Book Review: The Birth of Modern Politics by Lynn Hudson Parsons

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By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, July 19, 2009


Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams and the Election of 1828

By Lynn Hudson Parsons

Oxford Univ. 252 pp. $24.95

"The Birth of Modern Politics" is short, smart, well-written and well-researched. Lynn Hudson Parsons is clearly a fair- minded and scrupulous historian. So it feels a bit churlish to point out that his fine new book is not about the birth of modern politics.

It is, as his subtitle more accurately suggests, a book about Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams and (once he gets to it) the election of 1828 -- two infinitely compelling men and a reasonably compelling election that generated important shifts in the practice of politics and the direction of the nation, even though its outcome was never really in doubt. It's kind of sad that even the venerable Oxford University Press feels it has to milk the present to sell the past, as if stories about our national evolution need to prove their "relevance." It's a sign of the times that the press release for "The Birth of Modern Politics" tries to link it to Sarah Palin's shopping spree and the New Yorker's "terrorist fist bump" cover, which, fortunately, go unmentioned in the book's pages.

Parsons himself is careful not to overstate the case for the Adams-Jackson contest in 1828 as a revolution in politics. He notes that some historians have described it as the first truly democratic election, or the first unabashedly partisan election, but he never exactly endorses those arguments. It was more democratic than previous elections, with a 57-percent white male turnout, but most of the population was still ineligible to vote, and results were still skewed by the three-fifths rule that amplified the influence of Southern planters by giving their states partial credit for their non-voting slaves. The election featured new advances in partisanship -- such as the coordinated media and get-out-the-vote strategies pioneered by Jacksonians-- but Jackson and Adams were actually members of the same party. And while the election of 1828 was certainly a nasty battle, it wasn't the first nasty battle or even the most nasty battle to date.

In fact, very little of what we think of as modern politics was born in 1828. It's not just that there was no TV, Internet, campaign planes or 24-hour news cycle; there were no primaries, stump speeches, media interviews or even a single election day. Parsons does describe the birth of a few enduring tactics, but these rudimentary advances reveal as little about modern politics as a description of a man's birth would reveal about the man. For example, he suggests that political fundraising began in 1828, but his only real example is $11,000 that Massachusetts Jacksonians apparently sent to a national Jacksonian newspaper -- perhaps because they wanted to read it? He also argues that Jackson was the first presidential candidate to actively seek the office rather than merely obey the will of the people. However, writing bland letters to supporters and welcoming visitors to the Hermitage was still a long way from the epic cross-country solicitations of a modern candidate.

Parsons is more convincing when he sticks to the Jackson-Adams story. And it's a good story! It would be hard to make up two more diametrically opposed protagonists. Jackson was American mythology, a hardscrabble Scots-Irish child of the southwestern frontier, a slaveholding planter with a feel for the common man, a gaunt, fiery, honor-obsessed warrior. Adams was American royalty, a Harvard-educated, Europe-trained child of the northeastern elite, an antislavery intellectual with no feel whatsoever for the common man, a plump, dour, honor-obsessed diplomat.

For all their personal, temperamental and cultural differences, Jackson and Adams were on the same side of the most important issue of their day; they were fervent believers in America's destiny to be a continental superpower. The best example came during the Seminole Wars, when Gen. Jackson triggered an international incident and foreshadowed the Bush Doctrine -- sometimes the past really is prologue -- with a preemptive and unauthorized invasion of Spanish Florida for harboring Indian "terrorists." President Monroe's Cabinet was almost unanimously appalled by Jackson's freelancing, but Adams, then the secretary of state, defended him as a patriotic agent of American power and used the facts on the ground to negotiate a treaty annexing Florida to the United States.

The mutual support society ended after the election of 1824, when Jackson won a plurality of the electoral vote, but Adams won a runoff in the House of Representatives, thanks to the machinations of Speaker Henry Clay. Adams then had the bad judgment to nominate Clay to be secretary of state, and Clay had the bad judgment to accept, creating the appearance of a "corrupt bargain" that tainted the entire Adams presidency. Jackson had fought duels over less, and his pique instantly converted him into a furious opponent of the administration. As Adams pushed a bold agenda of expansionary government, it became clear that the frontiersman and the cosmopolitan had little in common on the other big issues of the day. Jackson was the populist leader of the agrarian class, leery of federal power and egghead politicians, opposed to national banks and national debt and paper money; Adams was the elitist leader of the merchant class, leery of mob rule and "state's rights," a believer in national improvement. And as a candidate for reelection, he was doomed.

The Jackson wing of the National Republican Party -- finally united around one candidate -- would dominate the next generation of American politics under the name of the Democratic Party. The Adams wing would soon split off and join the leftovers of the Federalist Party to form the Whigs. Parsons does a nice job of explaining how the Jacksonian era came to pass, resisting the temptation to inject suspense where it didn't really exist while recognizing the high stakes. In the end, it was Jackson, he writes, "who would come to represent the future" -- a future where every vote would count, a future where overt intellect could be a political liability, a future of political campaigns run like military campaigns with war rooms, field generals, foot soldiers and battleground states.

In some ways, though, modern politics took a beating in the election of 1828. For it was John Quincy Adams who represented the real future of the country. It was a future of big government and skyrocketing debt, a future of financial complexity and international engagement, a future where all men were truly created equal. Today we tend to think of modern politics as cable hosts prattling about Palin's shopping spree. But as voters understood much better in 1828, there's more to politics than that.

Michael Grunwald, a senior national correspondent at Time magazine, is the author of "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise."

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