The Passions of Andrew Jacksonby Andrew Burstein
Most people vaguely imagine Andrew Jackson as a jaunty warrior and a man of the people, but he was much more—a man just as complex and controversial as Jefferson or Lincoln. Now, with the first major reinterpretation of his life in a generation, historian Andrew Burstein brings back Jackson with all his audacity and hot-tempered rhetoric.
The unabashedly aggressive Jackson came of age in the Carolinas during the American Revolution, migrating to Tennessee after he was orphaned at the age of fourteen. Little more than a poorly educated frontier bully when he first opened his public career, he was possessed of a controlling sense of honor that would lead him into more than one duel. As a lover, he fled to Spanish Mississippi with his wife-to-be before she was divorced. Yet when he was declared a national hero upon his stunning victory at the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson suddenly found the presidency within his grasp. How this brash frontiersman took Washington by storm makes a fascinating story, and Burstein tells it thoughtfully and expertly. In the process he reveals why Jackson was so fiercely loved (and fiercely hated) by the American people, and how his presidency came to shape the young country’s character.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Burstein (History/Univ. of Tulsa; America’s Jubilee, 2001, etc.) clearly does not share the generally favorable view of Andrew Jackson popularized in the last couple of decades by Robert Remini, the author of a now-standard three-volume biography published between 1977 and 1984. In his highly critical reconsideration, Burstein keeps his eye on the individual, treating Old Hickory as something out of the pages of Shakespeare in the Richard III/Coriolanus/Titus Andronicus vein, with perhaps a dash of Lear’s madness. Like them, Jackson was ruled by his passions, which were many and elemental; they got him in more than one scrape in his long life (1767-1845), whether running off to the then-Spanish borderlands of Mississippi with the estranged wife of a neighbor or fighting Cherokees on the Tennessee frontier (in which service, Burstein suggests, Jackson’s deeds have been much overrated, though this is the fault of later mythmakers and not of Jackson himself). Several constants arise in these pages: Jackson’s overarching hatred of Indians and conviction that the only way to treat them was by force; his certainty that "virulent enemies were plotting against [him]" at all times, an irrational belief that he shared, Burstein claims, with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; his ardent defense of slavery, though his last words to his slaves were, "I want all to prepare to meet me in Heaven. . . . Christ has no respect for color." The overall effect is, of course, a whittling away of the Jacksonian legend, so much so that by the end, readers will wonder how he came to be considered great in the first place. Thisdiminution Burstein achieves with good evidence at hand, though he is sometimes given to judging Jackson and his contemporaries by modern standards rather than those of the day.
Nicely written and generally well-considered: particularly useful for students of the Jacksonian era.
“Rich in insight into Jackson’s personality. . . . Burstein makes fair on his promise to look dispassionately at this most passionate of presidents. . . . A very readable, insightful analysis into the character and evolution of the American republic.” —Plain Dealer
“Excellent. . . . A must-read for anyone interested in the presidency or early American history.” –Flint Journal
“A useful, persuasively critical account of the development of Jackson’s self-image as an honorable patriarch and champion of righteous government..” —The Washington Post Book World
“Impressive. . . . Persuasive. . . . Argues that the times shaped Jackson and thrust him into the White House as the first ‘commoner’ elected president because he so personified the young nation’s bold, brash spirit and sense of destiny.” –The Baltimore Sun
“In his ably drawn portrait…[Burstein] studies Jackson from many angles: as the orphan of the American Revolution, the self-taught orator, … and as the lanky husband who loved his stocky wife, Rachel, touchingly and fiercely.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Well-researched and well-written.. . . Burstein, with his longstanding interest in the American mind, wants to show how we pick our national heroes.” –Chicago Tribune
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The Formative Frontier
Tarlton passed thro the Waxhaw settlement to the cotauba nation passing our dwelling but all were hid out. Tarleton passed within a hundred yards of where I & cousin crawford, had concealed ourselves. I could have shot him.
-fragment in Jackson's hand, probably written late in life for the benefit of a biographer
Of the many controversies that envelop the turbulent world he occupied, Andrew Jackson's birthplace is one dispute with local repercussions only: both North and South Carolina have claimed him. The site of his nativity, "the crossing of the Waxhaw," as Jackson referred to it, had little to recommend it beyond a creek, red earth, a modest church, and proximity to the post road. The two Carolinas merged at this fairly nondescript place, and exemplify for us the difference between the words frontier and border. The first is amorphous, unregulated, and in the minds of some, even mysterious; the second is marked and fixed. Suffice it to say that the two colonies were still negotiating jurisdiction of the area at the time of Jackson's birth on March 15, 1767, and that Jackson himself placed his origin within the bounds of South Carolina.
