“The Age of Jackson” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was published in 1945 and won the 1946 Pulitzer Prize in the History category. He also won a 1966 Pulitzer Prize for “A Thousand Days” about John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Schlesinger was a well-known historian, social critic and prominent Democrat, and served as Special Assistant to President Kennedy. In all, he authored nearly three-dozen books.
Schlesinger’s “The Age of Jackson” is an American classic and it maintains a consistent stream of readers despite its advanced age. However, as is well known to anyone who has perused its pages, it is not really a biography of Andrew Jackson. What Schlesinger’s book is, first and foremost, is a political science treatise – a discussion of Jacksonian democracy and the evolution of classical liberalism.
Second, and in a much narrower sense, it is an interesting (but not comprehensive) book on American history during the first half of the nineteenth-century. It only vaguely contains the faintest shadows of a biography – and is as much about Martin Van Buren in that respect as Andrew Jackson. In fact, to the extent this book describes Jackson at all, it is less as a man than as a movement, or perhaps some sort of cosmic force.
In spite of its now ancient publication date, this book is easy for the modern reader to absorb: it is articulate, intelligently-written and often interesting. With increasing frequency toward its back-half, however, it tries to morph into a dry, monotonous, overly academic discourse that seems more intent on proving the author’s point than presenting a balanced point of view. It is a carefully crafted campaign to convey the author’s opinions of social history and justice but, like a Paul Krugman op-ed, it is obvious the author believes his views so inviolate that no one of sane judgment could possibly disagree.
Many past reviewers of this book have reflected on its one-sided nature and have expressed disappointment, or even hostility, about the lack of balance. Several have wished for a clearer delineation between the role of a scholar and a partisan. Schlesinger was clearly often both, but his ability to irritate readers seems to have been most profound when he performed both roles simultaneously.
To his credit, Schlesinger provides an interesting discussion of the demise of Federalism and he colorfully details the contentious, multi-year effort to eradicate the Second Bank of the U.S. He also follows the fascinating evolution of popular political mood during the several decades following Jackson’s presidency.
Ironically, for all his advocacy of egalitarianism, Schlesinger fails to cast Native Americans in the story in any meaningful way (despite their importance to Jackson’s career). He neither points out Jackson’s deficiencies in their treatment nor provides any excuse for the General’s actions. And Jackson’s apparent failure to seriously question the morality of slavery never seems to come up, either.
Overall, “The Age of Jackson” is an interesting, provocative and reasoned analysis of a broad swath of American history and political transformation. Strictly as an introduction to Jackson the frontiersman, military leader and politician, the book is wholly unsuitable. But as a sweeping literary chronicle of an early American era seen through the lens of a passionate partisan, it is timeless. Given my specific mission, however, my overall rating reflects more the former than the latter.
Overall rating: 3 stars