Reviewed by Mike Oppenheim
By H.W. Brands
Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) was our most unlikable president: touchy, belligerent, prejudiced, poorly educated. The hatreds of his youth (Britain, banks, the Eastern establishment, Indians) stayed with him until his death. Yet he was unquestionably an energetic, charismatic leader. Unpleasant but charismatic men make for entertaining biographies, and this is no exception. Veteran University of Texas at Austin and Pulitzer Prize–winning historian H.W. Brands has delivered a doorstop (600 pages) that carries on the recent publishing trend of monumental lives of early American giants (McCullough’s John Adams, Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin, Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton).
Like Abraham Lincoln, with whom many compare him, Andrew Jackson was born poor, studied law and moved west. While Lincoln remained in the law and prospered, Jackson didn’t. Too thin-skinned for courtroom quarrels but ambitious and aggressive, he settled in thinly populated frontier Tennessee, serving as its first congressman in 1796, and its first senator on reaching the eligibility age of 30 in 1797. Parliamentary maneuvering bored him, however, and he resigned after one term.
Far more congenial for him was his election as commander of the Tennessee militia in 1802, where he enjoyed ample opportunity to exercise his natural pugnaciousness. Mostly, he exercised it against Indians. While accounts of Jackson’s victories over Indians make depressing reading for us, they delighted Jackson’s contemporaries. By the outbreak of the War of 1812, he was a national figure. Annihilating the British at the 1814 Battle of New Orleans produced an avalanche of adulation, making him the most popular man in the United States since Washington.
This popularity was not lost on Presidents James Madison and James Monroe, who flattered him, gave him an independent command and prayed he would not embarrass them. It was a vain hope. Jackson rampaged through Florida (ruled by Spain until 1819), pursuing recalcitrant Indians and insulting Spanish officials. While this produced enemies in Washington, most Americans approved, and the subject became moot when Spain handed over the territory. After a short term as Florida’s governor to supervise the transfer (during which he continued to insult Spanish officials), he retired in 1821.
It was a sincere retirement. He was 54 and in poor health from a lifetime of recurrent diarrhea (a common ailment in those unhygienic times) and in constant pain from bullets lodged in his body, the result of youthful quarrels. But he was a national idol.
Brands reminds us that the United States had become a one-party nation. In decline since 1800, the Federalist Party had self-destructed by opposing the War of 1812. James Monroe of the Democratic-Republican Party won election in 1816 against trivial opposition; in 1820 he became the only president besides George Washington elected unanimously. Since Thomas Jefferson’s time, presidential candidates had been picked by a congressional caucus in Washington. State politicians exerted little influence. Most states did not hold presidential elections because their legislatures chose the electors.
All this produced increasing unrest in the burgeoning population west of the Appalachians who resented being outside the loop. The author finds no evidence that Jackson harbored presidential ambitions, but when he did not decline feelers from supporters, the race was on. He won easily, but it was a plurality over three rivals. This threw the election into the House of Representatives where Henry Clay (who came in fourth) was speaker. Clay supported John Quincy Adams (who came in second), so Adams became president in 1824 and appointed Clay secretary of state. Denouncing this “corrupt bargain,” enraged Jacksonians devoted themselves to making Adams’ life miserable. Jackson’s 1828 victory was a landslide.
From George Washington to John Quincy Adams, the six preceding presidents belonged to our nation’s educated elite. Jackson’s election, as every high school text points out, marked the triumph of democracy in America, since Jackson was the first common man to win the highest office. Contemporary observers who predicted disaster were not encouraged by the inauguration, during which thousands of unwashed Jackson supporters left the White House in shambles.
No disaster occurred during his presidency, and he turned out to be a competent executive. Everyone agrees on his greatest feat: crushing South Carolina’s threat to secede in 1833. Brands praises this as a Lincolnesque act that preserved the Union, but admits that South Carolina’s grievance (an objectionable tariff) did not galvanize its neighbors. This was not the case when the state tried again in 1860.
The other quintessential Jacksonian action was destroying the Second Bank of the United States. Brands presents this as a power struggle and concludes that the better man won because Nicholas Biddle, head of the bank, was an unattractive character. Writing of the panic that followed, Brands refuses to join the interminable debate over whether abolishing the bank caused it, nor does he (or any historian) give a coherent explanation of why the panic occurred. Those who want to understand banks and why Jackson’s supporters disliked them should read an economic history such as John Kenneth Galbraith’s delightful Money.
Brands does not gloss over Jackson’s flaws but lets him off easily on his most shameful action: expelling Indians from the Southeast. These were mostly settled Christian farmers with towns, businesses and local governments. No one denies the reason for their expulsion: greed. Americans wanted their property but didn’t want to pay. Brands accepts Jackson’s public statements that sending the Army to protect the Indians would lead to bloodshed in which only Americans would die, that it was inevitable Americans would acquire all desirable land from coast to coast and that the Indians would be happier in Oklahoma far away from whites.
Brands does not deny that Jackson was a frontiersman and not an advanced thinker. Not all frontiersmen considered Indians vermin fit only for extermination, but it was a fairly general feeling. Expelling them was not Jackson’s idea, and, if asked, he may have agreed it was unjust. But he would have added that, since the victims were Indians, questions of justice did not concern him much.
There was less to the “Jacksonian revolution” than meets the eye. He did not ring in a dramatic new national order a la Washington or Lincoln. He did not face a major national crisis like Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was a moderate crisis. America was changing during the 1820s, and a growing body of voters felt the government was ignoring them, so they elected Jackson. Those who can’t resist drawing parallels should compare Jackson less to Lincoln than to Ronald Reagan.