In 1824, the year of his first presidential run, Jackson received a letter at his Hermitage estate outside Nashville, Tennessee, from the respected cartographer Robert Mills of Columbia, South Carolina. Mills had fought under General Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans nine years earlier. His letter contained a map of the border district where the western country's famed general was born, but which he had not seen, at this point, for forty years. Jackson wrote back to Mills with a mix of nostalgia and fatalism: "A view of this map pointing to the spot that gave me birth, brings fresh to my memory many associations dear to my heart, many days of pleasure with my juvenile companions: but alas, most of them are gone to that bourne where I am hastening & from whence no one returns." As much as Jackson was known to communicate with unsparing directness, he could also affect this style, which was perceived, in his time, as "chaste" and generous. Nostalgic, fatalistic, chaste, and generous are all good words for describing Andrew Jackson.1
Scotch-Irish had colonized the Waxhaws, which bore the name of the Indians who had previously lived there. Early in the eighteenth century, the Catawba tribe battled the Waxhaw tribe, killed their best warriors, and drove away the survivors. By the time of Jackson's birth, the Catawbas were themselves much reduced in number, dependent upon the colonists for food and protection, and sufficiently wary of their non-Indian neighbors to have requested formal settlement on a reservation. That reservation, about ten miles square, straddled the future state border and stopped just above the Jacksons' community.2
Yet a Catawba had only recently played a pivotal role in the unfolding drama of America's history. The Indian "Half King" Tanaghrisson was born into the South Carolina tribe before its undoing. His tumultuous life demonstrates the confused allegiances of frontier peoples of all sorts. When young, he was captured and adopted into the marauding Seneca tribe of western New York, and eventually became an agent of the Iroquois confederacy in the Pennsylvania-Ohio backcountry, helping to maintain a delicate balance between interior peoples and colonial governments. In 1754, Tanaghrisson accompanied twenty-two-year-old George Washington on the Virginian's first (and rather catastrophic) military expedition. When he used his hatchet to tear open the skull of a French emissary before the eyes of the inexperienced Major Washington, the Catawba literally had a hand in fomenting the French and Indian War.3
The declining Catawbas were the first Indians Andrew Jackson knew. A good number of them joined the Revolutionary cause when and where Jackson, at the age of thirteen, did. They tasted combat, and bled on behalf of the newly independent United States. In later years, the larger Indian nations of the South and Southwest-Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and Seminoles-would, each in turn, be awed by the inflexible Gen. Andrew Jackson. By then, the Catawbas he knew as a child were long since an invisible presence in the Carolinas, a servile, impoverished people, found by mapmaker Robert Mills to be "depraved" and "immoral."
This was one way that Jackson, too, thought generically of Indians. Their struggle to survive never seemed to move him. Like so many other tribes before and since, the eighteenth-century Catawbas had made practical choices: they tried to accommodate growing numbers of whites. Separateness may have appealed to them initially, but in the 1760s, as a
means to achieve economic self-sufficiency, they began renting out land within their reservation to white settlers. Known around mid-century as a sometimes "insolent" and "mischievous" people who trespassed and stole, the Catawbas were decimated by smallpox in a 1759 epidemic, and were termed "harmless and friendly" neighbors during Jackson's childhood, when they numbered only in the hundreds. They were often seen as peddlers of moccasins, basketware, and pottery along the southbound post road to Camden and Charleston.4
No one can say with certainty what Jackson's first encounters with Indians augured. But it is worth depicting the Catawbas of his earliest years, as a means of setting forth the terms for understanding this quintessential rough-and-ready American reared in Revolutionary times and destined to be the first U.S. president to have sprung from a modest space, from outside the social elite. To approach him, we must recover his physical as well as emotional environment, and learn enough to speculate about what it was that caused him to grow up so brash and ambitious, with an uncompromising will. This much is clear: distinguishing himself from the dissipated Indians, Jackson wanted credit for all he did, credit for his moral energy.
