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The Man, the Myth, the Legend

By: Daniel N. Gullotta
January 28, 2019

lame (or thank) Donald Trump for the Jacksonian renaissance. Steve Bannon encouraged Trump to embrace the supposed similarities between Trump’s populist rhetoric and Andrew Jackson’s during the 2016 presidential campaign. The embrace tightened when Trump chose Jackson’s portrait for the Oval Office. Academics and pop-historians alike have been producing Jackson-related content since. Some of these, such as J.M. Opal’s Avenging the People (2017), Dawn Peterson’s Indians in the Family (2017), Rachel Stephens’ Selling Andrew Jackson (2018), and Mark R. Cheatem’s The Coming of Democracy (2018) are the result of serendipitous timing, while others, like Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans (2017), and Bradley J. Birzer’s In Defense of Andrew Jackson (2018), capitalize on the seventh president’s return to the nation’s consciousness.

David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler’s The Rise of Andrew Jackson: Myth, Manipulation, and the Making of Modern Politics, is not another biography; instead, it’s an examination of the myths and legends surrounding Jackson’s election. How did a man with “a nasty temper, a violent streak, and a past littered with appalling lapses in judgement,” get elected president? Centering on Jackson’s handlers, spin doctors, and apologists, the Heidlers’ study answers this question through its chief characters—John Coffee, Sam Houston, Henry Lee IV, William Berkeley Lewis, John Overton, and Martin Van Buren.

The Heidlers divide Jackson’s supporters into “Jacksonians” and “Jacksonites.” Jacksonian true believers saw Jackson as the voice of the people and stuck with him despite political setbacks. The Jacksonites, in contrast, were more tactical, utilitarian, and opportunistic.  Skeptical of Jackson’s abilities and character, they embraced him when it suited them, employed his rhetoric when necessary, and rode his coattails to secure their own ambitions. In short, “Jacksonites believed in winning elections.”

The Heidlers open with the War of 1812’s Creek campaign, one of the lowest points in Jackson’s career. He had been shunned by President Monroe’s administration, undersupplied, and threatened by deserting troops. Following his victory at Horseshoe Bend, however, Jackson, the “man the government had abandoned in Natchez had in the span of a single year become the country’s darling.” Jackson’s victory during the Battle of New Orleans sealed his celebrity. According to the Heidlers, the victory was so stunning that some even attributed it to divine intervention. Jackson’s newfound fame prompted a spread of hagiographic and celebratory misinformation. John Overton had been considering Jackson for a political future since 1814, but, after the Battle of New Orleans, talk of the presidency began in earnest.

The bulk of The Rise of Andrew Jackson deals with the elections of 1824 and 1828 and the political machine that propelled Jackson into the White House. The heart of this machine were the men behind the pro-Jackson newspaper, The Tennessee Junto, whose job was part damage control, part mythmaking. In newspapers, biographies, at rallies, and in private correspondence, the Jacksonian and Jacksonites lauded Jackson’s generalship, casting him as a new George Washington, and turned contemporary events—the dying out of the founding generation, the collapse of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican Parties, the Panic of 1819, presidential hopeful William H. Crawford’s stroke, the expansion of voting rights for white men without property, and John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay’s so-called “corrupt bargain” that denied Jackson the presidency in 1824—in Jackson’s favor. Properly leveraged by Jackson’s sophisticated political machine, these events propelled Jackson to the presidency in 1828 despite his personal flaws.

The Heidlers’ belief that Jackson “possessed little political skill and a poor temperament for political life,” echo those of his opponents, including Henry Clay, who thought that his “sole claim on the public’s affections derived from a thirty-minute battle on the banks of the Mississippi River,” and that his “ability to kill Britons” hardly merited winning the presidency. But Jackson was, in fact, a nuanced politician and thinker, who knew how to play up his wild frontier image and didn’t hesitate to brandish it when dealing with hostile political forces. During the Bank War, for example, when President Jackson was confronted by disgruntled banking and merchant representatives, his immoderate rage prompted their disheartened exit. Laughing, Jackson asked his staff, “Didn’t I manage them well?” The bulk of Jackson’s political success might be attributed to the dual support of the Jacksonians and Jacksonites, but the man himself had more political savvy than the Heidlers acknowledge.

The Heidlers indulge in salacious tales of Jackson’s rage, miscalculations, and human failings. Some of these—like his hostility toward American Indians and ownership of slaves—deserve attention, but others, the result of political fallings out, disputes over policy, and rivalries for power, read like gossip. Like Andrew Burstein’s The Passions of Andrew Jackson (2007), the Heidlers depict Jackson as emotionally unstable and barely in control of his rage. But the real Jackson was more nuanced. His first scholarly biographer, James Parton, noted that his subject was “a patriot and a traitor. He was one of the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. A writer brilliant, elegant, eloquent, without being able to compose a correct sentence, or spell words of four syllables.” This complex view is largely absent from the Heidlers’ reconstruction of Jackson’s life and image.

By shifting the spotlight away from Jackson, the man, to his backers, the Heidlers have provided an admirable study of the varied political forces that ensured Jackson’s presidential triumph and secured his place in early United States history. Readers will find in The Rise of Andrew Jackson all the political intrigue and drama an election brings. Those looking for direct connections between Jackson and Trump will be disappointed, as many of the Jackson-Trump parallels have been overblown. But the similarities between a so-called “establishment class” that woefully overlooks mounting populist dissatisfaction and fails to take seriously the popularity and prospect of a figure like Andrew Jackson or Donald Trump are hard to overlook. As so much of our modern electoral system can be traced back to the Jacksonian age, readers interested in the origins of campaign biographies, promotional paraphernalia, political rallies, opposition research, smear campaigns, partisan press, and cries to “drain the swamp”—or as Jackson’s supporters put it, “cleanse the Augean stables”—will find the book a vivid and engaging read.