BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 7, 2003
The Passions of Andrew Jackson by Andrew Burstein (Alfred A. Knopf, 292 pp., $25)
Early in 1834, at the height of his war with the Second Bank of the United States, President Andrew Jackson received at the White House several deputations of businessmen, who pleaded with him to change course. Believing that the Bank was an unrepublican, unaccountable monopoly, Jackson had vetoed its federal recharter and ordered the government's deposits in it removed. The Bank's president, Nicholas Biddle, had lashed back by sharply curtailing loans and note issues, thereby causing a national financial panic. Privately, Biddle admitted that he was holding the American economy hostage in order to save his beloved, well-stocked, privately managed bank. But publicly he blamed Jackson for the economic catastrophe; and for a time the nation's leading capitalists believed him.
Jackson replied to the businessmen's entreaties with a rage that was already legendary. One delegation of New Yorkers entered Jackson's office to find the president hard at work at his desk, writing and puffing furiously on his pipe. Looking up quickly, Jackson excused himself and went back to his writing, leaving his visitors standing mute until he finished. At last Jackson put down his pen. The group's spokesman had gotten through a few sentences of a prepared statement praying for relief when Jackson cut him off: "Go to Nicholas Biddle. We have no money here, gentlemen. Biddle has all the money. He has millions of specie in his vaults, at this moment, lying idle, and yet you come to me to save you from breaking. I tell you, gentlemen, it's all politics." Gesticulating wildly, his voice raised to a fevered pitch, Jackson continued his tirade against Biddle and the Bank for fifteen minutes, then politely allowed his blanched visitors to depart, having ratified their doubts about his sanity but leaving no doubts whatsoever about his determination.
As the chastised delegation descended the White House staircase, safely out of earshot, Jackson exulted over his performance. "Didn't I manage them well?" he chuckled to one of his aides. And so he had. The nation's business leaders duly went to Biddle, to no avail. Within months they had turned against the Bank, blasting the devious Biddle for trying to ruin them all in order to get even with Jackson, and forcing him to end his capricious curtailment. By the end of 1834, the panic was over and Jackson had won the battle over the deposits, and the broken Biddle, his bank mortally wounded, began a descent into megalomaniac fantasy in which he, not the frontier Catiline Jackson, would emerge as the great hero of his day.
This oft-told tale of Jackson's crafty, calculated use of feigned political frenzy does not make it into Andrew Burstein's purported study of Jackson's passions, which is actually an excoriating indictment of what the Frenchman Michel Chevalier called Jackson's "empty prejudices." This is not surprising, since Burstein portrays Jackson as the slave of his vengeful fury, never as its master. But Burstein also says little about the Bank War, one of the central episodes of Jackson's presidency; and what little he does say is tendentious or factually inaccurate. Endorsing Biddle's view of the matter, Burstein leaves the cursory impression that the Bank War merely confirms what he, Burstein, has divined as Jackson's destructive impulses. It is a botched job of historical analysis, and it is typical of this conceit-driven book.
If Carl Sandburg’s massive sentimental biography was, as Edmund Wilson remarked, the worst thing that had happened to Abraham Lincoln since Booth shot him, then The Passions of Andrew Jackson, a far slighter effort, is one of the worst things that has happened to Jackson since a deranged housepainter tried to assassinate him in 1835. (One of the other worst things, Michael Paul Rogin's notorious study of Jackson's supposedly "genocidal" Indian policies, Fathers and Children, which appeared in 1975, strongly influences Burstein's book.) Jackson's greatness, like Lincoln's, will survive. More troubling is what Burstein's book says about the current state of political biography and political history in America. Like many non-academic writers of would-be historical blockbusters, Burstein is chiefly interested in plumbing the character of his subject, explaining Jackson's drives and tics and phantasms, while emphasizing the primary importance that Jackson placed in his own assessment of other people's characters. Like many academic writers of historical monographs, Burstein approaches his subject with what he calls, a little too proudly, "an attentive dissection of language" and an exploration of "the politics of memory." (That latter phrase is itself definitive proof that no new ground is being broken here.) Above all, Burstein proclaims, he offers a "dispassionate" reading of Jackson's correspondence, supposedly the key to Jackson's all-important inner life.
Not that Burstein is willing to defend his own interpretation as truthful, exactly. He is a firmly au courant perspectivist in the matter of historical truth. "Biography," he writes, buzzwords blazing, "is never a faithful record. It is a construction, a clandestine effort to refashion memory, to create a new tradition, or sanction yet another myth about what is past." Too many writers, caught up in their ideologies and their pretenses, Burstein says, refuse to recognize this, but he does not refuse. With a pretentious and misleading nod to Hannah Arendt, he claims that his is but "a provisional portrait of the historic Jackson," one that scrupulously eschews offering "emotional" evaluations of Jackson's greatness but simply tries to take his measure as a man across the distorting vastness of time.
