Book Review: “Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times”

AndrewJacksonThumbby Brad Nelson
I’m just about done with this book…near enough so to do a proper review. And a very good book it is.

H.W. Brands is a fairly prolific author. I rate him as quite competent and very lyrical. That is, even if his facts aren’t right or if he has an overt bias, he writes a very readable history.

And as far as I know, his facts are right. And his bias is likely that of anyone who has gone to college in the last forty years. The “Progressive” bias is now all but unavoidable and we conservatives must give each other a wink and nudge about that just so that we know the general parameters.

But I suspect that if there is any bias in this biography, it is toward General Jackson, and not so much toward “democracy” as opposed to those awful Adamses, Federalists, and oligarchic Democratic-Republicans who just wanted to horde power for themselves. This bias is quite apparent in the book…and that’s not to say that Alexander Hamilton didn’t have a more statist vision of America than Jefferson. But Brands doesn’t give this issue a fair hearing and it is just assumed that the “men of the people” such as Andrew Jackson were the corrective that was in order.

And he does have one quirk to his writing style. Very often he will paraphrase (one supposes that he’s not just inserting himself) the thoughts of Jackson or some other, and intersperse this between direct quotes. If you aren’t careful, it becomes confusing as to who is saying what.

And, really, other than the above quibbles, I thought this was an excellent book. It was a wonderful balance between the life of Andrew Jackson and his times. This is an intriguing era of American history. Jackson’s life covers from the war of independence to the prelude to the Civil War in South Carolina’s first act of threatened succession (this time purely of tariffs and not the issue of slavery).

And I have to say, I came away quite liking this man, Andrew Jackson. At least as presented in this biography, he is far from a Democratic demagogue of the Obama type and more like one of the later Founding Fathers. In a sense, he is indeed the second George Washington, but perhaps without the formal upbringing.

Jackson had his weaknesses (including a propensity for dueling), but his overriding concern was the preservation of the Union. He was easy then (as perhaps now) to write off as a one-dimensional testosterone-filled military commander. But Jackson was extremely thoughtful in his day (probably more so than the over-rated Clay) in regards to defining and grappling with the major issues of the day.

There are quotes in this book from Jackson regarding his battle with South Carolina separatists that are quite brilliant, even Lincolnesque. In fact, this is not your father’s Democrat. In his approach to preserving the Union, Jackson differs little in regards to policy than Lincoln. (I wonder if therefore there will be a “The Real Jackson” book by the fevered minds of the Paulistinians?)

And as CC had noted earlier, this book, and the life of Andrew Jackson, does very much resemble a soap opera. His wife, Rachel, was a central part of that soap opera as was the wife of one of this cabinet members who divided Jacksonian loyalties. (Jackson reflexively would defend the honor of a lady…even if he didn’t know all the facts. This man was not the kind of dirtbag we have come to expect from presidents such as Bill Clinton or JFK who badly used the ladies.)

And this book gives you  an overall background of life and politics in the early 19th century, and it often wasn’t very pretty. If you think politics are bad now, apparently the most contentious campaign we’ve ever had was between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson — or, really, the supporting factions of either. The candidates themselves were much more passive in regards to campaigning than they are today. In fact, Andrew Jackson, for all intents and purposes, did not campaign for and was drafted to be president…so much so that few had any idea where he stood on the specific issues.

But what I came away with from this book was that Jackson — for all his foibles, including his dealings with slavery — was a man of great character and vision. He had the true American spirit as opposed to the career politicians who infect government then as now and who justify their supposed importance with plenty of clever, well-crafted words. (I really did come away from this book with not a particularly good opinion of either Henry Clay or Daniel Webster. One gets the impression that they were just John McCain with a gift for lofty rhetoric.)

I would want to read another biography of Andrew Jackson before pronouncing final judgment. I have some suspicions on the objectivity of the writer. That said, I did come away very much liking this guy. He is, of course, associated with the strengthening of the presidency. And yet, it was only a matter of time until the Federal government became a bloated, unconstitutional beast. It wasn’t his doing and it wasn’t Lincoln’s doing (although one may lay great blame on Wilson, both Roosevelts, LBJ, and now B. Hussein Obama).

And Jackson himself held some very originalist views on the Constitution, including (quite rightly, to my mind) that the Supreme Court is not the final word on issues of the day, that both the Congress and President are co-equal branches and so may have their own say.

Jackson was a man driven by the passion of a battle, whether military or political. And yet he proved to be much deeper than that. He had a life-long hatred of the British. Yet in his inaugural address (partly written by Martin Van Buren), he was very conciliatory toward Great Britain. Jackson was the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, and rightly so. He may well have saved the Union. But he also showed a deftness beyond generalship and was a breath of fresh air blown into what had become (and still is) a Washington DC that is a den of thieves and hive of pompous asses. • (1222 views)

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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One Response to Book Review: “Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times”

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I just finished this book. Overall, H.W. Brands was skilled at writing a pleasing narrative of the history. But a couple things erupted, or came to a head, by the end of the book that were troubling or amateurish:

    1) Brands seems biased to the idea (an idea seemingly shared by Jackson) that the further we move toward pure democracy in America, the better. This left it pretty clear what Brands’ ideology was. If you read enough American history first, you can wade easily enough past these points. But for the novice reader, he or she would be exposed to what I can only call propaganda and not a fair analysis of “democracy vs. republic.”

    2) Reading his book makes me realize what a splendid job Doris Kearns Goodwin did in writing “Team of Rivals,” the biography of Lincoln. In her book, she does indeed present the life of Lincoln in large part in the context of rivalries with some other noted giants of his age. And it’s woven together well.

    However, in Brands’ book, he kinda-sorta wants to do a similar thing between Jackson and John Quincy Adams. The problem is, he does not do even a minimal job at fleshing out Adams. Is that partisanship showing through? I don’t know. But much of the book mentions the conflicting points of view of these two men, but all we get about Adams is a rough paraphrasing of him, even a caricature, but very few facts or direct quotes from Adams.

    So, at the end of the day, instead of producing a rivalry – which I believe it surely was – Brands is only able to present John Quincy Adams as a straw man. This is very disappointing.

    I think he paints a very good portrait of Jackson. As far as I know, he doesn’t white-wash Jackson’s blemishes. But given the clear bias presented in this book, I have to admit that I would likely steer clear of another biography by Brands. I just wouldn’t trust it enough, especially if it was the first biography I was reading of some historical figure.

    But don’t let me dissuade you from reading this one of Andrew Jackson. I thought it was very good, with those two main concerns noted above, as well as Brands’ propensity for mixing in his paraphrasing with direct quotes, and often making it difficult to determine who is saying what.

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