A review of In Defense of Andrew Jackson by Brad Birzer (Regnery History, 2018).
Andrew Jackson, who Davy Crockett famously mocked as “the great man in the white house,” occupies an entire epoch in American history. In almost every conceivable way, he was a classic paradox – a benevolent crusader to his friends, and a despotic tyrant to his enemies. As a soldier, he defended his country from British invaders, but prepared for the bloody invasion of an American state as the chief executive. He openly sympathized with the plight of Indians, but devoted his energies all the same to the forced relocation and oppression of the same. A states’ rights advocate with zeal for vengeance against governmental centralization, but one who unambiguously condemned nullification – branding those who defied federal policy as traitors to the union. More than anything, Jackson was a true American enigma.
According to Bradley Birzer’s new work, In Defense of Andrew Jackson, the backwoods dueling ruffian who captivated the country at a pivotal time still deserves modern attention. Always a foe of a nebulous “aristocracy,” Birzer reveals Jackson to be “the first truly American president” – that is, one that wasn’t shaped by British sensibilities, but by “something unique to this continent.” This characteristic, which became the very foundation of Jackson’s cult of personality, was unmistakably novel for its time.
Prior to Jackson, men often ascended to political office on the basis of their education, hereditary pedigree, and aristocratic connections. However, when Old Hickory assumed the presidency in 1829, he became the first to shatter these archetypes. Branding himself as a man of the people, Jackson appealed to a working-class constituency that distrusted those in power, emerging as the populist champion of a new American age. In this way, Jackson “offered American a more charitable view of the average person, the farmer, the worker, and the producer.”
The most refreshing aspect of Birzer’s work is its deliberate and careful decision to assess Old Hickory in terms of his era, rather than through the scope of modern values and cultural predilections. Always a controversial figure – in his time and our own – Jackson has polarized the universe. Regardless, the author meticulously paints a portrait of Jackson based on his own time rather than ours. In a world where political correctness seems to rule the day, this is entirely refreshing.
Andrew Jackson was known for his fiery temper, and as a man that relentlessly attacked his political enemies for perceived misdeeds. In his youth, Jackson challenged and defeated a man named Charles Dickinson in a duel for insulting his wife, making him the only person to kill a man before assuming the presidency. Jackson also embroiled himself in a series of other street fights, brawls, and other duels. As Birzer notes, the duel with Dickinson nearly cost Jackson his political career. Conversely, a frontier brawl with Thomas Hart Benton ironically preceded a lifelong political relationship with Benton, who eventually became one of the most zealous Jackson supporters in the country.
Until the end of his life, Jackson blamed the death of his wife on his political enemies who chastised Rachel for bigamy in 1828 – pointing out that she failed to legally annul her marriage to her previous husband prior to taking Jackson’s hand. This revelation was an incredible scandal for the time, and caused Jackson and his wife great distress. Famous biographer Robert Remini wrote that Jackson could “hate with a Biblical fury and would resort to petty and vindictive acts to nurture his hatred and keep it bright and strong and ferocious.” Accordingly, Birzer illustrates Jackson’s sincere but furious determination to defend the honor of his wife. In doing so, he held a lifelong grudge against Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams – and never forgave them for the distress he believed caused her death.
Birzer’s analysis of Jackson and American Indian relations may be his most groundbreaking and controversial contribution to the Jackson historiography. Instead of viewing Indians as racially inferior to whites, as is often alleged by modern narratives, Birzer reveals Jackson as a man with nuanced views on Indian culture and Indian relations. Rather than a genocidal maniac that was hell-bent on holocaust against natives, as some academics allege, Jackson “was not the Indian hater of leftist myth.”
Although he believed that tribal culture was inferior to American culture, and western civilization in general, Jackson also considered Indian society as a people under constant threat of American settlers and land claimants – and thus worthy of protection. However, he also feared Indian tribes would become natural allies of Europeans that were intent on recolonization of the Americas, using the War of 1812 and the encouragement of Indian raids as evidence to fuel his position on relocation.
Given these proclivities, some would be surprised to learn that Jackson raised an Indian child, Lyncoya, as his own son. Birzer also reveals that Jackson became incensed when whites mistreated Indians arbitrarily, and at times defended their presence with ferocity. Nevertheless, the Tennessean was infamous for initiating the First Seminole War, where he defied the explicit orders of President James Monroe to refrain from launching an invasion of Spanish Florida – while he was commanded only to defend the southern border of the country. Just over a decade later, he was also the chief advocate of the Indian Removal Act, an 1830 law that allowed the president to universally negotiate for the relocation of Indian tribes to the territories, removing them from the states.
