Waking Giant: America in the Years of Jackson

A lively look at 1815-1848, America's coming-of-age era.

Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson By David S. Reynolds HarperCollins 480 pp., $29.95

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.

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.

In one memorable passage, he writes: “If his bland predecessor, James Monroe, was the era’s Gerald Ford, John Quincy Adams was its tortured Richard Nixon.”

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?)

Later, supporters tout William Henry Harrison as an ordinary man who grew up in a log cabin. True, he once lived in one. Then he turned it into a 16-room mansion.

His unfortunate opponent, incumbent Martin Van Buren, is swift-boated as a fancy-pants elitist despite being the son of a tavernkeeper.

Meanwhile, the US becomes known worldwide for its addiction to sensationalism as penny newspapers gin up the public’s interest in murders and mayhem.

“Waking Giant” is at its most entertaining when Reynolds sifts through the nonpolitical world, tracking the rise of abolitionists, feminists, utopians, union leaders, and more than a few crackpots.

Like today, America’s religious landscape was remarkably colorful, offering “an infinite variety of ceaselessly changing Christian sects,” as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote.

The gloomy, you-might-be-doomed world of Calvinism had given way to the belief that people could get to heaven through “prayer, soul-changing conversion and untiring good works,” Reynolds writes.

Newcomers like the Amish, Shakers, Mormons, Unitarians, and Seventh-Day Adventists all flourished during this period, and religious leaders laid the foundations that influenced religions like Christian Science.

Although it’s not a particularly long book, “Waking Giant” manages to tackle trends that sent Americans on treks into the great beyond (spiritualism), the natural world (transcendentalism), and the joys of self-improvement (the temperance and health movements.)

Reynolds even manages to explore 19th-century sexuality, the American prison system, and minstrel shows, which weren’t quite as horrible as you might think.

In all, the America of nearly two centuries ago sounds vibrant and exciting.

The most popular slang expression of the time was “Go ahead!” – and that’s exactly what Americans managed to do. At least, that is, if they were fortunate enough to be white.

The crazy quilt of America shoved Native Americans and blacks to the fringes. Even many of their defenders doubted they were truly equal to whites.

Today, we might assume that most Americans had strong views on slavery. But Reynolds shows that the country was actually much more ambivalent.

Like many citizens, some slave-holding presidents found themselves annoyed by the fire-breathing radicals on both sides of the issue and became determined to simply preserve the peace. While seeking compromise to prevent violence, savvy politicians like Jackson dared to dream that slavery would fade away on its own.

It didn’t. On the horizon, civil war threatened to strike down the “waking giant” in its prime.

But for the time being, the good times rolled on, with reality waiting around the corner.

Randy Dotinga frequently reviews American history books for the Monitor.

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