“If Jackson read this account, I do not think he would challenge me to a duel — and once you read about him, you will realize that this might be the highest praise a biographer can earn.”
On that note, Professor of History and Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies Bradley J. Birzer begins his sixth biography and newest release, “In Defense of Andrew Jackson.” At less than 200 pages cover-to-cover, Birzer’s defense spans half the length of his other biographies, but he still manages to pack significant punch into the book’s limited space.
As anyone who has taken a class with him can confirm, Birzer delights in putting human flesh on dusty historical bones. The same can be said of his newest biography.
Beginning in Jackson’s early childhood, the book weaves its way through our seventh president’s coming-of-age and service in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, concluding with the end to his second presidential term in office and his 1837 Farewell Address.
While the narrative predominantly follows Jackson’s public life, Birzer clothes it with details about Jackson’s ancestry, religious beliefs, and private life at the Hermitage in Nashville, Tenn., emphasizing his Presbyterian background and the Scotch-Irish heritage that colored his sense of honor blood-red.
In fact, as Birzer reveals, it was that same backwoods sense of honor that distinguished Jackson from the six presidents who preceded him.
“Jackson was a westerner,” Birzer writes, “a war hero, an Indian fighter, a self-made man, a plain-spoken republican, and, unlike his six predecessors … not classically educated.”
For Birzer, this makes Jackson “the first truly American president.”
Jackson was in no sense ignorant of America’s Greco-Roman heritage — in several places, Birzer refers to him as the American Cincinnatus, the citizen-soldier who temporarily abandons his farmland to defend his country — but his own childhood in the Carolina borderlands and the Scotch-Irish code of honor by which his mother raised him set him apart as a frontiersman of mythic lore, a genuine Natty Bumppo come to life for the American people.
Jackson’s persona may have earned him a reputation of rugged proportions, but his feats on the battlefield did not remain the stuff of legends alone. A military hero long before he became a political figure, today his victory in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans is recognized as his greatest military achievement. Having experienced Jackson’s tough character and determination firsthand, the troops under his command soon adopted the title “Old Hickory” for their fiery general.
The moniker proved consistent both on the battlefield and off, as Jackson famously could not let a sleight on his or a loved one’s honor go without a duel. But few of these exchanges actually resulted in casualties, and most concluded with the renewal of friendship between Jackson and his opponent.
“That was Andrew Jackson,” Birzer writes, “the man of the frontier — no worse enemy, no better friend.”
For many Americans living today, however, Jackson’s name does not evoke the same glory. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the subsequent policies enacted under his presidential administration still prompt harsh critiques. Birzer makes no move to apologize for Jackson’s policies, nor for the Trail of Tears that followed under Martin Van Buren’s administration, but he does offer some illumination of Jackson’s motivations.
While Jackson believed that the Indians were natural republicans and equals, human beings with the same rights and worth as any other Americans, he also considered them so far behind the rest of America culturally that they could potentially pose a military threat to the new United States. Living in an age when the future of the American republic was still tenuous, this was not a risk he was willing to take.
And though his policies toward the Indian nations are pragmatic at best, Jackson also regarded himself as a realist with respect to whites, purportedly “growing furious when they mistreated Indians and demanding that they be prosecuted and condemned.”
While “In Defense of Andrew Jackson” will not convince every reader to turn a blind eye to our seventh president’s policies — nor would Birzer want us to — it does succeed in lending humanity to a president who has grown so unfashionable as to be unapproachable in recent decades.
In death as well as in life, Jackson’s uncouth, spirited, self-made persona has attracted his share of friends and enemies, but Birzer’s biography succeeds in defending the man himself as just that: a man.
“He was not an elite,” Birzer writes, “but he knew the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and his own experiences on the frontier and in war. That was more than enough to make him an American, a republican, and a great president.”