The Magazine

Old Hickory

What America owes to our seventh president.

May 15, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 33 • By CHRISTOPHER LEVENICK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Andrew Jackson

His Life and Times

by H.W. Brands

Doubleday, 640 pp., $35

AMERICANS TEND TO REMEMBER heroes in one of two ways. First are those for whom apotheosis limns the memory: George Washington and Martin Luther King are usually spoken of in hushed and reverential tones. Such men seem not to have been born, but descended from above; their every gesture, every word, appears perfectly preordained. Those of the second type enjoy similar respect, to be sure; but their memory somehow retains the incidents of actual flesh and blood. One strains to imagine Theodore Roosevelt without bully and bluster, just as one can hardly conceive of Abraham Lincoln without homespun laughter giving way to deepest agony.

Andrew Jackson belongs to the latter type, as H.W. Brands makes clear in this lively biography of the seventh president. Jackson packed an awful lot of living into his 78 years. Conflict seemed to find him, and he seemed incapable of walking away. Renowned for his utter ruthlessness towards those he hated, he was equally capable of heartbreaking tenderness towards those he loved. He could lay waste to a Creek village, slaughtering its inhabitants and torching its winter stores, only to take pity on an orphaned Indian boy, adopting him on the spot.

Nowhere were Jackson's all too human attributes more plainly visible than in the aspersions his many enemies heaped upon him. For wedding his true love while she was still legally bound to another man, they called him a bigamist. For his rustic manners, they called him an idiot; for his horses, a gambler; for his gin, a tippler; and for his politics, a Bonaparte. And always they called him a savage, no less for his exploits in battle than for his repeated indulgence in the recreational bloodsport of dueling. (Jackson remains the only president known to have killed a man in cold blood.)

Calumny, however, did little to detract from Jackson's popularity. Farmers and laborers throughout the fledgling republic could relate to someone who enjoyed no advantage of birth, who arrived in the world dirt poor and won all he had through his own relentless efforts. He was a blunt man with a stern sense of honor, but to his supporters he seemed to embody the quiet dignity of the free citizen. Honor, they knew, had led Jackson into battle at age 13, when he joined an irregular patriot militia during the Revolutionary War. Captured after a vicious firefight, he was sent to a prisoner of war camp, where he survived the ravages of smallpox--only to watch the disease later wipe out the rest of his family.

Hardship served only to galvanize the steel in Jackson's spine. In peacetime he practiced law, and rapidly ascended to the uppermost tier of Tennessee politics: the state's first congressman, then a senator, then a justice of the state supreme court. But Jackson remained a military man at heart, and when the opportunity arose he gladly accepted command of the Tennessee militia. Better than anyone, he understood the strategic importance of the western frontier, and when a second war with Britain erupted, he led the fight against redcoat-allied Indians. Both sides engaged in wholesale butchery, but Jackson decisively broke his enemies at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

In an increasingly unpopular war, President Madison recognized the general's increasing popularity. He asked Jackson to assume military responsibility for the entire Gulf Coast theater--at precisely the moment Britain was amassing an invasion force in the Caribbean. Jackson correctly guessed that New Orleans was the object of Albion's eye, and on a field south of the Crescent City, his vastly outnumbered, ragtag army prepared to face hardened veterans, men who had defeated Napoleon in the Peninsular wars. Yet, when the smoke cleared, thousands of Englishmen lay dead or dying--including three generals, one of them the Duke Wellington's brother-in-law--against a couple dozen American dead.

Jackson was instantly a national hero, and before long Old Hickory was being spoken of as presidential timber. These sentiments were bolstered by Jackson's suppression of a Seminole uprising in Spanish Florida, a feat that helped convince Spain to sell what it could not keep. As President Monroe's second term wound down, Jackson emerged as the frontrunner in the election of 1824. He placed first in the popular vote and, more important, the electoral college; but he lacked a clear majority, and the outcome was turned over to the House of Representatives. Henry Clay engineered the victory of John Quincy Adams, and, not coincidentally, soon found himself appointed secretary of state.