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 wrong in anything, or ever forgave an enemy as a specific individual.”
Much of this is true for Jackson as a young man. “Most crucial to this study,” Burstein writes, “are Jackson’s first fifty years or so, the years before he became a candidate for president.” But are these really the crucial years? Do not people, especially upwardly mobile people, occasionally learn from experience? Might not Jackson have changed when he submitted himself to the discipline of politics?
In 1824, at age fifty-seven, he became a candidate for president, running against John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and William H. Crawford. He did not strike Washingtonians as an uncouth fellow from the far frontier. Daniel Webster, hardly an admirer, wrote, “General Jackson’s manners are more presidential than those of any of the candidates. He is grave, mild, and reserved. My wife is for him decidedly.” As the wife of the editor of the National Intelligencer put it, General Jackson “appears to possess quite as much suaviter in modo as fortiter in re. He is, indeed, a polished and perfect courtier in female society, and polite to all.” (Though Jackson, like Al Gore, won the popular vote, he lost the presidency in the House of Representatives where Clay backed Adams, thereby becoming Adams’s secretary of state and rendering plausible Jacksonian charges of a “corrupt bargain.”)
Even William Graham Sumner conceded that there was “ample testimony that Jackson, later in life, was distinguished and elegant in his bearing, when he did not affect roughness and inelegance, and that he was able to command encomiums upon his manners from the best bred ladies in the country.” As Sumner intelligently perceived, Jackson on occasion affected roughness and inelegance in order to exploit his reputation for uncontrolled irascibility. The historian George Bancroft, a Massachusetts Jacksonian, described him as “mild by nature and putting himself into a rage only when it would serve a purpose.” “He would sometimes extemporize a fit of passion in order to overwhelm an adversary,” wrote T.N. Parmelee, “…but his self-command was always perfect.”
Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s close friend, vice-president, and designated successor, was in the room when Jackson put on his act of unbridled temper before a delegation. As soon as the door closed behind the retreating group, Jackson turned to Van Buren with a smile and said with the blandest manner, “I saw that my remarks disturbed you.” Van Buren admitted they had. “No, my friend,” Jackson replied, “I have great respect for your judgment, but you do not understand these gentlemen as well as I do.” As Van Buren later wrote in his Inquiry into the Origin and Course of Political Parties in the United States,
My apprehensions were more on account of what I feared he might say, from the excited manner in which he spoke, than on account of what he did actually say; and this was but one of numerous instances in which I observed a similar contradiction between his apparent undue excitement and his real coolness and self-possession.
Henry A. Wise called Jackson a “consummate actor.” Amos Kendall of his Kitchen Cabinet said, “I never saw him in a passion.” Nicholas P. Trist, his private secretary, was equally emphatic: “I never witnessed any thing of the sort.”
Professor Burstein, committed to the idea of an emotional Jackson driven by his passions—“the frontier that never quite left him”—does not allow for passion as a premeditated tactic. Nor does his theory of Jackson allow for tolerance of disagreement. According to Roger B. Taney, who served Jackson as attorney general and secretary of the Treasury, “Frank himself (perhaps almost to a fault in a public man), he loved frankness in others; and regarded opposition to his opinions, by one who held office under him, as evidence of firmness as well as of honesty of purpose.” “I never knew a man,” said Van Buren, “more free from conceit, or one to whom it was to a greater extent a pleasure, as well as a recognized duty, to listen patiently to what might be said to him upon any subject…. Akin to his disposition in this regard was his readiness to acknowledge error.”
Burstein may well discount such remarks as coming from Jackson’s sycophants, though most testified to this effect after Jackson’s death; but at least he might have mentioned what witnesses saw as Jackson’s calculated rages and as his indulgence of dissent even if only to rebut them. But he excludes their testimony.