Moral energy. No other term so manifestly embodies Jackson's self-image. If he had not constantly proclaimed his potential, and backed up his claims with an abundant militancy at a time when battlefield victories were direly needed, he might never have been able to justify himself to eastern power and pretension. Were it not for the way America's identity was increasingly tied to conflict and settlement in the West, he might-like the Catawba-have festered and died, unnoticed by posterity, in the backwoods.
His rise was nothing short of phenomenal. He was not learned, nor particularly bright. Until 1815, when his martial triumphs rocked the nation, he had a marginal impact on government. Arriving in the national capi-
tal of Philadelphia in December 1796, as Tennessee's very first congressman, Jackson appeared to his prominent colleague, western Pennsylvania's Albert Gallatin, as "a tall, lank, uncouth-looking personage, with long locks of hair hanging over his face, and a queue down his back tied in an eel skin."5 It was the way whites typically described the untutored Indian. To his detractors in polite society, Jackson's raw experience made him seem "savage." To others, reacting with excitement against traditional symbols of privilege, he was to become favored as an uncommon commoner-rebellious, heroic, earthy, masculine. In the 1820s, such qualities held romantic appeal.
Ironically, this destroyer of Indian cultures (for that was how he first achieved national prominence) was judged by urban Americans as one who had borrowed something of the Indian. The historian James Parton, himself a nineteenth-century man, writes of the last decade of the eighteenth century, when Jackson became a Tennessean: "The western man of the olden time had much of the Indian in him. He caught the Indian's stealthy footstep; imbibed something of his passion for revenge; abandoned himself like him to the carouse." It is a rather unambiguous characterization.6
The stereotypes presented by late-eighteenth-century writers combined Indian ruthlessness with primitive virtue. A portrayal of Indians by the novelist Tobias Smollett is representative: they were "too tenacious of their own customs to adopt the modes of any nation whatsoever. . . . they were too virtuous and sensible to encourage the introduction of any fashion which might help render them corrupt and effeminate." This depiction sounds strangely Jacksonesque, for he was certainly tenacious, and he came to see himself as a virtuous warrior.7
The frontier fermented in American opinion makers' imaginations. The Indian, deemed "wild" or "savage," was as often praised for exhibiting bravery and stoicism, and ennobled for his resistance to the corruptions of civilization. The white settler could be a doubt-conquering builder or a simple degenerate. But to the philosophic critics who rendered such judgments, any man who existed so near to the primitive state more likely than not lacked the rational capacity of his learned counterpart. Thus Jackson, like the Indian, was suspected of wanting that inner control and self-restraint on which a workable republic thrived. He may have fought on behalf of the civilizing power, but by the same literary prejudice, Jackson's boasted familiarity with the Indian manner made him dangerous.
Being a representative western man was a double-edged sword for the civilizer-warrior in this case. The wilderness was a part of him. He was as comfortable with destruction as with cultivation. He was "Indian-like" insofar as he was bluff, direct, and resistant to all forms of seductive softness-in modern terms, one who could always "take it like a man." But could he rule a civilized people?
Any such ambiguity was in the minds of others. Jackson would have regarded these comparisons as mean-spirited, if not ludicrous. He was American through and through. The needs of Indians were, to him, fairly trivial. Yet the irony persists: acutely aware of his reputation, captive of a myth, he fought, with an Indian's supposed fury, to be non-Indian, to be
a discernibly republican gentleman. And what was that? "Republican
gentleman" was a known quality, associated in Jackson's day with writing and speaking skills and an abundance of sympathy and fellow feeling. It was a term of acceptance employed by the recognized leaders of post-Revolutionary America, and it was not automatically accorded to a temperamental man with a backwoods vocabulary.
The way for Jackson would not be easy. Acceptance required that he adapt and adhere to demands set forth by the national power structure. He made efforts to do so over his career, without ceasing to be himself: a frontier American.
