A Good History Lesson

In Defense of Andrew Jackson

The vast majority of Americans think of Andrew Jackson as a despicable man: a scoundrel, an uncouth violent redneck, hell-bent on the imperial expansion of the United States with the American Indians his burnt offerings to whatever god he worshipped. But my research has revealed Jackson as a true American republican, a virtuous man of the West, and a righteous ancestor…

in defense of andrew jacksonFrom the moment the title was announced—In Defense of Andrew Jackson—I’ve had folks on social media react with ingrained distrust, dislike, and outright hatred. It is as if the title just as easily could’ve read In Defense of Judas, In Defense of Count Dracula, or In Defense of Adolf Hitler. Admittedly, Jackson has always been an acquired taste, and his popularity or lack thereof has experienced drastic mood swings since he came on the public scene in the late 1700s. In 2018, a lot of Trump supports want to like Jackson, but the vast majority of Americans—if they know anything at all about him—think of him as an embarrassment or an evil. An entire two generations of young Americans have been brought up being taught that Andrew Jackson was nothing but the author of the heinous Trail of Tears. The actual “Trail of Tears” didn’t happen until 1838, a full year after Andrew Jackson had left the White House. Martin Van Buren was president. Don’t let a fact get in the way of a myth, though. Jackson, to be sure, had gotten the “Indian Removal Act” through Congress in 1830, and he immediately began to remove the Choctaws from their traditional lands. So, yes, Jackson was guilty of removal, but not of the “Trail of Tears.”

But, I’m sidetracking myself! I’ve been teaching the period survey, The United States Between 1807 and 1848, every other year at Hillsdale College since 1999. I’m not blameless when it comes to the reputation of Andrew Jackson. For years, I taught him as a despicable man, an uncouth violent redneck, hell-bent on the imperial expansion of the United States with the American Indians his burnt offerings to whatever tenebrous god he worshipped. My man was, absolutely, John Quincy Adams. Obviously, if you love John Quincy Adams, you have to hate Andrew Jackson. Well, maybe not quite. The more I studied the period, the more I came to wonder just how much I really understood Jackson. After all, when reading his statements on the economy and the corruption of the Second Bank of the United States, I liked the guy. When he stopped South Carolina from nullifying a federal law, I admired his chutzpah, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with his politics. And, when his 2,000-plus rag-tag motley crew of a militia prevented the world’s greatest and strongest empire from invading New Orleans in 1815… well, I cheered, and loudly. That was a victory.

Just a little over a year and a half ago, Regnery’s fearless mastermind contacted Hillsdale’s intrepid John J. Miller, asking him who might be able to write a book on the virtues of Andrew Jackson? John, bless his heart, immediately contacted me, and, within days, I’d signed a contract to write a book entitled, In Defense of Andrew Jackson. I told Harry my reservations about Jackson, and he encouraged me to write what I needed to write. Within a few days, I had the complete published papers of Jackson on my desk as well as a ton of primary sources of varied sorts, but none as vast as the local newspaper clippings from the time, from the U.S. and from England. Thank you, newspaperarchive.com!

The more I read and wrote about Jackson, the more impressed I was. Three months after signing the contract, I had become convinced of several things. First, Andrew Jackson was about the bloodiest man I had ever met. At least, at a personal level. The guy seemed to shoot everything, and he seemed to enjoy it. Second, and perhaps most important, Jackson was as honest as the day is long. He never lied, he never conned, and he always kept his word. Indeed, to deceive would have been anathema to the man. Ok, bloody, but definitely honest. Really, really, really honest. Third, I discovered that while Jackson was born in the South, he was true-life frontiersman and Leatherstocking. His morality was Southern, but his ethics were purely Western. Fourth, I discovered that the quiet but firm alliance John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson enjoyed between 1815 and 1822 was world-changing. With John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State and Andrew Jackson as the preeminent military leader of the young republic, we were as strong and as righteous a republic as ever existed. When the two men had a falling out in 1824, they each lost something precious, but the republic lost something absolutely vital.

There is way too much to discuss regarding this fourth point, and I will leave that discussion for another time.

If, however, one takes together the first three points about Jackson—his brutality, his honesty, and his frontier ethics—a lot becomes clear not only about the man, but about the entire era. Yes, Jackson was very bloody. He dueled quite a few men, and he was often at war. Yet, true to his frontier ethics and his rigorous honesty, his bloodiness had definite limits. Truly, his ethics gave shape and borders to his violence. As Jackson saw it, men could fight other men when necessary. Men could never, under any circumstances, use violence against civilians, women, and children—whether white, black, or Indian. When men behaved violently in a proper fashion, they were in control of their actions and they would only fight those equally in control of their actions. That is, it was fine for two men to duel, or a thousand men to go to war—but, only against equals, those equally armed and choosing to be on the battlefield. When men attacked civilians of any kind, they behaved as the worst sort of barbarian. The records of Andrew Jackson’s life reveal these distinctions, time after time.

Further, they reveal that Jackson acted, time and again, as a protector of civilians, women, and children, attacking the instigator and perpetrator of such violence, whoever that person might be. He held American whites, blacks, Indians, and Spaniards to the same standards. As an avenging angel, he punished severely those who would carry their violence to the innocent. Far from being the racist of legend, Jackson included blacks as well as Indians in his militia, and he even adopted an Indian boy after an American victory against the boy’s tribe. In fact, he and his wife Rachel adopted many children and became wards of many more. De facto, the Jacksons were the patriarchs of Nashville and surrounding environs.

This is a long way of saying that I’m very glad of several things. I’m very glad I had the chance to study a great man. I’m very glad I had the chance to correct my own errors of judgment. And, I’m very glad to see Jackson not as a scoundrel but as a true American republican, a virtuous man of the West, and a righteous ancestor.

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