America's Jubilee: How in 1826 a Generation Remembered Fifty Years of
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. 308 pp. Notes and index. $30.00 (cloth),
ISBN 0-375-70918-5 ISBN 0-375-41033-3; $15.00 (paper), ISBN .
Mark McGarvie , Golieb Fellow in Legal History, New York University School
about History: Burstein Looks at America's Fiftieth Birthday
The history written in any age tends to reflect the
values, concerns, and ideas of the time in which it is written.
Recognizing this fact, many post-modernist historians have eschewed any
pretense of doing objective history, opting instead to use history merely
as a tool for contextualizing current political issues. Andrew Burstein,
the Mary Frances Barnard Professor of 19th-Century American History at the
University of Tulsa, recognizes the difficulty of removing oneself from
the process of writing history, but still aspires to an academic ideal of
objectivity. At the end of America's Jubilee he writes: "Romance
and ideology are unavoidable, and today's historians are engaged in an
uphill battle--perhaps a fruitless battle--to encounter an objective
reality" (p. 307). As Burstein informs us, this battle is not new. During
the Romantic era in America--roughly 1824-1860--Americans reconsidered the
events of the Revolution and the drafting of constitutions from the more
spiritual, tender, and emotional perspectives of one generation's remove
from the harsh rationality of America's Enlightenment.
describes the national celebration of fifty years of nationhood since the
Declaration of Independence. Burstein notes the great variance in public
celebrations, but devotes little space to them. He is more concerned with
how Americans in 1826 used literature, politics, and imagery to remember
the people and events of 1776.
Burstein presents the first generation of the American
Romantic era as people looking to find meaning in their lives, their
concerns prompted by a perceived need to be worthy of their past. In
vindication of their own values and concerns they accepted new myths which
"restore[d] the Revolution to living memory for ... [that] generation" (id.).
Some characters were more suitable for mythical reformulation than others.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson avoided such assaults to their eminently
reasonable personages until their deaths in 1826; in fact, up until their
deaths, they railed at the perceived weaknesses of latter-day Americans.
Despite their worthy contributions to national glory, they remained
surprisingly aloof from Americans' loving embrace. Meanwhile, men like
Patrick Henry, bombastic, emotional, and having died with the comparative
advantage of having left few texts, were prime fodder for the Romantic era
historians who wrote to help Americans "feel good about the past" (p. 46).
The Second Great Awakening produced renewed spirituality
among Americans, not all of it expressed in traditional Christianity. The
third, fourth, and fifth decades of the nineteenth century evidenced a
moralistic emphasis in American religiosity. Americans struggled to
reconcile their desire for moral behavior with growing perceptions of
various social trends--a societal emphasis on economic growth; a softening
and spoliation of young men that threatened the perpetuation of the
masculine ideal; an increase in political gamesmanship and corruption at
all levels of governance; the incompatibility of slavery in a nation
committed to freedom; the increased factionalism, economically and
politically, between east and west, north and south; and fears over
unrestrained immigration and ethnic mixing. Despite more liberal voting
rules, election turnouts in the 1820s were embarrassingly low. Americans
truly wondered whether they were worthy of the nation their parents had
bequeathed to them.
Burstein's descriptions of the events pertaining to the
Jubilee celebration must be understood in this context--and he does a fine
job of presenting them to the reader. In addition, he provides anecdotes
illustrating the degree to which the 1820s constituted a transitional
period, intellectually, generationally, and socially. One excellent
example is his description of John Quincy Adams's inauguration in 1825.
The new president was the first to wear long pants instead of knee
breeches and hose, and the first to refer to the nation as a democracy.
Another is Burstein's attention to Americans' attitude toward the
Constitution of the United States. During 1825 and 1826 several proposed
constitutional amendments sought to redefine American democracy by
imposing term limits and eliminating the electoral college. The failure of
these measures strongly suggests the inability of the new generation to
change what its predecessors had built. Confusion and self-doubt seem to
lead inexorably to impotence.
In this context, Americans' re-fashionings of the symbols,
leaders, and meaning of the earlier age make sense. In his 1817 biography
of Patrick Henry, William Wirt described his subject as God's servant, and
the Revolution as pre-destined or ordained. He ignored the opinions of
Henry's contemporaries to present his subject as a kind, sensitive prophet
of God's providence. Wirt chose to describe Henry's oratory as divinely
inspired and lauded a man of action, Henry, for his intensity of feelings,
appealing to the people of the age who had come to see emotions as being
at least as important as ideas. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both
discredited Wirt's biography, but the American people embraced it. In an
age of self-doubt and spiritual emphasis, a myth that repositioned the
creation of the nation as from the hands of God and not those of mere
mortals resonated with the public.
