“American Ambiguities,” Encounter, January 1958. (A review of The Jacksonian Persuasion by Marvin Meyers.)
One of the most fruitful of Professor Meyers’ insights is contained in the title. The word “persuasion,” which he defines as “a half-formulated moral perspective involving emotional commitment,” hits off exactly the strange destiny of ideas in American politics. Parties do not have anything so formal as an ideology, but they do—and must—profess something more explicit than a general ethos. “Persuasion” is a most apt term for what in fact issues from this predicament. It certainly applies to the Jacksonian movement—an upsurge of revolt against the moneyed interests, an upsurge led by real-estate speculators, investors, and mercantile adventurers, that spoke as the voice of the People while never getting much more than half the vote, and that gave a sharp momentum to the development of capitalism, urbanism, and industrialism while celebrating the glories of the backwoodsman. Anyone who takes the opportunity to study this episode through Professor Meyers’ eyes will gain a priceless initiation into what is most American in American politics.