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Jubilant America

ISSUE:  Winter 2002

America’s Jubilee: How in 1826 a Generation Remembered Fifty Years of Independence. By Andrew Burstein. Knopf. $30.00.

1826 might seem an unpromising year for an extended portrait of the United States, until one does the math, subtracting 1776 from 1826 to get 50—America’s Jubilee. In a half century of nationhood, the country’s territory had more than doubled; its population had tripled to some 20 million; and its flag now held 24 stars. Since the glorious termination of the War for Independence, the United States had successfully defended itself against external foes during the War of 1812, and it had constructed a political system that allowed for peaceful transition of power, even in the charged atmosphere of war and quasi-war. But in these years of growth and progress, had something vital been subtracted, had something been lost? Americans—despite their ambition and optimism, and amid growing division—seemed uncertain and looked to the past to define themselves and imagine their future.

Andrew Burstein’s lively and perceptive book not only provides an engaging portrait of a long-forgotten age, delightfully populated with characters worthy of a novel, but it offers an extended reflection on the role of memory and history in American life, allowing readers to assess the dilemmas and anxieties of successive generations through the experiences of those men and women of 1826, “an expectant people,” beset like us with the problems of growth, economic change, and social division. “All Americans agreed upon one thing, and, it seemed, one thing only: that homage should be paid to their Revolutionary origins,” Burstein writes. “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.”

Challenging the fashions of conventional periodization, and rehabilitating an in-between era, America’s Jubilee critically and sympathetically reanimates a lost world of Americans, “whose wrinkled images have needed smoothing.” It trains particular attention on one remarkable day—July 4, 1826—sanctified by the double apotheosis of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who died within hours of each other on the nation’s 50th birthday. But the book ranges more broadly over time and space to paint a rich, nuanced, and beautifully rendered study—an historical landscape—of the United States. Burstein’s story includes the famous, the not-so-famous—then “household names,” but largely forgotten now—and the obscure, who together peopled the Early Republic. Who were these people? What was their America like? Burstein asks, “What were they trying to retrieve or restore as they celebrated on July 4, 1826?” And “what did the Jubilee mean to them?”

Burstein begins on the eve of the Jubilee, brilliantly mapping his terrain and introducing his subject through the spectacular American excursion of the Marquis de Lafayette. No national tour in American history has ever caused a greater sensation than Lafayette’s magnificent return to the United States in 1824—25, as the revolutionary hero from France visited the scenes of his service and triumph and commanded massive crowds of adoring spectators. The gratitude Americans expressed to the French protégé of General Washington served to reassure them of their national purpose and to reconnect them to their past. Lafayette, as the last living general of the American Revolution, represented the national creation story itself. The expectant American people would write the next chapters, but how would they turn out? Festivity on the occasion of the Jubilee simultaneously broached and forestalled the question.

Lafayette’s circuit wove through all 24 states, and “the Nation’s Guest” was received grandly by the country’s most notable citizens, among them John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, outgoing President James Monroe, the newly-elected President John Quincy Adams, and the military champion and future president, Andrew Jackson. In his own tour de force, Burstein uses Lafayette’s sentimental journey to survey the national landscape and its inhabitants, taking us—alongside Lafayette—through seaport cities and upstart Western towns, along the nation’s waterways, both natural and artificial (the Erie Canal was in its first year of operation in 1825), through city streets and over backwoods roads, amid common folk and into elite drawing rooms. Lafayette watched midnight strike on the Fourth of July in New York City in 1825—the Jubilee year had begun—and remained in the United States until September, when he bid the country a fond adieu. Prophetically, a vibrant rainbow adorned the sky as Lafayette passed through the Chesapeake Bay, sailing into the sunrise.

Within this finely-limned historical landscape, Burstein paints exemplary biographical images, lively commercial cityscapes, sketches of political intrigue, and homey portraits of American social, economic, and cultural life. Who now remembers William Wirt, the once nationally-prominent virtuoso of American politics (he was U.S. attorney general for 12 years) and the biographer of Patrick Henry? Burstein reintroduces us to this now unfamiliar figure who once seemed destined for enduring political as well as literary fame. And through his story we learn not only of the tangled politics of the 1820’s but of early 19th-century domesticity and masculinity. Less renowned but no less captivating is the story of the author Elisabeth Lanesford Foster, herself the daughter of the more successful writer Hannah Webster Foster, whose novel The Coquette (1797) remained in print as “Eliza” Foster’s Yorktown: An Historical Romance (Boston, 1826) faded into oblivion. Ironically, as Burstein writes, the younger Foster had penned this forgotten romance “to enable the past to “rescue” an endangered future.”

Our literary journey continues as Burstein introduces readers to the obscure Massachusetts diarist Ruth Henshaw Bascom, whose very plainness makes her representative, and whose “unadorned reactions. . .help us understand the ordinary range of private thoughts among unheralded Americans of 1826.” Through Bascom’s story, Burstein explores the critical connections between life and death in an uncertain, dangerous world; he reads Bascom’s diary perceptively as a chronicle of an early 19th-century culture of bereavement. The saga of Ethan Allen Brown, born auspiciously on July 4, 1776, in Connecticut and achieving passing fame as an early governor of Ohio and a canal promoter, leads us west to explore American economic growth and territorial expansion. Here the promising metropolis of Chillicothe, Ohio is equally the star of Burstein’s narrative, which weaves in captivating detail through everyday matters of commercial farming, cheese production, boot and shoe manufacturing, food and clothing, frontier newspaper publishing, education, politics, and religion.

Numerous other unforgettable, forgotten figures emerge from Burstein’s gallery of chapters—like the sexually ambiguous, politically powerful John Randolph of Roanoke, for example, or South Carolina Congressman George McDuffie, whose unsuccessful efforts at election reform following the untidy presidential contest of 1824, if enacted, might have prevented the more recent controversies of the presidential election in 2000. Through McDuffie, we enter the rough-and-tumble world of national politics and discover (or rediscover) a veritable rouges gallery of early 19th-century politicos, as apt to settle matters through dueling as debating. Against this backdrop (and sometimes wallowing in its depths), more prominent political figures emerge as well in Burstein’s narrative. The author masterfully renders the lives of men like John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson through evocative sketches, set into rich contexts, which show these figures with depth and nuance, as living, breathing men of their times. They took center stage as Adams and Jefferson expired on the Jubilee, an event (and a mythic passing) freighted with meaning, which Burstein examines with verve and insight.

These second generation leaders and their sometimes unruly followers faced the unenviable task of emulating the Founders they idolized and sought to honor in a transformed world. Simultaneously, and perhaps in contradiction, they indulged their own talents and pursued their own liberties and opportunities. “These romantically muddled people were also an ingenious and industrious people, who defined their generation equally in terms of nostalgia and newness.” With optimism there were commensurate measures of doubt. Consider the slavery question, for example, which continued to fester as a legacy of the American Revolution that neither generation could heal. As Burstein acknowledges, America’s Jubilee was no real jubilee year in the United States, in the Biblical sense of Leviticus 25:10, which proclaimed “freedom throughout the land and to all inhabitants,” presumably including African-Americans held in bondage.

America’s Jubilee, through sparkling prose and engaging vignettes, brings to our awareness an important era long overlooked, a time of hope and possibility imagined at the time, paradoxically, through its memory of 1776. Now these events, characters, and moments can fix themselves more firmly in our historical consciousness. As Andrew Burstein’s carefully chosen epigraph, taken from Lord Byron, suggests,

And all that Memory loves the most
Was once our only Hope to be,
And all that Hope adored and lost
Hath melted into Memory.


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