I’d come across Major Jack Downing before this article, but I’d never given him much thought. Downing, created by American humorist Seba Smith, was a “Gump”-like character, according to Aaron McLean Winter.
Smith created Jack in 1830 while editing the Portland Courier. An ambitious but naïve young man who abandons his family farm in rural Maine to seek his fortune in the state capital, Downing represents the humorous aspect of what Ralph Waldo Emerson would call American “self-reliance.” In an era of opportunity characterized by rapid economic expansion and the birth of the modern partisan political system, Jack’s letters from Portland to his relatives in “Downingville” echoed the fears of Courier readers that urbanization would destroy the national character. But they also softened this sudden and wrenching cultural shift by phrasing it in a semiliterate homespun vocabulary larded with quaint barnyard metaphors.
When newspapers across the U.S. began reprinting the Downing letters as a sweetener for their editorial pages, Smith responded by expanding his picaresque to a national scale. Thus Jack met President Jackson, who gave him an officer’s commission and dispatched him to settle political disputes with Canada and South Carolina. Like Gump, Downing now found himself amid a swirl of great, consequential events that were beyond his limited understanding. His move to “Washington City” to become an unofficial member of Old Hickory’s cabinet mirrored Smith’s own move to the capital to be a national political correspondent. Smith’s Whiggish conservatism made him skeptical of the entrepreneurial spirit embodied by Jackson. But his swipes at Jackson were voiced by the amiable Jack, the President’s apologist and alter ego, so their tone remained mild. Meanwhile Smith continued to gain readers of all political stripes; many newspapers facetiously campaigned Downing for President, reasoning that he would be a more popular successor to Jackson than Martin Van Buren, Daniel Webster, or Henry Clay.
Talk about a Jacksonian who is begging for an historian to write his biography! Until that happens, you’ll have to be content with The Life and Writings of Major Jack Downing, of Downingville.
One thought on “The Age of Jackson’s Forrest Gump”
The Forrest Gump reference is intriguing, and sounds apropos. Of course I had to post some kind of comment!
One question that begs to answered is this: More than 150 years later, can we assess to what extent the Courier’s readers were justified in their fears of urbanization? I have a feeling that quaint expressions aside, they may have had a certain level of clairvoyance.