How to Teach Jacksonian America

A high school history teacher asked me this question: How do you teach Andrew Jackson, but more importantly, how do you incorporate John C. Calhoun into a unit on Andrew Jackson?

I love answering these types of questions. I have already prepackaged my “Jacksonian America” lecture at McClanahan Academy, so if you want my full spin on the topic, get that class.

Jackson is a big subject. He was a real American hero but a bad president. I have said both in two of my books.

But the supporting cast in the “Age of Jackson” is, at least to me, more interesting than King Andrew. That includes Calhoun.

I would also mention Clay, Webster, Van Buren, Winfield Scott, and a host of other actors on the main stage that makes this one of the most interesting periods in American history.

Weaving their stories into a unit on Jackson is of primary importance. If we only focus on the president, we lose the story.

That’s where primary documents come into play, and why we should teach this period thematically not chronologically.

Start with nullification. If you want Calhoun, bring in selections from the Ft. Hill Address. Talk about his “concurrent majority.” You can also bring up Webster’s speech on the issue and then how Calhoun throttled him later on when he was in the Senate. Those speeches are also great.

Talk about the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification. You can also mention that the secessionists in South Carolina did not trust Calhoun and thought he was too soft on the issue. That dispels any notion that Calhoun was the “father of the Confederacy.”

Then hit the Bank War with Clay, Biddle, Taney, Benton, and Jackson. The personal stories alone are worth the time.

If you want to talk Indian removal, use Scott’s description of the “Trail of Tears.” It isn’t want you get in your establishment history texts. Why? Because it wasn’t as bad as the bleeding hearts make it sound. That doesn’t excuse the misery, because it was there, but it does provide a more complex analysis.

I could go on, but you get the point. Stick to primary documents as much as possible and let them speak for the people involved. That is how I was taught as an historian. I hated historiography for that reason.

I discuss how to teach Jackson on episode 530 of The Brion McClanahan Show.

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