Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, by H.W. Brands ★★★★

I have continued reading biographies of the presidents of the USA and recently reviewed a biography of James Monroe. I have skipped over John Quincy Adams, a one-term president, and now resume with the biography of Andrew Jackson. There are a number of biographies available and the choice of this biography was somewhat arbitrary. It was a good decision, as this book is very readable, though with minor reservations noted below. The next presidential biography will be Polk, and then I will segue into civil war narratives. Because of an upcoming trip to the coast of South Carolina, I will next review a Revolutionary War narrative of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox.

Andrew Jackson was the first truly controversial president, not fitting the mold of the presidents before him. Unlike the six presidents before him, Jackson was not heavily educated and grew up among normal people. He lost both parents at a fairly young age, and at the age of 12, participated in the Revolutionary War, even receiving a saber slash to his head in one altercation with a British soldier. He received a law degree by working in a law office for several years, and then moved from South Carolina to the city of Nashville, which at that time was more a colonial settlement rather than a village or city. Jackson had many struggles in the pre-presidential years and tended to get himself into trouble frequently. His marriage to a lady not yet widowed from her last husband, his penchant for duals which led to multiple bodily injuries that vexed him throughout his life, his tendency to create multiple enemies, and his impulsive spirit all lent to the controversial nature of this person.

Jackson was involved in politics early on and was voted in as senator from Tennessee, only to resign the senatorship after a year of service. This actually happened twice in his life. He eventually was commissioned by the Governor of Tennessee to be the head of the state militia. This became relevant during the War of 1812 when he was deployed on several occasions. Any student of the war of 1812 will realize that it was a poorly planned and executed endeavor, leaving one surprised that the USA came out as well as it did. Jackson’s excursions into western Florida were highly controversial as well as enacted entirely outside of the orders of the military higher-ups, even though it ultimately resulted in the USA purchasing Florida from Spain at a bargain price. The major battle that led to Jackson’s infamy was the battle of New Orleans, where he fought against a general on the British side victorious from the Napoleonic wars and with seasoned professional troops, using a ragtag bunch of militiamen. With good generalship, the battle ended as a terribly lopsided victory for Andrew Jackson.

Jackson returns home after the war, hoping to throw in the towel and retire from public life. The fates would not allow that to happen. He was nominated for president and won the popular vote. The electoral college deemed it to be a tie between him and John Quincy Adams, and after lengthy deliberations and deeming Jackson a low-life outsider not worthy of the presidency, installed Adams. This immediately set Jackson on a 4-year campaign strategy which resulted in him becoming president in 1829, and after winning a second term, until 1837. During his presidency, there were typical accusations of scandal (eg., the Eaton affair) which Jackson weathered without a problem. Jackson’s wife died just before he won the presidency, leaving a dark cloud over his eight years in office. The notable issues of his presidency were a) the Indians, b) slavery, c) Texas, d) South Carolina and the issue of nullification, and d) Biddle and the Bank of the United States.

The Indians: Jackson had both strong support from Indian populations in the South and in Florida, as well as trouble from the ever enduring fear of Indian attacks. To compound matters, those white settlers in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi simply wished the Indians to be gone, even if they adopted the culture and laws of the United States. Jackson suggested a land swap with the Indians, moving them out of sight and out of mind, west of the Mississippi. Thus became the “trail of tears”, and perhaps the South bears more of the blame than Jackson, though Jackson sought eagerly to be as kind as possible with the Indians. It is easy to view this issue from modern lenses where we don’t have to fear daily of our homes being attacked by Indians, our wives being raped, and children being adopted into the Indian family. Even in Jackson’s times, the New Englanders, who had this same problem 100 years ago, were bitterly judgmental, to their own shame. The Florida Seminoles continued unceasing trouble to the white settlers, showing that a clash of cultures had no viable remedy.

