A review of
Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H. W. Brands
Andrew Jackson by Sean Wilentz
Anyone remotely interested in approaching Andrew Jackson as a thinker will be hard-pressed to find available sources of his writing. He is not included in the Library of America volumes of American political writing, in the two-volume Oxford University collection on The American Intellectual Tradition, nor in the massive recent History of American Political Thought. His official papers have barely reached to the beginnings of his presidency, and many of his letters have been lost in a peculiar variety of fires over the years. Yet, works on Jackson, and especially on the phenomenon of "Jacksonianism" or of "Jacksonian democracy" continue to proliferate. Two recent books by historians H. W. Brands and Sean Wilentz focusing on Jackson's life and his presidency, though, might help to stimulate a serious reappraisal of Jackson himself.
Brands's Jackson: His Life and Times, succeeds in developing a portrait of Jackson that shows the multifarious elements of his character, from his devotion to his wife and family, his developing religious sensibilities, his constant ill health, his severe and yet tender care for his subordinates and slaves, and the remarkable autodidactic development of military and political skills that eventually led him from backwoods orphan to President of the United States. Neither of these books much develops the issue of Jackson's religious views, but this appears to be a fruitful field of study, given his wife's obvious piety, his own later embrace of Presbyterianism, his continual interest in the question of providence, and his Masonic ties. (The latter did have some degree of political consequencethe Anti-Masonic Party held the first party nominating convention leading up to the 1832 election.)
As Brands shows, Jackson had no patience for the tediousness, temporizing, or horse-trading that are part and parcel of congressional business, whether in the House or the Senate, and while serving in those bodies thought regularly about retirement. His dealings with subordinates in the militia, with prisoners of war, or with political opponents also lead one to conclude that he might not fare well before a Senate judiciary committee seeking evidence of a "judicial temperament." But, if the executive is to be energetic and ambitious, or characterized by secrecy and dispatch, then Jackson seems to have been singularly fit for the position. And while students of politics or the presidency might wish that more effort had been focused on Jackson's presidential years, Brand's approach does have the merit of indicating that Jackson's policies were not simply partisan, but the result of a lifetime of reflection and action.
Only in rare instances does Brand rely on the psychoanalytic approach to history, as in the attempt to explain Jackson's hostility to the British by mention of the recurring memory of suffering blows at the hands of the British military during the Revolution. Still, it is a bit hard to gainsay the influence that Jackson's early life had on his subsequent career, if only because he routinely lived the life of the originator, the speculator, the liberator. And, as Wilentz notes, Jackson never did abandon his hostility to Britain, even to his belief that Britain had designs on Texas, giving it control over access to the American west; the issue moved Jackson so strongly that Martin van Buren's opposition to the annexation of Texas led Jackson to disavow his old ally in the 1844 presidential campaign, and throw his weight instead behind James Polk.
At well over 500 pages, Brands's biography could hardly be called a "brief" life. Sean Wilentz's work, part of the Times Books series on the American presidents edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., is that briefer life, and focuses its energies more particularly on Jackson's presidency and policies. The volume is thus more satisfying for those looking for an analysis of the political effect of Jackson's presidency, though its brevity does prevent the kind of detailed analysis one might pursue elsewhere. Still, the book has the great merit of taking seriously the principles that animated Jackson's actions, and at every turn recognizing the complexity of the issues confronting Jackson. One example of this is found in Wilentz's observation that while every president has had speech writers or advisors who assisted with drafts of pronouncements, Jackson is perhaps alone in never getting credit for his own statements, even though one is hard pressed to find any such statements that are at odds with long held positions and principles. Eschewing the approach of historical "schools" that want to shoehorn Jackson and his supporters into ready-made categories useful to contemporary partisan battles, Wilentz routinely introduces complexities into the circumstances that must qualify the simpler story lines scholars often find attractive.
One hopes that Wilentz's willingness to examine the thought of Jackson himself, and not simply the amorphous "Jacksonian" movement, will lead others to take more seriously this critical figure in 19th-century American politics. Wilentz admirably argues that the struggle with the national bank (including the Senate's censure of Jackson), with nullification, and with internal improvements, at least, were not just personal battles fought against foes old and new, but were issues upon which Jackson had reflected long and hard. Jackson's positions were often personal, or driven by policy preferences, but they were also reflections of constitutional considerations, as can be seen in his numerous public pronouncements on such issues. One need not agree with Jackson's reading of constitutional provisions to recognize that he did articulate a vision informed by a close reading of the legitimate powers and duties of government under the Constitution.
For example, Jackson's concern with extravagant and unconstitutional spending on internal improvements was not simply a quixotic response to the influences of the day, an attempt to deliver a political blow to weakened opponents. He expressed his support for economy early and often, as in his refusal to support federal relief to the victims of a devastating fire in Georgia in the 1790s. His opposition to the adoption of a resolution commending Washington upon his retirement from the presidency was also motivated by a concern for constitutionalism and the separation of powers, a principle he thought Washington had not adhered to sufficiently.