Despite the book’s title, In Defense of Jackson hardly apologizes for Jackson’s penchant for Indian removal. Birzer depicts the relocation campaign as a “humanitarian disaster” that compounded the spread of disease, resulted in the loss of property, and incited desolation in general. However, the author also rightly points out that the most prominent Jackson biographers, such as Remini, conceptualized the president’s stance on Indian removal to be one of compassion rather than an unhinged display of wrath.
Indeed, Remini argued that Jackson honestly thought to remove the Cherokees, Chickasaw, Creeks, Seminoles, and Choctaws from the states would both preserve the livelihood of the Indian tribes and placate the calls from white settlers to remove them. This view contrasts greatly with that of Ward Churchill, the controversial professor of the University of Colorado, who argued that Jackson’s removal policy served as the “practical model” that Adolf Hitler emulated in Germany. Regardless of Jackson’s intentions, however, Indian removal became the biggest blot on his president’s legacy.
Jackson responded to Henry Clay’s attempt to institute a new national bank by denying its legitimacy on constitutional grounds – in perhaps his most purely Jeffersonian, originalist moment. As the author puts it, Jackson viewed the bank only as a device “to arm and empower an American economic aristocracy.”
However, Jackson also went beyond his famous veto message by ordering his treasury secretaries (in the plural) to remove the deposits from the existing national bank, prior to its expiration. This resulted in two secretaries resigning from the Treasury before the deed was finally done by Roger Taney, who quickly won the trust of Jackson. In observance of these events, Birzer rightly points out that only Lincoln rivaled Jackson’s presidency in terms of strength in the 19th century.
Without question, Jackson’s undertakings left precedents that future officeholders would exploit to the detriment of separation of powers and individual liberty. Although Jackson considered the precedents left by his predecessors to be reminiscent of a kingly aristocracy, he certainly did much to swell executive power.
To detractors, the removal of the bank deposits was perceived as a radical step that had the president dictating policy rather than Congress, something never envisioned by those who wrote and ratified the Constitution. In addition, Jackson interjected himself into a labor dispute for the first time in American history, ordering the U.S. military to “put down the riotous assembly” that threatened the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio canals. As Birzer puts it, Jackson “used the executive office extensively, and largely through his example, a strong presidency came into existence.”
Those who have read my own work will quickly realize that this Tennessean is not a huge fan of Jackson, especially in regard to his position in regard to the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833. Even still, I am apt to commend Jackson for his unwavering positions against central banking, internal improvements, and federal debt – both of which are subjects that Birzer covers with expertise. As the author puts it, Jackson viewed the Second National Bank as “nothing less than a conspiracy to arm and empower an American economic aristocracy.”
From a constitutional outlook, there were other merits to Jackson’s presidency. Like his renowned predecessor James Madison, he vetoed a bill that authorized the enactment of “internal improvements” – a controversial scheme to subsidize the construction of roads, bridges, and canals on a federal level. In like fashion, Jackson fought against government spending and even eliminated the federal debt entirely – a deed that seems unfathomable today. Indeed, this was a feat that no other president accomplished throughout all of American history.
Unfortunately, it seems to this reader that the title “In Defense of Jackson” does not properly conceptualize the book’s chief premise – and may have been a cunning marketing decision by the publisher. This is because Birzer does more to defend the age which produced a Jackson than Jackson himself. This does not detract from the narrative, but does frame the work in a way that was a bit unexpected. The most important takeaway from Birzer’s work, I believe, is that Jackson’s candor and up-front style should be commended, even if his positions on the pressing issues of his day are not worthy of praise. As the author conveys, whether you loved or hated him, Jackson would make his opinion known.
Rather than defend or criticize Jackson’s views and responses to every conceivable political subject, Birzer’s work instead portrays Jackson as a man who was frank, honest, and consistent – for better or worse. Rather than justify Jackson’s deeds, In Defense of Jackson instead depicts Jackson in the context of his own world. In doing so, Birzer makes a remarkable contribution to the Jackson historiography that effectively tackles Old Hickory’s political disposition in a concise single volume. Whether one enters into its pages admiring or loathing Jackson, Birzer’s book is a must-read.