Not the Same Old Hickory

The contested legacy of Andrew Jackson.


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.

He engineered a jury of 12 of his most trusted officers to court-martial the two Brits. The fact that the trial was unlawful did not faze Jackson, who justified himself by saying, "The laws of war did not apply to conflicts with savages." When even his hand-picked jury failed to reach the conclusion he desired, Jackson simply ordered Arbuthnot hanged and Ambrister shot. In essence, Jackson executed two British subjects on Spanish land in the absence of authorization or precedent, despite the fact that the United States was technically at peace with both Great Britain and Spain at the time.

Arbuthnot believed that Jackson was the architect of the entire border crisis, a renegade aiming for U.S. possession of both native and Spanish land. the Heidlers agree. To use the words of Alabama territorial Gov. William Bibb, "no man should be permitted to usurp the whole powers of the whole government and to treat with contempt all authority except that of his own will." Yet the Andrew Jackson of Old Hickory's War did so time and time again, often for indefensible reasons. Through this glimpse into Jackson's pre-White House days, the reader learns how Jackson's military career sowed the seeds for the kind of president he eventually would become.

Despite the different approaches taken by the Heidlers and Bur-stein, their characterizations offer a complementary portrait of Jackson. Unsurprisingly, both works have drawn fire. Certainly, neither is flawless: Burstein attempts to reimagine Jackson as a tragic Shakespearean figure, for example, an effort that is sometimes strained and distracting. Much of the criticism, however, focuses on the mere fact that these scholars reveal a less than likable, less than heroic Andrew Jackson. Biographers, some reviewers suggest, should be in the business of building up larger-than-life heroes rather than analyzing real, fallible individuals.

Publishers Weekly editor Mark Rotella and four co-authors, for example, blame Burstein for "tattering Jackson's repute more successfully than most of the president's 19th-century enemies." In fact, Bur-stein is one of the few historians to consider and investigate the personal side of Jackson since the 19th century. If he, like Jackson's so-called enemies, found little praiseworthy in Jackson after uncovering the man's more private side, that is hardly grounds for complaint.

In Presidential Studies Quarterly, Russ Braley, former foreign correspondent for the New York Daily News, accuses the Heidlers of seeing Jackson "with the eyes of the peace loving post-Vietnam war generation." But the real problem is that Braley sees Jackson with the eyes of the uncritically patriotic, WASP-loving World War II generation. Braley's defense of Jackson, based on the fact that "Jackson was so admired that the song 'The Battle of New Orleans' can still be heard wherever radios play," proves merely that Braley feels secure getting his historical analyses from Johnny Horton—and that he hasn't listened to many radios lately.

More serious is the implication that a mainstream (as opposed to "minority studies" or self-labeled "multicultural") work of history cannot incorporate the Native American position—or even consider crimes against Native Americans as "real crimes"—without losing its credibility and being tarred as politically correct revisionism.

The image of Jackson that emerges from Old Hickory's War and The Passions of Andrew Jackson is both compelling and, on the whole, convincing. This Jackson was a charismatic loose cannon, a leader with the makings of greatness repeatedly brought low by his own untamed passions and headstrong impulsiveness. This Jackson, controlling and uncontrollable, made a likelier tyrant than a democrat. (Perhaps there was something to Schlesinger's comparison between Jackson and FDR after all.) This Jackson was a man who exemplified characteristics later associated with other national leaders: before Abraham Lincoln, he represented selective adherence to the Constitution; before William McKinley, energetic imperialism; before Teddy Roosevelt, the cult of personality; before Bill Clinton, the personal made political.

In short, the Andrew Jackson described by Burstein and the Heidlers was an imperial president in the making long before imperial presidents were cool.

Ironically, this portrait, while not as personally flattering to Jackson, in reality grants him more importance—for, if nothing else, the poor example he set—than does the naive "Champion of the People" caricature. Considering the overwhelming affection scholars have shown Jackson, it perhaps is unsurprising to note that Old Hickory remains a fixture on most historians' lists of great presidents. Nearly all the so-called great presidents routinely named by U.S. historians were imperial presidents to one degree or another, consolidating authority in the executive and treating the letter of the Constitution as a suggestion rather than a command. The only imperial presidents routinely omitted from the "top 10" lists are those like Richard Nixon—those who abused the power of the White House and got caught.

Mainstream accounts of Jackson's accomplishments have endeared him to generations, not least to many libertarians. But how accurate are the common conceptions of Jackson's contributions to his office and country? He was certainly a son of the frontier. He was also a military hero, at least to the masses who did not have to clean up after his insubordination and unauthorized activities. These credentials helped him claim the mantle of champion of the common man. But the reform movements that thrived in the resulting language of egalitarianism—movements for the abolition of slavery and the rights of women, for example—had little to do with the real Andrew Jackson, who was both an unrepentant slave-owner and a devotee of an already antiquated cult of masculinity.

The National Bank, which represented a gross overstep of the federal government's powers, did indeed meet its doom at Jackson's hands. Burstein suggests that Jackson's fervor came more from personal animosities than sound economic policy. More to the point, Jackson overreached his own constitutional limits in attacking the bank, fighting one wrong with another.

Likewise, his position against state nullification seems to have been less a matter of principle than a consequence of his personal split with nullification advocate John C. Calhoun, who resigned as Jackson's vice president and became a senator representing South Carolina. At any rate, Calhoun's states' rights decentralism is arguably more amenable to libertarian ideas than the evolution of an all-powerful national government undergirded by unflinching military suppression, a hallmark of the Jackson administration.

Jackson's embrace of the spoils system bolstered his power further. And his policy of compulsory removal of American Indians—besides enacting a national plan for what was essentially ethnic cleansing, coupled with the forcible redistribution of property from its rightful owners to those who had not earned it—was wildly at odds with the checks and balances inherent in the federal system, directly defying the Supreme Court's ruling in the 1831 case Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia. Jackson's taunting response to Chief Justice John Marshall spoke volumes: "Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it."

Ever the frontiersman, ever the general, Jackson believed that might made right and that the U.S. Army answered to him, not to the Supreme Court. Insisting that he personified the people, much as Louis XIV insisted that he was France, did not make Jackson an advocate of individual human rights; on the contrary, it earned him the title "King Andrew I" from his opponents. From such legacies libertarian heroes are not made.

A corrected image of Jackson shows readers why some of the Framers of the Constitution were concerned about the authority of the executive branch and how it might evolve. James Madison knew that human beings were not angels and anticipated that presidents would be swayed by their personal agendas, passions, and lesser natures. Burstein offers a case in point to demonstrate the validity of that anxiety—a welcome reminder as the nation enters presidential election season once again.

The Passions of Andrew Jackson, like Old Hickory's War, is an impressive presentation of a little-studied side of Andrew Jackson, and a welcome corrective to the uncritical praise he has received for so long. Just don't expect to find copies of either in the Hermitage gift shop.