A review of In Defense of Andrew Jackson (Regnery History, 2018) by Bradley J. Birzer

I was recently in Nashville, Tennessee, with family, and took the opportunity to visit Andrew Jackson’s home-turned-museum, “The Hermitage.”

I have to admit, it was amusing for me to hear the historians whom were interviewed by the museum become outright “historicists” (as the Straussians/Jaffaites would say) when it came to the memory of one of their heroes. Jon Meacham (who has meekly pled for Confederate monuments to be destroyed but Founder monuments to be spared) and Annette Gordon-Reed (who made her career gossiping about the “Jefferson-Hemings” scandal) are suddenly warning the public of the pitfalls of presentism! These historical relativists of convenience even misrepresent Andrew Jackson’s utter indifference to the slavery question – he never appears to have expressed moral doubts about the practice and considered abolitionism tantamount to disunion – as simply being a man of his time and place. As a self-identified “Yankee” correspondent wrote to the British Spectator in the aftermath of the Civil War, “It is always a part of the misfortunes of the vanquished that their portraits are painted and their history written by the victors.”

Mr. Meacham and Prof. Gordon-Reed are reacting – too little, too late – against the logical terminus of presentist ideology. (Indeed, two years ago, Jackson’s tomb at The Hermitage was vandalized, spray-painted with the word “killer” as well as profanities and anarchist symbols.) The barbaric and fanatical iconoclasm on display in Charlottesville, Virginia, is just one of many examples from around the country of what the future of American history looks like, not to mention what future American history will look like. First, the symbols of the evil slavers and traitors Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had to come down…but of course never the noble George Washington and Thomas Jefferson! Next, however, the symbols of Washington and Jefferson had to come down…but only because they were evil slavers just like Lee and Jackson! Now, the symbols of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark have to come down…because not only were they evil slavers like Lee, Jackson, Washington, and Jefferson, but also evil settler-colonialists! Even Jefferson’s birthday, once a public holiday in Charlottesville, has been replaced with “Liberation and Freedom Day,” celebrating the day during the Civil War when Gen. Philip H. Sheridan (once-infamous among Virginians for total warfare in the Shenandoah Valley and still-infamous among American Indians for genocide in the Great Plains) occupied the city. Removing the symbols of a people is no less of a symbol itself: It is a primitive display of power by one tribe over another. There is nothing stopping the onward march of this revolution, which like all revolutions must keep inventing new “enemies of the people” to be purged – initially from “otherized” out-groups but eventually from even its own in-groups.

If Jackson’s memory is going down, then it should at least go down in a manner befitting the man –not begging for mercy, but fighting to the death. Taking up that challenge, Bradley J. Birzer’s book, In Defense of Andrew Jackson, aims “to reintroduce him to a new generation of American readers.” It is not a comprehensive biography of “the man in detail,” but simply “the man in full.” Prof. Birzer is the co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative website (where many of the great M.E. Bradford’s works are available), the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College, and the author of books on conservative intellectuals such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and Russell Kirk.

Prof. Birzer’s argument, in a nutshell, is that Jackson was a heroic figure who successfully defended the phenomenal-but-vulnerable legacy of the Founding Fathers from foreign as well as domestic enemies. Refuting many of the calumnies against Jackson is a valuable contribution in an age when The New York Times dismisses him as “a white man known as much for his persecution of Native Americans as for his war heroics and his advocacy for the common man,” yet Prof. Birzer somewhat undermines his credibility by refusing to concede to any criticism whatsoever. Unlike some of the “Old Republicans” (“more Jeffersonian than Jefferson” in Prof. Birzer’s phrase) whom were initially enthusiastic about Jackson but distrusted him the more they dealt with him, Prof. Birzer admits that “the more I have studied Andrew Jackson, the more I have come to respect him.” As Prof. Birzer jokes, “If Jackson read this account, I do not think he would challenge me to a duel – and once you read about him, you will realize that this might be the highest praise a biographer can earn.” Indeed, Jackson would approve, because like many of the men with whom Jackson surrounded himself, Prof. Birzer is unquestioningly loyal to him, even at his most indefensible.

Prof. Birzer begins with historiography, reviewing how past historians have interpreted Andrew Jackson. Even though Prof. Birzer holds Robert V. Remini’s three-volume saga (The Life of Andrew Jackson) in high regard, he claims that the editors’ commentary in The Papers of Andrew Jackson “tell the story of Jackson’s life far better than any biography yet written.”[1]

Jackson has always been a polarizing figure. At his inauguration in 1829, Sen. James Hamilton, Jr. of South Carolina marveled at how the populist, nationalist display was a manifestation of the god “Demos,” for better or for worse. “After the ceremony was over, the President went to the palace to receive company, and there he was visited by immense crowds of all sorts of people, from the highest and most polished down to the most vulgar and gross in the nation,” groaned Joseph Story, a Supreme Court Justice present at Jackson’s inauguration. “I never saw such a mixture. The reign of ‘King Mob’ seemed triumphant.” Yet in spite of the skepticism of the Judge Storys and Sen. Hamiltons, Prof. Birzer notes that “for much of the nineteenth century, Jackson stood as the great symbol of American democratic achievement – a man who came from the common people and represented them in the White House.” As James Parton, one of Jackson’s earliest biographers exulted, Jackson “was the most American of Americans – an embodied Declaration of Independence – the Fourth of July incarnate!”

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, conservative intellectuals such as Prof. William Graham Sumner of Yale, Prof. Irving Babbitt of Harvard, and T.S. Eliot disdained Jackson as the personification of democratic degeneration, similar to Story’s original opinion. “The ‘quality’ in the older sense of the word suffered its first decisive defeat in 1829 when Washington was invaded by the hungry hordes of Andrew Jackson,” sneered Prof. Babbitt. “The imperialism latent in this type of democracy appears in the Jacksonian maxim: ‘To the victors belong the spoils.’”

Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, when Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt consolidated power in the executive branch of government in order to fight the Great Depression and World War II, liberal intellectuals glorified Jackson as an example of another strong executive. The Age of Jackson, by Prof. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. of Harvard, is the definitive statement of this interpretation, which remained mainstream until the counter-culturalism and multi-culturalism of the New Left (mislabeled by Prof. Birzer as “Marxism”) began influencing American intellectuals in the 1960s.

Instead of arguing about whether “Jacksonian Democracy” was good or bad for the American system of government, as the liberals and conservatives had been doing since the 1800s, New-Left intellectuals countered that Jackson was outright evil for enslaving Africans and exterminating Indians. “Seeking the fundamental impulse behind Jacksonian Democracy, historians have variously pointed to free enterprise, manhood suffrage, the labor movement, and resistance to the market economy, but in its origins, Jacksonian Democracy was not primarily about any of these, though it came to intersect with all of them in due course,” argues Prof. David Walker Howe of UCLA. “In the first place, it was about the extension of white supremacy across the North-American continent.” According to Prof. Howe, “White supremacy, resolute and explicit, constituted an essential component of what contemporaries called ‘The Democracy’ – that is, the Democratic Party.”

