How Andrew Jackson changed the world
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
When Andrew Jackson was an 18-year-old apprentice lawyer in Salisbury, N.C., he took the bold step of inviting not one, but two women to the town's annual Christmas Ball. A scandal ensued. The problem wasn't with the number of women he'd invited or that they were mother and daughter, no less. The problem was that the women were prostitutes.
This story, from University of Texas professor H.W. Brands' compelling new biography, "Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times," foreshadows the type of revolution Jackson brought to American politics.
The man who would later become our seventh president was not of the patrician stock that had previously filled the White House; he was the son of Ulster-Scots immigrants to South Carolina, and his father died in a logging accident weeks before he was born. "Jackson devoted his public life to battling birth and breeding as requisites for personal advancement," Brand writes.
He led an eventful life. At age 13 he was captured while serving as a courier for the American Revolution. Later, he moved to Tennessee, where he began life as a "frontier gentleman," working as a lawyer by day and moonlighting as a land speculator and slave trader. It was there that he established the political career that eventually led him to Washington, first as a representative, then as a senator and finally as president, the first such man to serve in all three roles.
Brands, who has published well-regarded biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt (and a history of Texas), moves quickly through Jackson's youth and political rise in order to get to the good stuff: Jackson's pursuit of military glory and honor.
This central section of the book is the one that most readers will find themselves lingering over after Thanksgiving dinner. Jackson took over the militia, became one of the most merciless American Indian fighters and led his troops in the Battle of New Orleans, where the American side suffered a total of 13 casualties, while the British lost 1,600. It remains one of the most undervalued victories in American history; had we lost New Orleans, it is likely the British would have sailed up the Mississippi and tried to split the country in two. Jackson, always more a frontiersman of the West than a politician of the East, would have never let that happen.
One of Brand's most laudable skills as a biographer is his ability to connect the smaller moments in a subject's life to the watershed events of the day. In public lectures, and one would assume in his classes, he refers to this as "little history" and "big history."
In this way, Brands draws a clear connection between Jackson's dueling skills and his ability to absorb barbs during his presidential campaigns. In one memorable instance, Brands recounts the story of a duel in which Jackson, knowing he was the lesser marksman, absorbed a pistol shot from a man standing only 24 feet away, and then returned fire, killing him. It's the same resilience that earned him the nickname "Old Hickory": A hickory branch, writes Brands, is "thin but impossible to break."
Later, when Jackson ran for president in 1928 against incumbent John Quincy Adams, he tolerated what Brands calls "the longest, bitterest, ugliest campaign in American political history." Not only was Jackson's spelling mocked, but his wife was accused of adultery. In a 19th-century version of the attack ad, a "coffin handbill" was printed up that depicted six coffins for soldiers Jackson ordered executed during the War of 1812. Nevertheless, he won with a large majority of the popular vote and served two terms.
The section of the book that deals with Jackson's presidency offers far less drama, perhaps because there was no momentous event that marked his administration out for special historical consideration. A proponent of state's rights, Jackson dismantled the Second Bank of the United States, creating a decentralized banking system, but then later cajoled South Carolina, which was agitating for secession, to remain in the Union.
The legacy of his post-presidency years is more important to Texans; it is through his relationship with former Tennessean Sam Houston that Jackson helped make sure that the independent republic of Texas would become part of the United States. (Pull out a $20 bill right now and say "Thank You" if you wish.)
Jackson's revolution was to bring pluralism to American politics, henceforth known as "Jacksonian democracy." It's a concept Brands brings most alive when he describes the "astonished" looks on the faces of Washingtonians as Jackson's supporters rushed into the city for Jackson's first inauguration. One wrote: "It was like the inundation of the northern barbarians into Rome. . . . The West and the South seemed to have precipitated themselves upon the North and overwhelmed it. . . . Strange faces filled every public place, and every face seemed to bear defiance on its brow."
Jackson's populist aura might explain why we seem to be experiencing what may turn into a small revival of Jackson boosterism. In 1946, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Age of Jackson," which was the first to argue that Jackson deserves credit for laying the founding principles of the Democratic Party; Schlesinger went so far as to compare his policies to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. This year, Princeton professor Sean Wilentz has authored two books that focus on Jackson: a short biography edited by Schlesinger and a mammoth work of political history, "The Rise of American Democracy," that uses Jackson as the linchpin of its argument. Perhaps modern-day Democrats are looking to find a historical standard bearer for their somewhat beleaguered political party.
Still, Brands is a bit too breezy in his acceptance of this interpretation of Jackson's legacy, especially given that the man was a slave owner who was best known in the public imagination as an American Indian killer. Brands' book gives far more support to the idea that Jackson's primary achievements were military and social, rather than political, and more thorough discussion of this point would have been welcome. It's a shortcoming that might simply be a consequence of Brands' effort to condense Jackson's eventful life into a single volume.
That quibble notwithstanding, Brands is a good match for his subject. Though his book is academically astute and erudite, it is hardly above relying on a good gunfight or a political scandal to carry the story, rather than freighting down the narrative with he-said, she-said theoretical equivocation. (For that, you can turn to Robert V. Remini's authoritative three-volume version of Jackson's life.)
This is, simply put, a readable and exciting book, much in the mold of such perennially popular presidential biographers as David McCullough and Joseph Ellis. It is, in a sense, as populist in its inclinations as Jackson himself.
Austin writer Edward Nawotka is a book critic for www.bloomberg.com