Many authors treat the occasion of Jackson's inauguration as an opportunity to describe the radical nature of the new administration, emphasizing the entrance into Washington as the influx of an alien nation, the "reign of King Mob," as Justice Joseph Story described it. While Brands does discuss the events of March 1829, he does not dwell much on the political import of Jackson's so-called spoils system, or "rotation." In actuality, the new administration differed little from past ones, with the exception being a geographic one, the western states being more heavily represented now than before. (Perhaps an early version of one Yale or Harvard faction replacing another; Wilentz does not entirely agree with Brands on this question.) But that did not prevent the intellectual elite from sneering at Jackson; upon hearing that Harvard was going to confer an honorary degree on Jackson, John Quincy Adams pronounced that Harvard would disgrace itself if it gave a degree to "a barbarian and savage who could scarcely spell his own name." It is true Jackson was not a champion speller, but he played along at the ceremony. After listening to long hortatory orations in Latin, Jackson replied, "E pluribus unum, my friends; sine qua non." (An analysis of Jackson's writings might actually suggest a far more well-rounded education than suspected, if one judged only from the regular references to history and literature.)
The success of Jackson's early military efforts in the Deep South (then known as the Southwest), both authors suggest, perhaps worked against his clearly expressed concern for the dangers of sectionalism, a danger he spent a lifetime attempting to defuse. With the continued threat of foreign and Indian uprisings on the "border," the country was compelled to unify its efforts. Once those risks diminished, though, the disparities between North and South, on the one hand, and coast and frontier, on the other, were allowed to surface. The push for western development, part of the story of Indian treatment but also inherently tied to the interest in Texas, pushed slave-holding into new areas, precipitating the difficulties that had to be faced by a subsequent generation concerning the recognition of new slave states and slave territories.
Brands provides a lively account of the battle of New Orleans, but might have emphasized more the important role the battle played in preventing subsequent British influence on the American frontier. As Jackson is still remembered by many as the hero of New Orleans, it might be worth contemplating his own defense of the imposition of martial law in New Orleans, as he reflected back on it some years later: "Let the sentinel be removed by subpoena from his post, let writs of habeas corpus carry away the officers from the lines, and the enemy may conquer your country, by only employing lawyers to defend your constitution." Surely these are words worth contemplating in any age, but especially when the country is at war.
But it was not simply antipathy toward the British that led Jackson to pursue the protection of New Orleans, for he certainly saw an important role for America in extending its influence more fully in that region of the country. One New England transplant in New Orleans captured well the sense of the city and its environs when he reflected on its character in the early 19th century: "The truth is, we are not Americans," he averred, suggesting that there was something distinctive about the city that withstood growing American influence. Jackson's commitment to union and liberty can be seen in his concomitant appeals to American, French, Spanish and black soldiers, all of whom he armed in defense of a fractured city, all through his call to defend the cause of liberty from foreign influence.
Many readers are familiar with Tocqueville's impressions of Jackson recorded in Democracy in America, comments which focus in part on the question of Union: "Far from wanting to extend federal power, the current president represents...the party that wants to restrict that power to the clearest and most precise terms of the Constitution, and that does not ever accept any interpretation favorable to the government of the Union…. General Jackson is the agent of provincial jealousies." It is true that as president Jackson sometimes thought himself hamstrung by legal and political realities, such as in the question of Indian protection and removal, but it must be an overstatement to assert that he opposed federal power simply out of localized animus.
Jackson, Tocqueville continues, "is the slave of the majority: he follows its wishes, its desires, its half-uncovered instincts, or rather he divines it and runs to place himself at its head." Were that true, it is hard to see why Jackson would have been so concerned with the question of economizing and balancing the budget. Surely politicians understand, and have known for centuries, that one way to win over the hearts of constituents is to spend on their behalf, rather than take such profound pleasure in curbing the reach of the federal dollar and national influence.
Scholars of Jackson will still want to consult at least the spirited three-volume Robert Remini life of Jackson, but Brands does provide a lively general account of the life, especially in pointing to the large figures of 19th-century politics who Jackson crossed paths with at one time or another. Similarly, Wilentz's work would need to be supplemented by further analysis of particular issues dealt with by Jackson and his administration (and the book gives generous recommendations for doing so), but it does compel us to undertake that assessment in a more thoughtful way.
One question that the relative successes and failures of Jackson's presidency, as described especially by Wilentz, compels us to think through is whether it is possible for executives to effectively reduce the size and scope of government. Jackson is one of the few examples we have of presidents who were seriously interested in such a project, and while his efforts to defeat the bank and to limit internal improvements were successful, they were somewhat momentary obstacles on the path to expanded federal authority. Indeed, Jackson himself was not always seen as consistent on the question of spending for internal improvements, as both of our authors note, and it was in part his vulnerability to the charge of hypocrisy, on this and other issuesincluding slavery and Indian removalthat weakened his opportunities for lasting success.