Slaves: Jackson owned slaves. He owned a lot of slaves, perhaps as many as 160+ slaves. Even though Jackson saw slavery as an evil, it also served him extreme economic benefit. Regardless of what modern libertarians claimed (that slavery would become economically unfeasible and quickly die out), the opposite was happening. Lost cause advocates falsely deem that the troubles that led to the civil war were NOT about slavery but a host of other issues, including that of tariffs. See below on the issue of South Carolina for more of this. Yet, slavery remained an issue, especially when it came time to admit Texas (and Oregon and California) to the union as states. Perhaps in some macabre sort of way, this issue still hasn’t been resolved in the USA.

Texas: In the battle of New Orleans, Jackson had both David Crockett and Sam Houston as officers in his militia. Crockett went on to die in the Alamo. Houston had a strange personal affair of having his new wife suddenly run off without notice or explanation. Houston, in despair, heads west and ultimately ends up in Texas where he leads troops to victory over Santa Anna. If there was no slave issue, Texas would have immediately become a state, but Texas allowed slaves. Thus, it became its own Republic until a later president could resolve the Texas problem.

South Carolina: Congress imposed import tariffs to encourage people to use products made in America, as well as a means of revenue. This led to a disproportionate disadvantage with the South, who had little to gain by these tariffs. South Carolina then resurrected the issue of nullification of federal law, and spoke of succession from the Union. Jackson, though a Southerner, attacked this possibility with great vehemence, though it took Henry Clay of Kentucky to propose a compromise on the tariff issue that set South Carolina at ease. Issues of nullification still bedevil the USA; aren’t sanctuary cities just another example of nullification of federal law? Some libertarians will claim that the civil war was fought over issues such as tariffs, yet the tariff issue was adequately resolved long before the first shots at Fort Sumter in 1861.

The Bank of the United States: Jackson had no love for the Federal Bank and felt that it served only the interests of the rich, the elite, and the bankers. I have no disagreement with that. When the bank charter expired, Jackson refused to renew it, and requested that the deposits be moved to the state banks. Biddle, the president of the Bank of the US decided to make life as miserable as possible for Jackson by contracting the money supply leading to an economic downturn. Jackson had the guts to hold his ground, eventually leading to moderate economic stabilization. This is a thorny issue which I’m sure will generate comments either in strong support or opposition of Jackson’s actions. Certainly, the libertarian holds up Jackson as a hero to their cause. Yet, I can see both sides of the argument for a national bank. Does not a state bank also guarantee corruption? The utilization of a rare specie (such as gold or silver) to keep bankers honest is a solution for which I would strongly agree. Outside of that, in a fallen world, there will never be a solution for graft and corruption, and that is true of all of government. This doesn’t equate with the call for no government or anarcho-capitalism, the darling of Libertarians, who remain doubly clueless about evil in the heart and soul of all mankind.

I could say much more about these issues, except that the purpose of this essay is to review a book and not to discuss the pros and cons of various issues, such as State/National banks, nullification, slavery, Indians, etc. After all, isn’t the point of reading history is to learn from the mistakes of the past? Outside of Scripture, no approach to life really works. But this begs the question: was Jackson a Christian driven by Scriptural norms? True, Jackson was a Presbyterian, and his wife Rachel was a rather devout churchgoer. But, the question still remains in the bizarre and chaotic life of Andrew Jackson as to what were his primary motivating influences?; the answer is only known by God.

In the beginning, I mentioned that I would discuss some issues with this book. The author seems to be a progressive liberal, yet keeps that disguised in writing this book. The only hints of his liberalism is his portrayal of legislative, judicial, as well as executive mayhem throughout the book. As he might contend, there never was a golden age in America, and thus, the Constitution needs to be viewed as a living document that needs constant correction. In a sense, he is correct, though the Constitution allows for correction in an orderly manner. Advocates of a fluid constitution cannot appeal to the past as proof for their diminishment of the constitution. Some oppose the Constitution on the grounds of theonomistic principles. I will not waste my time arguing against theonomists, equally clueless, as they essentially make themselves out to be God’s spokespeople. Theonomy has been tried many times throughout history with failure. It’s not that it’s a bad idea, but that it establishes a “pope” to declare God’s will in civil affairs. This is an issue that would take great lengths to discuss, and as I said before, this is a book review and not a springboard to a bevy of relevant topics.