Most recently, Pres. Donald Trump – much like FDR, asserting executive power over other branches of government – has associated himself with Jackson, notably choosing Jackson’s presidential portrait to hang in the Oval Office, visiting The Hermitage, and reversing Pres. Barack Obama’s decision to remove Jackson from the currency. In a speech at The Hermitage on Jackson’s 250th birthday (March 15th, 2017), Pres. Trump described how Jackson’s populist campaign and agenda dismayed the elite classes, quipping “that sounds familiar.” (Whether Old Hickory himself would have considered The Donald a “Jacksonian” is another question altogether.)

Prof. Birzer’s historiographical overview refutes the modern conceit that history is any sort of “science.” Yes, dates and names are objective, but narrative – how the significance of those dates and names is explained – will always be subjective. How an “African-American” or “American Indian” remembers Jackson will be very different from how a white American remembers him – and none are necessarily right or wrong. As Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic observed in “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?”, while white people remember the Civil War with “a deep sense of tragedy,” for black people “to speak as the slave would, to say that we are as happy for the Civil War as most Americans are for the Revolutionary War, is to rupture the narrative.”

Prof. Birzer perceptively notes that the intellectual reaction against Jackson in particular is connected to the intellectual reaction against the American frontier in general, which is no longer interpreted as the westward course of civilization but as an environmental and ethnic catastrophe:

The aspects of Andrew Jackson’s life that recent biographers have consistently overlooked are his motivations and role as a frontiersman. Most students of history tend to think of Jackson as a Southerner. This is true, of course, but only partially. His South was the southern frontier, not the South of Old Virginia or the eastern shore of Maryland. And the same students usually don’t know that Jackson’s views about the frontier permeated his thoughts, policies, and desires. In fact, they justified (and helped explain) his violence and informed his hatred of the East, especially Washington, D.C.

Jackson saw himself as truly principled and viewed those on the East Coast as naïve. From the safety of Washington, Boston, or New York, they could wax poetic and philosophic about rights and peace and abuses committed against Indians while lambasting the actions of Americans settling in newly claimed territory. They could loiter in the halls of Congress or walk through New York’s financial district while real Americans waged war on an untamed wilderness and protected their families from almost constant attack. From Jackson’s point of view, most politicians and bankers simply lived off the work of those who were forging the country along the frontier lines. To him, two classes of Americans existed: Those who labored and those who stole.

Whatever we think about the frontier and its place in American history, the same will be true of Jackson, the very embodiment of the old southwestern frontier. As far back as the 1820s and 1830s, prominent figures such as Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper wanted to know Jackson, not necessarily because they agreed with his policies but because they understood even during his lifetime what a mythic figure he was and would remain. Currently, the nature of Jackson’s legendary status is tied up in our twenty-first century ideas about the frontier. If we consider forging a republic out of virgin soil a grand achievement in our nation’s history, Jackson is a heroic pioneer. If we see our country’s past as criminal and inhumane, an imperialist move justified for a corrupt understanding of republicanism, Jackson is a despicable savage. Either title has mythic proportions, but determining which one Jackson deserves is not easy because the true account of his life as a frontiersman may have become irretrievably corrupted.

A key reason pro-Jackson scholars have neglected Jackson’s role as a frontiersman is that they do not want to delve too deeply into his Indian-removal policy and the resultant Trail of Tears. Strangely enough, they can excuse his owning slaves as a cultural norm, but they feel differently about his views toward the American Indian. In stark contrast, the historians who hate Jackson – especially the New Leftists of the 1970s and 1980s – focus almost exclusively on his treatment of the Indians, but they rarely explain it in the context of his times or the contours of his rather nuanced thought when dealing with native peoples. To the New-Left historians of the 1960s through today, Jackson’s Indian-removal policy is incontrovertible proof of the evils of nineteenth-century, laissez-faire capitalism and its twin – freewheeling imperialism. In fact, according to the best of the New-Left historians, Patricia Limerick, there is little left to understand and study about the West except the “legacy of conquest.”

 Jackson was the first native – or “organic” – American President, so to speak. “Jackson was a westerner, a war hero, an Indian fighter, a self-made man, a plain-spoken republican, and, unlike his six predecessors – four from Virginia and two from the Massachusetts elite – not classically educated,” observes Prof. Birzer. “In some ways, he was the first truly American president – not shaped by British manners and mores but something unique to this continent.” Throughout his life, this truly American man championed the frontiersmen of the West, whether on the field of battle or in the halls of government. “He understood their ‘rugged individualism,’ their need for land, their battles with the Indians, and their resentment of and frustration with the eastern establishment in Washington they considered snobbish and corrupt,” explains Prof. Birzer. “For these people, the violent, honest, mercurial Scotch-Irish frontiersman was their warrior, philosopher, and knight, a real-life Natty Bumppo.”

Yet as uniquely American as Jackson was, his Scotch-Irish heritage was just as important a part of his identity. Jackson’s recollection of his mother’s words to him on his deathbed is a summary of Scotch-Irish masculinity:

Andrew, if I should not see you again, I wish you to remember and treasure up some things I have already said to you: In this world you have to make your own way. To do that you must have friends. You can make friends by being honest, and you can keep them by being steadfast. You must keep in mind that friends worth having will in the long run expect as much as they give to you. To forget an obligation or be ungrateful for a kindness is a base crime – not merely a fault or a sin but an actual crime. Men guilty of it sooner or later suffer the penalty. In personal conduct always be polite but never obsequious. None will respect you more than you respect yourself. Avoid quarrels as long as you can without yielding to imposition. But sustain your manhood always. Never bring a suit in law for assault and battery or for defamation. The law affords no remedy for such outrages that can satisfy the feelings of a true man. Never wound the feelings of others. Never brook wanton outrage upon your own feelings. If you ever have to vindicate your feelings or defend your honor, do it calmly. If angry at first, wait till your wrath cools before you proceed.

Jackson’s tribute to one of his personal heroes, Sir William Wallace, says as much about him as it does about the Scottish rebel leader:

In him we find a stubborn virtue, which was never overcome by vice, it was too pure for corruption. We find in him the truly undaunted courage, always ready to brave any dangers, for the relief of his country or his friend. In him we find true greatness of soul capable of true friendship, and in his enemies, a lesson from the want of it, necessary for every high-minded youth to be acquainted with, that he may be guarded against vile hypocrisy and deceit, that often lurks beneath a fair exterior which is clothed with power.

