Book Review: The Jacksonian Promise: America, 1815-1840

Recently, I’ve re-read this book from my grad school years. I was surprised, although I shouldn’t be, that today Americans are still debating some of the same topics from this era. I felt this book remains relevant in our current political climate. Enjoy!

In the preface of The Jacksonian Promise: America, 1815-1840, historian Daniel Feller proclaims, “reading the past in light of our disappointment with the present does not help us to understand Americans of a century and a half ago.” [1] Feller delivers a study attempting to approach the period objectively through contemporary eyes. Instead of judging the consequences of Jacksonian events, he focuses on comprehending their causes. Feller makes a convincing argument that in the years 1815-1840 Americans believed they were unique, blessed, and destined for a special purpose and they had the ability and opportunity to direct their own destiny. This excitement, expedited by the fiftieth anniversary of independence, jubilantly expressed itself in a frenzy of newly founded societal, political, educational, experimental, and ecclesial organizations, all geared toward progress. What that progress looked like depended on self-interested ideas of progression and a keen sense of self-determination.

The book traces the enterprising American spirit in a thematic approach in place of a comprehensive one. Feller’s writing style allows readers to follow the fervor of experimentation and innovation, which characterized the period. He expertly connects each theme to his thesis. Americans possessed a large continent abound with resources and a republican government, “the most free and liberal that ever existed.”[2] Their prospects in every aspect of life seemed to be endless. Internal improvements critically expanded transportation with canal and railroad projects. Better transportation was in the citizen’s and the nation’s best interest by promoting the efficient trade of goods and information, while opening western lands for development. How these internal projects would be funded was hotly debated.

The seemingly boundless future inspired reformers to experiment in remolding the human character, advocate self-governance, and eliminate suffering and exploitation to form the perfect society. Feller uses the example of the industrialist and social theorist Robert Owen’s New Harmony settlement to conclude that “the excitement that swirled around Robert Owen reveals much about the American mood in 1825.”[3] Despite New Harmony’s quick failure, it advocated progress, and progress was what Americans strove for and wanted. Feller illustrates that this hunger for progress was not only employed in manufacturing, commerce, and enterprise but also in the realm of reason, religion, and morality.

 In the wake of new religious sects, such as Methodists and Baptists, the spread of progress and improvement was evident in the older faiths’ quest to branch out to acquire new followers. Calvinism adapted to the era by making their beliefs more appealing and accessible to the Jacksonian American, but as Feller points out, the competition of the religious groups clashed with “Americans’ wish to choose for themselves their own path to redemption.”[4] American self-determination is constant during this period and a central theme throughout the book. Many Americans used their self-determination to form social improvement organizations, including abolitionist, prohibitionist, and education reformers, to help those they deemed in need. Volunteerism exploded out of the need to elevate the human character, but not everyone viewed these organizations’ work in a positive light.

A more class-conscious society emerged during this period, along with a more prominent two-party system. Despite a shared sense of optimism, competing programs of uplift and progress ultimately collided and fractured into various opposing views. For example, the author encapsulates the drama and disputes within the Adams and Jackson administrations, eventually resulting in the emergence of separate political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats. At the time of publication, this book added a fresh take to the historiography of Jacksonian America in the mist of historians taking a more pessimistic look at Jacksonian events.  Feller sets up the Jacksonian era with a high energy for progress and self-improvement, but hindsight allows him to use suspense, building up to the divisions that eventually led to sectional strife and war.

Although Feller addresses the atrocities of slavery and Indian removal by placing these injustices within the context of the period, readers wanting a more critical and comprehensive account of these events should confer other works such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present and Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution. To accomplish his goal of presenting history through the eyes of those who lived it, Feller relies heavily on primary sources, contemporary documents accessible as modern editions, and recent historical scholarship. Because the book is thematically organized some repetition is expected. Feller presents his sources as an extensive bibliographical essay at the end of the book instead of employing endnotes or footnotes, giving the reader extra work in examining claims and sources. The Jacksonian Promise is a concise and well-organized introduction to the major themes of the period and should be read by all who study and are interested in American history.

[1] Daniel Feller, The Jacksonian Promise: American, 1815-1840. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), xiii.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 79.

[4] Ibid. 95.

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