Jackson Versus Biddle: The Struggle over the Second Bank of the United States

By George Rogers Taylor | Go to book overview

Bray Hammond: PUBLIC POLICY AND NATIONAL BANKS

MR. Schlesinger's book is important and abounds in excellences: it deals with a significant period, it is comprehensive in its interest, and it is entertainingly written. Mr. Schlesinger has a fine talent for peopling an epoch vividly. But his book is marred by two faults. One is a Manichaean naïveté with respect to the nobility of all things Jacksonian and the sordidness of all things opposed. The other is a fumbling treatment of economic matters and particularly of the Bank of the United States.

Mr. Schlesinger's vocabulary purrs over his friends. The landscapes at the Hermitage and Kinderhook smile in a fashion not noticeable where Whigs and Federalists live. The Jacksonian leaders have a 'pervading insight," their wrath is "magnificent," one or another of them is "handsome," "grave," "Masterly," "erudite," "thoughtful," "quiet," "intelligent," "brilliant," etc., etc., and the old hero himself is touchingly fond of children. The opposition is a sorry outfit. They are Bank "lackeys," they "roar"' and "snarl," they deal in "hullabaloo," they are "phony," they have "fantasies," they work "backstairs," their best minds are "opaque," and one gets the impression that Mr. Schlesinger never thinks of them as loving little children at all. Jackson's trick of evading awkward questions by simulating an apoplectic rage that filled his visitors with fear lest the aged president burst a blood vessel on their account is described with affectionate amusement and admiration. The immense services of Hamilton to his country are disregarded. The reader is allowed to look at Van Buren only through high-powered magnifying glasses. Marshall and Story are written down with casual finality, and Taney is promoted as if no dissent existed; Webster is about the only member of Mr. Schlesinger's flock of goats whose defense he bothers to notice.

The Bank war is properly very important in Mr. Schlesinger's account, and yet he does not make the Bank of the United States a clearly functioning financial institution nor Nicholas Biddle a central banker with specific monetary policies and programs that can be appraised. Instead he makes the Bank a dim sort of moneyed monstrosity and Biddle a vague, sinister figure, "drunk with power," whose career is a darkened background for Jackson's gleaming achievements. This makes poor history. The Bank of the United States was a central bank and should be discussed as such. But Mr. Schlesinger never uses the term, never mentions the purposes for which the Bank was set up, and never but casually speaks of its functions as public in their nature. He says it was "privately controlled"; but so was the Bank of England

____________________
This review of Schlesinger The Age of Jackson is reprinted from The Journal of Economic History, 6 (May, 1946), 79-84, by permission of the New York University Press.

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