He makes a good deal of Jackson’s friends in the early years: Edward Livingston, John Henry Eaton, Sam Houston, Richard Keith Call, William Carroll. Of these five figures only Livingston, an urban type, a former mayor of New York City who had moved to New Orleans, took a major part in policymaking during Jackson’s presidency. Jackson’s old frontier pals, except Houston, dropped by the wayside and eventually turned against him. They were replaced by new friends whom Burstein scarcely mentions—Van Buren, Taney, Kendall, Francis Preston Blair, James K. Polk, Thomas Hart Benton. (Jackson carried in his left arm for nearly twenty years a bullet fired in a frontier brawl between himself and the Benton brothers; so much for grudge-holding.) The new friends, unlike the frontier pals, were ideologues who cared about issues and policies. By reducing politics to Jackson’s personal “character and impulses,” Burstein impoverishes his account of Jackson’s presidency. After all, there were serious questions involved. “The Bank of the United States,” as Jackson told his cabinet, “is in itself a Government which has gradually increased in strength from the day of its establishment. The question between it and the people has become one of power.” Jackson’s presidency vindicated the power of the national government and the democratically elected presidency against two mighty foes: Nicholas Biddle’s Bank and John C. Calhoun’s nullificationist South Carolina.
By portraying Jackson as ruled throughout his life by frontier passions, Burstein reinforces the idea of Jacksonianism that Walter Russell Mead recently proposed in his otherwise estimable book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. In Mead’s taxonomy he accompanies the Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, and Wilsonian approaches to American foreign policy with what he terms “Jacksonianism.” As I noted in a letter following the publication of Mead’s book, Special Providence defines “Jacksonianism” as warlike, trigger-happy, given to cowboy diplomacy, isolationist, nativist, paranoid, protectionist, supportive of loose monetary policy, and hostile to federal power.
The standard work on Jackson’s foreign policy is John M. Belohlavek’s Let the Eagle Soar!: The Foreign Policy of Andrew Jackson (1985). Did Jacksonian foreign policy represent a sharp break in the conduct of American foreign affairs? In Professor Belohlavek’s view,
Jacksonian diplomacy was a vital part of the American diplomatic continuum rather than a departure from it. The goals of the Jackson administration differed little from those of John Quincy Adams; for both men, expanding commerce and settling claims remained the highest priorities. Yet Jackson succeeded where Adams failed.
And Adams had been a great secretary of state, though a failed president.
Was Jackson warlike and trigger-happy? His experience with Great Britain had hardly been harmonious. He bore the scar of a saber wound inflicted by a British officer during the Revolution. Only fourteen years before his presidency he had routed the British at the Battle of New Orleans. It would have been logical, Professor Belohlavek tells us, to expect that
the hot-tempered General would be eminently unsuccessful in his conduct of diplomacy toward Great Britain…. Instead, the opposite came to pass…. Palmerston [British foreign secretary] and Vaughan [British minister to Washington] could fairly say that they had received better treatment from Jackson than from any of his predecessors.
“Jackson,” the American chargé d’affaires in London reported, “is decidedly the most popular President in England we ever had.” A case could be made that Jackson was the founder of the much-vaunted “special relationship.”
Was Jackson opposed to international agreements? His administration negotiated spoliations claims treaties with France, Denmark, Portugal, and Spain and trade revisions or new agreements with Britain, France, Spain, and Russia. Was Jacksonianism driven, as Mead claims, by God-fearing evangelicals and fundamentalists? The Jacksonians were anticlerical. It was Henry Clay who proposed a resolution requesting President Jackson to reconsider his refusal to declare a national day of prayer in order to avert a cholera epidemic. Jackson’s followers believed in keeping religion out of politics and were denounced by true believers as irreligious. The leading freethinkers of the day were all Jacksonians.
Was Jacksonianism nativist and anti-Catholic? Jackson’s party was the party of the immigrants and especially of the Irish Catholics. Was Jacksonianism paranoid, frightened by secret conspiracies against the Republic? It was John Quincy Adams, not Andrew Jackson, who flirted with the anti-Masonic party. Was Jacksonianism protectionist? Jackson’s was the low-tariff party; the Whigs were the protectionists. Was Jacksonianism supportive of a loose monetary policy? Jackson was a hard-money man who distrusted all banks. Was Jacksonianism hostile to federal power? Tell that to Nicholas Biddle or John C. Calhoun, against whom Jackson used such power! President Andrew Jackson opposed nearly every tenet of Mr. Mead’s “Jacksonianism.” (To his credit, Mead replied to my letter: “Schlesinger is right. Andrew Jackson was not a Jacksonian.”)
