In his inaugural address on March 4, 1825, John Quincy Adams declared, "From the experience of the past we derive instructive lessons for the future." This was not mere political rhetoric. Our sixth president was, of course, the son of a key Founding Father who had served as the young republic's second president. But the son was an accomplished public figure in his own right, with a keen sense of history. As the country grew, he wanted it to reaffirm a connection with the generation of 1776 and the political ideals of its founders.
During that crucial formative period in the early 19th century, as settlers moved West and a series of canals helped to strengthen the country economically, "All Americans," according to historian Andrew Burstein, "agreed upon one thing, and it seemed, one thing only: that homage should be paid to their Revolutionary origins. It was that universal devotion which promised to preserve a language of unity and harmony and pure motives in an era of widely divergent tastes and purposes. Behind them lay glory days, ahead lay civil war. For them, as for us, the past was a comfort."In his rich new study, America's Jubilee, Burstein attempts "to uncover the soul of the (Revolution's) successor generation." To do this he introduces us to a wide range of personalities, some largely forgotten today, using a variety of sources private letters and diaries, public addresses, newspaper accounts to give us a vivid account of individual experiences, attitudes and thinking as the country prepared to celebrate its 50th birthday in 1826.
Burstein writes that a prominent figure in 1826, William Wirt, author of both fiction and nonfiction and U.S. attorney general for 12 successive years, "arguably did more than anyone else of his generation to link the Romantic movement in America with the Revolutionary spirit." Wirt's Life of Patrick Henry, published in 1817, was not an objective biography, for the author wished "to restore the Revolution to living memory for his generation, even if his book had to take on a quasi-mythical character." It was Wirt who was selected to give a "masterful oration" in the U.S. Capitol on the nation's 50th anniversary.
Burstein explores his theme through the writings and public careers of such figures as Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Marquis de Lafayette and John Randolph. He writes in some detail about the remarkable coincidence of the almost simultaneous deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826, a symbolic passing of the torch to a new generation. He discusses the differing accounts of the last words of the two founders, who heard those words, and how they have been remembered by later generations. Among many public events associated with the deaths, a particularly moving one was Daniel Webster's address in Boston. Burstein describes it as a "message of national religious significance.
Some of the most enlightening chapters of the book concern writings by people who were not public figures. Ruth Henshaw Bascom of Massachusetts began keeping a daily journal when she was 17 years old and continued to maintain it for 57 years. Her father had helped to organize the Massachusetts militia and had fought with George Washington at the nearly disastrous Battle of Long Island. "The most perceptible emotion one recognizes in reading Ruth's adult years' writing is her devout acceptance of the fragility of life," Burstein notes.
Burstein convincingly makes the case that contrary to popular myth Jacksonian democracy did not arise and flourish only with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. It was already established before that. "In mid-1826 the now 'knightly' Hero of New Orleans loomed as the embodiment of the democratizing conscience. There is a better way to put it: the democratic conscience prevailed in America already, and only lacked a president who would resurrect Jefferson's convincing call for the restriction of privilege."
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.