Harry Frankel

Three Conceptions of Jacksonianism

(March 1947)

From Fourth International, Vol.8 No.3, March 1947, pp.93-96.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In a previous article, The Jackson Period in American History (See Fourth International, December 1946), a class analysis of “Jacksonian Democracy” was presented. An endeavor was made to demonstrate that Jacksonianism represented the continuation of the rule of the Southern slaveholding class in national politics, with modifications traceable to a specific relation of class forces. Among the specific circumstances were: the divisions within the planters, the growth in specific weight of the small farming petty-bourgeoisie and the industrial proletariat, and the eruption of these two classes to the political scene in the form of a clamorous mass electorate. These were circumstances which modified the technique of slaveholding rule, but did not overthrow it.

This Marxist view is counterposed to the views of bourgeois historians, who see the Jackson period as a time of “popular revolution.” We shall here consider the theories of two schools of American historians. The first is the famous “frontier” school which views Jacksonianism as a democratic effect of the frontier upon national politics. The second and more recent school considers Jacksonianism to be an expression of the rule of farmers and workers in Washington. The best known exponent of this view is Charles A. Beard, and it is endorsed by most of the modern liberal historians.

Sectionalism as an Historical Method

Let us turn first to the frontier theory. In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner read to a gathering of the American Historical Association a paper entitled, The Significance of the Frontier in American History. The main ideas of this essay were later expanded by Turner into a series of articles and books dealing with various phases of the frontier and its fancied effects on the national development of the United States. What was his theory? “The existence of an area of free land,” he wrote, “its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” Or as he stated in another article: for 200 years “westward expansion was the most important single process in American history.” And what was the effect of the frontier? Turner’s answer is plain. “This at least is clear: American democracy is fundamentally the outcome of the experiences of the American people in dealing with the West.” That the Western land areas were decisive in American history, and that their chief result was “democracy” – this is the heart of Turner’s thesis. Turner’s writings deal mainly with the Jackson period. It was at that time that the West “came into its own, conquered national power, and had its greatest effect in the furtherance of ‘democracy’.”

The Turner school thus starts with a geographical abstraction: the frontier. History is presumed to be based primarily upon a conflict, not of class but of sectional interests. This conception has sunk deep roots in American academic thought. It is a commonplace to refer to the Civil War as a conflict between the “North” and the “South,” instead of more precisely designating it as a clash of slaveholding and bourgeois economy. Even bias and prejudice are often given sectional labels. Historians boast that their work is free, not only of class prejudice, but of “sectional bias.” This terminology has become a substitute for thinking for writers of American history. Partly, this has been the result of the inadequate theoretical equipment of the historians, and partly too it has stemmed from a reluctance to adopt Marxist terminology. Thus “section” has become a cowardly-confused pseudonym for class in the language of American historical writing.

There is a certain plausibility in this sectional approach. It resides in the fact that, in early United States history, economic classes were largely concentrated in geographical regions. The “South” thus meant the planters, the “North” the bourgeoisie, and the “West” the small farmers. In this manner many historians were able to give class analyses in sectional terminology. But to substitute an imperfect concept for a more precise one cannot fail to bring eventual theoretical disaster.

This is the fate of the Turner school, which carried out the sectional approach to its furthest limits by elevating one section to omnipotence. The “frontier” is a geographical abstraction based upon a shifting region. Its significance can only be appreciated when analyzed in class terms. A specific frontier at a specific time has a class structure differing from that of the same frontier at another time, or another section of the frontier at the same time. The Illinois farmer had more in common with the Massachusetts or Vermont farmer than with his fellow “frontiersman,” the planter further south. If he didn’t know this, the Civil War taught it to him, and should have taught it to the historian as well.

By understanding this outstanding flaw in the sectional method, its non-class approach, we come to grips with the inherent weakness of the frontier school. A study of the frontier and of the chief class which inhabited it, the small farmers, is sufficient to convince a Marxist that this section could never take independent control of the state power. The agrarian petty-bourgeoisie, geographically and economically diffused, holding no key position in the national economy, plays an impotent role when it attempts to take an independent course. F.L. Paxson, the chief disciple of the Turner method, in a series of lectures entitled When the West Is Gone unintentionally makes this plain. He points out that every frontier “revolt” up to Bryan and the Populists was a success. Why then was the last wave a failure? “Something had happened,” he says, “to break the course of normal American thought and action.”