In doing these allegedly modest things, Burstein displays an ignorance, a slipshod respect for facts, and a tone-deafness all his own, on matters ranging from the essentials of American political theory to the works of William Shakespeare. He also lightly carbonates commonplace interpretations regarding Jackson's inflated sense of patriarchal honor, duty, and loyalty and offers them up repeatedly as if they were discoveries. Worst of all, Burstein's relentless promotion of character, language, and memory above all else contributes to a denigration of politics and political ideas that has become common among contemporary writers of American political history, most conspicuously among best-selling biographers such as David McCullough and Edmund Morris. And in denigrating politics, Burstein reserves special condescension and condemnation for the liberal democratic politics advanced first by Thomas Jefferson and then by Andrew Jackson. Reasonable in manner, smooth in style, the book appeals to the enduring popular interest in American political leaders that university historians of the past generation, drawn to social history, have too often ignored. But Burstein's effort to fill the gap is undone by his obscure drive to write about politics while demeaning politics, thereby producing a deeply political, hostile, and unreliable gloss on early American democracy.
“The passions of Andrew Jackson," its author writes, "is not to meant to make the past `familiar' or more venerable or less venerable, but to make it tempting." What on earth is "tempting" history? Anyway, Burstein does his utmost to render Jackson not simply less venerable but positively repugnant. On page xix, he abjures "emotional" determinations of Jackson's greatness, but the rest of the book is an obsessive effort to make precisely those kinds of determinations, sometimes with Burstein wearing his heart on his sleeve. Much of this comes in the book's final chapter, a farrago of pseudo-scholarly invective that denies that Jackson was in any way a liberal democrat. Instead, Burstein asserts, Jackson was a hubristic zealot and a stone-cold killer of a kind that properly nauseates those right-thinking Americans "who identify with the world's oppressed and seek remedies for the sins of violence and covetousness."
This is basically the ancient rap against Jackson as power-mad brute, once purveyed by conservative Whigs, Southern pro-slavery hotheads, and radical abolitionists and now embraced mainly by the academic left, in works such as Rogin's or Howard Zinn's topsy-turvy "radical" history of the United States. Burstein's contribution to this recycled literature of vilification, apart from his annoying self-regard, is to link it both to his own weirdly reactionary antagonism to early American democracy and to a newer interpretation of Jackson as a lethal defender of his own reputation--the champion of an unforgiving, racist code of manly honor that governed the early Southwestern frontier.
Burstein builds his case by following the chronological narrative of Jackson's life, with the occasional stop or side trip to examine episodes and letters that he deems significant. Jackson was born in 1767 to a family of hardscrabble Ulster Irish emigrant farmers in the Waxhaw district along the piney-woods border of North Carolina and South Carolina. (To this day the two states argue over where he was actually born, although the scholarly consensus seems to favor Jackson's own belief that he was a native South Carolinian.) His father died in a farming accident the year he was born, and the rest of his immediate family was wiped out, one way or another, in patriotic service during the American Revolution. Jackson, a boy soldier and, in time, a British prisoner, nearly got wiped out too when, upon his refusal to black one of his captor's boots, the offended officer mutilated him with a sword blow to his head.
Alone in the world at the age of fourteen, Jackson eventually wandered to North Carolina, where he apprenticed at law, then moved west to Tennessee. With implacable ambition and the help of carefully cultivated connections, he rose to become one of Nashville's leading lawyers and, in time, one of its most successful slaveholding cotton magnates. In 1795, he was elected as Tennessee's first member of the House of Representatives, and two years later he advanced to the United States Senate. Six years earlier, under hazy circumstances that turned out to be legally irregular, Jackson had taken the love of his life, an abandoned wife named Rachel Donelson Robards, as his spouse.
It is a saga rich in implications about the military and political leader that Jackson would become. The Revolution, and the famous boot-blacking incident, might seem worthy of particular attention, given Jackson's bitter and undying hatred of the British empire and monarchy, as well as of all American institutions he believed tainted by privilege and "aristocracy." But Burstein passes over these matters quickly, construing them merely as early examples of the price that Jackson would pay for his "principled insolence." Burstein is much more interested in speculating about Jackson's youthful connections with the fading Catawba Indians of the Waxhaw district and how they might have shaped what he describes as Jackson's later Indian-hating. Unfortunately, there is not a shred of evidence about Jackson and the Catawbas, so this does not carry Burstein very far. Much more fruitful, it seems at first, is Burstein's investigation into Jackson's marriage, which leads him to claim that what we have been told for two centuries is false, that Andrew and Rachel were "willing adulterers" who, before they were legally married, knowingly shared a bed out of wedlock--a fact that Jackson's propagandists tried desperately and all too successfully to cover up.
