Reviewed by Ted Widmer
Sunday, October 9, 2005
ANDREW JACKSON: His Life and Times
By H.W. Brands
Doubleday. 620 pp. $35
Andrew Jackson may be the most important American not yet exhumed in the rush to learn from the leading lights of our early history. If so, it makes sense that H.W. Brands is leading the charge toward his rediscovery. For one thing, Brands teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, in a state that might well be an independent republic if not for Jackson. For another, over the past decade Brands has proven himself a bloodhound with a nose for tracking down subjects ahead of the pack. There have been at least five biographies of Benjamin Franklin since he wrote his pathbreaking study, The First American , and his study of Theodore Roosevelt also coincided with a spurt in that cottage industry. In addition to presidents, Brands covers foreign policy, politics and the history of Texas -- an area of expertise nearly as broad as his home state.
He has yet again sniffed out a fine topic. Jackson, after all, occupies a peculiar place in the Hall of Dead Presidents. We see him every day on the $20 bill and hear of him in the overused phrase "Jacksonian democracy," but we do not know him nearly as well as we do most of his predecessors or the great president who learned from him, Abraham Lincoln. There is no Jackson Memorial -- only an equestrian statue facing the White House, somewhat menacingly. He has no disciples in Congress. Neither of the two major cities named after him, Jackson and Jacksonville, is in his home state of Tennessee. His most audible legacy in the modern era may be the great Johnny Cash and June Carter song "Jackson," a spirited ode to divorce ("We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout/ We've been talkin' 'bout Jackson, ever since the fire went out").
If the fire has gone out for the seventh president, it is not hard to venture a few reasons. With his bloodstained résumé, Jackson fits awkwardly alongside our prim modern sensibilities. It is not difficult to condemn him before the bar of public opinion, especially academic opinion: He was a slave-owner, a brutal slayer of Native Americans and an unapologetic expansionist. His violent temper still frightens away the type of person often drawn to the historical profession.
And yet to leave it at that is far too simplistic an approach to this primordial ancestor. It is not simply that Jackson's impact on American history was enormous; he was our greatest soldier after Washington, he vastly strengthened the executive branch, and he forcefully represented ordinary Americans who had not enjoyed much clout in Washington until his arrival. Even beyond that, he is simply in America's DNA. We see him everywhere, from the stony glare of Clint Eastwood to the tenacity of Lance Armstrong to the NFL coaches who scream that victory is only a matter of willpower. Americans as different as John McCain and Martin Luther King Jr. may be said to have inherited something from this paragon of self-discipline.
Brands does not quite go as far as I just did, but this is nonetheless a most sympathetic portrait. (Fortunately, Brands has tenure.) From the start of the story, he writes in the hagiographic voice that biographies of great Americans used to be written in. And frankly, it's a great story, from Jackson's poverty and early scrapes with mortality to his violent encounters with British soldiers when he was a mere stripling to his impressive rise as a Tennessee politician, soldier and statesman. Brands is drawn toward the dramatic and serves up everything you might expect in a ripping yarn: murderous duels, savage Indian raids, equally savage counterattacks and a lot of detail about Jackson's scorched-earth campaigns in Louisiana and Florida. His gripping account of the battle of New Orleans, perhaps the greatest American victory ever, reveals Jackson as a defender of that city before whom even Hurricane Katrina might have trembled. Brands also has an eye for the arresting detail -- for example, Jackson's decision to adopt "a little Indian boy" after an especially violent campaign that had exterminated the child's tribe, or the fact that 200 black Haitians were fighting alongside the Americans at New Orleans.
The heavy focus on blood and guts comes at a price, however. Brands's treatment of Old Hickory's political career is comparatively thin. Jackson doesn't assume the presidency until page 386, three-quarters of the way through the book, and the treatment of the great struggles of that era feels rushed. That's a shame, for Jackson's presidential achievement was more significant than his military career and set a crucial precedent for Lincoln and both Roosevelts. For a more subtle reading of Jackson as a political thinker ahead of his time, readers will have to consult Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s The Age of Jackson -- still electrifying 60 years after its appearance in 1945.
Even though most readers will enjoy the nonacademic tone of Andrew Jackson , Brands would have deepened the book with a more detailed discussion of the crucial issue of slavery. A few perfunctory references to Jackson's slave-owning practices are not quite enough in an age when we have become very sophisticated at studying the peculiar institution. Henry Wiencek's excellent recent book on George Washington as a slave-owner, An Imperfect God , set a high standard, neither excoriating Washington nor quite letting him off the hook. Jackson's importance demands a similar level of unflinching scrutiny.
Princeton's Sean Wilentz is about to release a short biography, and it would be good for America if these two books jumpstarted a new level of enlightened interest in Old Hickory. While reading this book, an academic friend criticized me for admiring Jackson, arguing that one can trace the militaristic tendencies of the current administration back to the seventh president. It is certainly true that the twin foundations of the Bush empire -- Florida and Texas -- are American because of Jackson's intervention. But I disagreed with the parallel, pointing out that Jackson's contempt for plutocrats, lobbyists and evangelicals would clearly make him persona non grata in today's Washington. It's an unfinished conversation -- exactly what history should be. One hopes that this book will inspire many more about an essential American who contributed as much as any founder to the national epic. ·
Ted Widmer is the director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.