A Historian for Troubled Times: James Parton, Andrew Jackson, and the Secession Winter

A Historian for Troubled Times: James Parton, Andrew Jackson, and the Secession Winter

The cry echoed throughout the crisis which followed Abraham Lincoln’s election: “Oh, for an hour of Jackson!” It crossed party and even sectional lines, linking dyed-in-the-wool Democrats to rock-ribbed Republicans, and indignant northerners to anxious southern dissenters. As they scorned lame-duck James Buchanan and awaited his untested successor, many Unionists recalled Andrew Jackson’s unbending defense of federal authority during the Nullification Crisis (1832-1833) and pined for his return.[1]

Appeals to Jackson came from all quarters, as diverse Americans claimed Old Hickory as their own.[2] Buchanan cited Jackson’s example in his December 3, 1860, message to Congress, in which he denied that states could secede and then insisted that the federal government could not stop them.[3] Frustrated by Buchanan’s timidity, northern Democrats swore that Jackson would have nipped secession in the bud. “O! that we had such a man as Jackson at the helm of state,” one lamented to Stephen A. Douglas. “Then the dangerous rock of secession would have been foreseen afar off–and completely avoided.”[4] Republicans also lauded Jackson, notwithstanding his partisan affiliation, and urged Lincoln to take a Jacksonian stand against secession.[5] Lincoln heeded their advice, studying Jackson’s anti-Nullification proclamation of December 1832, and promising an anxious visitor that he would not “yield an inch” in the coming showdown.[6]

These sentiments required little prompting. Jackson loomed in living memory long after his passing in 1845, not least because Democrats celebrated his victory at the Battle of New Orleans every January. The parallels between Nullification and secession, moreover, were obvious to critics who blamed both problems on South Carolina planters’ determination to rule the country or ruin it. A closer look at invocations of Jackson, however, suggests that contemporary scholarship primed Americans to find Jacksonian precedents for their own tumultuous times. The first professional biography of Jackson serendipitously appeared in print amid the escalating crisis of 1860, providing readers and pundits with a historical lens through which to view current events. Historians, take note: a well-written and well-timed piece of scholarship can influence popular opinion.

Frontispiece to James Parton, Triumphs of Enterprise, Ingenuity, and Public Spirit (New York: Virtue & Yorston, 1872). Born in England and raised primarily in the United States, James Parton was among the leading biographers of the mid-nineteenth century.

Life of Andrew Jackson, published in three volumes by Mason Brothers of New York City in 1859 and 1860, was written by James Parton. Born in England in 1822, Parton moved to the United States in 1827, a year before Jackson’s election to the presidency. Parton’s endeavors ranged widely, from teaching to editing, but he made his mark as a pioneering biographer. His lives of Horace Greeley and Aaron Burr appeared in the mid-1850s to widespread acclaim, and he would later publish books on Benjamin Butler, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Voltaire. He is best known, however, for his three hefty tomes on Andrew Jackson. Parton commenced the project in 1857, scouring bookstores and libraries for several years before embarking on a long tour of Washington, D.C., and the South in 1859, during which he interviewed Francis P. Blair, Roger Taney, and others who had been close to the seventh president. Working at a remarkable pace, Parton finished the first volume in late 1859 and churned out the second and third the following year.[7]

The sprawling study was widely hailed as a masterpiece. “Seldom has a biography been able to excite a furore,” remarked a Tennessee editor, who appreciated the first volume’s appeal to learned and popular audiences alike. Marveling at Parton’s meticulous research and vivid style, many reviewers quoted the New York Home Journal’s appraisal: “It is as romantic as a mediaeval romance, and yet has the advantage of being true.”[8] Initially, these endorsements came from all corners of the divided country. Readers from Mississippi to New York lauded the first two volumes with equal enthusiasm, and editors nationwide eagerly reprinted extracts recounting colorful episodes of Jackson’s life, including his duel with Charles Dickinson and his triumph at New Orleans.[9]

When the third volume appeared in fall 1860, however, Unionists embraced it as a political weapon. Escalating tension over the presidential contest and secession shaped their reception of the final installment, which covered Jackson’s presidency and included three chapters on Nullification. Parton invited such a reading when he reflected on Jackson’s acceptance of the compromise tariff bill which ended the standoff with South Carolina: “The time may come,” he mused, “when the people of the United States will wish he had vetoed it, and thus brought to an issue, and settled finally, a question which, at some future day, may assume more awkward dimensions, and the country have no Jackson to meet it.”[10] For Unionists, the lesson was clear: another national hero must finish what Old Hickory had started.