The lasting significance of this discovery is a little vague. "Adultery" of the sort that Burstein describes was common on the Tennessee frontier, where (as in the rest of the country) legal divorces were hard to obtain and de facto separations or mutual abandonment could constitute socially satisfactory divorce. Burstein's discovery might help to explain Jackson's later distaste for the pious moralism of Eastern elites, North and South, as well as his patriarchal solicitousness toward women he believed had been wronged, in particular (and with considerable consequences) a young Washington woman named Margaret Eaton. But the real problem, as Burstein's own footnotes and appendix show, is that his discovery about the circumstances of the Jacksons' marriage is really no discovery at all, as he finally gets around to admitting. Based on virtually the same evidence, Robert V. Remini, Jackson's greatest living biographer (whom Burstein disdains as a hagiographer), offered, more guardedly and as one of several possibilities, more or less the same interpretation of Jackson's supposed "adultery" that Burstein now hypes as a dramatic reversal of the conventional wisdom.
Here is the extent of Burstein's scholarship on the Jacksons' marriage: the corrected dating, made three years after Remini published his account, of a letter previously believed to have been written in 1794 but actually written in 1791, which now makes the so-called "adultery" scenario more probable. Remini could not possibly have known about the misdating when he wrote his version in 1977. Burstein is merely the beneficiary of a correction made in 1980 by the editors of The Papers of Andrew Jackson. And even then Burstein's claim remains only an informed hypothesis of which the larger significance is wispy at best.
At the nation’s capital in Philadelphia in 1795, Congressman Jackson quickly fell in with the Jeffersonian opposition, denounced the Jay Treaty as too soft on Britain, and played a minor role in paving the way for Thomas Jefferson's election as president in 1800-1801. Jackson struck some of his fellow congressmen as a Western oddity. (The Jeffersonian leader Albert Gallatin described him as "a tall, lank, uncouth-looking personage," his long hair bunched in "a queue down his back tied with an eel skin.") Jackson, for his part, found the national political stage frustrating, and he returned home in 1798 to assume a judgeship, tend to his properties, and pursue what he had determined was his true vocation, a career in the military.
Jackson would get his first military commission, as commander of the Tennessee militia, in 1802, but new adversities had begun plaguing him on several fronts even before he left Congress. In 1795, he had endorsed a promissory note from a Philadelphia speculator who went broke, thereby ruining Jackson's own finances for several years and leaving him with a permanent distrust of credit, financial paper, and banks. Back on his feet by 1806, Jackson then found himself embroiled in a complicated running feud with a local lawyer named Charles Dickinson that began with Dickinson making improper remarks about Rachel Jackson and ended with Jackson shooting him dead in a duel. Since Jackson, having already taken a bullet in the chest, was allowed to re-cock his pistol after it misfired, charges of dishonor clouded his reputation.
Worse, once Jackson's wounds had healed, he resumed his entanglement with the wandering adventurer Aaron Burr, and with Burr's scheme (not wholly explained to this day) to create a breakaway empire in the West. To his horror, Jackson eventually learned that some of Burr's confederates were plotting treason against the United States. Embarrassed, he returned to his new estate, the Hermitage, purchased additional land and slaves, gambled on his gamecocks and racehorses, lavishly entertained his friends and political contacts, and endlessly quarreled with his detractors, at times with pistols drawn--a self-made Southern gentleman, restlessly awaiting a war.
When a war finally came in 1812, it was against Jackson's mightiest enemy, the British, along with the major fifth column in the Southern theater, a faction of rebellious Muskogee Indians (called "Creeks" by the Americans) of the upper Alabama region. As major general of Tennessee's U.S. volunteers, Jackson conducted a brutal two-year campaign against the Creeks, ending in a crushing triumph at the battle of Horseshoe Bend in which the entire Creek nation submitted to Jackson's authority. Jackson won his longed-for prize, a commission as major general in the U.S. Army. And then Jackson turned his fury against the foe that had scarred him for life thirty years earlier. With questionable authority, he overcame a combined force of British, Spanish, and Indian soldiers at Pensacola in Spanish Florida. Then came his--and his country's--greatest military feat of the entire war, the lopsided victory over a huge British invasion force outside New Orleans on January 8, 1815. Unbeknownst to Jackson or his opponents, a treaty of peace had been signed in faraway Ghent two weeks before the climactic battle. But Jackson's stunning success deprived the British of the use of New Orleans and the lower Mississippi Valley as bargaining chips in any future negotiations. It created the impression that a war that actually concluded in a stalemate was a smashing American victory. And it turned Andrew Jackson into a national idol, the greatest American military hero since George Washington.
Burstein’s interpretations of Jackson's middle years are sometimes strained and mainly banal. Most of the events and the experiences that might have led him to consider Jackson's evolving political ideas--Jackson's years in Congress, the effects of his personal financial difficulties, the sectional and party debates that swirled around the War of 1812--get short shrift. (This is not completely lamentable, as Burstein's recitation of the period's basic political facts is sometimes questionable. For example, Burstein describes the New England Federalists' protest Hartford Convention in 1814, a set piece in our political history, as a hotbed of secessionist plotting, when it was actually a moderate-controlled effort to forestall secession.) Gallatin's visual impression of young Congressman Jackson turns up earlier in the book as a prelude to a fanciful discussion of Jackson's "savage" Indian-like qualities in the eyes of others--qualities, Burstein surmises, that propelled Jackson's rage to prove that he was anything but an Indian. Burstein's encounters with politics inevitably dissolve into speculations about cultural symbols and inner conflicts.