"The mark of which he bears to this hour"
There were two routes that immigrants and their wagons took to the Waxhaws, one across Virginia and North Carolina over the "Catawba Path" and one from the port of Charleston. In 1765, Andrew Jackson Sr., sailing from Carrickfergus, near Belfast, Northern Ireland, likely came by the former route, with his wife, Elizabeth Hutchinson, and their two young sons, Hugh and Robert. Elizabeth's sister and her husband, James Crawford, accompanied them across the Atlantic and to the Carolina uplands, where numerous of their compatriots had previously settled. The surrounding landscape was a mix of piney woods, cornfields, and fenced-in areas for hogs and cattle.8
Andrew Jackson Sr. died in 1767, very shortly before or shortly after the birth of his third son and namesake.9 The first authorized biography of "the Hero" of the Battle of New Orleans, which was begun by Jackson's closest aide, John Reid, after the War of 1812, and completed by another Jackson protégé, John Henry Eaton, after Reid's death, predictably described the widow Jackson as "an exemplary woman" who saw that her youngest son received an education at "a flourishing academy at the Waxsaw meetinghouse." That "flourishing academy" was a log cabin.10
There is no account to suggest that Jackson was studious then or at any time during his formative years. On the contrary, all have emphasized his sportiveness and recklessness. Parton, in particular, cites the reminiscences of Jackson's early schoolmates, in reporting that the youth was "fond of running foot-races" and enthusiastic about wrestling; that he slobbered, was easily offended, quick-tempered, and generally, in the words of one, "difficult to get along with." His speech was countrified, as suggested
in the pronunciation of development as "devil-ope-ment" and sublime as "soo-blime."11
When the American Revolution came to the interior, Jackson did all he could to take part. His eldest brother, Hugh, had ridden with patriot and Princeton graduate Col. William Richardson Davie of North Carolina, only to die, it is said, of heat exhaustion after the Battle of Stono Ferry, near Charleston, in the summer of 1779.12 From that point, the British onslaught continued unabated. Conquering Charleston in May 1780, Lord Charles Cornwallis and the notoriously brutal Lt.-Col. Banastre Tarleton proceeded to launch attacks on rebels in the backcountry, and they directed Tory militia to consolidate their gains. Tarleton was a greatly feared enemy, a twenty-six-year-old terrorist who dressed the part of a dandy, in tight breeches and tall black boots, and directed his men to slash and stab and spare no one. Late in life, Jackson recalled having observed the marauding Tarleton from a hundred yards away. Claiming "I could have shot him," Jackson is either telling us that had he a musket, he was within range; or, in more grandiose terms, that he was prepared, at a tender age, to become a patriot-hero. It is impossible to interpret which way he meant himself to be understood.13
At the Waxhaw meetinghouse, wounded patriots were nursed by Elizabeth Jackson and her two remaining sons, Andrew and Robert. The family was forced into hiding when another army of invaders arrived at their settlement. At the beginning of August 1780, an American force led by Colonel Davie engaged the enemy at Hanging Rock, some fifteen miles to the south, and Andrew and Robert Jackson assisted the troops, if they did not actually fire muskets. It was a momentary success for the Americans, marred by "plundering and carousing."14
In all, the war did not go well for the Revolutionaries in the Carolina piedmont. General Horatio Gates was defeated at nearby Camden the week after the Battle of Hanging Rock, placing the Waxhaw settlement again in the way of the redcoats' northerly march. Cornwallis himself occupied the house of militia officer Robert Crawford, brother of Jackson's uncle by marriage. The Jackson family headed for sanctuary near Charlotte, North Carolina, and was able to return home only four months later.15 It was after these disruptions and aggravations that an easily provoked Andrew Jackson tasted what a political appointee much later termed his "baptism of blood," as if it were meant to be, a fated life adventure consistent with the lad's heritage: "The martyr blood of Scotland blended with that of the Emerald Isle."16
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Andrew Burstein is the author of three previous books on American political culture, including America's Jubilee: How in 1826 a Generation Remembered Fifty Years of Independence and The Inner Jefferson. A graduate of Columbia University, he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. He is currently professor of history and coholder of the Mary Frances Barnard Chair at the University of Tulsa.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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It's amazing how much revision one can do to the reputation of Andrew jackson in just 200 pages, but Burstein manages to pull it off. The revision isn't negative per se, not by far, it is a re-visioning, a way to see Jackson anew. As an introduction to Jackson it works quite well, and as revisionist history it does equally as well. Burstein's style is elegant and research ample. The last chapter is outstanding.
Any students of early American history, its presidency and the steps our leaders took to keep our imfant nation truly territorially independent will enjoy this enlightening read as the qualities of Jackson's leadership can be encompassed within this realm of study.
How sad that someone has time to attack a man who achieved such great glory during a period of time that was so difficult. Anyone who enjoyed the book or questions his character has never experienced anything like what was going on during President Jackson's time. Shame on the author and the readers who think that they can relate.