The Age of Jackson: Slavery, Democracy, and Empire
Few U.S. historical figures have undergone as dramatic a reassessment as Andrew Jackson. Once celebrated by liberal historians as the nation’s great “small d” democrat, Jackson is today widely seen as a slave-owning, slavery-promoting genocidaire. Yet, whether praised or excoriated, Jackson is unquestionably a transformational figure in American history, helping oversee the country’s transition from fledgling agrarian republic to capitalist continental empire. Jackson’s contradictions—his reformism, his (relative) egalitarianism, his racism, his imperial viciousness—seem elemental to modern America itself, encapsulating the structural character of a country that’s at once liberal-democratic, market-capitalist, and settler-colonial. But, what made Andrew Jackson possible? Was the Jackson era a dramatic, disjunctive intervention into American history, altering its course forever, or a development of tendencies rooted in the very conditions of the early U.S. republic? How can we understand the “Age of Jackson?”
In this course we will explore the Jacksonian moment in American history, reading primary sources alongside influential scholarship on the Jacksonian era from 1815 to the end of the Mexican War in 1848, when “the fire bell in the night” of slavery began to unravel the Jacksonian party system. Why did the slave economy, rather than “fade away” as some founders had hoped, become even more entrenched as a feature of American capitalism—and how should we understand the economic relationship between these spheres? Did Jackson and the newly formed two-party system expand democracy? What and who was excluded and included? How did the policies and ideology of Manifest Destiny as an extension of settler colonialism shape conceptions of republican freedom at the expense of indigenous peoples? What forces challenged these regimes of power in this period, whether abolitionism, radical labor, the early women’s rights movement, or armed indigenous resistance? Finally, how did Jackson wield power as a national, even populist, political figure, setting a template for later presidents from Lincoln to FDR to Reagan to Trump? In addition to Charles Sellers’ excellent synthesis of the period, The Market Revolution, we will read excerpts from historians such as Eugene Genovese, Barbara Fields, Sean Wilentz, Walter Johnson, Jonathan Levy, Aziz Rana, and Anders Stephanson; and historical figures including Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Fuller, Thomas Skidmore, John Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Edgar Allan Poe, John Marshall, and others.
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
March 07 — March 28, 2022