John Spencer Bassett and Jacksonian Historiography, Part 2

(Part 1 of this series is here.)

While Bassett certainly attempted to provide a representative cross-section of Jackson’s correspondence, several limitations deserve recognition. First, the Bassett volumes were edited and published during a time when certain topics were given more weight than others. For example, political and military matters dominate the CAJ volumes. Kinship, gender, and race are not necessarily ignored, but they were obviously of secondary importance to Bassett, considered a scholarly liberal in the context of his generation. In his 1948 article, “John Spencer Bassett as a Historian of the South,” Wendell Stephenson makes a similar observation about the focus of Bassett’s biography of Jackson: “Despite his southern birth and residence, his planting experience and the ownership of slaves, it was the West rather than the South that [Bassett believed] conditioned his [Jackson’s] genius for military and political leadership. The influence of the South was too largely ignored, for only incidental mention was made of Jackson the planter and slaveholder” (309). Stephenson also observed, “Bassett’s understanding of Jackson matured but experienced no fundamental change” in editing CAJ.

Second, the number of Jackson papers that Bassett examined was increasing even as the CAJ series was being published. Jameson acknowledged this in the introduction to the sixth volume of CAJ. In the late 1960s, Harriet C. Owsley noted the large number of Jackson manuscripts in Tennessee that remained untouched prior to Robert V. Remini beginning his research on Jackson for his eventual three-volume biography. (“Jackson Manuscripts in the Tennessee Historical Society and the Manuscript Division of the Tennessee State Library and Archives: A Bibliographic Note,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 26 [1967]: 97-100). The editorial teams at Papers of Andrew Jackson (PAJ) series, presently at the University of Tennessee, have uncovered even more material since that project began in the 1970s.

One of the arguments that I made at the OAH and in the historiographical article that History Compass commissioned was that Bassett’s volumes, as helpful as they were and remain, have made it too easy for Jacksonian scholars to rely on them instead of digging through the archives. This is particularly true, I think, if one is examining Jackson’s political career. My impression from reading the major Jackson studies is that, for years, it was easy to choose Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson or Benson’s The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy and simply flail away at the idea of Jackson being a supporter or enemy of entrepreneurs and the wealthy. (I hope I’m not reading too much into his review to say that Richard John makes a similar point in critiquing David Reynolds’ Waking Giant in the August 2010 issue of the Journal of Southern History.) Delving into Jackson’s unpublished letters wasn’t a requirement for these historiographical debates; the Bassett volumes, which identified and published the most important of Jackson’s papers, were all that were needed, and even they were not central to the discussion.

In the same fashion, biographers have also seemingly found a safe path in relying on the Bassett volumes, although, recently, the PAJ volumes have supplanted the CAJ volumes, at least up through 1829. A perusal of recent Jackson biographies finds what I consider a  paucity of references to Jackson papers and correspondence outside of the Bassett volumes. Certainly, the themes and topics that a biographer emphasizes might lend themselves to focusing on the most important Jackson correspondence published in the CAJ volumes. But, as I noted above, what was important in the 1920s might not, and probably should not, carry the same weight in 2010.

Let me be clear: Both the CAJ and the PAJ are invaluable resources. A Jacksonian scholar would be silly not to use them. My point is that, regardless of topic or analytical approach, the Jackson correspondence and papers that were known in the 1920s have grown significantly since then and demand that historians examine and suss out the significance of this post-1920s Jackson corpus. If we wait until the PAJ volumes are completed to do that, then we face the very real possibility of stale and repetitive accounts of Jackson’s life for the next several decades.

Note: Surprisingly, there is no biography of Bassett. For an introductory survey of Bassett’s life, see the pages dedicated to him at Duke University Archives and his page at Documenting the American South. I also relied extensively in these posts on the introductions to the CAJ volumes and Wendell Stephenson’s two articles on Bassett: “John Spencer Bassett as a Historian of the South,” North Carolina Historical Review 25 (July 1948): 289-317, and “The Negro in the Thinking of John Spencer Bassett,” North Carolina Historical Review 25 (October 1948): 427-441.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s