For many people he's just a face on the $20 bill, the guy having a bad hair day. Others confuse him with Stonewall Jackson. But few people have...
“Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times”
by H.W. Brands
Doubleday, 620 pp., $35
For many people he’s just a face on the $20 bill, the guy having a bad hair day. Others confuse him with Stonewall Jackson. But few people have left a deeper imprint on the history of the United States than Andrew Jackson, our seventh president.
His life story, wonderfully told in the new biography “Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times” by H.W. Brands, is the stuff of legends. Brands, author of “The First American” and “The Age of Gold,” has vivid material to work with in examining the events of Jackson’s life. Jackson was a Revolutionary War soldier at age 13, apprentice lawyer at 17, a sometime duelist with three bullets in his body and a man who found the love of his life in his wife, Rachel, the cast-off bride of another man. He became a land speculator, slaveholder and politician who represented Tennessee in both houses of Congress. He also became a major general and won the nickname “Old Hickory” from his men, who compared his toughness to a hickory branch.
He fought winning battles against renegade Indians, then marshaled forces in New Orleans to oppose a British invasion in the War of 1812. Jackson’s men, sheltered behind earthworks, mowed down the British. The stunning victory made him a national hero.
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The author of “Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times” will read at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).
Friends lobbied Jackson to seek the presidency. He did so in 1824, winning a plurality of the vote, but the election wound up in the House of Representatives, which chose runner-up John Quincy Adams.
Jackson ran again in 1828 in a vicious campaign in which foes cited his history of slave trading and dueling and also dusted off the charge that Rachel was an adulteress. They even made an issue of Jackson’s poor spelling. But Old Hickory’s supporters framed the contest as one between democracy and aristocratic power brokers who controlled the electoral process. Jackson won in a landslide.
Then Rachel — having grown into a plain, plump, pipe-smoking woman — died from a heart attack. Jackson blamed himself, believing her death a consequence of the humiliating charges during in the campaign.
Still in mourning, he set out for Washington, D.C., on what turned out to be a triumphal journey. “For the first time in American history, and for one of the very few times in human history, the people had chosen one of their own to govern them,” Brands writes.
As president, Jackson vetoed a congressional vote to renew the charter of the Bank of the United States and announced an Indian policy based on the premise that Eastern tribes would be exterminated if they tried to remain in their homes. Instead, he proposed “the physical transfer of those tribes to the western land,” a harsh policy that set the stage for the infamous Cherokee “Trail of Tears.”
Re-elected in 1832, Jackson defused the so-called “nullification crisis” in which South Carolina attempted to nullify a federal tariff, then triggered a financial panic by withdrawing federal deposits from the U.S. Bank. The crisis eased when the money was deposited in state banks, which Jackson believed were the only ones authorized by the Constitution. He also managed to pay off the national debt.
Succeeded in office by Martin Van Buren in 1836, Jackson returned to his home, the Hermitage, where he lived out the rest of his days.
Jackson’s life was defined by struggle, Brands writes, but that was largely “because life for America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was a struggle. Eventually, of course, the United States would turn out to be the great power of the world. But during Jackson’s lifetime this outcome was neither obvious nor inevitable.
“Jackson’s appeal to the American people was the appeal of the chieftain to the tribe,” Brands writes. “They loved him because he was their protector, their hero. But they also loved him because he embodied their hopes and fears, their passions and prejudices … better than anyone before him.
“They placed their faith in him because he placed his faith in them.”
Steve Raymond, a former Times editor, reviews American history for The Seattle Times. His newest book, “Nervous Water,” will be published next year by The Lyons Press.