 Another aspect of Scotch-Irish identity that Jackson inherited from his mother was that characteristic Celtic hatred of the English:

To the lessons she inculcated on the youthful minds of her sons, was, no doubt, owing, in a great measure, that fixed opposition to British tyranny and oppression, which afterwards so much distinguished them. Often she would spend the winter’s evenings, in recounting to them the sufferings of their grandfather, at the siege of Carrickfergus, and the oppression exercised by the nobility of Ireland, over the labouring poor; impressing it upon them, as a first duty, to expend their lives, if it should become necessary, in defending and supporting the  natural rights of men.

Given the Jackson family values, Prof. Birzer rejects the theory (which he attributes to Russell Kirk but which originated much earlier with Mark Twain) that the chivalric, gallant, romantic literature of Sir Walter Scott radicalized Southerners into starting a civil war over “honor.” On the contrary, Scott was expressing Scotch-Irish values that families like Jackson’s had been carrying on and passing down long before Ivanhoe or Rob Roy. From Jackson’s hard young life – “rugged, independent, poor, violent, hardworking, and Presbyterian,” in Prof. Birzer’s words – his identity was obviously not formed from reading a book.

“That honor was put to the test in the American War of Independence,” continues Prof. Birzer, “which, in the South, was a civil war with neighbors and even family members choosing rival sides.” Although Jackson was too young to be a soldier, he served as a scout and took part in several skirmishes. Both of Jackson’s brothers were killed during the war, as well as his mother, who died while serving as a nurse in Charleston. Jackson himself was captured at one point and barely survived the disease and physical abuse of his imprisonment. “To write that he hated the British would be an understatement,” concludes Prof. Birzer. “He despised them.”

In the decades following the Revolutionary War – when, as Prof. Birzer puts it, he “owned no property…had no future…was utterly alone”– Jackson completed his education as an attorney and practiced in the borderlands of North Carolina and Tennessee before finally settling down in Nashville, where he married his wife, Rachel, and built their home, The Hermitage. In 1796, Jackson represented Nashville at the Tennessee Constitutional Convention and was elected to the House of Representatives – and then the Senate the very next year. At this point Jackson’s political career was rather conventional.

Although Jackson was a Jeffersonian federalist and republican (Prof. Birzer despises the textbook term “Democratic-Republican”), Thomas Jefferson himself distrusted him, telling Daniel Webster in 1824 that he often saw Jackson so “choked with rage” that he “could never speak.” According to Jefferson, Jackson was not just “unfit” for office but actually “dangerous” because of his temper. “However strong his political views, Jackson disliked legislative life; he thought it consisted of too much talk, too much committee work, and too much increasing of the wealth of American officials at the expense of the country,” explains Prof. Birzer. “Neither Congressional life nor Philadelphia, the capital from December 6, 1790, to May 14, 1800, suited Jackson.” In 1798, Jackson resigned from the Senate and returned to Tennessee, where he was appointed to be a judge and a major general in the militia. “It was as major general of the Tennessee militia,” remarks Prof. Birzer, “that Andrew Jackson finally became Andrew Jackson.”

Because of Prof. Birzer’s argument that the reaction against Jackson himself is the result of the reaction against the American frontier altogether, his description of Jackson’s frontier origins is the most interesting part of his book:

The aspects of Jackson’s life that recent biographers have consistently overlooked are his motivations and role as a frontiersman. Most students of history tend to think of Jackson as a Southerner. This is true, of course, but only partially. His South was the southern frontier, not the South of Old Virginia or the eastern shore of Maryland. And the same students usually don’t know that Jackson’s views about the frontier permeated his thoughts, policies, and desires. In fact, they justified (and helped explain) his violence and informed his hatred of the East, especially Washington, D.C.

Jackson saw himself as truly principled and viewed those on the East Coast as naïve. From the safety of Washington, Boston, or New  York, they could wax poetic and philosophic about rights and peace and abuses committed against Indians while lambasting the actions of Americans settling in newly claimed territory. They could loiter in the halls of Congress or walk through New York’s financial district while real Americans waged war on an untamed wilderness and protected their families from almost constant attack. From Jackson’s point of view, most politicians and bankers simply lived off the work of those who were forging this country along the frontier lines. To him, two classes of Americans existed: those who labored and those who stole.

 By explaining Jackson’s support for territorial expansion, Jackson’s status as a gentleman-dueler and citizen-soldier, and Jackson’s participation in Indian warfare and the War of 1812, Prof. Birzer sets Jackson in the time and place where he belongs.

“Jackson, it is true, was a conqueror and a general, but that can be misleading,” explains Prof. Birzer. “He was, more fundamentally, a republican, a defender of America as a democratic republic, and an advocate of the aggressive, territorial expansion that republic was creating because, in Jefferson’s famous phrase, it was an ‘empire of liberty.’” (Prof. Birzer does not clarify that Thomas Jefferson’s envisioned “empire of liberty” was not simply an ever-expanding U.S.A., but was a union of regional/sectional “confederacies” across the American continent – something rather different from Jackson’s indissoluble union.) Jackson staunchly believed in the tradition of the citizen-soldier, an Anglo-American tradition stretching as far back as the colonial period and enshrined in the Second Amendment (and many other state bills of rights). Because militias were comprised of free subjects/citizens, republicans like Jackson trusted them to serve the people, unlike a standing army which served only the king/president. Jackson’s ideal American man was a citizen-soldier who contributed not only to civic life but also to the defense of his community. Jackson had performed these duties himself in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and he expected that level of devotion from others as well.

Jackson’s history of dueling is some of the most popular trivia about him. “No one knows how many duels Jackson fought,” notes Prof. Birzer, “but they were frequent and often made news.” Prof. Birzer briefly describes the “informal but strictly enforced codes and rules” which governed dueling (The Hermitage has a very entertaining and educational mock-duel show). “In a duel, a man demanded ‘satisfaction,’ which was met by the duelers simply meeting on the field and exchanging shots, not necessarily shooting their opponents,” explains Prof. Birzer. “Missing on purpose was allowed and afterward the men could even become friends.” This is what happened in Jackson’s duel with John Sevier: After publicly insulting each other for some time (Sevier responded to Jackson’s written challenge by sending it back with the spelling corrected), they rode outside of town to duel and rode back into town as friends again. One of Jackson’s duels even stemmed from another duel: Thomas Hart Benton, who had served under Jackson in the War of 1812, challenged Jackson to a duel after Jackson served as a second to another man, William Carroll, whom had humiliated Benton’s young brother in a duel. Some duels were deadly serious, however, such as when Jackson killed Charles Dickinson. Dueling took quite a toll on Jackson’s health; he went through his life with unremoved bullets in his body.

