This podcast takes its name from the term popularized by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jackson (1945). While early Mormonism and the Second Great Awakening may have gotten me into American Religious History, it was Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson that got me bit by the Jacksonian bug.
Despite the picture of Andrew Jackson on its cover and the evocative title, The Age of Jackson is less a biography of Andrew Jackson and more study of democracy’s expansion in early 19th century America. In fact, when Schlesinger does reference Jackson, he is typically viewed through others, coming across as a mythical being and a larger than life figure. Key to Schlesinger’s thesis is Jacksonian white-male suffrage, in which he sees the origins of modern-day American egalitarianism. As one can imagine, casting Jacksonian Democracy has an egalitarian force is where the bulk of the criticism of The Age of Jackson comes from today. The weakness of The Age of Jackson is most glaring in its silences, as it does not mention Indian removal at all and only references slavery in passing. Because of these problematic features, the book has not aged well for many. Many find its thesis unconvincing, if not counterfactual, such as Daniel Walker Howe. Yet The Age of Jackson is not without its modern-day fans and champions, like Sean Wilentz.
But what about the man behind the book? Who was Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and how did he come to write The Age of Jackson? What is The Age of Jackson about and what insights can we glean from it? Does it have any value for us today?
To help with this first historiographical reflection, I have asked Richard Aldous to join me on the podcast.
Richard Aldous is a professor of history at Bard College, where he holds the Eugene Meyer Chair. He is the author and editor of eleven books, including the first biography of Schlesinger, Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian. Aldous’s writing appears regularly in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Book Review, and The American Interest, where he is a contributing editor.