It was the democratizing drama of Jackson’s leadership that appealed to so many eastern writers and intellectuals. “Thou great democratic God!” wrote Melville in Moby-Dick, “…Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne!” When Hawthorne saw Raphael’s painting of Pope Julius II, “the best portrait in the whole world,” he instantly wished Raphael could have painted General Jackson. “Surely he was a great man,” Hawthorne wrote, “and his native strength, as well of intellect as of character, compelled every man to be his tool that came within his reach.”
James Fenimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, George Bancroft, William Cullen Bryant, Washington Irving, Orestes Brownson, William Leggett, James K. Paulding were other ardent Jacksonians. As that astute English visitor Harriet Martineau observed, Jackson’s party included the lower classes, the office-seekers, the humanitarians, and “an accession small in number, but inestimable in power,—the men of genius.” This was all very far from the brawling Tennessee frontier.
Burstein, while conceding the solid virtues of Robert V. Remini’s masterful three-volume biography of Jackson (1977–1984), criticizes Remini’s tendency to allow “key contradictions to stand, leaving readers with an irreconcilable set of attributes for his subject.” “Key contradictions” are not lacking in Burstein’s own book as well as key omissions of testimony contrary to his thesis.
Most particularly, he stakes his argument on the profoundly formative impact throughout Jackson’s life of having grown up in the raw frontier society of Tennessee. Then Burstein goes on to make an extraordinary conflation of Jackson with Washington and Jefferson, who both had very different origins in the ordered plantation society of Virginia. He speaks of “Washington’s intellectual limitations, like Jackson’s.” What Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson “had most in common,” Burstein writes, “was the perception that virulent enemies were plotting against them.” As for “the humane Jefferson, generally presumed Jackson’s temperamental opposite, [he] was merely quieter in his belligerence.” He writes:
Washington and Jackson had a good deal in common. Throughout their lives, both men were sharp businessmen and hungry speculators in land. They thrived on taking risks. In politics, they required men of letters, men of superior intellect, to help them shape and present their ideas to the public: Washington had Hamilton, Jackson had Livingston. As wartime commanders, Washington and Jackson exhibited horrible fits of temper when their integrity was challenged. Their manner was different in that Washington was extremely sober and aloof, ill at ease with strangers and notably impersonal, while Jackson was more natural and more companionable; yet both were as headstrong as they were daring. They required constant attention from their young, respectful, loyal subordinates—best described as courtiers, in the old chivalric sense. There were few people with whom they could speak candidly…. And both briskly took steps to counter the claim of any general who confronted a decision or suggested that their orders were imperfect.
Burstein continues: “Knowing that Washington was as erratic, as covetous of land, and at times as hot-tempered as Jackson, should give us pause.” If Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson were so much alike, it must certainly give us pause about accepting the theory that the turbulent Tennessee frontier left a unique and distinctive imprint on Jackson.
For all its deficiencies The Passions of Andrew Jackson has certain subtle strengths. Burstein’s research is far-flung, particularly into the first part of Jackson’s life, his prose is arresting, and some of his insights are illuminating. But his psychological analysis of the seventh president is not persuasive. It leaves us in much the same perplexity as James Parton expressed in the preface to his great three-volume biography of Jackson, published almost a century and a half ago, in 1859 and 1860.
Setting to work on the biography a dozen years after Jackson’s death, Parton began by reading everything he could find about Jackson. If asked what he had discovered, he wrote:
I might have answered thus: “Andrew Jackson, I am given to understand, was a patriot and a traitor. He was one of the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. A writer brilliant, elegant, eloquent, without being able to compose a correct sentence, or spell words of four syllables. The first of statesmen, he never devised, he never framed a measure. He was the most candid of men, and was capable of the profoundest dissimulation. A most law-defying, law-obeying citizen. A stickler for discipline, he never hesitated to disobey his superior. A democratic autocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint.” So difficult is it to attain information respecting a man whom two thirds of his fellow-citizens deified, and the other third vilified.
We don’t seem to have progressed very far in a century and a half toward a consensus about Jackson. No wonder Pieter Geyl described history as an “argument without end.”
May 15, 2003