Mainly, however, Burstein sticks closely to his preferred topics: Jackson's duels, his vengeful war with the Creeks, his confusion over character and trust in the Burr affair, his craving for military honor and glory that carried him to national renown at New Orleans. Some of this makes for vivid reading, especially the description (borrowed from the account by James Parton, Jackson's greatest nineteenth-century biographer) of the feud with Dickinson. But a lot of it is just a fancy sort of innuendo--such as Burstein's suggestion that Jackson deserved less credit than he received for the New Orleans victory, and that his young protégé General William Carroll, who commanded the Tennessee and Kentucky riflemen on the left side of Jackson's line, deserved more credit--but the vain and ambitious Jackson hogged the laurels for himself. This, even though Jackson, Carroll's superior officer, oversaw the entire American effort, and even though no evidence exists that Carroll felt slighted.
Burstein does look into some crannies of Jackson's correspondence that previous scholars have ignored, and he proffers his own view of the maddeningly elusive Burr Conspiracy; but mostly the revisionist Burstein re-affirms what previous scholars have said about Jackson's attachment to the rough-and-tumble code of Southern frontier honor. It is deflating to be reminded that, in Burstein's words, Jackson's "controversies over honor" show "the importance of symbols, and of gesture, in defining manhood," as if this were some thrilling new notion. And it is wearisome--given the previous extended discussions of the matter by such prominent scholars as William Freehling, Kenneth Greenberg, Charles Sellers, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, and of course Remini--to learn all over again that Jackson was "a man with ironclad principles, a man easily angered, a man who held back little," a "calculating" man who "was not very self-reflective," a man given to "the advocacy of violence to settle personal disputes," a "nostalgic, fatalistic, chaste, and generous" man, shaped by the rigors and the mores of the Southern slave-holding frontier.
Virtually all of this has been said before, much of it very long ago. In 1860, the biographer Parton described Jackson as someone who possessed certain Scots-Irish traits "to an exaggerated degree"--"honest yet capable of dissimulation … at home and among dependents, all tenderness and generosity: to opponents, violent, ungenerous, prone to believe the very worst of them … not taking kindly to culture, but able to achieve wonderful things without it." Burstein notes Parton's portrait and dismisses it out of hand for its Victorian racial stereotyping--but how similar the two writers' descriptions actually are. Substitute Southwestern culture for Scots-Irishness as the matrix of character and Burstein's Jackson is virtually identical to Parton's Jackson. There are some sociological improvements in Burstein's account, nearly a century and a half later--no more ethnic labeling, please!--but as a description of "the passions of Andrew Jackson," the improvements are microscopic.
In covering the last phase of Jackson's life--from his troubled post-war military command through his tempestuous presidency and retirement--politics becomes unavoidable. It is here that Burstein's book falls to pieces and becomes a cautionary example, both as a work of interpretation and as a piece of scholarship. And it is here that Burstein's contempt for Jackson and for early American democracy bursts fully into view.
Continued attacks on the Georgia frontier by Seminole Indians and runaway slaves based in Florida led to Jackson's return to active military service in December 1817. In a campaign that produced an international uproar, he took his troops in Spanish Florida, captured St. Marks and Pensacola, and executed two British subjects. Abandoned by President Monroe and (secretly) by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, Jackson might well have been reprimanded but for the intercession of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who persuaded Monroe that Jackson's actions had been justified and then utilized the incident to secure the cession of the Floridas by Spain to the United States. After resigning his commission in 1821, Jackson returned to politics, winning a Senate seat in 1823 and finding himself, a year later, touted as a presidential candidate. With the nation torn economically by the lingering effects of the disastrous Panic of 1819 and sectionally by the debates that led to the Missouri Compromise, Jackson caught on as a candidate of popular reform who would not betray Southern interests.
In a four-man race, Jackson ran well ahead of his closest rival, John Quincy Adams, both in the popular vote and in the electoral college--but because he failed to win an electoral majority, the decision was given to the House of Representatives. The least successful candidate, Henry Clay of Kentucky, threw his support to Adams; and Adams won the House majority and immediately named Clay as his secretary of state. Jackson concluded that a corrupt bargain had thwarted the majority's will and robbed him of the presidency. For the next four years, Jackson and his supporters plotted their revenge. In 1828, after a vitriolic, mud-splattered campaign, Jackson ousted Adams in a landslide. Determined to prevent any future corrupt bargains, he took office with a pledge to purge the national government of encrusted privilege. But he did so in deep mourning, for shortly after the election Rachel Jackson suddenly died, broken (or so Jackson believed) by a scurrilous pro-Adams propaganda campaign, coordinated by Henry Clay, which had slandered her as vulgar and immoral.
