Review by Joey Madia
If all you know about the seventh president of the United States is his long, chiseled face and mass of white hair on the twenty-dollar bill, you’ve been missing out.
This excellent biography begins with a prologue covering the rabble-rousing ruckus that was Jackson’s inauguration on March 4, 1829. Jackson was a new kind of candidate—unlike his six predecessors in this still-new nation, he was a “man of the people.” In no way an insider, this rugged frontiersman who broke the mold of presidents coming from Massachusetts or Virginia had strong beliefs and was never afraid to defend or act on them. John Quincy Adams, the outgoing president, refused to attend.
Not unlike Alexander Hamilton, Jackson was a “willful boy with a chip on his shoulder” (6) and a mess of contradictions—a daily lifelong reader of scripture, he was also known for his ability to swear with the best of them. He and his brothers fought in the American Revolution, starting Jackson’s complex relationship with death and loss and his ability to carry on despite being wounded. Also like Hamilton, he had a penchant for duels. He had at least three, the second of which resulted in his being wounded in the torso and his killing his opponent, and the third resulting in his carrying a bullet in his body for years after. While taking his law degree, Jackson solidified his reputation as a “roaring, rollicking, game-cocking, horse-racing, card-playing, mischievous fellow” (15).
A great deal of Jackson’s controversy stems from an innocent clerical error. The love of his life, Rachel, had been in a terrible marriage. Leaving her abusive husband she fell in love with and married Jackson, although she was technically not divorced. Jackson’s enemies—and they were considerable—would use this against him, raising his ire as they portrayed the innocent Rachel as a bigamist and unwholesome woman.
True to his style, he defended her to the end.
In addition to the perceptions of his marriage, another aspect of Jackson’s life that cannot be ignored is his fierce actions as an Indian fighter. The controversial stage musical Bloody Andrew Jackson a decade ago brought all of this back to life and at least two productions of the award-winning musical have been canceled in the last few years because of protests by Native Americans. Jackson was given the title of “Long Knife” by his Indian allies for bravery, although it took on dark connotations as he fought against the Indians allied with the Spanish and British.
His growing popularity in the newly formed state of Tennessee led to his election to Congress in 1796, where he was once again seen as a brash outsider. He returned the next term as a senator, but politics did not suit him as well as the military, and by 1802 he was a major general in the Tennessee militia.
Jackson’s role in and around New Orleans is the core focus of his life and legacy. He was one player on an international stage that involved the Spanish, Napoleon, Jefferson, and the Louisiana Purchase. There were also a slew of nefarious personalities like Aaron Burr, who had ironically killed Hamilton in a duel, and General James Wilkinson, an agent provocateur if ever there was one. In the treason trial that was to come, implicating Burr and others, Jackson took Burr’s side, going so far as to go to Richmond, VA to testify on his behalf.
This is a fascinating time in American history, worthy of the cinema and the stage and Vickery does an excellent job of offering a primer and context to the larger story while focusing on Jackson.
On the heels of these events came the Creek War. On the strength of his continuing bravery, Jackson had a new nickname—Old Hickory. With America currently at a crossroads in how it talks about and moves forward from its history of repression and genocide again the Indians, books like this provide crucial context for the campaigns against and removal of Indians. In the case of Jackson, he believed he had a duty to defend the United States and, at times, this led to censure by commanders, threats of mutiny by his men, and dangers to his often fragile health. But Old Hickory would not be daunted, and his actions earned him a commission in the US Regular Army. He was not afraid to carry out executions to maintain discipline and he amassed essential victories in the southern campaigns of the War of 1812.
I have read a lot of military history in the past quarter century and can say without reservation that the chapters on the lead-up and waging of the Battle of New Orleans are some of the best I have read. Vickery deftly handles the role of pirates and privateers like Jean Lafitte, the shifting alliances with the Native Americans, the intricacies of the maneuvers of the armies, and even the post-battle burial and housekeeping practices without letting the dramatic pace of the sights and sounds die in the details.
Following the battle, in which Jackson was the acknowledged hero, his persistent drive to secure the spoils of victory and answer the so-called Indian Question caused friction with the locals and his superiors, but Jackson never slowed. His efforts culminated in the First Seminole War, which resulted in America wresting control of Florida (with the exception of the fort at St. Augustine) from the Spanish in 1818. Jackson encouraged President Monroe to allow him to go on to take the fort and Cuba, although he was literally spitting blood from the fatigues of battle.
Riding his military popularity and displacement of the Indians, Jackson became president, but not without more controversy. In his first campaign, he lost to John Quincy Adams, although Jackson had won both the popular and electoral votes. In the Electoral College, the firebrand Henry Clay supported Adams and then became his Secretary of State. Amazing how nothing changes on Capitol Hill. The result of the outcome was the start of the Democratic Party. In a “vitriolic and personal campaign” (193) Jackson got his revenge on Adams, his camp even accusing the sitting president of “pimp[ing] for the czar [of Russia] and provid[ing] sex slaves.”
You see… things really haven’t changed.
A casualty of the vicious election was Jackson’s beloved Rebecca, who died before he could take office. An office she wished he hadn’t sought.
In another parallel with modern presidential history, Jackson was quick to use the Veto and believed in cycling his Cabinet to keep them “sharp and compliant.” He didn’t want their opinions. He demanded their unwavering support. And his controversies continued. He made sure the Bank of the United States wasn’t re-chartered and oversaw the General Removal Act, which led to the Trail of Tears under Van Buren and other atrocities against Native American tribes.
The heart of history is the complexity of those who were involved in the events that shaped the world. Vickery, a professor of History at Oral Roberts University and accomplished living history presenter, does an excellent job of balancing his assessments of both Jackson’s strengths and his weaknesses. This is one of three things we can demand of our historians. The other two are getting the facts straight and being a talented enough writer that reading their books isn’t like chewing hay and sawdust. Vickery excels at all three.
Jackson: The Iron Willed Commander is part of “The Generals” series, edited by the noted author Stephen Mansfield. I will be reviewing Vickery’s book on George Washington in the months to come. I am very much looking forward to it.
TITLE: Jackson: The Iron Willed Commander
AUTHOR: Paul Vickery
PUBLISHER: Thomas Nelson