The Passions of Andrew Jackson, by Andrew Burstein, New York: Vintage, 320 pages
The Ryman Auditorium -- Nashville's original Grand Old Opry -- has become a concert stop for a variety of touring musicians, among them the singer-songwriter Tori Amos. The granddaughter of a Cherokee, Amos has added verses to the traditional tune "Home on the Range" for her own "Home on the Range: Cherokee Edition," a version that recalls a bleak chapter in Native American history: "Well Jackson made deals, a thief down to his heels/Hello, Trail of Tears."
When she sings those lyrics in Nashville, she's not far from National Park Service markers that note where the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail land route winds past the city. Equally close, and equally a part of Nashville, sits the Hermitage, the historic home of the very president who made the Trail of Tears a reality: Andrew Jackson.
A tour of the Hermitage today includes the thrilling rags-to-riches story of a gallant frontiersman, chivalrous romantic, and political reformer. The almost painfully pleasant members of the Ladies' Hermitage Association, which operates the property, all seem to suffer from selective memory where the object of their affections is involved. Of course, these ladies are not really responsible for the rose-colored glasses through which they view the seventh president. Historians of recent decades also have fallen under Old Hickory's charismatic spell. Andrew Burstein's The Passions of Andrew Jackson seeks to reverse this trend and balance our understanding of Jackson, the man and the leader. Burstein, a professor of history at the University of Tulsa, sheds new and harsh light on the Sage of the Hermitage and what he represents to Nashville and the country at large.
Burstein's work challenges a shelf of canonical texts that currently influence scholarly and popular opinion. These works present Jackson as the symbol of the common man thanks to his dual positions as a self-made son of the frontier and military hero; the enemy of the elite thanks to his attack on the Second Bank of the United States; and the champion of the Union thanks to his definitive response to state nullification of federal law. Jackson's individual style, from his avid personal campaigning to his presidential use of an advisory "kitchen cabinet," is now considered the trademark of a larger-than-life figure who embodied the will of the nation. This mainstream view of Jackson admiringly moves the man from history into legend.
Consider the most famous example. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s The Age of Jackson (1945), its Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding, spoke much more to Schlesinger's own era, his adoration of New Deal policies and zeal for populist democracy, than to Jackson's political means or ends. Schlesinger in effect read history backward to cast Jackson as a reformer in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt; the result amounted to a lively and articulate love fest that had little to do with Jackson himself.
Nevertheless, Schlesinger's warm fuzzies attached themselves firmly to Jackson's mystique. William Ward's Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age (1955) and Marvin Meyers' The Jacksonian Persuasion (1957), both able books, considered Jackson more as a symbol than as a human being, and therefore did not challenge Schlesinger significantly.
The reigning biography on Jackson remains Robert V. Remini's trilogy -- Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Empire, 1767-1821; Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832; and Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845 -- published between 1977 and 1984. Remini did not revise Schlesinger as much as add detailed personal flourishes to Schlesinger's broad political strokes to complete an admiring portrait of Jackson the hero.
Schlesinger himself praised the way in which Remini moved "boldly beyond the scholar's monograph" in his work, which is to say that Remini regularly embellished, imagined, and championed Jackson's point of view and behavior. Mainstream presidential and political historians have tended to marginalize contemporaneous, often critical accounts of Jackson, thus omitting an entire dimension of controversy over his policies and practices.
Burstein, in contrast, gets personal. By examining Old Hickory's private relationships and intimate correspondence, he tries to make Jackson "more knowable." In so doing Burstein tells a story of how Jackson used his power against those he disdained (the physically weak or culturally different, the "dishonorable," Native Americans, blacks, and others), and how his bullying violence and uncontrolled temper eventually transformed U.S. policy in what became an "avenging" presidency. This Jackson made the personal political, using politics to right perceived personal wrongs, governing by inciting and unleashing fears in others. "He did not accept the rule of law," Burstein argues, "unless he made it."
Particularly telling is Burstein's insight that it was not enough for Jackson to win; his opponents had to fail. In 1819, for example, a supporter of Jackson's opponent William Crawford -- a political hopeful named Andrew Erwin -- published a protest against allegedly illegal land speculation conducted by Jackson and his friend Sen. John Henry Eaton. Jackson helped to engineer a duel to settle the issue and fantasized about "pistols suspended -- until after the word fire -- and I will soon put an end to this troublesome scoundrel....I pledge myself on the foregoing terms, if my pistol fires -- I kill him."
When diplomacy forestalled the duel, Jackson could not let the disagreement die a natural death. He pursued Erwin, finally going all the way to President James Monroe in order to crush his detractor's hopes of a political career. This need to end every "battle" decisively carried over into the policies he pursued, be they the removal of American Indians or the death of the Bank of the United States, regardless of the dictates of the Constitution.
Burstein does not stand altogether alone among scholars in his critical view of Jackson. In Old Hickory's War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire (1996), David and Jeanne Heidler examined the little-explored territory of Jackson's leadership in the Creek and First Seminole wars. Using solid sources from various state archives and private letter collections, the authors created a compulsively readable account of Jackson from 1813 through 1819, the period of his military victory over the Creeks and Seminoles and his seizure of Spanish Florida.
The story reveals how personal were Jackson's politics in a variety of explosive and often deadly ways: acting on his hatred of Native Americans as well as the English and Spanish, glorifying the trappings and rituals of military might, adhering to a two-dimensional and unsophisticated patriotism, and disregarding the letter of the law and those who sought to enforce it. The Heidlers argue that "mature deliberation and rational thought were always brittle facets of this man's turbulent personality....Jackson was an angry young man who became an angry old man."
The Heidlers provide numerous examples of how, through his impulsive and often illegal behavior, Jackson moved Manifest Destiny ideas into imperialist action. For example, during the First Seminole War of 1818, Jackson captured two British citizens in Spanish Florida, Robert Ambrister and Alexander Arbuthnot. The former was an ex-Marine turned mercenary who was apparently working with area blacks and American Indians to undermine the Spanish. The latter was a private businessman and trader who, from a combination of humane concern and his own economic self-interest, sought peace between the Seminoles and the United States. Because they were English, because they collaborated with Native Americans, and because they interrupted his burning and looting of native villages, Jackson demanded satis-faction.