Book Review: The Birth Of Modern Politics

The Birth Of Modern Politics:  Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828, by Lynn Hudson Parsons

In reading this book, published in 2009, I was struck by how relevant it was to the contemporary political environment.  Of course, the author wanted to mark 2008 as a decisive election, a bit prematurely, but this book is far more useful as a precursor of the 2016 election in terms of its themes and course.  The 1828 election marked the beginning of the second party system and for that reason the author makes marks it as the period where modern politics was born, and manages to make a strong case for her claim.  Of course, this book will be most enjoyable if you are fond of reading books about American political history [1].  If you are, this book offers a lot of context and quite a bit of detail of how it was that John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson turned from nationalist allies to bitter enemies who could not even stand to be around each other after the bitter election of 1828.  And as our day and age is no stranger to bitter elections, this book is important in reminding of us of what sort of stakes elections get tied up into, and what sort of myths become enshrined in historical memory as a result of their repetition, despite the fact that those who make the lies know them to be false.  This book will show that Democrats have lied about their opposition for a long, long time, as if that needed to be told.

The book is organized in a very nondescript way, with an editor’s note talking about various elections recognized afterward as decisive, like 1800, 1860, 1932, to which the author somewhat prematurely puts 2008 (which, in retrospect, looks more like the election of 1912 than 1932), and then six chapters and an epilogue that take up the rest of the book’s 200 pages.  This book has a long buildup, in that it spends a great deal of time talking about the political education of both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, the former a long set of duties as an undiplomatic diplomat with a passion for furthering American political interests in far off posts like St. Petersburg and Ghent (where he helped negotiate the treaty that ended the War of 1812), and the latter a somewhat corrupt land speculator and autocratic military man who rose to political power on the strength of his populist appeal and his railing against out-of-touch Eastern elites.  It is hard not to see the echoes of this particular campaign in the course of the 2016 election, in retrospect, considering that John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson had once been friends before becoming serious enemies.

This book, although it is short, manages to become relevant in the way it describes the growing importance of ambition and the decline of caucuses, where politicians had to appeal to the common person with their anti-intellectual prejudices and their tendency to see their progress thwarted by elites and those who considered themselves their betters.  In light of the contemporary political climate, this book gives an indirect but strong warning to those who seek to win high office without being able to show an ability to connect with ordinary people and their concerns, and that the image of being relatable is often more important than the reality of living the same sort of life as one’s partisans and constituents.  Thus a slaveowning autocrat was able to appeal to populist desires to throw out an elite that was threatening to dominate the American republic with its intelligencia and its snobbery and its high culture.  Whether we like it or lament it, there has long been a tendency within American politics where those who were flamboyantly intelligent had to to show the more friendly side of their personalities to counteract the perceived coldness of their approach, and that trend was decisive as early as 1828, showing just how slowly a culture changes its fundamental approaches to authority and legitimacy.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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