Waking Giant: America in the Years of Jackson
A lively look at 1815-1848, America's coming-of-age era.
If you check the history books, you’ll find that the United States broadened its boundaries in the first half of the 19th century. Fair enough.
But there’s more to the story of American growth than lines on a map.
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As an engaging new book reveals, during that same period the brash young country blew past limits in all areas of society, managing to redefine democracy, journalism, art, literature, and religion.
At the same time, it was also the age of P.T. Barnum, a period when sensationalism ran amok and millions of Americans dabbled in spiritualism, trying to reach beyond the confines of earth to those in the next world. In other words, it was a wild, roller-coaster ride of an era.
“The years from 1815 through 1848 were arguably the richest in American life,” writes historian David S. Reynolds in Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson. That may be a bit of a stretch. But as Reynolds makes clear, these often-neglected decades played a crucial role in creating the America we know today – cocky, ambitious, self-congratulatory, spiritual, deeply flawed, and utterly unique.
It can be a tough job to enliven the politics of a period of American history when some of its biggest battles came – snooze – over tariffs and the federal bank.
But Reynolds keeps readers awake by painting vivid portraits of the presidents.
Some of the best chapters of “Waking Giant” explore the influence of President Andrew Jackson, a rough-hewn man of the people who managed to lead despite his well-deserved reputation as a thin-skinned brawler who never met an insult he wouldn’t really like to kill someone over.
Although Reynolds doesn’t make direct connections to the present, readers may find themselves muttering about how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Consider: Financial depressions hit the country, including a 1819 slump exacerbated by easy credit and an 1837 crash that puts 40 percent of the country’s 850 banks out of business.
On the political front, critics attack Mr. Jackson as a brainless hick who couldn’t string two words together. (Sound familiar?)