The hard conditions on the frontier did not have a noticeable effect on birth rates on the frontier, which grew naturally until 1846 without any appreciable immigration. “Immigrants, to be sure, arrived on American soil,” notes Prof. Birzer, “but the last great migration of free peoples – the Scotch-Irish – had tailed off around 1775.” Because the native population was growing at such a fast pace – a phenomenon termed “the American Multiplication Table” – new frontiers were a necessity. “For most of America’s early history, this was a land of open borders,” explains Prof. Birzer (albeit with several major contextual differences which he and most libertarian-leaning conservatives consistently ignore). “American settlers also considered other borders open borders, spilling over into territory claimed by Spain or France or Mexico or Indians.” When Pres. Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France (which stretched from what is now the State of Louisiana to the State of Montana), Jackson gushed over the Louisiana Purchase in a letter of congratulations to Jefferson and hoped to get himself appointed governor of the new territory.

Indian warfare was a fact of life on the frontier. “Jackson is famous, or notorious, for fighting and displacing Indians from the American frontier, but he actually held nuanced views about the Indians and was not the Indian hater of leftist myth,” argues Prof. Birzer. “Much like Jefferson, Jackson believed the Indians were natural republicans with republican instincts and human rights guaranteed by God, but he believed the hard reality was that the Indians were well behind white Americans in terms of culture and civilization, a constant threat to the lives of settlers and their families, and a direct military threat likely to ally with America’s European enemies.” During the War of 1812, the frontier’s worst fears were realized: The Creeks allied with the British against the Americans.

The War of 1812 demonstrated the necessity of citizen-soldiers and Indian fighters on the frontier. Initially, Jackson recruited and commanded a Tennessee militia which operated independently of the U.S. military. Through sheer force of will, Jackson held this militia together, earning the nickname “Old Hickory” (for being “tough as hickory”), as well as turning his dark-reddish hair gray. When the white population of Fort Mims was massacred, Jackson led his militia to hunt down and wipe out the perpetrators at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, effectively ending the Creek War on the southern frontier. In recognition of his abilities, Pres. James Madison promoted Jackson to the rank of major general in the U.S. Army.

“If the Creek campaign made Jackson a household name across the United States, his actions at New Orleans made him nothing less than a republican demigod, a mythic figure equal to, at least in war, George Washington,” declares Prof. Birzer. “Jackson performed brilliantly, despite being outrageously outnumbered and outgunned.” After the British invasions from the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, Jackson knew that an invasion from the Gulf of Mexico was imminent and prepared to defend the southern frontier. When Jackson determined that New Orleans would be the invasion point, he reinforced his Southern militiamen with Franco-Louisianans, including freedmen and pirates. “In so many ways,” remarks Prof. Birzer, “Jackson’s variegated army was the very best of America, writ small.” Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans was so decisive that it permanently altered Anglo-American relations. “It was this defeat that made the British, finally, respect and even befriend America – no longer an upstart republic – as a power to be feared and admired,” explains Prof. Birzer. “The two nations would antagonize each other over the next century, but they came to realize that what they shared in language, culture, law, and manners made them more unified than divided.” As Prof Birzer puts it, “After the Battle of New Orleans, neither nation could deny that Americans were not British subjects; they were their equals, perhaps even their superiors.”

In 1822, after Jackson had tired from the military and was eagerly anticipating returning home to be with his wife, the Tennessee legislature nominated him for the presidency. Jackson had earlier avowed no interest in political office and had endorsed John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun (both candidates currently serving on Pres. James Monroe’s Cabinet), but he ultimately bowed to the will of the people – his people, as he saw it. Rep. Henry Clay of Kentucky, another candidate currently serving as Speaker of the House, denounced Jackson as a “military chieftain” unfit for civil office. Jackson used Clay’s attack to emphasize that unlike many other politicians, he had indeed risked his life in defense of his country twice, something of which he was proud and for which he was popular. “If this meant that Jackson was a ‘military chieftain,’ then so be it,” argues Prof. Birzer. “Besides, which was worse, the demagogue, backed by a standing army, or a military chieftain who calls up volunteers for a short time in defense of hearth and home?”

Although Jackson was a reluctant candidate, he still won the popular vote, though no candidate – between Quincy Adams, Calhoun, Clay, and William Crawford – won a sufficient number of electoral votes. In that event, the election was to be decided by the House of Representatives, where Clay was Speaker. When the House elected Quincy Adams and Quincy Adams named Clay his Secretary of State, Jackson accused Quincy Adams and Clay of a “corrupt bargain” and asserted that that Clay had offered him the same quid pro quo – an appointment in exchange for an election) but that he had refused. After summarizing Clay’s backroom dealing between Jackson and Quincy Adams, Prof. Birzer concludes, “We will never know what exactly transpired.”

Whatever exactly transpired, the appearance of a “corrupt bargain” changed the course of American history – and the smashing victory of Jackson in the next presidential election was the least of it. The Democratic Party – and with it, the end of the no-party system – emerged out of the chaos of the 1824 election and “corrupt bargain” scandal. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, Sen. Martin Van Buren of New York, and Vice Pres. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina united around Jackson, respectively representing the West, North, and South. “Together,” explains Prof. Birzer, “the three believed they could use Jackson – who they were convinced was not altogether brilliant – as a symbol and rallying point for their new party.” Jackson, however, had other plans, and trusted his fellow Tennesseans more than anyone else. Rep. James K. Polk (future Governor of Tennessee and U.S. President), Rep. Samuel Houston (future Governor of Tennessee, President of the Republic of Texas, and Governor of Texas), John Henry Eaton (present U.S. Senator from Tennessee), Judge Overton, and Felix Grundy (future U.S. Senator from Tennessee and U.S. Attorney General) comprised Jackson’s “Nashville Committee.” These Tennesseans “saw themselves as a republican bulwark against northeastern oppression and they considered Andrew Jackson their natural representative.” Although Prof. Birzer stresses that Jackson himself eschewed party terminology and that the party machinery was not up and running until Van Buren’s presidential campaign, the Democratic Party – its constituents and its issues for well over a century – did originate with Jackson’s presidential campaign between 1824 and 1828.