What Paxson fails to grasp is that in every previous movement, the farmer had served as an auxiliary to a predominant social class. The farmer fought in 1776 for the planters and for capitalists against England; in Jefferson’s and Jackson’s time for the planter against the capitalist, and in the Civil War for the capitalist against the planter. In Bryan’s day he was allied with no predominant social class, and alone the farmer could not, nor can he ever, take the state power.

Let us consider Turner’s thesis from still another aspect. The existence of the vast western lands fathered, in his view, democratic institutions in the United States. There is no denying a certain element of truth in this. To a degree, which has been greatly exaggerated, the eastern masses drew independence from the western farming opportunities. To a degree, the large class of western farmers helped break down open aristocratic rule. Yet there is another side to the coin which American sectionalist historians have sedulously avoided revealing. And this is – the far greater significance of the western lands for the plantation oligarchy. For that class the existence of a western reserve was economically decisive, because without room to expand the Cotton Kingdom was doomed. The vast land reserves facilitated more than any other single factor the growth of the plantation system after 1800. Considered in this light, the open west made possible the barbaric atavism of an expanding chattel slave system in the 19th century! Shall we disregard the armies of slaves thus created, as the Jacksonian “democrats” of that day did? Those who talk of the exemplary democracy of the Jackson period do just that.

So much for the special aspects of the Turner frontier school. To its more general conceptions which it shares with other liberal historical theories, we shall return later. Let us consider now the more recent trend of thought concerning the Jackson period among modern historians.

Jacksonianism: Farmer-Labor or Planter Rule?

The impact of Marxism has visibly affected historical thought in every country of the globe. In the United States, where class struggles have been conducted in such open and undisguised forms, this impact could not fail to produce important results. Thus for over forty years there has flourished a school of historians whose chief occupation has been to borrow for their own use some of the tenets of Marxism, while always denying their debt to Marxism, reserving as a matter of fact, envenomed shafts for the consistent and avowed Marxists. Charles A. Beard is the most prominent representative of this group; Vernon L. Parrington, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Jr., and Louis Hacker are other prominent figures.

The approach of the Beard-type historians to the Jackson period begins with a modification of the Turner school. The “frontier,” they realize, is not so omnipotent as its proponents believe. Rather they turn to a class analysis. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in a recently (1945) published survey, The Age of Jackson, makes this clear in his comment: “It seems clear now that more can be understood about Jacksonian democracy if it is regarded as a problem not of sections, but of classes.” This is a promising beginning, but in the end he completes the circle and returns to the traditional conceptions. For Jacksonianism is viewed by these historians as well, as a popular revolution crowned by the rule of the masses.

We need hardly go further than the chapter heading in Beard’s The Rise of American Civilization, which characterizes Jacksonianism as A Triumphant Farmer-Labor Party. Subsequent references in his book speak of “the labor and agrarian democracy,” “the farmer-labor democracy,” and so forth. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. constructed his entire above-mentioned book around this idea, that the Jackson government was a worker-farmer conquest. Thus common to both the Beard and Turner theories, is the illusory notion of the revolutionary transfer of state power in the Jackson period to the popular masses. To these misconceptions must be counterposed the Marxist understanding of the first sixty years of the Nineteenth Century as a period of uninterrupted, if at times modified, hegemony of the slave oligarchy in national affairs.

If the conception that under Jackson the popular masses seized power were true, it would represent an important social revolution in the United States. (If revolutions were as simple in reality as they are in the minds of these people, the task of revolutionists would be light indeed.) We must ask, why did the slaveholder South yield so readily to being dispossessed from political power for which it was to fight tooth and claw thirty years later? Were these impetuous historians to stop and ponder this question before venturing to speak so rashly of “revolution” they could find but one reply in accord with historical fact. It is this, that the Jacksonian Democratic Party in power did not lay its hands on a single prerogative or institution of the planting class. On the contrary, it protected, strengthened and aided that class, while conducting an offensive to weaken the bourgeois enemy of the planters in the North.

