On July 4, 1826, America celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the republic. America's Jubilee is a lively and well-written series of snapshots that attempts to render the pulse of the nation at that auspicious moment on the eve of jubilation and celebration.
Eighteen twenty-six was not only a year in which to rejoice about a half-century of independence. It was a very important marker in America's history. Bridging the contested election of 1824 and the emergence of the Age of Jackson in 1828, it marked the year of transition for the young nation: the end of government by the Founding Fathers. Indeed, it signaled the end of the Revolutionary War generation's domination of the White House. In 1826, America chose the path that would lead it from the end of the romantic era to the first moments of the modern age.
Professor Burstein's narrative draws on events in the lives of a number of early-19th-century America's famous and not-so-famous citizens. It employs interdisciplinary methods to weave a complex and uniquely American quilt. Some of the stories of John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and the most famous "Nation's Guest," the Marquis de Lafayette, are well known. America's Jubilee is particularly strong as it unfolds the last days of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These two giants of the heroic generation both died, hours apart, on July 4, 1826. With their passing, we become witnesses to the death of an era. But America's Jubilee is less about retelling the myths of the Great Men then it is about giving us a lively insight into the checkered cultures that flourished across the young nation at this moment of national reflection.
The book is at its best as it recovers and re-presents to us glimpses into the world of everyday 19th-century America. We hear about mother-and-daughter novelists Hannah and Eliza Foster, already busy at romanticizing the great epoch recently past. We find a particularly lively sketch about William Wirt, an early-19th-century workaholic attorney, who juggles family obligations and duty to the state. In the portrait of Governor Ethan Allen Brown, we gain new insight into the rush to build canals, which provided the bridge between the American wilderness and the dawn of the industrial age. At the same time, as we read about everyday from the journal of Ruth Bascom, wife of Reverend Ezekiel Bascom, we get a vibrant sense of small-town New England life in the first quarter of the 19th century. Although there is no inherent drama, there is a compelling document fashioned.
In telling all these stories and others, Professor Burstein weaves an American quilt as complex as the many crises the young republic faced and survived in its earliest years. As we moved in 1826 from the issues that formed and fashioned us to those which would bring us to the brink of civil war, we stopped as a young nation, and celebrated the past, wildly enthusiastic for what was still ahead. America's Jubilee sets us on the road to illuminate our evolution, while it explores and demystifies our most cherished collective national memories.
Elena Pinto Simon lives in New York City.