The Life of Andrew Jackson by Robert Remini
I had been looking forward to reading about Andrew Jackson since the beginning of my project. There is nary a more colorful and controversial figure than Jackson in all of U.S. presidential history and his story was sure to be a terrific read.
After having come across Jackson whilst reading about John Quincy Adams and in Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, I was fully prepared to detest the man. After all, despite his early support, Adams and Jackson were fundamentally opposed on any number of issues and Howe shows sympathy for Whig positions throughout his book, so needless to say Jackson’s militant nationalism, Indian removal and bank wars aren’t shown in a very sympathetic light.
Enter Robert Remini. Remini is considered Jackson’s most authoritative biographer having penned a very well-regarded three volume set on Old Hickory, The Course of American Empire in the ‘70s and ‘80s and he’s clearly a fan. I wasn’t quite willing to tackle that extensive trilogy, so I opted for Remini’s single volume abridgment instead.
Remini authored several other biographies of Jackson’s contemporaries as well including works featuring the lives of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren, among others so he’s deeply immersed in the period, but he’s best known for his work on Jackson.
This roughly fifteen-year stage, between 1825-1840 is one of the more interesting and yet little-known periods in early U.S. history. Most Americans tend to have a giant blank spot in their heads from the War of 1812 to the Civil War and I was no exception. Even their knowledge of Jackson probably resides more along the time of his pre-presidential era. Stories of his heroic defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans, or his time as a fearsome Indian killer, or perhaps even tales of his many duels have cemented themselves more in the collective mythos of the American story than say, his battles over the BUS or nullification.
Despite this deficit of popular remembrance, Jackson’s time in the White House was hugely consequential. After all, you don’t get a form of democracy named after you for being tame.
Jackson’s story makes for a hugely entertaining biography and Remini, thankfully, is up to the task. He begins the book, cinematically, with a glimpse of the Battle of New Orleans before transitioning back in time to Jackson’s childhood in the backwoods settlements of the Carolinas during the Revolution. Jackson’s rough and tumble boyhood adventures and his early brush with the British shaped his irascible character in stone (or perhaps a hard wood, say, hickory.)
Remini’s telling of Jackson’s subsequent migration to frontier Nashville, his early work as a lawyer and judge and his controversial marriage to Rachel Donelson are splendidly told and make up some of the most entertaining chapters of the book.
There is so much to tell in the life of Andrew Jackson, it’s hard to fit even the highlights into a short book review. He served in the Revolution as a young scout, became a frontier lawyer, was sent to Congress as a representative of Tennessee (sooner than he was ready it turns out), and became a judge and a highly effective Major General of the Tennessee militia, where he ruthlessly slaughtered the Red Stick Creeks and Seminoles as well as won one of the most smashing victories in U.S. military history at in New Orleans. He went on to become one of the most popular presidents in history (he was mobbed by celebratory throngs nearly everywhere he went).
His presidency launched the national political career of Martin Van Buren and vastly expanded the powers of the Presidency as he frequently acted without consenting Congress, wielded his veto-power in unprecedented ways, and along with Van Buren, created modern party politics along the way.
His battle with John C. Calhoun over nullification (South Carolina’s assertion that they could “nullify” any federal law they deemed unworthy of their obedience to) was perhaps his finest hour, and his famous toast as he stared down a recalcitrant Calhoun at a Washington dinner, stating “Our federal union, it must be preserved”, was Jackson at his steely best.
Though Remini clearly admired the man, he is honest about his faults and blunders as well. His frequently disastrous political appointments come in for quite beating (the sections on the ridiculous Eaton affair make for good reading), though Jackson’s views on slavery are unfortunately never examined in anything resembling a critical light.
All in all, I came away from Remini’s book with a robust understanding of Jackson as a man, soldier and as a politician. I would imagine anyone willing to take on the task of reading his full, three-part work would be hugely rewarded. I might even do it myself one day.