Historians have recently fallen into the bad habit, initiated by my father in 1948, of rating American presidents in categories from “great” to “failure.” John F. Kennedy, commenting on the Schlesinger polls, observed that war made it easier for a president to achieve greatness. Almost all the presidents voted into the “great” and “near great” categories have been identified with war.
The three indisputably “great” presidents—Washington, Lincoln, and FDR—were associated with the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Second World War. Among the “near greats,” Polk got there through the Mexican War, Truman through the cold war. Yet while war evidently helps, there have been presidents who, without benefit of war, have succeeded in imposing their own program and purposes on the Republic. Jefferson, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Reagan did so through force of conviction and personality, and how they did it deserves examination.
Of these the least known, or least understood, in contemporary America is Andrew Jackson. Our seventh president, Professor Burstein writes, is “one of those figures in the pantheon of larger-than-life Americans past whose real personality has all but vanished.” He has become “emotionally empty in the historic memory of twenty-first century Americans.” Burstein’s aim is to rediscover Jackson’s “real personality” and make him intelligible to modern readers. He sets out to find what Jackson’s biographers have missed—“documents that were overlooked, events oversimplified, quotations misapplied, relationships undervalued.”
Burstein’s Jackson is in the end not unfamiliar, though he has rarely been described with such ingenuity of research and argument. Jackson in Burstein’s view was, “in the most literal sense, representative of the frontier,” “a man easily angered, a man who held back little,” a man “whose worldviews were built on suspicion,” a man who “held grudges better than most,” a man who “internalized the myth of his own omnipotence.” He was, as Burstein sums it up, “in his own way, a Shakespearean tragic hero. In his impetuousness, his precipitate anger, his Lear-like howling, and his sensational inability to countenance any form of dissent, he imagined himself an infallible judge of others.” As the publisher’s catalog copy describes Burstein’s thesis, he “reveals a distrustful, domineering Jackson, whose temper was so explosive that he alienated even his closest friends.” He was a “fundamentally undemocratic” personality.
This, I have said, is not unfamiliar. It is indeed the portrait of Jackson (except for the bit about Old Hickory as “a Shakespearean tragic hero”) that respected writers drew in the nineteenth century. Look, for example, at the incisive biography that the Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner wrote for the American Statesmen series in 1882. There is the same emphasis on Jackson as the typical representative of the frontier, on his “passionateness,” on his “quarrelsomeness,” on his “ungovernable temper,” on his suspicious nature, on his vindictiveness. “It does not appear,” Sumner wrote in the last sentence of his book, “that he ever repented of anything, ever thought that he had been in the …