H. W. Brands’ new book, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, gives Jackson a full and sympathetic treatment that firmly places him in the pantheon of great Americans, but not on the same footing as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson.
A Rousing Read
Brands, whose story-telling skills have increased with each outing — his last was the well-received The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin — paints Jackson’s rough and tumble biography in lively, sometimes inspiring prose that makes this long book an easy read. (I listened to it in the unabridged audio version narrated by John H. Mayer.) He’s quick to credit Jackson for his two best traits — an unwavering belief in participatory democracy, and an unshakeable devotion to the American union. But he doesn’t flinch when calling out Jackson for small-minded and unprincipled behavior.
Pugnacious War Hero
Jackson, who almost single-handedly annexed Florida to the United States, and whose military acumen and tenacity won the battle of New Orleans against overwhelming British skill and manpower, was a popular war hero in his time. But he was pugnacious, engaging in street brawls, duels, and canings until too old to be a bully. And he often acted for the country based on his own beliefs — despite explicit orders to the contrary.
Sometimes haled as the first true democrat, Jackson expressed complete confidence in the will of the people, but, like other powerful leaders, came to believe his opinions best expressed that people’s will. A strong unionist at a time when many Southerners were leaning toward secession, he was a mystical, not rational unionist. He ignored the logical advice and counsel of others about preserving the union when it didn’t mesh with his thinking or came from people he didn’t like.
Roots of Devotion, Democracry
Brands’ biography makes it pretty clear that Jackson’s single-minded devotion to the union and his willingness to act without orders derived from his mother, whose bravery in facing down the British and rescuing her captured sons from two enemy prisons would be remarkable even today. But at book’s end, Jackson’s belief in democracy is still a mystery. He was literate, but not a scholar or thinker. He was a lawyer, but barely. He commanded by fiat, not consensus. The antecedents shout dictator; the facts say democracy. Go figure!