Jackson's eight-year presidency got off to a rocky start with the infamous Margaret Eaton affair, in which the matrons of Washington's salon society, led by Floride Calhoun, the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, snubbed Mrs. Eaton, newly wed to Jackson's secretary of war, as a low woman of suspicious reputation. Jackson, still grieving for Rachel, instinctively and then fanatically championed Mrs. Eaton as the parlor scandal polarized and nearly consumed his administration. It took a full-scale Cabinet shake-up to dispel what Jackson's confidant Martin Van Buren called "the Eaton malaria" and to allow the president to pursue his reform agenda undistracted.
Early in his tenure, Jackson contemplated numerous improvement schemes, ranging from a constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral college and to elect presidents by simple majority vote (an idea that got nowhere) to the regular rotation of executive branch officers (a plan that Jackson implemented and that garnered praise from the likes of Jeremy Bentham). But in the toils of politics, three matters came to dominate Jackson's presidency: the comprehensive federal removal of the remaining Eastern Indians westward across the Mississippi; the defeat of South Carolina's radical anti-tariff nullification movement led by the fractious Calhoun; and the destruction of the Second Bank of the United States.
Bustein’s psycho-cultural approach works best in analyzing the Eaton affair, though he adds little of consequence to earlier interpretations of it. Here was a drama that fully engaged Jackson's manly, protective passions, pitting a common but (in Jackson's view) blameless woman against a phalanx of censorious, privileged snobs and their priggish supporters. That the affair provoked such bitter divisions within Jackson's government, while exposing what William Freehling has called "the gulf in sexual morals between Charleston and Nashville," exemplifies how in Jackson's time, no less than in our own, the personal became the political. But the rest of Jackson's presidency confounds such analysis. It is perfectly true that Jackson tended to personalize his political conflicts, identifying individual enemies as the demi-urges behind evil policies, institutions, or ideas. Parton put it well in 1860: "He hated the whig party much, but Henry Clay more; nullification much, but Calhoun more; the bank much, but Biddle more." Yet those conflicts also involved ideas, institutions, and interests--that is, politics, which Burstein takes pains to suppress.
On Indian removal, the greatest stain on Jackson's presidency, Burstein follows Rogin. By this view, bluntly, Jackson was an Indian hater and a vengeful destroyer of Indian culture. Deeply offended that, as an unschooled frontiersman, he found himself likened to the lordly savages of the forest, Jackson did his utmost to distinguish himself from the Indians--and then became fixated on achieving their utter subjugation. "Before he became president," Burstein writes, "Jackson was consistently dismissive of the federal government for its weak-willed accommodations with the Indians. He preferred dictating terms or carrying out what can only be called primitive aggression in asserting whites' power over the Indian nations." His policies as president brought the cataclysmic fulfillment of Jackson's racist fury.
One need not be an apologist for Jackson to see that this is a foul caricature. As Burstein elsewhere acknowledges, Jackson's denigration of the Indians became more patriarchal than genocidal. In pushing the Indians westward against their will, Jackson truly believed that he was helping to preserve them, not to destroy them--a destruction that would be absolutely certain were the Indians simply left in place, subject to the tender mercies of landhungry whites and antagonistic state governments. Above all, Jackson's policies were rooted in politics as well as in passion. Since Jefferson's time, Jackson observed, federal Indian policy had been based on a cynical piecemeal strategy that held out the false promise of Indian assimilation but was actually geared to expropriating their lands. This "farce of treating with Indian tribes," as Jackson called it, served nobody's interests, while it created a potentially dangerous political anomaly of autonomous tribal governments existing within the boundaries of individual states. Jackson undertook a comprehensive federal solution to a problem with no easy remedy, one that previous presidents either had tried deviously to finesse or had cravenly ignored.
Politics also shaped the shameful, murderous dénouement of Jackson's policy. As soon as Jackson announced his removal plans, his political opponents--including the heretofore ardent Indian-hater Henry Clay--tried to turn them into a partisan issue, which only led Jackson to dig in his heels and dismiss all criticism, including sincerely humanitarian criticism, as politically motivated. In implementing removal, moreover, Jackson tried to do so on the cheap, in line with his larger effort to reduce federal spending. This only compounded the suffering of the Cherokees, the Choctaws, and the Creeks on their westward trek. Ironically, between the costs of making treaties and sending federal troops to enforce them, the policy ended up spiking federal expenditures in Jackson's final year in office to twice what they had been in his predecessor's final year. But the greater irony was that, in his quest to spare the Indians from annihilation, Jackson set in motion the destruction of thousands of them through deprivation, dislocation, and death. The result is no less horrifying than the one that Burstein describes, nor any less of a blot on Jackson's presidency. But by ignoring the politics of Indian removal, Burstein suppresses the underlying tragedy of this history in favor of a lurid racial melodrama.