Prof. Birzer’s description of Jackson’s political appeal is one of the most interesting parts of his book. “Part of what propelled enthusiasm for Jackson’s candidacy was a feeling that the country needed a revival of its old republican spirit,” argues Prof. Birzer. As the historian Prof. Gordon Wood has observed, “All the major revolutionary leaders died less than happy with the results of the Revolution,” which was perhaps why even an aristocratic Easterner like Charles Carroll of Carrollton (one of the last surviving Founding Fathers at the time) supported a populist Westerner like Jackson. To capture Jackson’s appeal, Prof. Birzer draws from political pamphlets written for the 1824 election by Jackson’s friend, John Henry Eaton, under the pseudonym “Wyoming.” For the 1828 election, the Nashville Committee reorganized as the “Jackson Correspondence Committee” under the leadership of Judge John Overton. “Overton promised to answer every serious inquiry about Jackson’s life and character, armed only with facts, letters of evidence, and testimonies of witnesses of the many events in the man’s life,” explains Prof. Birzer. “Context, he argued, mattered: whatever decisions Jackson had made as a military leader, judge, legislator, or governor had been made with the best of republican intentions.”

The Abbeville Institute will be particularly interested in Prof. Birzer’s account of Jackson’s alliance with “Old Republicans” like John Randolph of Roanoke, John Taylor of Caroline, Thomas McKean, and Nathaniel Macon, against “New Republicans” like Henry Clay. (Both of these “Republicans” predate the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, which was founded a generation later and was far removed even from Clay’s politics, much less Jackson’s.) Prof. Birzer describes them as “classically educated and armed with an idealized vision of the Roman Republic, they believed democracy, avarice, and power destroyed republics.” According to Prof. Birzer, Jackson “was not one of them, being too western, and thus, too pro-expansion when in favor of the frontier, and not at their level of academic intelligence, but he was an ally nonetheless, a man who distrusted centralized political authority as much as they did.” Jackson and Randolph were such close allies against Clay (Randolph himself had coined the term “corrupt bargain” and had even dueled with Clay) that when Jackson was President he appointed him Ambassador to Russia. Unfortunately, Jackson’s friendship with Randolph and Macon did nothing to moderate his Unionist nationalism during the Nullification Crisis, even though both of them cautioned against resorting to military force against South Carolina.

Jackson assembled his Cabinet according to personal loyalty and shared values, not for the customary reasons of political gain or sectional unity. “Jackson believed that limited government, especially at the federal level, was a good not only in itself, respectful of the Constitution and free men, but also necessary to prevent bureaucratic venality,” explains Prof. Birzer. “He disliked taxes, debt, tariffs, and a standing army, and he wanted a cabinet that reflected those views.” As a result, “Jackson’s cabinet reflected his friendships more than anything else.” Jackson’s friends were less than friendly with each other, however, when their wives (led by Calhoun’s wife Floride) shunned the Secretary of War’s wife (“Peggy O’Neill”) over what would nowadays be labeled a sex scandal. The controversy became so bitter that the Secretary of War challenged the Treasury Secretary to a duel. Unfortunately for the rest of the Cabinet, the Secretary of War was John Henry Eaton, an early Jacksonian from the Nashville Committee, so Jackson fired everyone whom had sided with their wives against his old friend and his wife. (Calhoun, elected Vice President in his own right, could not be removed by the President, though he did eventually resign after breaking with Jackson over a matter of honor.)

After the so-called “The Petticoat Affair,” Jackson assembled an unofficial “Kitchen Cabinet” dedicated to carrying out the reformist agenda of his original Cabinet. Amos Kendall – “the ultimate Jackson man” according to Prof. Birzer – was the leader of the Kitchen Cabinet, which was most controversial for how it removed/replaced one-seventh of the federal bureaucracy. While Jackson’s opponents criticized this practice as “patronage,” rewarding party hacks with offices, Jacksonians countered that it was “rotation,” removing hacks from office (and Prof. Birzer does not seem interested in investigating this controversy any further). “Kendall represented the spirit of Jacksonian reform,” concludes Prof. Birzer.

This so-called “Petticoat Affair” destroyed not only Jackson’s Cabinet, but also the relationship between the President and the Vice President. In fact, Prof. Birzer’s account of the “Seminole Affair,” which was the breaking point in Jackson and Calhoun’s relationship – shrilly titled “The Enemy Within” – epitomizes the aforementioned fatal flaw of his book. It is not enough to say that Prof. Birzer has a bias in favor of his subject; that is normal for any biographer. It is more accurate to say that Prof. Birzer takes whatever Jackson says at face value. There is nothing wrong with presenting Jackson’s point of view, of course, but Prof. Birzer presents Jackson’s point of view as objective rather than subjective. For instance, when Prof. Birzer describes Calhoun as “always brilliant but never trustworthy” and explains that Calhoun “regarded Jackson as an ignorant tool to be used by a clever man like himself,” he is misrepresenting Jackson’s feelings as facts. “Calhoun was duplicitous,” claims Prof. Birzer, “and Jackson, who was not, had a hard time understanding this fact.” Prof. Birzer repeatedly maligns Calhoun’s character and conduct but never actually gets around to describing the facts of the case, probably because Jackson himself never much cared for them: Either you were “with” him or you were “against” him, and because Calhoun had spoken against him 12 years ago, he must be against him.

Calhoun’s nomination as Vice President was controversial in the emergent Democratic Party. Two Jacksonians, James Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton’s son and Attorney General of the Southern District of New York) and William B. Lewis (Jackson’s former quartermaster and current politico) wanted to supplant Calhoun for Martin Van Buren. Hamilton, under the false pretenses of preparing a defense of Jackson’s actions in the Seminole War, had asked Calhoun about the debate in Pres. James Monroe’s Cabinet after Jackson occupied Spanish Florida, hoping to catch Calhoun in a lie. Hamilton later heard from Gov. John Forsyth of Georgia that William H. Crawford (who had been licking his wounds by Calhoun ever since he lost the vice-presidential election to him in 1824) was claiming that Calhoun had wanted to punish Jackson for occupying Spanish Florida, which contradicted what little he had been able to surmise from Calhoun. When Lewis, who Hamilton had notified of Crawford’s claims to Forsyth, heard from Tench Ringgold (U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia) that Pres. Monroe had supported Jackson over the opposition of Calhoun, he leaked this rumor to Jackson in a casual conversation and informed him of Crawford’s letter to Forsyth, which he obtained from Hamilton after Jackson demanded to see it himself. Although Van Buren was connected to all of the partisans and benefited the most from the chaos, he denied any part in the plot. One of Jackson’s old friends, Judge Overton of the Nashville Committee, warned him that this affair was beneath him, but to no avail.

How does Prof. Birzer describe this intra-Jacksonian plot and Jackson’s kneejerk-reaction? “Jackson came across evidence that Calhoun had wanted him arrested on charges of treason during the 1818 Seminole campaign.” Yet there was nothing evidential about Crawford’s letter, which claimed that Calhoun had argued for “punishing” Calhoun some way or another, not necessarily “arresting him for treason.”

