Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson

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America experienced unprecedented growth and turmoil in the years between 1815 and 1848. It was an age when Andrew Jackson redefined the presidency and James K. Polk expanded the nation's territory. Bancroft Prize–winning historian and literary critic David S. Reynolds captures the turbulence of a democracy caught in the throes of the controversy over slavery, the rise of capitalism, and the birth of urbanization. He brings to life the reformers, abolitionists, and temperance advocates who struggled to correct America's worst social ills, and he reveals the shocking phenomena that marked the age: violent mobs, P. T. Barnum's freaks, all-seeing mesmerists, polygamous prophets, and rabble-rousing feminists. Meticulously researched and masterfully written, Waking Giant is a brilliant chronicle of America's vibrant and tumultuous rise.

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Editorial Reviews

Douglas Brinkley
“It’s Reynolds’s depiction of an exploding popular culture that makes Waking Giant an unmitigated delight. . . . An intellectual history and group portrait of America turning from a republic to a popular democracy during the Age of Jackson.”
John Steele Gordon
“Mr. Reynolds brings this remarkable man to life. . . . A terrific introduction of succinct length to a period in our history that was once ignored, a period increasingly recognized as a time when the foundations of much of modern America were laid.”
Jay Winik
“Reynolds asks us to more carefully consider the brawling, chaotic, boisterous years from 1815 to 1848 as a fascinating age in its own right. In this he succeeds handsomely. . . . Engaging and insightful.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Excellent. . . . Outstanding. . . . Expansive. . . . Jackson and his presidency figure large in Reynolds’ account.”
The Christian Science Monitor
“An engaging new book. . . . Waking Giant is at its most entertaining when Reynolds sifts through the nonpolitical world, tracking the rise of abolitionists, feminists, utopians, union leaders, and more than a few crackpots.”
The Dallas Morning News
“Excellent. . . . Outstanding. . . . Expansive. . . . Jackson and his presidency figure large in Mr. Reynolds’ account.”
The Providence Journal
“Reynolds writes history as entertainingly as anyone out there and Waking Giant is no exception.”
The Boston Globe
“A lively account. . . . Reynolds devotes close to half the text to an illuminating appreciation of the Jacksonian influence on literature and art, with shorter discussions on religion and popular fads.”
“A really good volume of history provides the reader with a keen sense of perspective and a genuine appreciation of the past. This is exactly what David S. Reynolds does in Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson.”
The Wall Street Journal
“Kaleidoscopic. . . . The result of Reynolds’ research is a happy mosaic of an era that may well be, just as the author suggests, the ‘richest’ in American history.”
“As David Reynolds shows in his astute and concise history of the period, Waking Giant, the times defined Jackson as much as he defined the times.”
John Steele Gordon
Waking Giant is, in whole, a terrific introduction of succinct length to a period in our history that was once ignored, a period increasingly recognized as a time when the foundations of much of modern America were laid.
—The New York Times
Douglas Brinkley
Waking Giant is an intellectual history and group portrait of America turning from a republic to a popular democracy during the Age of Jackson. While Reynolds also grapples with Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, abolitionism and European immigration with consummate skill, it's his depiction of an exploding popular culture that makes Waking Giant an unmitigated delight. The reader meets Transcendentalists promoting anarchic individualism, Mormons finding God's tablets and Mesmerists time-traveling. And it was Old Hickory who produced the now-familiar notion that charisma and log-cabin imagery are vital factors in a U.S. presidential election.
—The Washington Post
Jay Winik
More often than not, historians treat this period with a wave of a hand, as little more than the run-up to the unbridled struggle between North and South. In his latest book, Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, David S. Reynolds…asks us instead to more carefully consider the brawling, chaotic, boisterous years from 1815 to 1848 as a fascinating age in its own right. In this, he succeeds handsomely. Along the way, Reynolds traverses much the same era of American history recently chronicled by Daniel Walker Howe's Pulitzer Prize-winning What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 and Walter A. McDougall's Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877, but he does so with his own unique stamp. Far more than just a political story or, for that matter, a story of Andrew Jackson, Reynolds's book shines a bright light on the cultural, social, intellectual and artistic currents buffeting the nation…Waking Giant is as engaging and insightful a narrative of this critical interregnum as any written in many years.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly

Bancroft Prize-winning historian Reynolds (Walt Whitman's America) offers a fine addition to the literature on pre-Civil War American history in this account of the years 1815-1848. Exhilarated after defying Britain in the War of 1812, Americans redirected their energy into moving west, making money and wiping out every trace of elitism in their leaders. This resulted, after four aristocratic Virginians and two scholarly Adamses as president, in the election in 1828 of the uneducated frontiersman Andrew Jackson, who launched the unique American tradition of leaders who boast that they are no smarter than the electorate. While the politics of the era are familiar to many, even knowledgeable readers will relish the chapters on social history, in which Reynolds explains how a rapidly growing economy spurred both "prudishness and prostitution," and the enormous consumption of alcohol that spawned the temperance movement. Most, according to Reynolds, took for granted that anyone not like them (blacks, Indians, perhaps even Canadians) belonged to subhuman races. Although less opinionated than Sean Wilentz and Daniel Walker Howe on this period, Reynolds delivers a straightforward, insightful history of America during its bumptious adolescence. 44 b&w illus. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