Burstein calls Jackson’s handling of the nullification crisis "arguably the noblest action [he] took over the course of his two terms," and it is hard to disagree. Persuaded, wrongly, that federal tariff rates were to blame for falling cotton prices, South Carolina's political leaders--the most coherent pro-slavery, anti-democratic ruling class in the nation--rose up in defiance in 1832. Under the doctrine of nullification, as refined and advanced by Calhoun four years earlier, the rebels met in a special state convention that declared the existing tariff null and void within their state's borders, and vowed secession should the federal government intervene. Jackson exploded, made his own military preparations, and issued a stinging proclamation in December 1832 that eviscerated the nullification idea as treasonous. Three months later, having failed to rouse sufficient support from their slave-holding neighbors, the nullifiers backed down. Their defeat forever ended Calhoun's dreams of becoming president, while vindicating Jacksonian democratic nationalist convictions that, three decades later, greatly fortified Abraham Lincoln during the secession winter of 1860-61.
Burstein cannot help but acknowledge that Jackson acted in this crisis "out of devotion to a principle that was larger than any man"--the principle that the United States was an inviolable nation and a bastion of popular government. Yet, having said so little about Jackson's ideas, Burstein leaves the details of Jackson's political and constitutional thinking, and how he came to acquire it, singularly vague. Instead he emphasizes Jackson's personal confrontation with Calhoun, a man whom Jackson had come to loathe as a dishonorable backstabber. Once again we are on the dueling ground, with the vehement Jackson giving his foe no quarter, in a personal war for mastery that could only end in Calhoun's political destruction. As for the democratic nationalism enunciated in Jackson's stirring proclamation--the greatest exercise in constitutional reasoning by any president from Jefferson to Lincoln--Burstein assigns the actual credit, beyond the crudest formulations, to Jackson's "favorite speechwriter," Secretary of State Edward Livingston, who, he asserts, was the document's actual author.
This account is badly skewed, factually and analytically. Although Jackson sought out others to write the nullification proclamation, as he did with all of his state papers (Livingston, this time around, was actually his second choice), Jackson participated fully at every step in its preparation, firing off long memos about his constitutional ideas, rejecting a draft by Livingston that he regarded as insufficiently forceful, and inserting chunks of his own rhetoric. Only when he was absolutely satisfied that the proclamation embodied his own thinking did Jackson permit its publication. This is how virtually every American president since Washington has operated. To deny Jackson's authorship is not simply unfair; it is to minimize the importance of Jackson's own ideas. But that, of course, is Burstein's aim, in keeping with his unremitting emphasis on passions over politics. Late in life Jackson did reportedly remark that his main regret in the nullification crisis was his failure to have ordered Calhoun executed for treason. But even this regret was political and not merely personal, and Burstein barely explains why.
Burstein is even worse on the Bank War. Under Nicholas Biddle, he writes confidently, "the Bank of the United States was perfectly well-managed." Thanks to Biddle's expertise, the Bank not only checked irresponsible state bankers, it "contribute[d] to the democratization of American society by extending credit to the yeomanry of the country." Jackson understood none of this. He could see the Bank only as a sinister force, a symbol of manipulation and elite conspiracy made all the more hateful because it had the backing of Clay, the "corrupt" bargainer and campaign traducer of his late wife. And so Jackson set out to destroy Biddle's bank utterly, just as he had destroyed Charles Dickinson and the Creek Indians and the British army at New Orleans. "His combined ignorance and excitement," Burstein writes, "led to a personal war against the bank's recharter and the removal of the federal deposits: `Divorce the government from the banks,' as Jackson often put it." And by smashing the benevolent Bank to pieces, Burstein writes, Jackson paved the way for the Panic of 1837 and a four-year economic depression.
As anti-Jackson polemic, this is the match of anything spoken or written by Biddle's hired publicists, let alone the various great congressional orators, including Daniel Webster, whom Biddle also had on his payroll. As history, it is ludicrous. Biddle did a creative and credible job of restraining the state banks, but his autocratic management of the Bank was anything but perfect. Although required, by the Bank's charter, to govern with a board of directors, including some directors appointed by the White House, Biddle would have none of it, heeding no counsel but his own and running roughshod over any speck of opposition. ("We are perfect ciphers," wrote one Bank director, Henry D. Gilpin, who later defected to the Jacksonians.) When pressed, Biddle haughtily denied that he was accountable in any way either to the federal government or to the public whose money he held--only to his stockholders. In extending credit, Biddle was far less partial to the nation's yeomanry than he was to its established men of commerce and business, whose prosperity, he assumed, would eventually trickle down to less favored citizens. (He showed even more partiality to his political placemen, like Webster.) And when Jackson finally challenged his vast independent powers, Biddle's concern for the commonweal led him to inflict as much damage as he could on the economy in order to get his way.
