Historian Gordon Wood wonders if we are in a new “Age of Jackson.” Is Wood making a historical analogy? This is unusual for him.
Here is a taste:
Many people have compared Donald Trump’s presidency to that of Andrew Jackson in the first half of the nineteenth century. Trump himself hung a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office. And though Trump is hardly the military hero that Jackson was, the periods in which their presidencies occurred have some striking similarities.
The Jacksonian era, like our own, was a time of extreme democratization and rampant anti-elitism. The Jacksonians insisted that anyone (by which they meant any white adult male) could serve in any political office. No longer would education, social status, and respectability matter. Such egalitarian claims alarmed the Harvard- and Yale-educated elites of the 1820s and 1830s, just as they do today.
Moreover, we, too, are living in an era when weakened traditional authorities are being challenged. Following the 2020 presidential election, one Democratic pollster concluded that Trump supporters “don’t trust the news media. They don’t trust elites. They don’t trust scientists. They don’t trust academics. They don’t trust experts.” In antebellum America, Jackson’s supporters were likewise suspicious and mistrustful of authority.
While the Jacksonians regarded the common man as the ultimate source of all authority, they could only have dreamed of the role that social media has enabled ordinary people to play. The penny press of the 1830s couldn’t hold a candle to Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms that enable everyone to participate in the creation of popular opinion.
Nonetheless, the Jacksonian era offers lessons that can help us comprehend our own age. The early nineteenth century is when Americans started increasingly describing their society in non-pejorative terms as a “mass” of “almost innumerable wills.” Individuals were weak and blind, the historian George Bancroft observed, but the mass was strong and wise.
Read the rest at Project Syndicate.
Wood ends the piece this way: “Such was the popular culture of Jackson’s America, a distant democratic world that eerily resembles our own.” He uses the word “distant.” Now that sounds more like him.