Reviewers and advertisers promoted Parton’s work by explicitly connecting it to current events. Writing one week before South Carolina seceded, a Washington editor commended Parton’s coverage of “President Jackson’s war upon the nullifiers,” opining that it provided “much good reading for the present day.”[11] A month later, an English reviewer predicted that recent developments would boost Parton’s readership, since “Andrew Jackson is the only President who has ever had to deal with a crisis” comparable to “that which is now straining the powers of President Buchanan.”[12]

Advertisement from (Washington, D.C.) National Republican, January 25, 1861. With war on the horizon, readers eagerly snapped up tactical manuals and other volumes on military science. Tellingly, booksellers regarded Parton’s Life of Jackson as another likely top seller during the escalating crisis. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Parton’s account of Jackson’s unbending defense of national unity and federal authority, coupled with his commentary on the issues left unsettled in 1833, armed opinion-makers with potent arguments. Unionists who were tired of Buchanan’s vacillations and hoped that Lincoln would stand firm cited Parton’s analysis of the Nullification crisis. A widely reprinted article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, quoted Parton at length to show that secession was “incompatible with the fundamental idea and main object of the Constitution.”[13] Scenes from Jackson’s final weeks thrilled Unionists, who readily quoted Jackson’s deathbed declaration that he would have hanged the Nullifiers as “high as Haman” if they had not given way.[14]

It was an advertisement, however, which most pointedly exhibited the value of Parton’s work for Unionists in 1861. That January, booksellers French & Richstein in Washington, D.C. announced that their store at 278 Pennsylvania Avenue carried a number of important “Books for the Times.” Aware that Unionists were girding for war, they had stocked up on Hardee’s Tactics, Jomini’s Art of War, the Military Laws of the United States, and other martial tomes. Listed at the head of this militaristic catalogue was Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson, a must-read for Unionists steeling themselves for a showdown with Carolina hotspurs.

The Civil War soon swelled to such cataclysmic proportions that the Nullification Crisis now appears as a mere prelude. But in the uncertain and anxious days of late 1860 and early 1861, as Americans scrambled to find historical precedents for their turbulent times, James Parton’s study of Andrew Jackson fortified Unionists for the great task that lay before them.


[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 249 (quotation); Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 126-129.

[2] Aaron Scott Crawford, “Patriot Slaveholder: Andrew Jackson and the Winter of Secession,” Journal of East Tennessee History 82 (2010): 10-32.

[3] James Buchanan, “Fourth Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union,” American Presidency Project, accessed April 18, 2019, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/fourth-annual-message-congress-the-state-the-union.

[4] Mills S. Reeves to Stephen A. Douglas, February 18, 1861, Box 39, Folder 3, in Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago.

[5] Robert J. Cook, “The Shadow of the Past: Collective Memory and the Coming of the American Civil War,” in Secession Winter: When the Union Fell Apart (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 82-84.

[6] Harold Holzer, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 1860-1861 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 256.

[7] Milton E. Flower, James Parton: The Father of Modern Biography (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1951).

[8] “Life of Andrew Jackson,” Clarksville (TN) Chronicle, January 6, 1860.

[9] “Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson,” Ripley (MS) Advertiser, February 22, 1860; “Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson,” New York Daily Tribune, January 25, 1860; “General Jackson’s Duel with Dickinson,” Shasta (CA) Courier, April 14, 1860; “Gen. Jackson at New Orleans,” Emporia (KS) News, May 19, 1860.

[10] James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, 3 vols. (New York: Mason Brothers, 1859-1860), III, 481-482.

[11] (Washington, DC) Evening Star, December 13, 1860.

[12] “Literature,” The Athenaeum, no. 1734 (January 19, 1861), 75.

[13] Reprinted as “Secession in 1832,” Sunbury (PA) American, December 1, 1860.

[14] “Jackson and the Nullifiers,” (Marysville, CA) Daily National Democrat, January 4, 1861.

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. His most recent book is entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy (North Carolina, 2020).

2 Replies to “A Historian for Troubled Times: James Parton, Andrew Jackson, and the Secession Winter”

  1. So refreshing to see an article that gives credit to Jackson’s presidential virtues rather than stooping to splash the rank and muddy waters of anachronism and petty political correctness. Thank you.

  2. Great article. Parton’s work is some of the best writing Jackson. He interviewed contemporaries which is fodder for current historians and his output was the best of the 19th century biographies.

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