’s the crucial point: the US may have been what we now consider to be backward from a technological point of view– but so was everywhere else. Even Great Britain, for all its industrial development, was not electrified. “Developing” implies a destination, and end stage – which, to be sure, contemporaries conceived of; but it didn’t look anything like what we think of now.

Howe casts the US of 1815 in this way because his main point – implied by that last line, above – is that improvements in travel and communications (steam boats, trains, and presses, as well as the telegraph) are what drove changes (largely for the better) in American society between 1815 and 1848. Remind you of other times and things in American history? That rhyme with schmeltricity or the internal schmebustion engine, or schminternet and schmet travel? Again, its not that he’s wrong, but that the analogy doesn’t (ironically enough) take you anywhere.

Image cite: Pmarkham, “Muddy Wheel,” Flickr, CC License

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