Presidential Politics in the Archives: Andrew Jackson

Hand-colored lithograph of “Andrew Jackson. Seventh President of the United States [U.S., between 1830 and 1842?], from the William C. Cook Jacksonian Era Collection.

Donald Trump. Just saying his name evokes passionate responses as almost everyone has an opinion on the man. In the early nineteenth century, the name that inspired similar strong emotions from both supporters and detractors was Andrew Jackson. Some have drawn comparisons between the movement that brought Donald Trump into power and Andrew Jackson’s mass democratic movement in the 1820s that led to the formation of the modern-day Democratic party. Now, we all know direct comparisons across centuries and seismic political shifts are hazardous to our historical imaginations. Still, it is intriguing to consider why these two figures feature at the center of such vitriol and adulation. Is it just their individual personalities, or might new forms of media have served to amplify and project the characters of these individuals? In Trump’s era, there’s Twitter and Facebook feeds and the twenty-four-hour news media; in Jackson’s era, there was the rise of the penny press with its demand for cheap daily news and increasingly mechanized printing technologies that exponentially expanded printing capacity beyond the earlier limits of the hand-press period. While AAS cannot help you better understand the current political situation, we can provide the original primary sources to investigate the past.

Anyone seeking to better understand the milieu of the 1820s and 30s, during which the first populist American president emerged, would do well to start at AAS. After all, we have been collecting historical material since before the Jacksonian Era began. Recently, though, our collections have become even stronger thanks to the continuing work and generosity of William C. Cook. (An article in the fall 2015 AAS newsletter, the Almanac, described this gift of material about the Jacksonian Era.) Thanks to funding from Mr. Cook to support cataloging the donation, over five hundred recently donated items have all been added to the AAS online catalog and can be found by searching for the phrase “William C. Cook Jacksonian Era Collection.” Mr. Cook is also continuing to fund additions to the collection. Many of the titles are entirely new to AAS and some are known in no other copies. Also included are variant states or different editions of titles already at AAS and secondary works on the Jacksonian Era.

Many subtle changes were made between the 1817 and the 1824 editions of Eaton’s pro-Jackson biography, including the first line of Chapter One, highlighted here.

Of particular interest in the context of presidential politics is a significant cache of Jackson biographies. These volumes elucidate the publication history of some of the earliest (and most salacious) American campaign biographies. It is here scholars may turn to find more information about how presidential politics and publication history intersect. Comparing what is omitted, rewritten, and highlighted between various editions can reveal slight but meaningful changes, as is the case with the Jackson biography commenced by John Reid (Jackson’s aide-de-camp) and completed by John Henry Eaton after Reid’s death. First published in 1817, the text was later republished largely line-for-line except for a new preface in 1824 and 1828, not coincidentally election years when Jackson was running. In the first edition, chapter one begins: “The parents of Andrew Jackson were Irish.” In the later editions from the 1820s, the first line was changed to:  “Andrew Jackson was born on the 15th day of March, 1767.” Simple enough, but one could argue the first form emphasizes a passively received traditional heritage while the later revision moves Andrew Jackson himself to the fore as the subject actively being born. Perhaps an early example of brand messaging?

And one more thing to note — a president is always important, but it’s the people that make the American story. AAS collections support the study not just of Andrew Jackson himself, but also of the entire Jacksonian Era (and beyond). Subjects that can be studied using the William C. Cook Jacksonian Era Collection and other AAS collection material include slaveholding and race relations, Native Americans’ legal relationship to the American land, the United States banking system, geographic political divisions of the United States, and more. To promote these sources now available at AAS, the Society will soon debut an online resource on the Jacksonian Era at AAS, featuring highlights from the William C. Cook Jacksonian Era Collection. Stay tuned for more!

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