Editor’s note: this article originally ran on July 15, 1984
We think our era to be a unique age of short and incomplete presidencies. Yet alone among the nation’s chief executives from the end of James Monroe’s eight White House years in 1825 to the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant in 1869 -- a period of 44 years -- Andrew Jackson was the only president to serve two full terms. Thus, by virtue of his tenure in office, to say nothing of his military fame and force of character, Jackson bestrode the nation’s public life as did none other between Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. He deserves grand biographies, and he has gotten them.
The latest one, of which this is the third and final of three compelling and authoritative volumes, portrays a man and his times in full harmony. Remini’s Jackson fought against many enemies but never against the spirit of the age -- the age, we like to call it, of “Jacksonian democracy.”
During the rough half-century of Jackson’s public career, the American republic became a democracy, a modest national territory became nearly continental, and the population rushed in to settle and exploit its new frontiers. An arrangement of carefully calibrated structural checks and balances and legislative representation gave way to a national political community in which the will of the majority of adult white males was embodied in the chief magistrate of the land. A restless people, moving both to the West and into the cities, found their voice. Andrew Jackson was their agent -- he “loosed the power of the masses,” in Remini’s words -- and his eight-year administration was the engine of national life, a “moral force.” “More than any other single individual,” Remini argues,”he contributed to and symbolized the arrival and acceptance of (the concept of democracy). His charisma, popularity, and accomplishments made it all possible.”
The central theme of this volume, rarely set forth before with such thoroughness, this view has long been the stuff of history texts. A fetching view, it was also that of Jackson and his legion of partisans. We should therefore be on our guard. Remini can be credited with using the findings of the most recent scholarship, but he cannot be said to be respectful of interpretations more skeptical than his own, nor of being detached.
This volume covers Jackson’s second term in office and his life until his death in 1845. During his last four years as president, he settled, though not always prudently or well, as many major issues as any president between Washington and Lincoln. He faced down South Carolina’s nullification of federal law by a timely threat of federal force. He carried out the purposeful destruction of the Second Bank of the United States -- the “Monster Bank” he called it -- and redistributed its holdings of government funds among politically dependable local depositories. By deception, bad faith and force, he removed the remaining native tribes from the South and sent them, on one of the great tragic treks of modern history, to strange lands in the trans-Mississippi West. He settled an obstinate and threatening dispute over international claims with France and backed American claims with arms in Sumatra and the Falkland Islands. He recognized the independence of Texas.
Most of these were acts of nay-saying: to a sovereign state, to a potent money power dominated by Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street, to the natives of the southern forests, to a European monarch. Jackson was the first president to sense the potency of large negative acts -- acts against others. With a sure and unblushing sense of political advantage, he carried out all of them in the name of the “sovereign people.” If he was our first democratic president, he was also our first modern one.
Remini’s study is a biography of the old school, governed by an old strategy and unabashed in its sympathies. Remini presents his subject in the context of the times. He does not seek after the man. As many recent biographers have demonstrated, the most exacting scholarship -- of which Remini exhibits a full mastery -- can support two sorts of written lives: of the public person and the inner self. Where the newer style of biography differs from Remini’s is in its search for the subject’s heart, including its secret sides. It springs a bit free from the always too silent record and essays to offer a plausible, if not always provable characterization. It stands back, and it risks.
Though sacrificing venture to safety, Remini nevertheless succeeds admirably in capturing the character of Andrew Jackson the public figure and in conveying a sense of the still- young nation whose affairs he led. The volume is curiously silent, however, about the one great issues of the day on which Jackson took little direct action but whose course -- by his actions on land policy, Nullification, and the southern tribes -- he affected at almost every turn: the South and the future of slavery. Furthermore, in large part because of his robust partiality toward Jackson, Remini tends to dismiss scholarship at variance with his own. Much modern research, for instance, has demonstrated the ill effects of Jackson’s economic policies: the end of even modest central banking control over the money supply, the unbridled speculation in lands that followed his distribution of government revenues to the “pet” banks, and then the sharp deflation and depression that resulted from his directive that all land purchases be made in hard currency. But Remini will not step aside often to reflect on the harmful consequences of his hero’s acts or on the future effects of the popular democracy he symbolized and let loose. The result is a portrait of a figure who could do some wrong but only along the right course.
The result is also a half-life of its subject. In Andrew Jackson the nation had a figure of genuinely great, sometimes heroic proportions. His biographers have always been taken in. Only a few have caught his profound complexity and have sought to understand his darker side. None have yet succeeded. We probably know less of Jackson the man than of any of our great presidents. This should not be so.
A three-volume biography is not, however, the right vehicle for what we need: a full and deft portrait of this great warrior- president by a keen student of the human heart. In the meantime, Remini’s work becomes the standard and best study of Andrew Jackson of Tennessee.
1833-1845. Volume III.
By Robert V. Remini.
Harper & Row. 638 pp. $27.95.
Banner, a historian, is scholar-in-residence at the Association of American Colleges.