Andrew Jackson: frontiersman and folk hero, victor of New Orleans and defender of womanly virtue, Indian destroyer and enemy of privilege, the wise and patriotic embodiment of his age. Andrew Jackson: brawler and duelist, anglophobe and adulterer, genocidal destroyer of peoples, egotistical manipulator, “King,” economic barbarian. Will the real Jackson please rise and return to settle a century of debate over the seventh president of the United States? Not likely; Andrew Jackson will sleep on at the Hermitage while historians and biographers line up for another hundred years of literary war. Love him or hate him, historians cannot escape the man or the paradoxes swirling about his life.
From his lifetime to the present, those who have written of Andrew Jackson have found the outrageous dichotomies between the man and the movement called Jacksonian Democracy all but indigestible. Each generation since his passing has produced a major historian dedicated to his memory. Every page in George Bancroft’s ten volumes voted for Jackson and democracy. That tradition was amplified in 1860 by James Parton’s solemn panegyric and in 1916 by John Spencer Bassett’s two-volume Life of Jackson. A few—very few—of his human imperfections were restored in Marquis James’s depression-era panegyric of Jacksonian heroism and leadership. Arthur Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson (1945) celebrated Jackson-as-Roosevelt, founder of the Democratic Party and its urban working-class base. The present generation’s contribution is embodied in historian Robert Remini’s three-volume (two issued to date) encomium of the Jacksonian persuasion.
With gusto, some writers have attacked Jackson the man. William Graham Sumner called him a barbarian. Hermann Von Holst considered Jackson coarse and arrogant. Others have called him a frontier bully, spiteful, autocratic, unfit for office, and worse. No historian has yet satisfactorily explored the gulf between Jackson and Jacksonian Democracy. How can an aristocratic, authoritarian, horse-racing, dueling owner of plantations and a hundred human beings be considered an apostle of the common man, the father of democracy? Indeed, what was Jacksonian Democracy? Some believe it sprang full grown from the presidential forehead, others, that it emerged as a sort of “democracy with the brakes off” on the heels of Thomas Jefferson’s stodgy “democracy with the brakes on.” Whatever it was, Jacksonian Democracy was not democratic. No female Catholic slaves voted for—or against—Andrew Jackson. If the historian can regard the movement as part of America’s constantly evolving national ethic, however, then perhaps the outrageously willful and intolerant Andrew Jackson may be viewed as a genuine contributor to freedom.
What was Jacksonian Democracy to Jackson? Ideologically, if that word is appropriate, Jackson was a strict constructionist, a fiscally conservative republican, and a believer in both the cautious southern dogma of states rights and the progressive northern concept of federal sovereignty. Jackson’s “conservative nationalism” was set in a procrustean bed of negativism, however, and he either opposed or ignored commerce and industry, internal improvements, abolition, women’s rights, intellectualism, the arts, and reform in general. Historians have often compared him with modern progressives, yet the neglected John Quincy Adams was in fact light years closer to the twentieth century than that slave-holding aristocrat Andrew Jackson.
Remini’s story of the campaign years 1825-1828 leaves little doubt, despite Jackson’s coy, Cincinnatus-like image, of his absolute control of his supporters and of the course of events. He welded rival factions together with a barrage of emissaries, letters, and judicious personal appearances, and created the modern Democratic party in the process. When the ten percent of America that voted elected him president in 1828, it was because, the amazed Daniel Webster wrote, he had convinced them that the “country is rescued from some dreadful danger.” Under the slogan “JACKSON, CALHOUN AND LIBERTY,” two southern slaveholders, one the personal antithesis of democracy, the other the “Marx of the Master Class,” “saved” democracy by becoming president and vice president of the United States. The man they defeated was a non-slaveholding Yankee, an honest, diligent, northern bourgeois and reformer.
Did Jackson, as Remini frequently asserts, really save the nation from corruption and centralization, while redefining the presidency? Certainly Jackson heads the list of “executive” presidents, those few who believed that the nation moves best and fastest under strong White House leadership. Jackson’s vetoes, Remini claims, restated the philosophy of the minimalized state, and placed the presidency at the center of its government. His personal positivism, his reduction of the cabinet to the level of presidential servants, and his creation of a popular national political party laid the foundation of today’s imperial presidency. Perhaps fortunately, no immediate successors appeared to perpetuate his example; Abraham Lincoln was the only strong president until Theodore Roosevelt’s bully days.
Certainly Jackson had that rare ability, shared by all great captains, to commit his forces, then await events without further consideration, but that same sang-froid or willfulness that served his country so well at New Orleans and on other battlefields was destructive in his personal and political life. Called by one senator “little advanced in civilization over the Indians with whom he made war,” Jackson yet was more Victorian than Victoria in his fussiness over “the ladies.” He placed them not on a pedestal, but upon a Karnak-sized column. In the cases of his wife and the colorful if nasty Peggy O’Neal Timberlake Eaton, that attitude nearly destroyed his career and his administration on several occasions. Among men, however, Jackson brooked no opposition to his will....
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