As Secretary of War in 1818, Calhoun had ordered Jackson to do whatever was necessary to secure the southern border against Seminole raids from Spanish Florida, though Jackson was also informed that it was the policy of the Monroe Administration for their fight with the Seminole not to escalate into a fight with Spain. “With this view you may be prepared to concentrate your forces and to adopt the necessary measures to terminate a conflict which it has ever been the desire of the President, from considerations of humanity, to avoid,” Calhoun told Jackson, “but which is now made necessary by their settled hostilities.” Jackson interpreted Calhoun’s already-broad orders even broader than Calhoun had expected, however, and determining that the only way to end the Seminole War was to conquer Florida altogether, brushed aside the token Spanish defenses, crushed the Seminole tribes, executed other foreign agents, and occupied the territory. Pres. James Monroe and his Cabinet were so distraught by this unilateral act of war against another country that they debated disavowing Jackson altogether and having him court-martialed. Out of considerations of realpolitik, advocated by John Quincy Adams (then serving as Secretary of State), the Cabinet unanimously decided to accept Jackson’s fait accompli in Spanish Florida and say nothing about Jackson either way. Even though Calhoun had argued that Jackson should be investigated for exceeding his orders, he assented to the Cabinet’s ultimate decision and kept his objections to himself. Later, when others inquired after his position on Jackson’s actions in Spanish Florida, Calhoun directed them to the public records and declined to discuss the issue any further without Jackson’s discretion. “It is only with him, and at his desire, that, under existing circumstances, I should feel myself justified in corresponding on this or any other subjected connected with his public conduct,” Calhoun replied to one such inquiry. Calhoun forwarded his correspondence with Lee to Jackson and told him, “With you I cannot have the slightest objection to correspond on this subject, if additional information be desirable.” Yet Jackson did not desire additional information, so Calhoun did not provide any. At worst, then, Calhoun told a lie of omission meant to avoid an unnecessary conflict with a President to whom he was trying to prove his loyalty.

How does Prof. Birzer describe Calhoun’s character and conduct? “Jackson realized his vice president, who pretended to be his ally, was actually a long-standing, behind-the-scenes-enemy.” How was Calhoun “pretending to be his ally”? How was he actually his “enemy”?

When Jackson sent Calhoun a letter implying that he had deceived him, Calhoun sent a lengthy – and perhaps wordy – vindication of what he had done and why he had done it. “I have always been prepared to discuss it on friendly terms with you,” Calhoun told Jackson, adding that he had assumed that Jackson was aware of this past difference between them given the public records and their private correspondence. “You expressed no desire for further information,” Calhoun explained to Jackson, “I took it for granted, that Mr. Monroe’s correspondence with you, and the publick documents, furnished you a full and clear conception of the construction, which the executive gave your orders, under which impression I remained, till I received your letter.” Calhoun made it clear, however, that he did not believe that it was proper for Jackson (his subordinate in 1818) to question his superior officer’s orders after the fact, or for Crawford (a former Cabinet member) to publicize the Cabinet’s deliberations out of personal enmity. “In answering your letter…I wish to be distinctly understood, that, however high my respect is for your personal character, and the exalted station, which you occupy, I cannot recognize the right on your part to call in question my conduct on the interesting occasion, to which your letter refers,” stated Calhoun. “I acted on that occasion in the discharge of a high official duty, and under responsibility to my conscience and my country only.” Yet even though Calhoun held firm, he did not hold anything against Jackson. “In undertaking to place my conduct in its proper light, I deem it proper to premise, that it is very far from my intention to defend mine, by impeaching yours,” Calhoun assured Jackson. “Where we have differed, I have no doubt, that we differed honestly, and, in claiming to act on honourable and patriotick motives myself, I cheerfully accord the same to you.” In fact, continued Calhoun, while he had never questioned Jackson’s intentions in the Seminole War as anything other than honorable and patriotic, Crawford, in his letter, had unwittingly called Jackson’s intentions into question by implying that by occupying the Spanish forts in Florida he was carrying out an unconstitutional plot by the executive branch to annex Spanish Florida without the legislative branch. “You rested your defence, on what I conceived to be much more elevated ground, on the true construction, as you supposed, of your orders, and the necessity of the measures, which you adopted to terminate the war,” Calhoun argued to Jackson, “and not on any supposed secret wish of the executive in opposition to the public orders under which you acted.” Calhoun suspected that the sudden appearance of Crawford’s letter was no coincidence, either, and warned Jackson that there was treachery afoot. “I have asked the question, why is this affair brought up at this late period, and in this remarkable manner,” wondered Calhoun. “I should be blind not to see, that this whole affair is a political manoeuvre, in which the design is, that you should be the instrument and myself the victim, but in which the real actors are concealed by an artful movement.”

How does Prof. Birzer describe Calhoun’s carefully written letter? “Calhoun made no apologies but rather expressed contempt that Jackson had only now realized Calhoun’s views from 1818. Then, in typical Calhoun fashion, he attempted to justify his actions at great length.” To be sure, there was plenty of that “Scotch-Irish code of honor” in Calhoun’s reply (historians often ignore that Calhoun was also from a Scotch-Irish family in South Carolina’s backcountry and thus had the same “code of honor” as Jackson, though without the idiotic temper), but no “contempt.”

“President James Madison and President James Monroe felt they needed [Jackson] because of his immense popularity and military skill, but they were also afraid of him because Jackson seemed all too likely to overstep his authority and instructions,” admits Prof. Birzer, “and to be fair to Madison and Monroe, it remains unclear by what authority Jackson made his most important decisions between 1814 and 1821.” Indeed, as Prof. Birzer himself states, Jackson “invaded [Spanish Florida] without explicit orders to do so and de facto took the territory for the United States.” Why not be fair to Calhoun, then, who was defending one of the Constitution’s most important separation of powers on principle? Prof. Birzer seems more upset that Calhoun “undermined” Jackson by doing his duty as a Cabinet member than he is with Jackson for taking Calhoun’s discharge of his duties personally.

Even though it is hardly more than one page, Prof. Birzer’s account of the Seminole Affair is atrocious. Even Jackson’s most hagiographic of biographers concede that Calhoun did nothing “duplicitous.” “In reviewing this affair, at once so trivial and so important,” concluded James Parton in 1860, “I find no evidence whatever that Mr. Calhoun was guilty of duplicity toward General Jackson.” Prof. Birzer’s tone toward Calhoun was so rancorous and his version of events so outrageous that I consulted The Papers of John C. Calhoun (vols. X and XI) to make sure I was not under the influence of my own biases in favor of Calhoun. What I found was Calhoun standing up to Jackson with great self-control and self-respect, reaching out to former Cabinet members to corroborate his account against Crawford’s, and following the trail of the conspiracy against him like a bloodhound.