In the last few years, we have finally been seeing more books on the important Jacksonian period of American history, when the country grew in so many ways. Bancroft Prize winner Reynolds (English & American studies, CUNY; Walt Whitman's America) has produced a thorough chronicle of America from 1815 to 1848. As his title suggests, the awakening of the "giant" (that is, America) was a transformative process in many ways, including the country's growing economy, its immigrant populations, the process of urbanization, and the simultaneous increased access to land out west. The country, Reynolds explains, became more experimental; he cites religious exploration (e.g., Evangelicalism), advances in the scientific and pseudo-scientific realms (e.g., land expeditions, as well as P.T. Barnum's exhibits), and a brand of truly "American" literature as exemplified by Emerson, Melville, and Poe. Reynolds does not offer new particulars or a revisionist take on the era and its notables so much as he offers sound synthesis. Some readers may regret that he focuses more on what than on why. His primer, in effect, does not really explore the factors behind all the burgeoning American experimentation. Yet even as he covers a lot of cultural and political history, his skillful style prevents tedium. His book will appeal to general history buffs and American studies students. Highly recommended for all public and college libraries.
—Bryan Craig

Kirkus Reviews
Award-winning historian Reynolds (English, American Studies/City Univ. of New York; John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, 2005, etc.) charts the political, cultural, economic, artistic, scientific and religious currents roiling America from the Era of Good Feelings to the verge of the Civil War. Covering precisely the same slice of American history in half as many pages as Daniel Walker Howe's recent and celebrated What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007), Reynolds applies his vast erudition to a period too often treated as mere prelude to the country's most destructive war, the era that derives its name from the only figure between Monroe and Lincoln sufficiently charismatic to have been twice elected president. If the author's storytelling falls short of his usual smooth standard, he may be forgiven for accomplishing what amounts to, even at this length, a remarkable feat of distillation. The political story features a familiar cast of sectional heroes-Clay, Calhoun and Webster-and Presidents Adams, Jackson, Van Buren and Polk dealing (or not dealing) with issues like slavery, Indian removal, tariffs, the Bank of the United States, nullification, war and the annexation of Texas. Reynolds is most adept handling the period's art and literature-he is remarkably clear-eyed about the Transcendentalists-and he brilliantly explores the religious scene's variety, tumult and frequent humbuggery. More than anything, he conveys the era's sheer weirdness: where the self-made Van Buren could be successfully characterized as the out-of-touch aristocrat against the genuinely privileged Harrison;where real scientific achievement (the steamboat, telegraph and railroad) competed for legitimacy with the pseudo-scientific mesmerism, spiritualism and phrenology; where the Antimasons could be a national political force; where the Petticoat Affair could undo a presidential cabinet; where the common man president could be credibly lampooned as King Andrew; where the high art of Hawthorne and Melville competed for public favor with minstrel shows and the freakish attractions of P.T. Barnum. Abolitionism and prison reform and movements on behalf of sexual liberation, women's rights, temperance and vegetarianism all flowered in this strange time, which gave us enduring phrases like "O.K.," "Jim Crow" and "Manifest Destiny."A remarkable synthesis, impressive on many levels.
From the Publisher
"A terrific introduction of succinct length to a period in our history that was once ignored." —The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060826574
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/29/2009
  • Series: American History Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 466
  • Sales rank: 672,481
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

Arthur Morey has recorded over two hundred audiobooks in history, fiction, science, business, and religion, earning a number of AudioFile Earphones Awards and two Audie Award nominations. His plays and songs have been produced in New York, Chicago, and Milan, where he has also performed.
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Read an Excerpt

Waking Giant
America in the Age of Jackson

Chapter One

Forging a National Identity

The United States emerged from the War of 1812 battered but confident. "The Star-Spangled Banner," written late in the war by the poet-lawyer Francis Scott Key, caught the nation's mood of cockiness in the face of ordeal, with its words about the American flag waving proudly in "the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air."

The war had been hard militarily for America but had produced its share of stars, including William Henry Harrison, who had defeated British and Indian forces in the Northwest; Oliver Hazard Perry, with his inspiring victory on Lake Erie; and, above all, Andrew Jackson, who had overwhelmed rebellious Indians in the South before rebuffing a British invasion of New Orleans in January 1815.

