Sunday, March 15, 2015

A review of “Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil, and the Presidency”



He was a slaveholding Southerner, who stopped an early attempt at seceding from the Union. He was a champion of the "common man," so long as that common man was white. And his face is found on the $20 bill, even though he caused Indian Removal and the Trail of Tears - after the Supreme Court had ruled it unconstitutional.


His name was Andrew Jackson, and he was one of the toughest son-of-a-gun presidents that this country has ever produced. His presidency was not without its praiseworthy moments, but he had more than his share of shameful acts; and some of them taint his legacy to this day. He has been admired and hated by generations of Americans; and continues to excite controversy today. One thing both sides agree on, though - the man was extremely interesting. While his legacy is not always inspiring, it is a source of endless fascination for anyone interested in our history - and as the ongoing interest in Nazi Germany demonstrates, people are (perhaps morbidly) fascinated by Hitler, puzzled and sensationalized by how anyone could do such things. Although Andrew Jackson was no Hitler, the evils in his nature and legacy continue to have much the same effect - puzzling and sensationalizing, scandalizing and mystifying. People love him and hate him, but never lose interest in him. A documentary at PBS explains why.




He was born in the Carolinas back when they were British colonies, and was only eight when the American Revolution broke out. He joined the local militia at the age of thirteen, but was soon captured by the British, along with his brother Robert. They both caught smallpox as prisoners, and nearly starved to death in captivity. When Andrew refused to clean the boot of a British officer, the officer slashed at him with his sword, leaving Jackson with scars on his left hand and head. Their mother managed to secure their release, only to see her son Robert die shortly after, from the smallpox he contracted in captivity. Robert was not the only brother Andrew lost, as his eldest brother Hugh had died of heat exhaustion in an earlier battle; and his mother soon followed, dying of a disease (cholera) contracted as a nurse for prisoners of war on board a prison ship. The now-orphaned Andrew Jackson blamed the British for all of it, and would carry his hatred of them throughout his life.


Jackson disobeys British officer while held captive, 1780

After the war, Jackson headed west to the frontier, and became a country lawyer in Tennessee. He met the woman he would later marry there, and fell in love with her - even though she was married to another man. In fairness to both of them, Rachel had no legal power to divorce her domineering husband; but they both bear some responsibility for both the affair that resulted, and their running off to the distant frontier together. Though he would later deny it, she married him while she was still legally married to her first husband, making her marriage bigamous. The first husband sued for divorce on grounds of adultery, and won it. Andrew and Rachel were quietly remarried soon after. The problem seemed to be fixed, but this skeleton in Jackson's closet would reemerge when he later ran for high political office - the Presidency of the United States.


Jackson receives British surrender at Horseshoe Bend, 1814

He held some other political offices after sorting out the business with Rachel, including elections to the U.S. House and Senate. When his country again went to war with the British in 1812, Andrew joined up; this time with a much higher rank. He had been sixteen when the Revolutionary War had ended; now, he was 45, and had experience to boot. Whatever his other vices, he was a good soldier, possessing both good sense and a toughness that earned him the nickname of "Old Hickory." Unfortunately, he was also ruthless - both against the Indians he viewed as inferior, and at those of his men who deserted their posts. He was not averse to public executions, and a number of soldiers who left for home were executed for desertion. When some of them later mutinied, they knew it was not an idle threat when Jackson threatened to kill them, and the mutiny problem ended quickly.


Jackson at Battle of New Orleans, 1815

After the war with the British was over, Jackson was sent to fight against the Seminoles in Georgia, and prevent Spanish Florida from being used as a colony for runaway slaves. He exceeded his orders by taking Florida from Spain - a country that the United States was not at war with. That he went too far is beyond question, but that it was a popular act is also undeniable; and it took him to new heights of fame and glory. Spain soon after ceded Florida formally to the United States, and Jackson served as Florida's military governor for some years after.


John Quincy Adams

He ran for the presidency in 1824, and lost to John Quincy Adams - son of the Founding Father John Adams, who had also been an American president. But in a rematch in 1828, Jackson beat his old rival, and became President of the United States. The election was not without its losses, though - the skeletons in his closet had reemerged, and the country had found out about his wife's bigamy - and their then-adulterous relationship. Andrew Jackson had fired back by charging John Quincy Adams with some sex scandals of his own - charges which were patently false, in contrast to the truth of the charges against Jackson; but which nonetheless helped him win the election. (Surprise, surprise - politician lies and gets elected. Some things never change.) Rachel Jackson couldn't take the scandal, and died soon after from a stroke. Andrew blamed another of his rivals for her death, and was only half-joking when he said that he regretted not shooting the man. (He'd once fought a duel with a man who'd owed him money, and had killed the man at point-blank. He had tremendous physical courage, but was also entirely ruthless - another of the many reasons I dislike Jackson. He also was ruthless with his slaves, and was cruel even by slave-owner standards.)


Jackson during his presidency

His presidency had its better moments, including some campaigning against the national banks, and the stopping of a crisis over secession. (Despite his Southern roots, he did not believe in secession, and put a quick end to an early attempt at it - one of his finest moments.) But his legacy is tainted by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which - despite being struck down as unconstitutional - led to the infamous Trail of Tears in the 1830's, which lasted through most of Jackson's administration. Thousands of Native Americans were forced to relocate to the West, with large numbers of them dying along the way. This stands as the most shameful act of Jackson's life, and a black mark on his name that will endure for years to come.


Actual photograph of Jackson at age 78,
the portion of his life after cameras had been invented

In the words of his first biographer, "Andrew Jackson was a patriot, and a traitor. He was the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. He was the most candid of men, and capable of the profoundest dissimulation. He was a democratic autocrat, an urbane savage, an atrocious saint."


We cry foul at what Jackson did, and are outraged today by his ruthlessness. But Jackson was nothing if not interesting; and if you want to learn more about him, PBS's documentary might well be the best on the subject. You won't bond with the subject much, but you'll never again think him boring, or see him in the same way again. Highly recommended to anyone interested in Andrew Jackson.

American Revolution miniseries

War of 1812 program

John Quincy Adams post


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