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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.

Photo Credit: Regnery History

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  • oldtimer||

    The author, Bradley Birzer, also wrote J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth. Andrew Jackson was certainly no Frodo or Samwise, even Boromir doesn't really fit. Even so I can think of some Middle-Earth analogies that might apply.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Sauron?

  • oldtimer||

    I thought about that, but then the Nazgul were not under his command.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Turin Turambar?

  • Dadlobby||

    Ah, the present day "historian" putting their "racist" label on a historical figure, today's standards applied to yesterday. And can we get an article from Cato which does not have TDS added to it? I'm sure the morally superior abolitionists opened their hearts and wallets to the Irish, Blacks, and Jews of the northeast ghetto's. For the record, Cato no longer gets a donation from me, but President Trump does.

  • Brandybuck||

    There is racist, and then there is Andrew Jackson. Nearly everyone of that period was indeed racist from the modern lens, as they were all raised in a very racist society. But a few went far beyond the cultural racism of the time to achieved new depths of hated. Andrew Jackson was one of those.

  • Dadlobby||

    It's amazing how one can see into a persons mind from hundreds of year ago and see their "hatred" (the opposing view would be actions based upon loyalty and love of kith and kin) . As MJBinAL notes below race was not the determining factor, it was culture (tribal hunter-gatherers vs. agrarian land owner). Look at his treatment of the Creek leader William Weatherford (Red Eagle) after the Red Sticks uprising. The battles were tribal in nature and many leaders of the Indian tribes had European Blood, and many settlers Indian brides and loyalties were often divided. The settlers distrusted the eastern government and English Anglicans which often left them to their own defense during uprisings and the loyalties (settler and native) weren't one side or the other but fluid.

  • vek||

    Bullocks. Jackson was no worse than the vast majority of people around at the time.

    You have to remember this was a time when white men WERE NOT the all powerful rulers of the whole of the Americas. Most of north America was still ruled by Indians, and whites had just a few slivers of land here and there. The Indians were constantly attacking them, and the whites were constantly attacking back. To them it was a struggle with no clear victor as yet, they felt genuinely threatened.

    Whites had an objectively superior level of technology, and what to most peoples eyes would be a more "civilized" culture. They thus thought they were superior. EVERYBODY thought this. Some might have thought Indians could be civilized, but they surely all thought that the way they lived beyond white frontiers was an inferior way of life. I'm quite sure other civilized cultures, like the Chinese, would have thought the Indians to be just as big of savages as whites did.

    But at the time, it was simply a matter of war much of the time. Indians had land, we wanted it. Pretty typical human history stuff there. If the Indians had invented guns before whites, they would have GLADLY went and colonized Europe. To say otherwise is utter bullshit.

  • vek||

    So that Jackson, and most others, we in favor of jacking the Indians is a big nothing burger. The Indians were doing it to each other, and would have done it to whites if they could have. It is only in hindsight that we can sit back and say "Ohhh, what big mean old white people! Those poor Indians never had a chance! How evil!" When all we were doing was the same shit ALL people have done throughout all of human history. That doesn't make it NICE, but it doesn't make it especially evil either.

    I like Jackson's spirit, and some of his policies. I don't feel a need to apologize for the things he said or did in the time. I don't feel bad about conquering America from the Indians... I'm part Indian myself, on both sides of my family (and YES, it's a lot more than Liz Warren's amount of Indian blood too!), and wouldn't exist had we not. I think America is a hell of a lot better than whatever the hell would be here if we hadn't taken over the continent. So sue me.

  • jcbinok||

    If "Jackson never really wanted to be president," he shouldn't have run...twice.

    My favorite game to play with Democrats who criticize Andrew Jackson is to ask them why they continue to use his symbol as their party mascot: the Jackass.

  • jcbinok||

    If "Jackson never really wanted to be president," he shouldn't have run...twice.

    My favorite game to play with Democrats who criticize Andrew Jackson is to ask them why they continue to use his symbol as their party mascot: the Jackass.

  • vek||

    Well, I don't ever want to be president... But if one of my business ventures makes me a billionaire someday, and I happen to end up in a position where I felt I could win... I would feel obligated to run in order to sort out the mess other idiot politicians have made of things. Some people feel a sense of obligation to do what they can, even if they don't REALLY want to. MANY of the founding fathers felt like this, and only did what they did because they felt they had to do the right thing.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Old Hickory allowed the so-called "surprise attack" on Pearl Harbor, by the Germans, despite having secret knowledge of the attack ahead of time! For that, he can NEVER be forgiven!

  • vek||

    No, no, no! That was the gimpy Democrat in the wheelchair! But I'm pretty sure you have other facts wrong too... Wasn't it the Italians nuking the Boston Tea Party and killing King George that kicked WWI off?

  • MJBinAL||

    What a crock of Shitma.

    "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."

    So he believed that the person's RACE was not a determiner, but rather than culture, and any race could become part of that culture. But culture, is a collection of IDEAS.

    So he was absolutely NOT a racist, but rather believed that some ideas were better than others. Based on logical interpretation of Comegna's modern politically correct horseshit analysis.

    Since libertarians are all about the ideas and reject the race stuff, maybe Old Hickory really was one of us! LOL (by that same logic, Comegna is clearly NOT a libertarian.

  • Eddy||

    He was a racist because he exercised ownership rights over people of a different race.

