Andrew Jackson

Wrestling With Old Hickory's Ghost

A conservative re-evaluation of President Andrew Jackson


In Defense of Andrew Jackson, by Bradley J. Birzer, Regnery History, 209 pages, $26.99

If you are going to judge a book by its title, you better also include a judgment about its author. Hillsdale College's Bradley Birzer is one of the most thoughtful conservative historians writing today, and his In Defense of Andrew Jackson challenges us to rediscover our own values by comparing them to those of America's seventh president. If you also accept those values, then no doubt you will find Birzer's case extremely convincing; if you reject those values, you will nonetheless be sharper for having wrestled with Old Hickory's ghost. Few people today would set out to write a defense of Andrew Jackson, but this one deserves to be read.

Following Russell Kirk's John Randolph of Roanoke, the book is written with more empathy than detail. That makes for a compelling read, but it presents significant problems, too. Birzer writes, "My account of Andrew Jackson might not be the man in detail, but I hope that in its own way it offers the man in full." Yet because Jackson was a living myth—the frontier incarnate—emphasizing "the man in full" over "the man in detail" mixes legend and reality.

Birzer's narrative begins with what should have been one of the happier moments in Jackson's life: his inauguration as president. But on his first day in office, he was in mourning for his wife Rachel, who had recently died of a heart attack after the press called her an adulterer and a sex worker. Jackson never really wanted to be president, which made Rachel's death more painful and tragic. The press even attacked his mother, who had died when he was only 14 years old, leaving him an orphan alone on the frontier—alone but for the other frontiersmen. Jackson was always at home with them.

Easterners, though: They were suspicious. So many of them were rank pro-British Federalists—and like any good child of the revolution, Jackson hated the British. His youth and manhood were periods of nearly constant warfare across the frontier zone, and Jackson understood that wars with Britain meant devastation. His primary concern was the well-being of his fellow frontiersmen, but Birzer also painstakingly details Jackson's complex relationship with Native Americans, whom the British often used as pawns. To save the natives from the settlers, to save the settlers from the natives, to save the whole country from Great Britain—for those reasons, Jackson said, natives should be removed beyond the limits of white settlement. A frontiersman could never rest comfortably for too long unless he was surrounded by his mansion, supported by his slaves, with the Indians removed. But there was never a shortage of shadowy enemies to populate a frontiersman's mind—bankers would do well in place of the British, and abolitionists made fine replacements for Indian warriors.

Frontier culture features strongly in Birzer's account, though at the expense of any serious discussion of Jackson as a Southern slaveholder. This is not without historiographical reason, and Birzer argues that Jackson is best understood as a Western president—the first president who was both product and producer of American nationalism. But unless you read very carefully, you might not even realize that Jackson owned slaves or that his Cabinet and party were packed with the institution's most notorious defenders.

Since at least the 1960s, most historians have lumped Jackson with figures like Calhoun in the bloc of planter-politicians, but as Birzer shows, "the man in full" was a frontiersman, a romantic nationalist, and a militant reformer. None of those major factors of his personality and ideas matched with many of the South's elites, but they represented Westerners quite well. In Jackson's day, a Westerner could be of either Yankee or Southron stock, but life in the fog of war was something most Easterners simply could not understand. It changed you. Jackson distrusted the Calhouns of the world as much as the Daniel Websters, and much of his reformist program was designed to prevent the West from becoming easternized—that is, to prevent the popular will from being subjugated to concentrated interests.

As admirable and even libertarian as that sounds, you must remember that Jackson's conception of "the people" was circumscribed by some widely accepted collectivist notions—patriarchy, xenophobia, and racism, to name a few. Birzer expressly denies that Jackson was a racist, but I imagine most readers will find this bewildering. He most certainly was a racist, even if he also believed that Indians could rise to the level of civilized peoples and even though he adopted a Native American son. Racism is not a simple hatred for other races or support for exploitative institutions. It is a complex phenomenon with links to every other idea that crowds into a person's head, including the concept of civilization itself.

Like Birzer, Jackson's supporters loved him as a legend. But by the end of his presidency, the purple haze had lifted. Partisanship, factionalism, and increasingly bitter politics replaced Jackson's frontier nationalism. During his last few years in office, the Democratic youth had begun identifying with urban radicals like George Henry Evans and William Leggett. Evans was a longtime labor activist, organizer among the urban workingmen, and tactician for the evolving opposition to Martin Van Buren's party system from below. Leggett was the New York Evening Post's young firebrand editor and the man who became the unquestioned intellectual leader of the libertarian "Locofoco" or Equal Rights Party in New York. His version of Jacksonian democracy was no frontier nationalism; it was the cosmopolitan child of booming Manhattan, opposed to all monopolies granted by the state, including the supposed rights of property in other human beings. Though historians comfortably label the period from about 1815 to 1845 "the Jacksonian Era," the young Walt Whitman saw that he actually lived in the "Age of Leggett." Jackson personified the values of a generation, but by the end of his terms, their time was already past.

The William Leggetts of the world saw through the myth and understood the political realities of Jackson's administration. Where once Leggett had defended Jackson at every turn, later in his career he understood that even this administration rested upon the spoils of office, partisan corruption, and intervention on behalf of elites. The editor would have none of it. When a Charleston mob burned abolitionist mail in 1835 and Postmaster General Amos Kendall (whom Birzer describes as "the spirit of Jacksonian reform") refused to intervene, Leggett poured forth furious editorials against the administration for violating the people's sacred, equal rights to the mail.

Abolitionists read Leggett and sent him their materials, and he emerged the nation's leading disunionist: He would rather rip the United States to pieces than continue associating with slaveholders like Jackson. He spent the last years of his short life crusading against both slavery and monopoly. To my mind, that is the sort of hero we need again today.

Curiously, Jackson's "Bank War" plays almost no role in this book, though it virtually defined the parties for a generation. Compared to the nullification crisis, in which South Carolina unsuccessfully claimed the right to void federal tariffs within its borders, Birzer writes, "the battles Jackson and his supporters waged against the U.S. Bank, taxes, and corruption were minor." This assertion would shock Evans, Leggett, Whitman, and Co., who cared so much about Jackson's effort to shut down the monopolistic Second Bank of the United States that they wanted to extend the battle to monopolistic state banks as well.

But Jackson owed his administration and many of its perceived successes to another type of legendary figure in his era: "new men of politics" like Levi Woodbury, Amos Kendall, and Van Buren, many of whom ran the very state banks that the radicals wanted to destroy. These archetypical Easterners did not outright represent entrenched interests, but neither were they virtuous publicans. Jackson the Legend could never have achieved so much without the very partisan system that Birzer would separate from his legacy.

Still, this empathetic biography is a valuable book. How can we understand frontier life and its impact if we simply dismiss Jackson as a rabid Indian warrior, a racist, and an Anglophobic conspiracy theorist? He was all of those things (and more), but for the space of these pages we are forced to sit with Jackson as he saw himself, and as his admirers and friends saw him.

It is no surprise that President Donald Trump has stepped in to fill the scholarly void of praise for Jackson. In a speech commemorating Old Hickory's 250th birthday, Trump expressed admiration for Jackson's courage, grit, and "patriotic heart." During the campaign and before the inauguration, Alex Jones and Roger Stone had innumerable breathless conversations imagining Jackson would be Trump's model.

In Jackson's day, a small circle of sharp-eyed libertarians such as Leggett saw the dangers of political mythologizing, and for the rest of their lives many of them did all they could to reverse the trend. We can only hope there are enough around today to pay homage to their example.