In the class to this point we have seen the evolution of America: from the first contact of European natives, to the explosion of Civil War and reconstruction. Underlying this narrative, there are many themes which we can see when we examine the underlying story. I think perhaps the most cogent theme to examine is that of expansion. Expansion, of control over lands, of political hegemony, and of economic power underlies the story of America at this point in time. The beginning brought the Europeans, in their hunger for land, gold, and other riches to expand throughout the Americas, driving out and dominating Native populations. This tradition of expansion was then continued by the newly sovereign United States in the concept of manifest destiny, as the expansion the United States into the western frontier. Further, it was a question of expansion that was the underlying issue that set off Civil War itself. As AJBEANE noted, one of the drivers of the compromises that preceded the civil war was whether the institution of slavery should be allowed to expand. This dichotomy between containment and expansion drove the divide between North and South as each feared that if it were not to have it play out as it wished, it would lead to an expansion of the other’s political power. The drive to expand, in political power, in national land, in economic clout drove many men’s actions as the United States grew out of the seeds of European conquest, it seemed necessary that the nation must expand. This expansionary mindset perhaps drove the frontier mindset as well, as through the view of expansion, there are not fixed borders, but rather fluid boundaries which were merely frontiers to be explored and conquered.
Before taking this class, I was under the impression that politics in America’s early years were vastly different than politics today. And to a degree, that seems to be true. After reading chapters 8-11 in The Rise in American Democracy by Sean Wilentz however, it is clear that there are striking similarities between politics in the early 1800’s and politics today. Andrew Jackson and his life before and during his presidency were the focus of the chapters. In reading about his rise to the Presidency, the challenges he faced during campaigning and the divide between him and his main political opponents, I couldn’t help think about how similar it sounded to politics today.
Wilentz describes in chapters 8, 9 and 10 how Andrew Jackson rose to the presidency and the type of hardships he faced on his way to office. On page 160 he describes how Jackson, on the outside, remained upstanding and conducted himself with t “etiquette” when running for President. He also says however, that Jackson “threw himself into the fray behind the scenes as no other presidential candidate before him had”. He also points out that Jackson used generalities when campaigning, and began clarifying those generalities almost as soon as he got into office. (166) I liked Wilentz’s writing in this part because I think it gives the reader a description of an early 19th century politician that could easily be used for one today. That wasn’t something I would’ve thought before reading this. The propaganda and slander that Adams and his supporters used in the election against Jackson is also something that I drew parallels with to modern day campaigning. Anytime elections are going on, it is common to see negative ads, attacking a candidate. Before reading this, I had no idea that this type of campaigning was utilized in 1820’s America. Jackson dealt with disparaging rumors about his mother and sister however, showing that this was indeed commonplace during this time period.
My one critique of Wilentz’s writing in these chapters is the way he characterizes Jackson’s handling of “indian removal” (170). While it was a different time, meaning Jackson’s opinions regarding native peoples is far less offensive and inhuman in 1830 than it would be now; I believe Wilentz almost unfairly defends Jackson. He compares Jackson to Henry Clay, saying that Jackson was a “benevolent, if realistic paternalist”(170) compared to Clay. He argues that Jackson truly believed that “removal was the only way to safeguard both the Indians’ future and the Constitution of the United States”. In my opinion he does not give Jackson enough blame regarding the Trail of Tears and the death of thousands of native people (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h1567.html)
The making of a Jeffersonian democracy was a big deal and had an immense impact on American history and the development and advancement of American politics. Jefferson was considered an anti-federalist and his views sided with those of the Republicans, which favored states rights and a decentralized federal government. Ideally for Jefferson, states would have the biggest impact on its’ citizens while the federal government would have very little impact. In fact, Jefferson was one of the major proponents in forming the Democratic-Republican Party. When faced against John Adams in the election of 1800, Jefferson came away with the victory and became the third president of the United States in what is known as the revolution of 1800.
Jefferson had some major events occur in his presidency from his infamous inauguration speech to the Louisiana Purchase as well as the Embargo Act of 1807. These are events that we hear of most when defining Jefferson’s presidency, yet one that tends to get neglected, even from an impartial Wilentz, is Jefferson’s interest in the Mastodon. As CATHOMSON mentions in their blog post, Jefferson among others are often criticized for their unscientific-like behavior. Yet this high interest that Jefferson displays for the Mastodon is a direct opposition to this criticism. In fact, Jefferson goes as far as to send Lewis and Clark on an expedition in the newly purchased Louisiana territory to explore and search for one of these beastly creatures. This creature is often neglected from many history writings when analyzing the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The question that arises with this is why is the Mastodon often left out of our history?
One possible theory or argument that one could make is that history is trying to wipe away the remnants of this beast. Or the negligence simply alludes to the failure of a symbol that the Mastodon was. When the bones of the Mastodon were first discovered many including Jefferson used it as a symbol of the great American spirit. This big and powerful creature that was thought to be carnivorous and ferocious was used to symbolize America’s newly found independence and resemble their dominance and power of the Americas. Yet, one thing piled on top of another and with more information it was concluded that the original depictions of the carnivorous beast were biologically inaccurate and the creature was actually extinct. Therefore, the Mastodon went from and American symbol to nothing more than a myth as it disappeared from American history for some time. The disappearance and relative unimportance of the Mastodon are why it was unable to outlast and become America’s symbol like the bald eagle. The Mastodon captured many including Jefferson for some time but later proved quite irrelevant and symbolized an America that many could argue in the wrong light.