Jackson at New Orleans boosted the nation's morale, reviving the spirit of 1776. His ragtag army compensated for America's lackluster performance through much of the war by defeating the world's greatest military power. Jackson himself, already known as Old Hickory for his toughness in battle, earned another nickname as well: The Hero. At forty-seven, Jackson cut an imposing figure in the saddle. Wiry and ramrod straight—he never weighed more than 145 pounds despite his six-foot frame—he had a look of severe earnestness, with gray hair that formed a V on his forehead and swept upward from his gaunt, weather beaten face.

The son of Scotch-Irish immigrants, Jackson had been raised in the backcountry of South Carolina, where he received a haphazard education. During the Revolution he joined the patriots in the Battle ofHanging Rock and was taken captive. A British officer whose boots he refused to polish slashed him with a sword, leaving his head and his left hand scarred for life. He inherited money from his grandfather but wasted it on loose living. Impoverished, he studied the law— without reading a law book completely through, it was said—and was admitted to the bar, moving west to serve as a public prosecutor in Tennessee. He was married in 1791 to Rachel Donelson Robards, who mistakenly believed she had won a legal divorce from her first husband. Two years later a divorce was finalized, and he and Rachel were remarried; but they never escaped insults about allegedly having lived in adultery.

Jackson served briefly as Tennessee's first congressman and then as a U.S. senator, but, disillusioned by the Washington scene, he abandoned politics, opting for a career in the law and the military. Financial success allowed him to establish the Hermitage, a plantation near Nashville on which he raised cotton and bred race-horses. He had bought his first slave in 1788 and in time owned 150 chattels. He treated his slaves with paternal kindness but responded savagely to disobedience, as when he ran a newspaper ad offering $50 for a runaway slave "and ten dollars extra for every hundred lashes any person will give to the amount of three hundred."

Level-headed but tempestuous, Jackson followed the South's code of honor, answering insults with violence. He attacked one enemy with a cane, battered another with his fists, and participated in a street gunfight that left him with a lead ball in his shoulder.

He also engaged in three duels. His 1806 duel to the death with the Nashville lawyer Charles Dickinson typified his attitude of Southern machismo. The duel originated in an obscure affront to Jackson involving a horse race and an insult about Rachel. Jackson challenged Dickinson to a duel with pistols, and the two met on a field, standing eight paces apart. Dickinson, an expert marksman, fired first. His bullet entered Jackson's chest, shattering two ribs and settling close to the heart. Because of Jackson's loose overcoat, Dickinson did not see the wound and, astonished, assumed that he had missed his foe. Although Jackson was bleeding profusely under his coat, he fired back. "I should have hit him," Jackson later boasted, "if he had shot me through the brain." Jackson's bullet ripped through his opponent's bowels, leaving a gaping wound. Dickinson died in a few hours. Although for the rest of his life Jackson suffered from abscesses caused by the bullet in his chest, he kept the pistol with which he had killed Dickinson, showing it off and recounting details of the duel.

In the War of 1812, Jackson served as a U.S. army colonel and a major general in the Tennessee militia. A competent but not brilliant strategist, he proved himself a potent killing machine. He led a series of strikes on hostile Creek Indians that culminated in the Battle of Horse-shoe Bend, which resulted in the deaths of some eight hundred Indians. Having defeated the Creeks, he forced on them a treaty by which they turned over to the United States more than twenty million acres of their land, including large sections of Alabama and Georgia.

Jackson next drove allied Spanish and British forces out of Pensacola, Florida, before proceeding to New Orleans, which was threatened by a fleet carrying more than ten thousand British redcoats. He cobbled together a small force of army regulars, militiamen, Choctaw Indians, liberated Haitian slaves, and Baratarian pirates. A series of skirmishes against the British led to the major encounter at Chalmette, Louisiana, on January 8, 1815. Jackson's troops, protected by a wall of earth, wood, and cotton bales, fired at will on the swarming redcoats, who had forgotten to bring the ladders they needed to scale the American ramparts. By the time the battle ended, nearly two thousand British had been killed, wounded, or captured, compared to about sixty of Jackson's men.

The American victory at New Orleans had tremendous repercussions. The Treaty of Ghent, ending the war with England, was not finally ratified until February 1815. Had the British won the Battle of New Orleans, they would have been in a position to claim the southern Mississippi River Valley, which, combined with their holdings to the north, would have given them virtual control over large portions of America's vast western territory.

Waking Giant
America in the Age of Jackson
. Copyright © by David Reynolds. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

1 Forging a national identity 5

2 Political fights, popular fetes 35

3 Jackson's presidency : democracy and power 81

4 God's many kingdoms 123

5 Reforms, panaceas, inventions, fads 175

6 Rebellion and renaissance 236

7 Party politics and Manifest Destiny 308

Epilogue Endings, beginnings 365

Acknowledgments 385

Notes 387

Selected sources and readings 419

Index 439

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