But the historian may protest that the workers and farmers got a hearing in Washington from the Jackson administrations. What of the protection of the land interests of the farmers? The ten-hour laws? The mechanics lien laws? The progress made, especially by the workers, is beyond dispute. First of all, however, it must be understood that such concessions did not directly endanger the planting class, and, for that reason, they could countenance reforms which gained for them national electoral support. Let us recall how John Randolph, planter spokesman in Congress, challenged the bourgeoisie: “Northern gentlemen think to govern us by our black slaves, but let me tell them, we intend to govern them by their white slaves.”

Workingmen’s Parties

Not one of our “enlightened” historians thinks to suggest that the gains of labor in this period might have resulted primarily from the increasing power and the independent activity and pressure of the workers’ organizations. The period just preceding Jackson and during his administrations saw a huge growth of the trade unions and political movement of the workers. Unions were organized in many trades of the growing industrial system. Workingmen’s parties were organized in a number of states, and workingmen’s newspapers mushroomed. A spreading strike movement in the industrial areas, despite the vicious court rulings on “conspiracy” charges, testified to the militancy of the movement. Could not such a movement be expected to wring gains from the bourgeoisie independently of Jackson?

A very instructive case is related by the socialist historian Gustavus Myers in his History of Tammany Hall. Tammany was the Jackson arm in New York City. In 1829 a Workingmen’s Party was organized, inspired chiefly by Robert Dale Owen, son of the famous Utopian Socialist. It propagated the typical workingmen’s program of that day: opposition to the “feudal land monopoly” and to capitalist banks, in favor of a system of free education, and so forth. In the first election in which the new party put a ticket in the field, it polled 6,000 votes as against 11,000 by the established Tammany machine, and elected Ebenezer Ford to the Assembly. Tammany fought the Workingmen’s Party bitterly, with every weapon in its well-stocked arsenal. As part of its campaign, it sponsored a piece of reform legislation designed to win the workers back to Tammany. This was the origin of the Mechanics Lien Law in New York State which has come down to us as a gift of the Jacksonians!

The early Workingmen’s Parties were eventually assimilated into the Democratic Party and their independent struggle was subordinated to national Jacksonian politics. Arthur M. Schlesinger describes this process with a gleeful air. To those for whom sycophancy is the ideal policy for the labor movement it was a step forward. After all, what can the workers accomplish as an independent force? They should be happy to attach themselves to any Jackson (or Roosevelt) who might throw them an occasional favor.

Marxists have an altogether different conception of the role of the labor movement. We are bound to criticize an alliance which was a severe setback to the labor movement. For the workers to abandon the construction of independent organizations in order to submerge themselves in the Democratic Party was to break the line of organizational continuity so indispensable for the eventual construction of a national labor movement of power and independence. To those who point to the “reforms” achieved in this period, we reply that at bottom they were the result of the show of power of the workers. An independent policy, designed to take advantage of the division between the planters and the capitalists, would have secured far bigger and more lasting gains. Of course, our criticism here is not of the weak and inexperienced labor movement of that day, but of those “liberal” historians and modern sycophants who would erect this policy of subservience into an ideal standard for the working class.

The miseducation of the workers by their leaders in the Jackson period left a deep scar on the labor movement. The workers, instead of being in the forefront of the Abolitionist movement, their rightful place, were in the planter controlled Democratic Party. Whoever touched the foul slavocracy was defiled with its filth. The anti-Abolitionist and chauvinist poison among the workers stems from this period of miseducation. Northern Jacksonian “democracy” must bear the blame for this.

Jacksonian Reforms

Our enlightened historians bring forward another “proof” of the democracy of Jacksonianism. All the democratic reformers, they tell us, all the “radical” opponents of “privilege” and “monopoly” were in the Democratic Party. The radical ferment of the period was expressed through Jacksonianism. That is their argument. And it is true that much of the agrarian radicalism, petty-bourgeois reformism and proletarian discontent found its expression in the Jacksonian Party. But here again we must proceed with care, and sift out the kernel of truth from the husk of phrases.