Neither would one guess how and why a vast number of Americans, and not just Andrew Jackson, reasonably saw the Bank of the United States as an undemocratic enormity with potentially disastrous powers. That potential had been amply displayed in 1819, when, under management that combined incompetence with larceny, the Bank helped to unleash a speculative mania that led to the first great crash and depression in American history. Biddle was a much better banker--but his unreformed national bank, with its virtually total control over the nation's currency and credit, remained a menace. It was not Jackson, nor any of his followers, but the redoubtable capitalist Nathan Appleton who explained, in the Bank War's aftermath, that "a great central power, independent of the general or state governments, is an anomaly in our system. Such a power over the currency is the most tremendous which can be established. Without the assurance that it will be managed by men, free from the common imperfections of human nature, we are safer without it."
Nor, finally, would anyone guess from Burstein's book that an alternative set of economic ideas, and not just blind prejudice, informed the attack on the Bank. Those ideas, which Jackson endorsed and which were associated with the so-called Loco Foco radical democracy, held that specie was the only sound form of currency, and that the government's money ought not to be placed on deposit with an all-powerful chartered private institution. Following the Panic of 1837--which, pace Burstein, few historians now blame solely or even chiefly on Jackson's banking policies--those ideas became the basis for the creation of a new federal depository, called the Independent Treasury, in place of the deposed Bank of the United States. By modern standards, these hard-money ideas were crude in their analyses of commercial booms and busts--although it is perhaps worth noting that under the independent treasury system the United States enjoyed its most sustained period of economic prosperity in the entire nineteenth century. What is ridiculous is Burstein's contention that the Bank War was driven by nothing more elevated than the inflamed and ignorant passions of Andrew Jackson.
When Jackson left office in 1837, and again at his death in 1845, his celebrators compared him to Washington and Jefferson. Burstein, as ever drawn more to culture than to politics, thinks of him more as a grand Shakespearean character. Such comparisons were also common among Jackson's bitterest enemies in the 1830s, who most often likened him to the scheming, insecure, homicidal Richard III. Burstein has a different conceit. Of all the characters in Shakespeare, he claims, Jackson most closely resembled Coriolanus, the tragic Roman consul "who resisted any law but his own and fought his enemies with moral fury." The comparison is absurd. As Burstein himself admits, the patrician Coriolanus's downfall was his detestation of the common people (and theirs of him) as well as of the arts of republican politics. "You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate/As reeks o' the rotten fens, whose loves I prize/As the dead carcasses of unburied men/That do corrupt my air": Coriolanus's signature speech is the furthest thing from a precursor of Jacksonian democracy.
In his final chapter, Burstein charges that Jackson was a thoroughly meretricious man, neither a liberal nor a democrat but a demagogue, with no understanding of the common good. He had no concept of social justice, only a violent drive to re-affirm his own impulses and to justify his own life experience. His democracy was a sham, since it tolerated Indian removal, black enslavement, and the second-class citizenship of white women. Even Jackson's friendships were fraudulent, as he lacked any ability to compromise. A self-serving political alchemist, filled with extraordinary rage and an unquenchable taste for revenge, he had no respect for the rule of law, except for the laws he made himself. About the best that Burstein can say about Jackson, other than a grudging allowance that he tried to hold the nation together, is that his political foes Clay and Calhoun were not necessarily any better.
All of which raises a question: why is Andrew Burstein so outraged--so, well, impassioned? One reason seems to be that he is more of a moralist than a historian, someone who would rather imprison and then judge the past on the basis of his own fixed categories of righteousness than comprehend imperfection and contradiction. What appear to be the familiar academic leftist formulas that run throughout his judgments--Jackson was a slaveholder, Jackson was no feminist, Jackson killed Indians, therefore Jackson was no democrat--are actually less a mark of political commitment than of an abandonment of history in favor of a settled rectitude. Perhaps the only Americans of Jackson's time of whom Burstein might approve would be the radical Garrisonian abolitionists--moral absolutists who, for all their admirable courage and universalism and eventual impact on American politics, were constitutionally allergic to democracy. Yet the Garrisonians represented a tiny handful of the American people. If the rest of the citizenry put its political faith in such a depraved, backward-looking fraud as Burstein's Jackson, it is a wonder that anything ever changed for the better--and yet things did change for the better, in large measure as a consequence of the Jacksonian turn in American democracy.
Near the end of the book, Burstein lays bare his scorn in an astonishing and condescending paragraph that stunningly clarifies why his book says so little about politics. "Students of political history," he proclaims, "too often refashion the republic in rational terms, giving undue weight to grand prescriptions." This, he says, is a "highly ideological perspective and a gross misreading of the past," one that makes men like Jackson look as if they held tangible goals or authentic ideas that were worthy of respect: "the political pronouncements of this unlettered man were no more rooted in rational prescriptions for government than his adherence to the culture of the duel was a rational means to preserve `honor.'" In short, there were no political ideas, no politics really in Jackson's America, at least among the unlettered. There were only cultural systems, theaters of power, public gestures, and various forms of stagecraft. And in the case of Andrew Jackson, there was only irrational appetite, resentment, and bombast, all channeled into a ferocious will to power.