Even in his own day and age, “Indian Removal” is what has darkened Jackson’s legacy more than anything else (do you think that the Obama Administration tried to remove him from the currency because they were offended by his fiscal and monetary policies?), so for In Defense of Andrew Jackson to live up to its name, it must be able to create a reasonable doubt in the reader about this seemingly indefensible act:

Whatever the controversies, two things can be definitively stated about Jackson and Indian removal. First, Jackson was in no way a racist. He believed Indians were people created by God and inherently equal to whites, even if he also believed that Indian civilization lagged behind. Second, he firmly believed that Indian removal served the interests of both the Indians and the white settlers who would otherwise come into conflict – one that the Indians would surely lose – with each other…

For Jackson, there was also a constitutional issue. He did not believe that the Indian tribes could exist as sovereign nations within the several sovereign states of the Union. There could not be separate laws for the people of Georgia, for instance, and for tribes living within Georgia’s boundaries. If the tribes were to remain sovereign, if they were to govern themselves according to their own tribal rules and customs and laws, they had to be reestablished in lands set aside for them and not within the confines of an existing state of the United States. Removing the American Indians to a “Permanent Indian Frontier” (the ninety-fifth meridian, roughly where Kansas City is) would, Jackson hoped, take Indians out of the path of frontier settlement and allow them to go their own way.

 Prof. Birzer corrects the widespread misconception that Indian Removal was planned as a “death march,” akin to when Turkish Muslims exiled Armenian Christians into the Syrian Desert. Paternalistic? Yes. But psychopathic? No. There have been attempted genocides against American Indians (such as those perpetrated by the founder of Charlottesville’s new “Liberation and Freedom Day”), but ironically, “The Trail of Tears” was not one of them. Yet even though Jackson was not the psychopath of legend, it is still somewhat credulous for Prof. Birzer to argue that he was “in no way a racist” because of his paternalistic expressions toward Indians. (Speaking of race, Prof. Birzer’s book completely ignores Jackson’s position on slavery, which is fitting, as Jacksonian Democrats always downplayed slavery.) Prof. Birzer does not deny, however, that Indian Removal had a quasi-genocidal impact on the displaced tribes. “Jackson considered it a hallmark piece of legislation and a seminal part of his presidency,” admits Prof. Birzer. “Jackson’s Indian removal policy as implemented, however, was a humanitarian disaster.” What Prof. Birzer omits, with his usual one-sidedness, is that this “humanitarian disaster” was not some unforeseeable calamity: Many of Jackson’s opponents knew that it would be a calamity, but Jackson was too stubborn and spiteful – or “steadfast” if you’re a Jacksonian – to see it for himself.

Ultimately, Prof. Birzer appears to agree with his favorite Jackson biographer, Prof. Remini, that Jackson cannot be called a “humanitarian” or a “hypocrite,” but a “realist” who cut the Gordian Knot of the Indian Problem. However terrible Indian Removal was at the time, argues Prof. Remini, while most American Indian tribes are extinct, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole are some of the few still alive today.

There was more hypocrisy to Jackson’s Indian Removal than Prof. Birzer recognizes, however. Later, when South Carolina nullified federal law by refusing to collect a federal tariff within its territory, Jackson used force to stop the state, but earlier, when Georgia nullified federal treaties by persecuting American Indians within its territory (and Prof. Birzer notes Jackson’s anger over the peacetime persecution of Indians on the southern frontier), Jackson used force in support of the state. In other words, Jackson was willing to negotiate with nullifiers when it came to Indian Removal, but when it came to the “Tariff of Abominations” his only terms for nullifiers were unconditional surrender.

Jackson’s economic policies were consistent with the Jefferson-Madison-Monroe school from which he came, and as Prof. Birzer adds, would be labeled “libertarian” nowadays. “Francis Blair, founding editor of The Globe and member of Jackson’s kitchen cabinet, summarized Jacksonian economic theory in the newspaper’s masthead with the following motto: ‘The world is governed too much,’” explains Prof. Birzer. “In Jacksonian economic theory, workers and manufacturers were ‘producers,’ bureaucrats and bankers were ‘parasites,’ and a republican people should be left to look after itself with voluntary associations of the sort that Alexis de Tocqueville thought were part of the unique and powerful character of America.” Prof. Birzer praises Jackson for cutting expenditures (“internal improvements”) and taxes (“tariffs”), balancing the budget, and paying down the debt, noting that it was a feat “no other president has accomplished.”

Jackson’s “war” on the Second Bank of the United States, which had been chartered in 1816 to provide liquidity to the financial system and stabilize the currency, was rooted in his “traditional agrarian view that bankers produced nothing of value.” Jackson was opposed to the very concept of a public-private institution such as the national bank, blamed the national bank for the Panic of 1819, and hated the national bank for its British investors. “As Jackson viewed it, the bank was nothing less than a conspiracy to arm and empower an American economic aristocracy, concentrating power in the Northeast against the interests of the West and the South,” explains Prof. Birzer. “The entire banking system, especially if not backed by gold or silver, was a con game that took money from hard-working producers and gave it to men who did nothing but push paper.” Unlike the Kitchen Cabinet’s policy of “rotation,” which Prof. Birzer mentions was perceived by Jackson’s opponents as a form of party patronage, Prof. Birzer does not even mention the opposition to Jackson’s bank war. Some of Jackson’s opponents were also in favor of abolishing the national bank for the same reasons, but opposed Jackson’s methods (namely, removing the bank’s deposits and redistributing them among “pet banks” controlled by party hacks).

Prof. Birzer’s book is well worth reading, but one word of warning – he is of Hillsdale College, not The Abbeville Institute.

For instance, Mr. Birzer’s top rank of presidents in terms of “character, honesty, and effectiveness (regardless of political positions)” is utterly conventional: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Andrew Jackson. Where are Presidents such as the Whig John Tyler, the Democrat Grover Cleveland, and the Republican Calvin Coolidge, who with true republican character carried out their executive duties and passed the office on intact to their successors? Where is James K. Polk, one of Jackson’s hand-picked successors? The less said about Prof. Birzer’s comments on the legacy of the Democratic Party – which teeter toward outright Barton/Beck/D’Souza quackery – the better.

When it comes to the Nullification Crisis, Prof. Birzer agrees with Jackson that nullification was a form of disunion which must be stopped by force if necessary. “Jackson supported states’ rights,” claims Prof. Birzer, “but he saw in the doctrine of nullification a mortal threat to the American Republic.” Yet as he does throughout his book, Prof. Birzer simply adopts Andrew Jackson’s opinion as fact without ever explaining why Jackson was right and his opponents were wrong. What makes this especially confusing is that much of the history of states’ rights which Prof. Birzer reviews (such as that “the United States were referred to, at this time, in the plural, not the singular”) actually supports nullification! But in the end, Prof. Birzer simply quotes from Jackson’s “Nullification Proclamation” and then himself proclaims, “He had won – he had preserved the Union” – as if nothing that he had just written about states’ rights mattered. Prof. Birzer also fails to explain how Jackson reconciled his nominal support for states’ rights with his hardline opposition to nullification, which is nothing more than states actually exercising their rights. “Jackson admitted that while he still believed in Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799, he also believed in the Union,” explains Prof. Birzer – a contradictory statement which raises more questions than answers.