The planting class since Jefferson’s day had worked out an elaborate ideology with which to justify their rule and their struggle against the capitalist class. Men like Jefferson, John Taylor, John C. Calhoun and certain Jacksonian leaders demonstrate this. Their conception of an ideal society was a basically agricultural economy which they could dominate with ease. An extensive polemical literature was developed against bourgeois ideology placing the “producing classes” on one side of a struggle against the “non-producing classes.” It would of course be a mistake to suppose that the planters saw themselves for what they really were: the most parasitic class of the nation. By an ideological sleight-of-hand whose chief attainment was an absolute disregard of the slaves who were the actual producers, the planters converted themselves into the primary producing class of the South and the nation! Violent declamations against the capitalist thief who steals from the producer the fruit of his toil conjured up visions of the planter and his family in their immaculate white clothes, picking cotton all day in the hot sun, month in and month out, only to be robbed of the fruit of their toil by Northern parasites. So spoke the worst thief of all, the slaveholder. And he saw nothing false in his fantastic ideology, so accustomed was he to think of the labor of his slaves as unquestionably “his own” as though he had performed it himself.

The democratic agitation of the Northern Jacksonians followed these same lines. It pointed out many valuable truths about the capitalist class, and had certain indubitable progressive results. But it suffered from an unpardonable defect – that of defending the slave economy. This defect gave it a generally reactionary cast in the national sphere. The apologist-historians protest that slavery was concentrated in the South, and the democratic agitation in the North had to fight the main enemy. They point to a certain type of Abolitionist whose misleading role it was to make the sins of slavery an excuse for the sins of capitalism. Here too there is a certain grain of truth. Yet what of the Southern Jacksonians? Did they expose and combat slavery? On the contrary, they helped to tighten the noose around the black man’s neck. The question should not be posed sectionally to begin with, for Jacksonianism was a national movement. Had it been truly “democratic,” it would have condemned both slave and capitalist exploitation, and fought first of all against the slave system.

Jacksonianism and Abolitionism

The Abolition question, as a matter of fact, is the touchstone of Jacksonianism. It seems difficult to understand how a national movement committed to forthright democratic agitation could have avoided the issue of slavery, or even stood altogether on the reactionary side. Difficult to comprehend, that is, if one does not grasp the fact of slaveholder hegemony in the Democratic Party. It is amazing how many different types of reformers made up the Northern wing of the Democratic Party. It was a reform association with one law: you must leave the issue of human slavery strictly alone! Abolitionism was, as A.M. Schlesinger Jr. mentions in passing, the “untouchable” of the Democratic Party. In The Age of Jackson he writes:

The Jacksonians in the thirties were bitterly critical of Abolitionists. The outcry against slavery, they felt, distracted attention from the vital economic question of Bank and currency while at the same time it menaced the Southern alliance so necessary for the success of the reform program (!!). A good deal of Jacksonian energy, indeed, was expended in showing how the abolition movement was a conservative plot ... Ely Moore [a union leader who became a Democratic Congressman] spoke for much of labor in his charge that the Whigs planned to destroy the power of the Northern working classes by freeing the Negro “to compete with the Northern white man in the labor market.” ... From reformers like Fanny Wright and Albert Brisbane to party leaders like Jackson and Van Buren, the liberal movement united in denouncing the Abolitionists.

Here, from the mouth of a modern apologist, we have a fair sample of the Alice-in-Wonderland reasoning of the Jacksonian “radicals.” An alliance with slaveholders is made to “reform” society, and it must not be endangered by chatter against human slavery!

A Democrat who took his democracy seriously, and extended it to the Negro slaves had no place in this “Democratic” party. There is an instructive case. William Leggett, one of the ablest journalists of the New York Tammany organization in 1835 attacked an order issued by Amos Kendall, Jackson’s Postmaster General (and incidentally radical-in-chief of the Democratic Party!), which barred Abolitionist literature from free national circulation through the mails. In return Leggett was promptly excommunicated from the Party and ruthlessly cast aside. He was pursued to the grave for his heresy, and afterwards Tammany Hall had the ironical temerity to honor his memory with a bust in the same room in which he had been read out of the party.

