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Good, Evil and the Presidency

Directed by Carl Byker, Color, 120 minutes, DVD

“The Atrocious Saint” is what Old Hickory’s first biographer dubbed his subject, and the paradox fits. A charismatic visionary ever-smoldering with defensive rage and consumed by endless battles, Jackson epitomized emerging American paradigms: self-made, rough-hewn, driven to succeed, the self-reliant frontier leader with the steel-trap mind of a prophet who saw his nation’s manifest destiny written over expansive western skies. He changed American politics, geography and self-definition while he conquered the Creeks, waged a private war on Florida and beat the Brits (with a good bit of luck) to end the hapless War of 1812. He fought, massacred or bundled off Indian tribes, some of them former allies, and adopted an Indian son. Railing against his Whig opponents’ alleged unrepresentative and royalist leanings, he filled his government with crony hacks and widened voting to include lower-class white men while still dis enfranchising women and most free blacks. He owned 100 slaves and championed the peculiar institution’s expansion, but threatened to invade South Carolina if it seceded over the issue. Undermining the U.S. Bank and America’s nascent industrial economy, he demanded that corporate and financial titans in a democracy be publicly accountable.

On leaving office, Jackson proclaimed that his only two regrets were “not shooting Henry Clay and hanging John C. Calhoun.” Aside from his beloved Rachel, who died just before his presidency, no one could control or see too deeply into the tempestuous chieftain. This documentary balances critiques with insights, expertly and cunningly circling his hidden paradoxical soul.


Originally published in the December 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here