  • Eddy||

    ...and would have been shocked at anyone claiming ownership rights over people of his own race.

  • itsjustbob||

    And the person he was closest to, outside of his family, was his slave, Alfred, who is buried near Andrew and Rachel Jackson on the grounds of Hermitage

  • vek||

    Meh argument. Under only slightly different circumstances maybe he would have been down for Irish slaves?

    Interesting facts: The Arabs/Turks enslaved not only far more blacks than Europeans ever did, but actually enslaved more Europeans than Europeans did blacks!

    Romans considered slavery just a matter of shitty luck from the gods.

    The last people to practice slavery in North America was... The Native Americans in the west!

    Blacks still have slavery in Africa today!

    So blah blah blah, whine whine whine. The world was a more fucked up place back then. It is what it is. If you'd been born in the 1700s, you wouldn't have batted an eye at a metric fuck load of stuff you would freak out about today.

  • MJBinAL||

    "Compared to the nullification crisis, in which South Carolina unsuccessfully claimed the right to void federal tariffs within its borders"

    When we talk about the causes for secession and the Civil War, we forget that the export tariffs imposed on raw materials (cotton) from the south was a major part of it. The quote above demonstrates that that problem had been brewing for quite a while.

    The battle over slave states, was not JUST about slavery, it was about the balance between the producers of cotton in the south and the users of cotton in the north.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    Still trying to ignore slavery, are yee? Still trying to pretend the Confederacy was noble, had the best intentions, the BEST?

    Every single Confederate politicians rattled on and on about how good slavery was, how it was the reason for secession.

    Tariffs provided half the federal revenue back then. The South hated tariffs only because they relied on inefficient slave agriculture and despised factories; industry was contemptible, overseeing slaves was noble.

    The Southern elite were a bunch of elites who knew what was best for both blacks and whites: slavery for the subhuman blacks, agriculture and soldiery for the poor white trash.

  • JFree||

    Bull fucking shit. This is just Lost Cause mythologizing. The issue was ALL about slavery. Slavery in the territories. Enforcement of slavery on the free states. Slavery as the alternative to an industrial-wage system. And Southern planters enforcement of all of that via their control of the agenda of the federal government and the interpretation of the Constitution - pretty much uninterrupted from 1790 to the 1860 election. Losing that control - for the first time - was the proximate cause of secession.

    You want quotes about cotton, viability of secession, and the future Civil War - try the King Cotton speech. That is far more relevant to the secession that actually happened two years later - without the Lost Cause crap re 'states rights', 'everything but slavery', and a defensive-war that Southerners desperately created AFTER the Civil War to reconcile themselves to losing that war.

  • vek||

    Jesus, you people are dense.

    Let me ask you a question. If the US has a civil war 5 years from now, what would you say the cause was if current divisions continue and escalate? Immigration? Gun rights? General size and scope of government? Tranny bathrooms?

    All of those are legitimate reasons to give IMO. You might be able to make a legit argument that saaay immigration is the BIGGEST issue that caused it... But it wouldn't be the only one.

    Such is the case for the first American civil war.

    IMO slavery was far and away the single largest issue, but to say it was THE ONLY issue is utter bullshit. IIRC the south was paying for between 60-70% of FedGov in any given year, yet had only ~1/4 the white population, and less than half the population of the north including slaves.

    You think that wasn't something that MAJORLY pissed southerners off??? IT WAS. Ditto with states rights issues.

    Maybe slavery was 40% of the reason for the war, maybe it was 60% or even 70%... But it WAS NOT 100% of the reason. I don't understand how this is such a hard concept to accept.

  • MJBinAL||

    And this piece of progressive tripe is indicative of the Shitma coming out of Cato these days.

    " 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),"

  • JFree||

    From what I can read of this article - Birzer's bio of Jackson is simply crap. Yes clearly Jackson was a Westerner but any biographer who ignores his Southern slavery-protection is treading in Lost Cause territory. And ignoring the bank charter?!?WTF?!?

    That issue of slavery-in-the-frontier-West is not really imo contemporaneously countered by a New Yorker like Leggett. But by a guy like James Birney - a Westerner and Southerner - a slaveowner who becomes an abolitionist while in Alabama - then has to move North (but still West) and is targeted in the Cincinnati riot of 1836 - said riot being a major influence on both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Salmon Chase. He's still a generation younger than Jackson - but at least he's a bridge to post-1850 events/ideas where it's an overstretch to attribute any of that to Jackson.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    An excellent article, though I surely don't know about the line "Jackson never wanted to be president". He ran three times. Also, it should be noted that he very much enjoyed hanging people--though only when they "deserved it". See the famous "coffin handbill" for details.

  • Eddy||

    OK, then, if Jackson is the conservative, who is the progressive?

    PROGS: "The abolitionists, of course! And everyone who said stuff we agree with today!"

    OK, seriously, who were the *main* progressive opponents of Jackson?

    Webster? Calhoun? Clay?

  • vek||

    As I said above, there are some things I like about Jackson and his policies. Gotta love killin' banks!

    He was certainly a badass. He was no coward. He did seem to care about the "little guy," and mostly in good ways, not commie like ways. He was hardcore by modern standards on a lot of things, but I don't try to hold people to modern moral standards, because that is a bullshit game. Whatever anybody thinks, he was surely one of the most influential presidents in American history.

    All in all, I'd take him over most US presidents, even though he may have killed some of my Seminole ancestors!

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