A life of Andrew Jackson that entertains but also exaggerates

Biography

October 23, 2005|By DONALD B. COLE | DONALD B. COLE,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ANDREW JACKSON: HIS LIFE

AND TIMES

H.W. Brands

Doubleday / 640 pages

For Andrew Jackson, life was always a struggle: to survive the loss of his father andmother, tomake a career in the West, to crush the Creek Indians, to defend New Orleans, to oust the Spanish and, finally, to win the presidency and defend his administration.

A sensitive, short-tempered man of honor, Jackson imagined slights, manufactured enemies and challengedmen to duels. He sometimes found enemies on his own side. In his Western campaigns he quarreled frequently with his superiors, and as president he fought with members of his administration when they and their wives refused to entertain the wife of Secretary of War John Eaton.

In Andrew Jackson, H.W. Brands has written a vivid biography, following Old Hickory as he overcomes his enemies. A deft writer and master of detail, he lets us know that Jackson stood only 24 feet from Charles Dickinson when he killed him in a duel. He surrounds Old Hickory with a host of colorful figures, including Jean Lafitte, Sam Houston and Davy Crockett.

The excitement and pace of the story will tempt readers to stay up with Brands all night. His account also contains arresting insights. We identify with Jackson as he arrives in Washington to become president, having just buried his wife, Rachel, and finding almost no intimate friends living in the city. We get a sympathetic picture of John Quincy Adams deserting the political party of his father not long after the old man left office. Brands' narrative dramatically tells the story of Jackson in the West. With Old Hickory as the central figure, he re-creates the volatile economy, the code of honor and the violence of frontier life. His story reinforces the opinion that Jackson contributed more than anyone else to early American expansion.

This emphasis on Jackson'sWestern career comes at the expense of his political campaign and his presidency, which occupy less than 30 percent of the book. And in this part of the story Brand overdoes the theme of democracy. In 1828, he writes, Jackson was "a man of the people"who took advantage of voting reforms and a huge upsurge in voting to ride "the theme of democracy" to victory. In the process he defeated John Quincy Adams, who believed that "ordinary Americans weren't fit to govern themselves." Once Jackson was elected, Brand writes, democracy was "rampant," and his first annual message became a "manifesto of democracy."

This theme is not new, for historians a century ago made similar assertions, and the claims are much exaggerated. Rather than a "man of the people," Jackson was a Southern planter with about 100 slaves. Democracy had arrived well before 1828. Most states had long before established something close to suffrage for white men, and the percentage of voting that yearwas no greater than in many earlier state elections. The dominant theme in the campaign was the threat of corruption and the need to restore republican virtue.

Jackson did, of course, believe in democracy. He consistently supported majority rule, and he made a strong argument for equal opportunity in vetoing the recharter of the Bank of the United States. But his first annual message, which outlined his program, lacked the fervor of a "manifesto of democracy." And his definition of democracy, which omitted African-Americans, Native Americans and women, was a narrowone. Jackson, furthermore,was not as different from Adams as Brands suggests. Each advocated democracy in the 1828 campaign, and each stressed the danger of corruption. Each referred to democracy only once in his inaugural address, and the two referenceswere quite similar.

Brands' Andrew Jackson is an exciting narrative history, but it does not add much that is new to the interpretation of the Age of Jackson.

Donald B. Cole is a professor emeritus of history at Phillips Exeter Academy. He is author of "The Presidency of Andrew Jackson" and "A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy."

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