Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times
by H.W. Brands
(c) 2005 by the author
The current president likes to compare himself to Andrew Jackson, choosing Jackson’s portrait to hang in the Oval Office. Jackson is going to be removed from the $20 bill, to be replaced by Harriet Tubman. All the hubbub over Jackson has many people in a lather about him; essentially he’s seen as the Anti-Christ for his slave ownership and the “Trail of Tears”.
I thought it might be a good idea, then, to read a biography of our seventh President, and learn something of what all the fuss is about.
Brands is a professor of history at the University of Texas, and his biography of Benjamin Franklin (The First American) was highly acclaimed. So he knows about history and biography. It also helped that my local library had this book…..
Brands sets the stage by looking at the conflicts with the Indians on the western frontier of Colonial America, where Jackson was born and raised. It was a hard life, with threats coming from all around. Jackson was orphaned at an early age, toughening him up ever more. His military career is given in great detail, all the way through his defense of New Orleans in the War of 1812, and his campaigns in Florida against Spain and the Indians.
But with all that, it’s kind of a letdown when similar attention is not given to his political career. We do see him riding a wave of popularity in the 1924 campaign, but very little space is given to the machinations that gave the presidency that time to John Quincy Adams.
There’s an odd shift in focus when it comes to his presidency as well. Brands devotes a lot of time to the “Matter of Texas” – just as a weak Spain could not control what was going on in their territory of Florida, a weak Mexico was losing control of Texas, and Jackson was determined to make that area safe and secure. If not for settlers, at least stable enough so foreign powers (i.e. Britain) could not use it as a base to threaten the Union. Jackson’s fight with Nicholas Biddle over the Bank of the United States gets its due as well.
But other matters don’t fare as well. The Nullification Crisis over tariffs, in which South Carolina threatened to secede, deserves more attention than Brands gives it. That crisis led Jackson to say when he left office that his biggest regrets were that he didn’t shoot Henry Clay or hang John Calhoun. It is mentioned that Jackson actually paid off the national debt, but not that it was in large part through sales of federal lands west of the Mississippi. And when that land speculation bubble burst, it led to the Panic of 1837. The Indian Removal Act of 1834 isn’t mentioned at all.
Brands notes that Jackson’s legendary temper might have been the result of chronic illnesses. Bullet wounds, heavy metal poisoning, various digestive ailments….all add up to severe discomfort (at least), making his irascibility understandable.
Even with the aforementioned lacunae, Brands has written an informative and entertaining work. One gets a good understanding of what drove Jackson and the forces that swirled around him. If there’s a common theme to Jackson’s life and career, Brands sees it as an unflenching desire to preserve the Union from all threats, internal and external. His military and political careers both worked to that goal. As his famous toast at a birthday celebration for Thomas Jefferson went, “Our Federal Union. It MUST be preserved!”
It’s always worth noting that Jackson was the first president to come from outside the circle of the Virginia – Massachusetts elite. His election marked a fundamental shift in the presidency. No longer would it be the exclusive property of a select cabal. The people would get to have their say, and be heard.
Oh, and those who still blame Jackson for the “Trail of Tears”? Go read some of the arguments for the Indian Removal Act (hint: there was not a chance in hell that Georgia was going to leave the Cherokee alone), and then check the dates when Jackson left office and when the Trail happened…..