Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Birth of Modern Politics”


Birth of Modern PoliticsThe Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828. By Lynn Hudson Parsons. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

This is an enjoyable and enlightening new book on the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. It does a good job of discussing the coalition of supporters that put Jackson in the White House. It begins, appropriately with the collapse of the first party system and the election of 1824, which shaped fundamentally the 1828 campaign.

The author contends that this election served as a watershed in the American political system. We have known this for a long time, but Parsons’s goes further by insisting that the election of 1828 forever separated the politicians and people of the second American party system from the era of the Founders and its genteel, Enlightenment political ideals.

The author deals both with the rise of new styles of campaigning—emphasis on popular rallies, etc.—and on the division of American society into divergent pieces that had to be enticed to support the various organizations that could carry on the job of electing officials and formulating policies that reflected the priorities of its adherents. I’m not sure I would say that this election represented the “birth of modern politics,” but it is a thought-provoking way to think about the election and its meaning.

While this is a very fine overview of its subject, clearly the author’s primary intent, there is not that much new here for those immersed in the history of the era. The class divisions, the sectional influences, the push and pull of political traditions, the economics of the time, and the culture of the Antebellum U.S. are all present, but I looked hard for a new take on this and failed to find it.

Instead this is a useful and succinct synthesis that builds on decades of historiographical contributions from a range of scholars, among them Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Robert Remini, Charles Sellars, Sean Wilentz, and others. I would recommend this book as an accessible survey of the election of Andrew Jackson, appropriate for classroom use, but not a benchmark in historical understanding of a well-studied subject.

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