More than anything, Andrew Jackson was a true American enigma.
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 as the chief executive, prepared for the bloody invasion of an American state. He openly sympathized with the plight of Indians, but devoted his energies all the same to the forced relocation and oppression of the same. He was 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.
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