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.
The will of the people could be delayed but not denied. Jackson handily won the election of 1828, and was reelected by a wider margin still. He saw himself as a champion of the people, and acted on that confidence as he regularly vetoed legislation and all but overruled Supreme Court decisions. Believing that nobody was entitled to a government job, he fired and replaced hundreds of time-servers throughout the federal bureaucracy. Believing that government should not be a means for the wealthy to become rich, he revoked the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. Believing debt disgraceful, he paid off the national deficit. Even after his retirement, Jackson remained deeply involved in politics, working to secure the annexation of Texas until his dying days.
Writing a satisfactory account of Jackson's life requires more than a touch of good storytelling. Personality looms so large, emotion runs so high, that if the biographer wants to do justice to the subject, he simply must master the craft of historical narrative. On this count, Brands acquits himself magnificently. He has a fine sense of the drama of the past, and a novelist's appreciation for character and pacing and plot. Brands thus belongs to the same historical school as David McCullough and Joseph Ellis, the mention of whose names causes tongues to cluck at faculty clubs nationwide. But it is a school with a long and distinguished pedigree, whose alumni--Thucydides and Tacitus, Gibbon and Bancroft--all were able to combine chronological narrative with perceptive analysis and literary flair.
Such writing requires overarching and unifying themes, some bright red threads stitching the work together. For Brands, the key to understanding Jackson is recognizing that the Tennessean saw life as a never-ending battle for survival. In this war of all against all, Jackson kept his loyalties few and fierce. His devotion to his wife thus mirrored his devotion to the United States: Both offered security against a cruel and violent world. In return, Jackson cherished a love of each that was tribal, bordering on primal.
This is true, but not the whole truth. This focus on emotion and passion inevitably downplays Jackson's quite genuine moral sensitivity and intellectual ability. Presenting him as the ever-embattled warrior has the unfortunate effect of flattening the man, virtues and vices alike. Several critics have noted that Brands's approach brushes over Jackson's gravest faults--his cruelty towards Indians and indifference towards slavery--but it also undercuts his many qualities, among which was a profound understanding of, and appreciation for, the Constitution.
A good example may be found in Jackson's handling of the 1832-33 Nullification Crisis. South Carolina exploded in fury over a set of new tariffs, thinking it unconstitutional to favor northern manufacturers at the expense of southern planters. A special convention passed an ordinance that forbade collecting the impost within the state, and announced that the states retained sufficient sovereignty to veto the laws of the Union. The principal spokesman of this new theory was none other than Jackson's own vice president, John C. Calhoun. An enraged Jackson prepared to enforce the law with bayonets.
But at the same time, a more deliberative Jackson, greatly assisted by Secretary of State Edward Livingston, composed a stunning refutation of the idea of nullification. He corrected its misrepresentation of history, at length, but landed his most devastating blows pointing out the "internal evidence of its impracticable absurdity." The logic of the federal union, like that of democracy itself, entails that within the ordinary political process, the majority rules. To grant a minority an unchecked and absolute veto is a prescription for anarchy. Jackson's argument against nullification substantially presaged Lincoln's argument against secession, and it proved so thorough that when the Supreme Court visited the matter a quarter-century later in Texas v. White, it largely rehearsed the argument of Jackson's proclamation.
Yet if Brands underplays the extent to which reflection and choice informed Jackson's devotion to the Union, he does so to keep his spirited narrative charging forward. It is a tribute to him that this book's 600 pages read so quickly, and Brands deserves credit for providing a welcome new introduction to the life of a neglected American hero.
Christopher Levenick is a W.H. Brady doctoral fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.