Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Book Review: America's Jubilee

Andrew Burstein's America's Jubilee: A Generation Remembers the Revolution After 50 Years of Independence is an entertaining and enlightening history of America's 50th anniversary, which was arguably the most festive July 4th our country has ever celebrated. It was on this date -- July 4,1826 -- that cities across America commemorated "America's Jubilee" in a way they had never done before. Parades, songs, dances and parties were held all across the American landscape with such enthusiasm and vigor that virtually every American was caught up in the celebration of this triumphant American milestone. As one female citizen from Pennsylvania stated in a poem published in a local newspaper of the time, this moment was literally saturated in providential passion:

The deeds of our heroes, their courage sublime,
Have long been the pride, and the theme of our story
And their triumphs shall mark the divisions of time,
And be hallow’d as the Epochs of National glory!
On this festival Day,
Our glad homage we’ll pay
To the God of the Pilgrims! who lighted their way,
And ne’er shall his flame on our altars decline,
Till earth shall to chaos her empire resign!
As the poem above suggests, "America's Jubilee" served as a poignant and providential moment in time when a new generation of Americans paused to commemorate their inheritance. Burstein's book is essentially an in depth analysis of how this singular moment in time served to legitimize the providential beliefs of a new generation of Americans who were literally in the grips of a "Second Great Awakening" which in turn helped to redefine the religious landscape of the infant nation. Throughout the book, Burstein focuses on some of the nostalgic moments associated with "America's Jubilee," which caused many Americans to reflect on the deeds of their fathers, all of which invoked a powerful feeling of providential destiny. For example, Burstein makes particular mention of the arrival of Marquis de Lafayette from France, who was greeted with the highest of pomp and circumstance. His arrival marked Lafayette's first return to America since his days as a loyal confidant of General Washington. What is interesting about this event is the fact that Lafayette was awestruck by how quickly and dramatically America had changed in just a short period of time. Lafayette had left America at a time when its infrastructure was underdeveloped, its industry almost non-existent, and its people still acting and thinking like British subjects. Upon his return, Lafayette specifically mentioned how this new generation of Americans had created a unique culture that was unrecognizable from that of their parents. As a result, Lafayette actually believed that the Revolution had failed in that the republican ideals of the founders themselves had not been transmitted to their successors.

Obviously the most remarkable portion of Burstein's book centers on the death of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both of whom expired on the very day of America's Jubilee. And while most Americans did not learn of the passing of both Jefferson and Adams until a few weeks later, the fact that these two "juggernauts" of the founding died on the 50th anniversary of the DoI became the most dramatic example of American providentialism in the eyes of the citizenry. As if it were a page out of a divine script, Adams and Jefferson left the world together. For the nation, it seemed as though Providence had placed its final stamp of approval on the American experiment. Now America’s future generations would carry the legacy forward. One newspaper of the time captured this sense of divine inheritance by quoting Jefferson who stated in a letter to Adams:

We will have our follies without doubt. Some one or more of them will always be afloat. But ours will be the follies of enthusiasm, not bigotry…Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. We are destined to be a barrier against the returns of ignorance and barbarism. Old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders and hobble along by our side, under the monkish trammels of priests and kings.
And as Burstein effectively points out, certainly this sentiment of divine intervention in America's future was virtually secured thanks to the "timely" deaths of Jefferson and Adams.

And while Burstien's analysis of "America's Jubilee" does serve to illustrate many of the apparent differences between the generation of the founding and that of their offspring, the author does seem to fall short in his analysis of early 19th century America. To be certain, America did change from its first generation to the second, but the author's overall suggestion that the legacy of the founders was lost is problematic at best. Burstein does not provide any evidence that the "new generation" of Americans had departed from the legacy of the founders. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The simple fact that America's Jubilee was celebrated with such gusto serves to illustrate the fact that the majority of the American citizenry had the founding legacy fixed in their minds and hearts. In addition, Burstein's thesis seems to go against that of historian Joyce Appleby, who in her book Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans actually argues the opposite of Burstein's overall thesis -- much more convincingly mind you.

And though the book tends to be a bit one-sided, Burstein's analysis of "America's Jubilee" is both captivating and enlightening. I'm amazed that it hasn't received more attention by the historical community, especially when we consider just how poignant this particular moment in time was for so many Americans.

Overall Grade: B+

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