Burstein's Jackson -- just a creature of his time?

February 09, 2003|By Tom Linthicum | By Tom Linthicum,Special to the Sun

The Passions of Andrew Jackson, by Andrew Burstein. Alfred A. Knopf. 320 pages. $25.

Andrew Jackson is a compelling historical figure whose life reads like a soap opera, replete with violence, betrayal, scandal, intrigue, heroism and great achievements. Frequently listed among the great American presidents, he is an enduring political figure whose name is often mentioned in the same breath as that of Thomas Jefferson.

Andrew Burstein is a history professor at the University of Tulsa who has established himself as an epistolary detective, student of language and historical psychoanalyst in three previous books: Sentimental Democracy, The Inner Jefferson and America's Jubilee.

Burstein now sets out to give us "the real Andrew Jackson." To do so, he applies much the same methodology that has served him well before -- delving into journals, letters, speeches and literature of the day.

The Jackson revealed by Burstein is a proud, self-made man driven by determination and ambition, a product of the American frontier of the early 1800s -- a brawling, dangerous land that produced brawling, dangerous men who lived by a code of courage, chivalry and paternalism. Burstein's Jackson has a hair-trigger temper, is always ready for a fight over an affair of honor and once killed a man in a duel.

Sound familiar? Why yes, it sounds just like Andrew Jackson, now that you mention it. The same guy with the tousled mane and stern visage who stares us down from the front of our $20 bill. Old Hickory. Hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Seventh president of the United States.

And therein lies the problem with this book.

This is a character study, not a biography. It focuses on the first 50 years of Jackson's life, before he was elected president. In searching for insights into his passions, Burstein closely examines Jackson's relationships with five key military and political associates.

What emerges is a portrait of a man with a giant chip on his shoulder, suspicious to the point of paranoia, for whom everything was personal. Jackson needed, demanded and usually returned personal loyalty. Likewise, he needed enemies, preferably mortal ones. In fact, he cultivated them: Indians, the British, the Bank of the United States, aristocrats, Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams. And he castigated them in vituperative, incendiary language, as Burstein amply illustrates.

Burstein takes pains to distance his view of Jackson from that of Robert V. Remini, often described as our era's foremost Jacksonian scholar. Burstein says Remini subscribes to the theory that Andrew Jackson was a powerful force who shaped his times. But Burstein 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.

His point here is persuasive, his use of primary sources is impressive and his methods are interesting, despite contrived comparisons of Jackson and various Shakespearean characters.

But in the end, this reader is left feeling, "Andy, we already knew ye."

Tom Linthicum spent more than 25 years at The Sun as a writer and editor. He is an avid student and reader of American history.

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