The towering figure who remade American politics--the champion of the ordinary citizen and the scourge of entrenched privilege
The Founding Fathers espoused a republican government, but they were distrustful of the common people, having designed a constitutional system that would temper popular passions. But as the revolutionary generation passed from the scene in the 1820s, a new movement, based on the principle of broader democracy, gathered force and united behind Andrew Jackson, the charismatic general who had defeated the British at New Orleans and who embodied the hopes of ordinary Americans. Raising his voice against the artificial inequalities fostered by birth, station, monied power, and political privilege, Jackson brought American politics into a new age.
Sean Wilentz, one of America's leading historians of the nineteenth century, recounts the fiery career of this larger-than-life figure, a man whose high ideals were matched in equal measure by his failures and moral blind spots, a man who is remembered for the accomplishments of his eight years in office and for the bitter enemies he made. It was in Jackson's time that the great conflicts of American politics--urban versus rural, federal versus state, free versus slave--crystallized, and Jackson was not shy about taking a vigorous stand. It was under Jackson that modern American politics began, and his legacy continues to inform our debates to the present day.
In the latest installment of the American Presidents series edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Princeton historian Wilentz shows that our complicated seventh president was a central figure in the development of American democracy. Wilentz gives Jackson's early years their due, discussing his storied military accomplishments, especially in routing the British in the War of 1812, and rehearsing the central crises of Jackson's presidential administration--South Carolina's nullification of the protective tariff and his own battle against the Bank of the United States. But Wilentz's most significant interpretations concern Indian policy and slavery. With constitutional and security concerns, Jackson's support for removal of Indians from their lands, says Wilentz, was not "overtly malevolent," but was nonetheless "ruinous" for Indians. Even more strongly, Wilentz condemns the "self-regarding sanctimony of posterity" in judging Jackson insufficiently antislavery; Jackson's main aim, he says, was not to promote slavery, but to keep the divisive issue out of national politics. Wilentz (The Rise of American Democracy) also astutely reads the Eaton affair--a scandal that erupted early in Jackson's presidency, over the wife of one of his cabinet members--as evidence that, then as now, parlor politics and partisan politics often intersected. It is rare that historians manage both Wilentz's deep interpretation and lively narrative.
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December 26, 2005
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Excerpt from Andrew Jackson by Sean Wilentz
Jackson and the Age of the Democratic Revolution
In the early spring of 1835, the renowned engraver and painter Asher Durand executed the finest portrait of Andrew Jackson made during Jackson's presidency. The artist could extract only four or five sittings from his irascible, distracted subject. Jackson, Durand reported, "has been part of the time in a pretty good humor, but some times he gets his 'dander up' & smokes his pipe prodigiously." Still, the final picture was candid and persuasive, showing a careworn, elegantly attired old man, his cheeks and forehead deeply lined, lips clenched over toothless gums, and black-coffee eyes emanating both melancholy and determination.* One New York critic pronounced it "not merely a likeness but a facsimile."1
Strong as it was, the rendering was incomplete--for hidden beneath Jackson's shock of stiff white hair was a deep and nasty scar. As a boy soldier during the American Revolution, Jackson had been captured by British dragoons and ordered to scrape the mud off an officer's boots. When Jackson claimed the status of a prisoner of war and refused to be shamed, the officer slashed him with a sword, nearly severing several fingers and cutting a permanent trench into the boy's skull. Although it would not be the last violent badge of courage and honor Jackson would receive, it would remain his greatest source of pride, an eternal reminder of his patriotic suffering and dedication.
A year before Jackson sat for Durand's portrait, while the Senate was debating whether to censure him for presidential misconduct, he learned that a Whig congressman planned to introduce articles of impeachment--and to charge that the stories about the wartime slashing had been invented as a campaign ploy.
"The damned infernal scoundrel!" Jackson snarled to his close friend and adviser Francis Blair. "Put your finger here, Mr. Blair." The president parted his hair, and Blair was shocked to discover that he could fit his entire finger inside the scarred gash.2
Fearless, principled, and damaged, Andrew Jackson was one of the fiercest and most controversial men ever to serve as president of the United States. Like few other presidents until the present era--Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR--Jackson inspired love and hatred, with no apparent middle ground. "Talk of him as the second Washington!" the New York patrician Philip Hone wrote with sarcasm and disgust in 1833. "It won't do now: Washington was only the first Jackson." Hone and his conservative friends in truth thought of Jackson as an American Caesar, who had stirred up the blockhead masses, seized power, and installed a new despotism. Jackson's more radical critics likewise detested him as a dangerous demagogue. But to his admirers, Jackson was the most courageous man in the country, the one leader, a North Carolinian observed, who "could have withstood the overwhelming influence" of the nation's "corrupt Aristocracy," to safeguard equal rights and American democracy.3
There are plenty of signals in our culture today that we are supposed to admire Jackson as a great American. His picture is on the twenty-dollar bill. His plantation home outside Nashville, the Hermitage, is a national historic monument. The imposing statue of Jackson in his general's uniform, rearing on horseback, still dominates Lafayette Square Park as it has for more than a century and a half, with Jackson doffing his half-moon officer's cap at the White House. Separate polls of historians who vary widely in their assessments of the presidents consistently rate Jackson near the top, just below Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. Yet apart from Jefferson, no past president has suffered harsher criticism from recent historians than has Jackson--no longer a hero, in many circles, but an ignorant, violent slaveholder who suppressed the abolitionists, ruined the American economy, and perpetrated genocide on the Indians. The attacks rival in their intensity those loosed on Jackson from both the Right and the Left in his own time.