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The Godfather of Democracy

What today's leaders can learn from Andrew Jackson.

11:00 PM, Feb 16, 2006 • By DEAN BARNETT
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IN 1992, historian David McCullough published Truman, a landmark biography of Harry S. Truman. The book became something of a phenomenon; in spite of its imposing bulk (it went on for more than 1,000 pages), it raced to the top of the best seller charts. So great was the Truman-mania spawned by McCullough's work, presidential candidates George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both tried to appropriate Harry Truman's mantle and somehow appear Trumanesque.

It was a fairly remarkable accomplishment. By reminding the public of a great man from another era, Truman prodded present day politicians to attempt to emulate the great man's virtues.

It would be a good thing for America if H.W. Brands's masterly new work Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, has a similar effect. Perhaps better than any other American past or present, Jackson embodies the virtues that our leaders will need in the years to come: Courage, martial spirit, an indomitable will and an unceasing love for democracy.

GIVEN THE MARK that he left on the nation, it is something of a surprise that Jackson isn't discussed more often. While Founding Fathers such as Adams, Washington, Hamilton and the sage of Monticello have all received much recent attention, Jackson hasn't. Other than in rap songs that evoke the image of a $20 bill, his name is seldom mentioned.

Perhaps that's because Andrew Jackson was a hard man. He seems all the more imposing when judged by modern standards. While Jefferson and Hamilton are recalled for their soaring ideas and rhetoric, Jackson's skills were different. Andrew Jackson wasn't an intellectual. He was a fighter.

By the time he was 14, Jackson was alone in the world, having lost his father to overwork and his mother and two brothers to the American Revolution. As an adolescent, Jackson, too, fought in the Revolution. Unlike his rival, the aristocratic John Quincy Adams who learned about war at his father's side in the drawing rooms of Europe, Jackson absorbed harsher lessons.

In spite of his unfavorable circumstances, Jackson managed to become a lawyer, a congressman, and a senator by the time he was 30. But Jackson's greatest fame and reputation came from his willingness to fight.

In 1806, several years after leaving the Senate and while remaining one of Tennessee's most famous citizens, Jackson agreed to a duel with Charles Dickinson to settle a matter of honor that had arisen out of a horse racing dispute. Many observers felt that Jackson's willingness to duel Dickinson was intemperate; most Tennesseans regarded Dickinson as the finest shot in the state. Additionally, dueling was already considered a crude way for gentlemen to settle their differences.

On his way out to the duel site, Dickinson amused his traveling party with his shooting skill, sometimes cutting a string with a bullet from 24 feet, the distance that would separate the two duelists.

For his part, Jackson spent the time traveling to the duel site settling on his strategy. Realizing that Dickinson was the better shot, Jackson figured he should let Dickinson shoot first and absorb the hit. If he tried to rush a shot before Dickinson fired, Jackson feared that his aim would suffer and he would miss the target. So his plan was to take a shot from Tennessee's best marksman. If he survived the blow, he would then take his time and kill Dickinson.

At the duel, Jackson stuck to his plan. Dickinson fired first and grievously wounded Jackson; his bullet broke two of Jackson's ribs and lodged close to Jackson's heart. But it did not kill him.

Indeed, Jackson hardly flinched. Dickinson stared in astonishment and screamed, "Great God, have I missed him?" Jackson took deliberate aim and squeezed his trigger. Nothing happened. He re-cocked his pistol, again carefully aimed, and fired. This time the gun functioned properly, killing its mark. Jackson required over a month to recuperate from his wound.

JACKSON'S DUEL illustrated his iron-will and fearless nature. These attributes served him well both in war and politics. Also serving him well was Jackson's overpowering love for the United States.