Such an analysis is fully in line with the bargain-basement Nietzsche and Foucault, admixed with earnest American do-goodism, that still passes for "theory" in much of the American academy. It is also in line with the fashionable "pragmatist" dismissal of historical truth. These anti-Enlightenment, anti-rationalist vapors are so pervasive that Burstein may not even realize their presence in his work; but the stench is unmistakable. His book is not a prescription for a new and improved political history, let alone for a new and improved understanding of Andrew Jackson. It is a prescription for the abolition of political history, and for the folding away of its remnants into a retrospective branch of cultural anthropology. And it encourages a deeply reactionary and anti-democratic reading of American history.
In his assessment of the America that elected Jackson and heroized him, Burstein arrives at precisely the point where the left and the right have long converged in their supercilious contempt for ordinary Americans. Relying heavily on some of the more skeptical American impressions of Tocqueville and Michel Chevalier, and even more on the writings of the eccentric, industrious hack Frances Trollope, Burstein paints a dreary panorama of a Jacksonian America populated by coarse, money-grubbing dullards who were inspired only by the pursuit of lucre and flattery. No two Americans, Mrs. Trollope sniffed, ever carried on a conversation "without the word DOLLAR being pronounced between them," thereby displaying a unity of feeling and purpose "found nowhere else, except, perhaps, in an ants' nest." Burstein assents: the great American people (hah!), mindless as insects, wanted nothing more than to enrich themselves, impervious to the finer things--and forever open to manipulation by cunning political frauds who could mobilize their envy of anybody who had more than they did, who spoke better than they did, who thought they knew better than they did. "Their enemy," Burstein writes, "was whatever stood in the way of their living well--or, whatever they were convinced preyed on them, tyrantlike." And their avatar, as well as their master manipulator, was Andrew Jackson.
To deny the irrational and demagogic strain in American democracy, and the people's capacity for collective stupidity, flies in the face of all experience. It was precisely out of a recognition of these possibilities that Jackson's beloved federal Constitution was framed as it was in 1787. But to equate the democracy that emerged thereafter with demagogy, to demean ordinary people's desires to improve their material lives as boorish, crass, and destructive of all intellection, to rely on the likes of Frances Trollope as a reliable commentator on the substance of Jacksonian America, is even more foolish. It is to descend into the eternal complaint of both the pseudo-aristocrat and the frustrated leftist, that the masses are dolts incapable of enlightened self-rule, in need of either heavy restraint by their wise and virtuous betters or the vanguard instruction by the self-appointed bearers of a new and better world.
Burstein's deeply depressing book reads a lot like the degraded reporting and commentary on the politics of our own day, bored by ideas, too zippy to linger over policy, obsessed with character and the assassination of it. The same qualities have turned up in popular as well as academic histories of American politics, above all in a spate of new books that have either demoted Jefferson and Jackson, elevated their conservative foes, or both. Conor Cruise O'Brien's harangue against Jefferson as the spiritual forerunner of Pol Pot and Timothy McVeigh is the most outrageous of these books, but there have been many more, including David McCullough's valentine to John Adams, Joseph Ellis's more refined castigation of the "sphinx"-like Jefferson, and Richard Brookhiser's paean to Alexander Hamilton. (It was not surprising to see Brookhiser praise Burstein's book in The New York Times as a "challenging case study of the democratic system.")
Although written in various styles and from different perspectives, these books share a great deal: a preoccupation with personality and the private life, a tendency to draw strained conclusions from personal correspondence, a regurgitation of ancient sex scandals, and an impatience with the contradictions and manipulations that are the mark of most successful political leaders. Leftist and liberal social historians have sometimes been fairly accused of going overboard in their sentimental affection for history's downtrodden losers at the expense of its winners. But these books offer something else: a literature, not lacking in its own sentimentalism, on behalf of the conservative, anti-democratic losers of early American politics, at the expense of the democratic winners.
It would be much too simple to ascribe this losers' literature to some conservative, anti-democratic revival in historical writing. No doubt most of these authors (except for the amateur Brookhiser) would never describe themselves as conservative or antidemocratic. What it can be ascribed to, however, is a hostility to politics and a systematic effort to elevate certain character traits of which a particular author approves into the main standard, or even the sole standard, on which to judge political leaders. It was not always so: Henry Adams showed that it once was possible to write history critical of democracy that, if debatable and at times tendentious, was at least rooted in the political thoughts and deeds of his subjects. Now, though, for the conservative apologists and the besmirchers of democracy, the so-called "character issue" has become all, much as it was at the dawn of democratic politics--and much as it has become for the Washington press corps, with its weakness for reducing politics to cheap gossip and therapeutic cliché. All this interest in character sorely lacks character. But the character-mongers, the connoisseurs of the interior and the unknowable, the remorseless hounds of psycho-pathology, are everywhere, and they are gaining ground, among historians and journalists and pundits. Andrew Burstein's hatchet job on Andrew Jackson is the latest evidence of their ascendancy. And the big losers are Americans who seek and deserve a sound and complicated understanding of American politics.
This article originally ran in the April 7, 2003, issue of the magazine.