This column was written by Dean Barnett.
In 1992, historian David McCullough published "Truman," a landmark biography of Harry S. Truman. The book became something of a phenomenon; in spite of its imposing bulk (it went on for more than 1,000 pages), it raced to the top of the best seller charts. So great was the Truman-mania spawned by McCullough's work, presidential candidates George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both tried to appropriate Harry Truman's mantle and somehow appear Trumanesque.
It was a fairly remarkable accomplishment. By reminding the public of a great man from another era, "Truman" prodded present day politicians to attempt to emulate the great man's virtues.
It would be a good thing for America if H.W. Brands's masterly new work Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, has a similar effect. Perhaps better than any other American past or present, Jackson embodies the virtues that our leaders will need in the years to come: Courage, martial spirit, an indomitable will and an unceasing love for democracy.
Given the mark that he left on the nation, it is something of a surprise that Jackson isn't discussed more often. While Founding Fathers such as Adams, Washington, Hamilton and the sage of Monticello have all received much recent attention, Jackson hasn't. Other than in rap songs that evoke the image of a $20 bill, his name is seldom mentioned.
Perhaps that's because Andrew Jackson was a hard man. He seems all the more imposing when judged by modern standards. While Jefferson and Hamilton are recalled for their soaring ideas and rhetoric, Jackson's skills were different. Andrew Jackson wasn't an intellectual. He was a fighter.
By the time he was 14, Jackson was alone in the world, having lost his father to overwork and his mother and two brothers to the American Revolution. As an adolescent, Jackson, too, fought in the Revolution. Unlike his rival, the aristocratic John Quincy Adams who learned about war at his father's side in the drawing rooms of Europe, Jackson absorbed harsher lessons.
In spite of his unfavorable circumstances, Jackson managed to become a lawyer, a congressman, and a senator by the time he was 30. But Jackson's greatest fame and reputation came from his willingness to fight.
In 1806, several years after leaving the Senate and while remaining one of Tennessee's most famous citizens, Jackson agreed to a duel with Charles Dickinson to settle a matter of honor that had arisen out of a horse racing dispute. Many observers felt that Jackson's willingness to duel Dickinson was intemperate; most Tennesseans regarded Dickinson as the finest shot in the state. Additionally, dueling was already considered a crude way for gentlemen to settle their differences.
On his way out to the duel site, Dickinson amused his traveling party with his shooting skill, sometimes cutting a string with a bullet from 24 feet, the distance that would separate the two duelists.
At the duel, Jackson stuck to his plan. Dickinson fired first and grievously wounded Jackson; his bullet broke two of Jackson's ribs and lodged close to Jackson's heart. But it did not kill him.
Indeed, Jackson hardly flinched. Dickinson stared in astonishment and screamed, "Great God, have I missed him?" Jackson took deliberate aim and squeezed his trigger. Nothing happened. He re-cocked his pistol, again carefully aimed, and fired. This time the gun functioned properly, killing its mark. Jackson required over a month to recuperate from his wound.
Jackson's duel illustrated his iron-will and fearless nature. These attributes served him well both in war and politics. Also serving him well was Jackson's overpowering love for the United States.
As a General, Jackson enjoyed spectacular success battling both Indians and the British. He became famous (and infamous) for the level of discipline he demanded. When he faced a mass desertion of his troops in late 1813, no one doubted his word when he stood before his assembled army and vowed to have artillery troops (whose loyalty to Jackson was unquestioned) cut them all — including himself — to shreds if they were intent on mutiny. A short while later, Jackson pitilessly ordered the execution of an 18-year-old soldier who had briefly defied orders, telling the rest of his army, "An army cannot exist where order and subordination are wholly disregarded." Soon after he noted that "a strict obedience afterwards characterized the army."
When he became president, Jackson's manner did not change appreciably. As Brands observes, "Jackson was a Unionist first and last." So when South Carolina passed its Nullification Act which arrogated to the state the right to nullify for its purposes any federal law not to its liking, Jackson understood that this posed an existential threat to the Union.
The president responded in typical Jacksonian fashion. Speaking to a South Carolina congressman, he suggested that the law-maker convey the following message to his statesmen: "Say to them that if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct upon the first tree I can reach." Jackson buttressed this message by making plans to march on South Carolina with an enormous army of federal troops. The Union was preserved.
Even in his own time, Jackson was often dismissed as a crude ruffian. John Quincy Adams almost became apoplectic when his alma mater Harvard consented to give Jackson an honorary degree, lamenting, "I could not be present to see my darling Harvard disgrace herself by conferring a Doctor's degree upon a barbarian and savage who could scarcely spell his own name."
The temptation in our own time to dismiss Jackson in similar terms is powerful. He was, after all, a killer, an Indian fighter and a slave-holder. But at the same time, his strengths paved the way for the country to transition from a republic governed by aristocrats to a democracy ruled by the people.
Jackson's life has a profound relevance today. As Robert Kaplan points out in "Imperial Grunts," American soldiers serving in dangerous foreign outposts ranging from Colombia to the Philippines to Afghanistan refer to their locales as "Injun Country." This is a tribute to the kind of fighting Jackson pioneered. The troops view their tasks in the same way Jackson viewed his own — taming hostile environments and hostile indigenous peoples so America can be safe and prosper.
While honoring Indian fighting may seem offensive to some modern-day political sensibilities, there is no denying Jackson's accomplishments. He is the Godfather of our democracy as surely as Washington is the father of our country. Jackson's life is perhaps best summed up by a famous George Orwell quote that modern day Marines cherish: "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."
Dean Barnett writes on politics at SoxBlog.com.
By Dean Barnett