The great stock picker and mutual fund manager Peter Lynch once advised, “Buy businesses so simple even an idiot could run them. Because one day an idiot will.”
After reading David S. Reynolds’s Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson (HarperCollins, 2008), I can’t help wondering if the same thing applies to countries.
Call it Manifest Destiny. Or the workings of God’s hand. Or the inevitable workings of capital and labor. Or an idea so simple even an idiot couldn’t mess it up.
But there’s got to be some reason why the United States survived the first half of the nineteenth century despite the rather shaky quality of its leaders. And the somewhat uncertain character of the average citizen, for that matter.
If you like your history strong on armies marching over the landscape or are fascinated by accounts of who skunked who in the smoke-filled back rooms, then this isn’t the book for you.
But if you read history because you enjoy the details that give a period character, that make the past different from the present, then this is your book. Because that’s exactly the parts of the story that Reynolds finds fascinating and brings to life.
Take, for example, the fact that the average American spent most of the years between the war of 1812 and the end of Andrew Jackson’s presidency in 1837 constantly inebriated if not outright drunk.
By the mid-1820s annual alcohol consumption (in gallons of ethanol) had climbed to seven gallons person. That’s three times the per capita annual consumption of 2.3 gallons in the United States of 2006.
No country can put away that much alcohol without “having a drink” being embedded in every aspect of life. The typical workday in the 1820s United States included an alcohol break at 11 a.m. and another at 4 p.m. As Thomas Low Nichols wrote in 1864 looking back at his childhood, “There were drunken lawyers, drunken doctors, drunken members of Congress, drunkards of all classes.
In 1820 the nation spent $12 million on liquor. That’s more than the U.S. government spent on everything that year.
No wonder that the American Temperance Society reached 1.5 million members in 1835. In contrast by the late 1830s the biggest abolitionist group, the American Anti-Slavery Society claimed just 200,000 members.
Drunkenness seemed a bigger—and more tractable–problem than slavery. Then.
Reynolds passes rather quickly over the political leaders of this nation but the casual portrait that emerges isn’t the one that I learned in school. James Madison, Jefferson’s successor as president and the fourth to hold that office, and in my opinion the key author of the Constitution, was “an arthritic hypochondriac with a vocal impairment and periodic seizures that may have been mental in origin.”
His successor, James Monroe, still carried a bullet in his shoulder from his days in the Revolutionary army. In addition he suffered from repeated bouts of malaria and some “undefined, seemingly stress-related illness” as Reynolds puts it.
John Quincy Adams, who followed him and became the first one-term president, was subject to bouts of depression. “If his bland predecessor, James Monroe, was the era’s Gerald Ford, John Quincy Adams was its tortured Richard Nixon.”
And then there’s ol’ Hickory. By the time Andrew Jackson, Indian fighter and hero of the War of 1812’s Battle of New Orleans, took the oath of office in 1829 he was 62. An old 62.
An abscess from a bullet lodged near his heart caused him constant pain and produced uncontrollable coughing fits. Another bullet in his shoulder had produced a chronic bone infection. He was arthritic and suffered severe headaches.
Not exactly the dashing leaders you dream of if you’re a young country looking to survive in a hostile world.
So why did the United States not just stagger through but grow strong enough so that it had could survive the ordeal of the Civil War?
I think the answer is clear from Reynolds’ book. The energy of this early American can barely by contained by his pages. It burst out of society at every seam. Temperance movements. Anti-slavery movements. Anti-prostitution movements. Prison reform. Humane treatment of the mentally ill.
Methodists. Shakers. Mormons. Universalists. The Christian Connection.
The Wilkes expedition to explore Antarctica. The founding of the Smithsonian. The New York Academy of Sciences. P.T. Barnum. The steam locomotive. The revolver.
Ideas, inventions, schemes for social improvement, new religions to save men and women’s souls, new mass entertainment. All came bursting forth.
And there was no one to say “Stop.” No one that had to be asked for permission. Jackson’s America could just throw everything against the wall to see what would stick.
It was a horribly inefficient process at times. This America threw up religious charlatan after charlatan, each proclaiming to be chosen by God (and in some cases claiming to be superior to God.) And sect after sect came crashing down in sexual scandal or simple starvation.
Politics was marked by a fluidity that produced appalling political parties who blamed, pick one, the Masons, the Irish, all Catholics, freed slaves for the country’s problem and urged that they be exterminated or sent back home.
But because the center was so weak, ideas could percolate up from the bottom, quickly get a hearing, develop a mass following, and then get tested against other ideas to survive or die. Some of what came out of this was great—a movement to abolish slavery, a school of passive resistance that leads straight to Gandhi, real progress in the treatment of the mentally ill, the extension of voting rights to almost all male, white Americans.
But what actually most amazing from Reynolds’ account of the period is how many idea and movements sprang into existence, briefly bloomed, and then died.
This enormous out-welling of energy happened not because the country had great leaders—although when 20 years later the country did need a great leader it was lucky enough to get one in Lincoln—but because the great bustling mass of hustling, over-confident, enthusiastic Americans believed that tomorrow could be better than today. So much better, in fact, that it might actually be perfect.
American perfectionism—the belief that our country is outside of history and somehow different from all the old and tired countries of the world—goes back to the first white settlements in New England. It has a lot to answer for in our frequently bloody history.
But it also fueled the growth of this country. You can feel its raw force in David Reynolds’ history of the age of Jackson.
And it may be still be—it certainly once was—the key to the simple business that is the United States.