The issue of slavery was the key to the real nature of Jacksonianism, as it was to become the key to all parties, issues and men. The uncompromising defense of slavery by Jacksonian “democrats” marks the movement as a planter dominated upsurge. The custom of historians to ignore this, or to give it only passing reference without halting or modifying their paeans to Jacksonian “democracy” brings them close to dishonesty. They cannot sidestep the issue by pointing to numerous Jacksonians of the North who later became free-soil advocates. That belongs to a later period, when the workers and farmer pawns of the slavocracy were torn away by the developments preceding Civil War. Pro-slavery stamps Jacksonianism with an indelible mark.

As a last defense against the conception of Jacksonianism as a planter power, the historians of the Turner and Beard schools point to the fact that the majority of large planters were for a time supporters of Whig policies against Jackson. Here too there is a germ of an idea, but again it must be separated from the false interpretation placed upon it.

Division Among the Planters

In our previous article, The Jackson Period in American History, we discussed the role of the large planters, particularly of the eastern region. They had grown accustomed to ruling through an alliance with and concessions to the Northern capitalists. When conditions make it difficult or impossible for a class to continue in its previous path, a conservative section of that class tends always to stand in the way of the necessary turn. The Whig planters wanted to continue to rule “in the old way.” A sharp-eyed historian of the South has perceived the nature of this split in the planting class. William E. Dodd writes in his book, The Cotton Kingdom:

Still there were differences ... The larger planters and justices of the older counties everywhere tended to follow Clay, while the smaller planters, the rising business men, liked the rougher Jackson way. Besides, Jackson could carry the West, and the votes of the West were necessary to any aggressive national policy. But these differences were the differences of older and younger groups, not the differences of social irreconcilables. Consequently, though each party twitted the other on occasion with being disloyal to slavery, in any great crisis they were almost certain to unite, for whatever happened, the planters felt that they must control the cotton kingdom. (Our emphasis.)

Marxists see the Jackson period as a period of continued planter rule, modified in its external aspects by changing class alignments, and attaching to itself a pseudo-democratic movement of petty-bourgeois reformers who drew behind them large urban and agrarian masses. There can be no “return to Jackson.” Although Jackson fought the capitalists, he fought them as a representative of the slaveowning class. There cannot be a return to Jackson any more than there can be a return to slavery.

What of the “modern significance of Jacksonian Democracy” of which the liberals speak so glibly? Jackson and his party did represent a new departure, a new tradition in American politics. They represented the adaptation of the ruling class to the mass movements of workers and farmers. Every essential element of modern party usage stems from Jackson’s time. Extended suffrage, party nominating conventions, publication of the popular vote, choice of Presidential electors by popular vote, elective judiciary and so forth, first began to predominate in his period. Likewise the spoils system in national politics, corrupt political machines, and ward heeling politicians, candidates without principles, and demagogic campaigns. The Jackson managers in the campaign of 1828 “cleverly” concealed Jackson’s stand on every important issue in national affairs, stressing only his rough western virtues. Little did they realize that they were making a stick to break their own backs. Twelve years later the Whigs had the same “brilliant” idea, and put into the field a candidate who could out-drink, out-fight and out-log-cabin Jackson’s party, and he carried the country. Thus was developed the modern mode of class rule concealed behind the appeal to the common man. In a way it was a political “revolution” – in methods.

Utterly false is the attempt to find a “modern significance” for Jacksonianism in the phrases and slogans of that movement without regard to its class foundation. Such an attempt leaves the modern liberal with nothing to build on but ... phrases. But phrases are powerless against capitalism now as they were powerless against slavery then. Only the movements of social classes have the power to change society. If Jacksonianism has any “modern significance” it is this: only by allying themselves with an economically predominant class on the road to power can the urban and agrarian petty-bourgeois masses break the capitalist chains that bind them. That modern class, which is the gravedigger of capitalism, is the proletariat. Marxists will work to build the power of this class and to gain for it allies from other classes. We leave empty-headed liberals to celebrate the reactionary subservience of the popular movement to the slaveholding class a century ago, as they celebrated the subservience of the popular movement to the capitalist-Roosevelt demagogy more recently.


Last updated on 19.7.2006