by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & Andrew Jackson by H.W. Brands & r & Andrew Jackson is among the most important early presidents, but he hasn't received nearly the attention historians have been lavishing on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or even John Adams in recent years. H.W. Brands saw that niche and has filled it.
Jackson's parents were immigrant pioneers settling in what would become Tennessee, but the hard life on the edge of civilization orphaned Jackson as a child. As the nation's original boot-strapper, he became a lawyer, a politician and a militia leader -- where his real talents shone. His military career went from Indian fighter, to liberator of Florida to conqueror of the British at New Orleans -- a battle that came on the heels of the burning to the ground of the nation's Capitol. To the people of the young nation -- a nation whose survival was in no way certain -- "Old Hickory" was the second coming of George Washington. He followed those footsteps to the White House, starting the first of his two terms in 1829, just a few weeks after his wife Rachel died at his home, the Hermitage in Nashville.
Brands, whose last book, The Age of Gold, was excellent, is too entranced by the adulation that has followed Jackson through the generations. And he takes an overly accommodating approach to Jackson's appalling Indian policies and stand on slavery. But he's right to argue that Jackson was a pivotal figure, and that his character dictated the course of the nation. His central belief was that, first and foremost, the Union must survive. He believed this so strongly that he was once prepared to invade South Carolina to preserve it.
But Jackson (the first nominee of the new Democratic Party) was also the first man elected outside the halls of government -- he was truly the people's choice, and he trusted the wisdom of the masses as the elites bemoaned the excesses of true democracy. In Jackson's view, which resonates in this democracy-for-sale era, government should "confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor."
America hasn't elected a lot of generals as president, perhaps out of the fear they would have despotic tendencies. But as Jackson (and Washington and even Eisenhower) showed, the nation can be very well served by the kind of toughness and independence an old soldier brings to the job.