Similarly, Burstein examines a work of fiction,
Yorktown: An Historical Romance, written by Eliza Foster and published
in 1826, that is set in the context of the American Revolution but
ascribes Romantic era values to the historical actors. The novel's lesson
is that the pursuit of happiness must be moral.
presents a new conception of womanhood, describing the heroine's
dissipation from a life of wantonness. The "Golden Era" of women,
associated with the Revolution and its immediate aftermath by many
historians, can certainly be seen as having ended by 1826 in a book
that lauds as female virtues self-suppression, generosity, sympathy, and
emotional charity. Burstein puts the point in a well-turned line: "female
delicacy was publicly matched by female assertiveness only in areas of
moral improvement--temperance societies, religious life, and early
childhood education" (p. 82). Foster's novel also subjects male virtue to
Romantic revision, depicting soldiers as ardent and chivalrous. Burstein
wisely draws parallels between Foster's book and more well-known works by
James Fenimore Cooper and Lord Byron both to clarify the conclusions he is
drawing and to confirm their legitimacy. As Burstein demonstrates,
Romantic America wanted men of action and men and women of high morals.
The romanticization of the Revolution eventually caught up
with even Adams and Jefferson. To the generation of Americans alive in
1826, it was not sufficiently ironic or meaningful that these two great
men died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826. Within days, the
stories of each man on his deathbed had been enhanced by myths regarding
Adams's last words ("Jefferson still lives") and the timing of Jefferson's
death at the exact time when the Declaration had been first read fifty
years earlier. Once again, the hand of God was guiding events in America.
Almost immediately after their deaths, these two devotees of reason and
proponents of man's quest for truth fell under the power of Romantic myth.
One contemporary political figure chose to embrace
myth-making rather than to fight it. Burstein adroitly depicts Andrew
Jackson as the man for the times--a man whose legend exceeded his talents
and character. Jackson looked every part the gentleman, was known for his
bravery, and was presented by his admiring promoters as a self-sacrificing
man of the people. His election to the Presidency in 1828 was all but
sealed after his close defeat by John Quincy Adams in the election of
1824, notorious for the alleged "corrupt bargain" that decided it. The
irony that Burstein illuminates for us is that, at the same time that
Americans were able to transform the heroes of the past into more moral,
sympathetic, and divinely inspired actors, they were unable to perceive so
many of their current political leaders as acting virtuously. Henry Clay's
sincere disdain for Jackson and trust in Adams almost certainly prompted
his delivery of the necessary electoral votes to secure Adams the
presidency. Yet, perceptions of corrupt political dealing cost Clay his
chance for higher elected office and clouded Adams's single term with
scandal. Historical actors could remain unsoiled by the human failings
that Americans were all too ready to see in themselves in 1826. However,
contemporary politicians, no matter how noble in actuality, could not
escape the taint that their fellow countrymen read into all of their
lives. Burstein refers to Americans in 1826 as "romantically muddled," and
in this discrepancy it is easy to see why. Burstein's book succeeds both
as an informative, interesting account of America's celebration of its
fiftieth birthday and as an effective exploration of the role of memory in
writing and understanding history. As he demonstrates, when people create
heroes to meet their self-conscious needs, they also create images of the
past derived from presentist concerns. Cultural memories thus infuse
national histories with heroic myths. These significant accomplishments
are enhanced by Burstein's artistry in using his findings and his text to
address methodological issues of concern to all historians working today.
is a very valuable book for the academic scholar and lay historian alike.
Yet, it is not without weakness. Burstein is subject to a common tendency
among today's historians to rely on psychology to explain behaviors of
historical actors. Always a questionable practice, this method becomes
especially dangerous when used without adequate foundation--serving as the
basis for merely conjectural judgments imposed on those no longer able to
explain themselves, rather than leading to further understanding. For
instance, in discussing John Randolph, Burstein writes: "He
overcompensated for his distinctive appearance, tending to initiate verbal
attacks rather than wait to be challenged" (p. 172). Similarly, Burstein
asserts: "The duel also persisted at this time [the 1820s], because there
was no war to function as an outlet for men who needed to exhibit their
chivalrous attributes" (p. 200). Perhaps at no point in the book is this
tendency more troubling than in Burstein's description of Henry's
biographer, William Wirt, and his family. The digression into Wirt's
family relations offers a fair insight into 1820s American society but
does little to develop Wirt's text on Henry or the public's fascination
Nonetheless, this weakness does not significantly detract
from a very strong text. American Jubilee provides
thought-provoking insights into American culture, both in 1826 and today.
As Burstein writes: "recasting history to serve the present, while
something less than truth, continues to animate the American political
culture" (p. 307).
. See, Mary Beth Norton, "The Evolution of White Women's
Experience in Early America," American Historical Review 89 (June
Library of Congress
Call Number: E285 .B88 2001
* Eighteen twenty-six, A.D.
* United States -- Anniversaries, etc.
* United States. Declaration of Independence -- Anniversaries, etc.
Citation: Mark McGarvie . "Review of Andrew Burstein,
America's Jubilee: How in 1826 a Generation Remembered Fifty Years of
Independence," H-Law, H-Net Reviews, March, 2002. URL:
“The lively writing and
memorable detail provided by [America’s Jubilee] should earn a wide
audience…Burnstein attends to political time in a book engaged with the
pathos of memory, showing how the anniversary of a young government
prompted leaders to evaluate an ever-modifying inheritance.”
Robert E. Bonner, review
of America’s Jubilee: How in 1826 a Generation Remembered Fifty Years
of Independence, by Andrew Burnstein, The Journal of American
History 88 (March 2002): 1521-1522.