Another irony of Jackson’s Unionist legacy is that although he tried to crush the forces which he believed would end in an independent Southern confederacy, his grandsons – Col. Andrew Jackson III, Capt. Samuel Jackson, Capt. Samuel Donelson, and Sgt. Daniel Smith Donelson – were loyal to the State of Tennessee and fought for the Confederate States of America. Furthermore, his favorite nephew, Andrew Jackson Donelson, was a delegate to the 1860 convention of the Constitutional Union Party (a third party in the South comprised of former Whigs who refused to join the Republicans as Whigs in the North did) and another nephew, Maj. Gen. Daniel Smith Donelson, was the commander of the War Department of East Tennessee. It is interesting to consider how, if Jackson had lived to see the Civil War, he would have reconciled his proto-Lincolnite nationalism with his otherwise pro-slavery politics. Would he have been one of William W. Freehling’s “anti-Confederate Southerners” or one of Daniel W. Crofts’ “reluctant Confederates”?

When it comes to John C. Calhoun, one of Jackson’s great nemeses (and one of The Abbeville Institute’s great heroes), Prof. Birzer is petty in his description of his personality, though not nearly as petty as, say Annette Gordon-Reed (who, in The Hermitage’s short film of Jackson’s life, describes Calhoun as “at best, a second-rate governmental theorist”). Unlike Prof. Gordon-Reed, Prof. Birzer has the intellectual integrity to concede that even if he personally dislikes Calhoun, he was nevertheless a “first-rate thinker,” as well as a “fascinating, complex figure.” In fact, according to Prof. Birzer, “In the first half of the nineteenth century, the two most important figures – touchstones, really – were Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun.” Prof. Birzer takes several pages in an already-short book to explain Calhoun’s political philosophy fully and fairly – that is, without presentist hyperventilating about race and slavery. It is a summary that I believe Calhoun scholars such as Prof. Clyde N. Wilson or Prof. H. Lee Cheek would deem worthy of the man and his mind.

The only flaw in Prof. Birzer’s otherwise perfect presentation of Calhoun’s political philosophy is his glib quip that by championing nullification, Calhoun “fomented the very disunion that he earlier claimed to fear,”[2] when someone who knows Calhoun as well as Prof. Birzer seems should know that, on the contrary, he championed nullification as a constitutional alternative to disunion. Once again, because Jackson – with his suspicion that because Calhoun was a “traitor” to him he was therefore a “traitor” to the Union – suspected that nullification was just a front for disunion, so does Prof. Birzer.

Prof. Birzer insults Pres. James Buchanan as “effete and deceptive” for not doing more to prevent the secession of the first seven Southern states that occurred at the end of his first term. (The last four seceded after Abraham Lincoln took office and declared war on the first seven.) Pres. Buchanan did believe that secession was unconstitutional, but at the same time, he did not believe that the President had the constitutional authority to coerce a state. Presumably Prof. Birzer would have had Pres. Buchanan impose martial law in the secessionist states, as Pres. Lincoln later did in the border states, and as he (and Pres. Trump) are confident that Jackson would have done if he had been in that situation. Yet what is so “effete” about Pres. Buchanan’s principled constitutionalism and loyalty to his oath of office? Prof. Birzer is so impressed with Jackson’s steadfastness (stubbornness and spitefulness from another point of view), yet it is easy to be steadfast with massive public support. Pres. Buchanan, by contrast, was steadfast under public pressure from all sides, and if he was arguably “deceptive” in his dealings with both sides, that is no worse than Jackson’s outrageous fits of rage.

Prof. Birzer’s “effete and deceptive” insult is comparable to how so-called “war hawks” have provoked the masculine ego (or perhaps id) of Presidents whenever they express reluctance about unilateral military intervention. For example, whenever Donald Trump has announced that he wants to bring the troops home from Afghanistan or Syria, Lindsey Graham has publicly baited him by comparing him to the supposedly “effete” Barack Obama. Ironically, Prof. Birzer’s description of the original War Hawks – western patriots facing threats on the frontier of which truly “effete” easterners were ignorant – expose war hawks like Sen. Graham for what they really are: Turkey vultures.

In conclusion, Prof. Birzer’s In Defense of Andrew Jackson has great strengths as well as weaknesses, much like Jackson himself.[3] However captivated by Jackson Prof. Birzer may be at times, he still succeeds at the goal that he set for himself at the very beginning of his book, which is to reintroduce Jackson to a new generation of readers. “He was surely one of the most consequential and principled presidents in American history,” declares Prof. Birzer. “If Jackson has become unfashionable, it is not because we have outgrown his virtues, but because we have need of them.” Alas, as much honor as Prof. Birzer does to Jackson’s forgotten virtues, he himself has forgotten his vices.

[1] Although it is out of print, I personally recommend Marquis James’ Pulitzer-winning The Life of Andrew Jackson from 1938, if you can find a copy.

[2] In his foreword to Clyde N. Wilson’s The Essential Calhoun, Russell A. Kirk (as in Bradley Birzer’s “Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College” and Russell Kirk: American Conservative) quoted Sen. John C. Calhoun’s reply Sen. Henry Clay when, in 1842, he proposed a constitutional amendment limiting the veto power of the President:

As the Government approaches nearer and nearer to the one absolute and single power, the will of the greater number, its action will become more and more disturbed and irregular; faction, corruption, and anarchy, will more and more abound; patriotism will daily decay, and affection and reverence for the Government grow weaker and weaker, until the final shock occurs, when the system will rush to ruin; and the sword take the place of law and Constitution.

Kirk referred to Calhoun’s speech as “the most succinct version of Calhoun’s famous doctrine of concurrent majorities,” which he summarized as a belief “that there ought to exist several powers of veto upon the impulses of temporary numerical majorities.”

[3] My opinion, for whatever it is worth, has always been that while Jackson was definitely the sort of man whom I want defending my country from foreign and domestic enemies, the very virtues that made him so effective in warcraft were vices when it came to statecraft. I have never intended this to be a criticism: I would also describe many of my heroes, such as Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest or Gen. George S. Patton Jr. and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the same way.


James Rutledge Roesch

James Rutledge Roesch is a businessman and an amateur writer. He lives in Florida with his wife, daughter, and dog.

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