Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Life of Andrew Jackson by Marquis James

The Life of Andrew Jackson
By Marquis James
copyright 1938
Pulitzer Prize Winner, 1938

I acquired a copy of this book on ebay for just $6.00 and despite the fact that it is a first edition that is 70 years old, the dust jacket is still intact!

Despite the fact that it is dated, it still remains one of the most (if not the most) scholarly examination of the life of the man who invented "retail politics" and the modern presidential campaign.

The book is an amalgamation of two volumes -- Andrew Jackson: Border Captain and Andrew Jackson: Portrait of a President. They won the Pulitzer when they were published as one volume in 1938.

The first volume details Jackson's childhood and early career as a lawyer. Like most politicians, Jackson's law practice suffered because of his obsession of politics. He was firm but fair and not averse to a fist fight after the case was resolved.

As a soldier, his career was spectacular. His victory at New Orleans, which was actually fought after the Treaty of Ghent was signed, was a classic example of soldiers, inspired by their leader, to rise up against adverse conditions to achieve a mission. Jackson and his troops spent their time in New Orleans in swamps and marshes, attacked by the British and their allies, the mosquitoes. It was at New Orleans that Jackson achieved his fame.

He started his military career at just 13 as a courier during the American Revolution. He was captured and held as a prisoner of war where a British officer slashed him with a sword, giving him an ugly scar along the right side of his face. That, and the privations of war visited upon his family during the war led him to a lifetime of hatred of the British.

He would earn some short term anger from the Washington political establishment by seizing Florida during the Seminole War. His charge from President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was to prevent the escape of runaway slaves to Spanish Florida. Jackson's solution was to seize the entire territory by taking its capital, Pensacola. He executed to British subjects for spying and destroyed many Seminole villages. He justified his actions by producing evidence that the British were using Florida to encourage Seminole attacks on the United States. Adams used the victory to acquire Florida and achieve a major diplomatic victory.

A native of North Carolina, Jackson moved west as a young man and settled in Sumner County Tennessee where he had a great deal of success in planting. He was a slave owner. But, despite his support of the South's "Peculiar Institution", he was well loved by his slaves. We was also an avid horse breeder and racer. He would later fight a duel (one of several he would fight) over a debt owed on a race, although the honor of his wife was also at stake.

James chronicles in great detail, the relationship and controversial marriage to Rachel Donnelson Robards Jackson. Rachel had married her first husband when she was just 17. He was an insanely jealous man. Whilst she was separated, but not yet divorced from Captain Robards, she met Andrew Jackson. Having been informed that her husband had obtained the divorce, she married Jackson. It was later determined that the divorce had not yet been finalized. The controversy would haunt Jackson long after Rachel's death.

James provides a rich narrative of the early life of this influential statesman in his first volume. James belies the commonly held belief that Jackson was a hot head giving to shooting first and asking questions later. In fact, he was a calm, rational man who only drew sword or gun when his wife's honor was at stake. He encouraged subordinates to provide advice, brooked dissention and was willing to admit when he made mistakes. These personality traits explain his rise and success in national politics.

We also learn that Old Hickory was prone to respiratory infections his entire life. These infections (probably bronchitis) troubled him horribly during his presidency.

He served as solicitor general for the Tennessee territory and was elected the first U.S. Rep for the State of Tennessee. He served just one term. He also served a partial term in the U.S. Senate. It was his military prowess and the desire of the emerging Democratic Party to seize power from the Federalists as the "Era of Good Feelings" was coming to an end.

Jackson's nomination as the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1824 was hard fought. The Tennessee delegation nominated him. However, Secretary of the Treasury, William Crawford, who was an exceptionally popular national figure, but had been debilitated by a stroke. However, Jackson would prevail in the vote and was joined on the ticket by Pennsylvania senator, Albert Gallatin.

Tradition in the 18th and early 19th century was an automatic procession of the Secretary of State to the presidency and James Monroe was determined to see Adams -- the architect of the Monroe Doctrine -- ascend to the presidency. House Speaker, Henry Clay, also threw his hat into the ring. The result was a three way split of the vote. Clay and Jackson split the southern and western vote and John Quincy Adams secured the New England vote. Although Jackson had received a plurality of the vote, no one received the necessary Electoral College votes. With the election sent to the House, Adams prevailed.

The John Quincy Adams presidency was an unmitigated disaster and the Democrats were eager to seize upon his failures to take the presidency in 1828. Jackson easily won the Democratic nomination and selected John C. Calhoun as his running mate. The campaign between Jackson and Adams was brutal by even modern standards. Jackson's campaign attacked Adams as a dreamy visionary for his "Lighthouses of the Sky" proposal to construct observatories and make other federal investments in the intellectual infrastructure of the United States. The Adams camp called Jackson a "warmonger" and carried out vicious attacks on Jackson's marriage. Jackson and the Democrats ultimately prevailed and a whole new era of American politics was ushered in.

Just a month after the election, Rachel Jackson died. Jackson attributed her death to the stress of the campaign and the withering attacks of the Adams campaign. He never forgave Adams or his subordinates. She was buried on Christmas Eve in the inaugural gown she never got to wear.

Jackson's presidency is formative for a number of reasons. First, he exerted executive leadership like no president before him. While other presidents had moments of strong leadership, Jackson entered the office determined to lead the country with his principles. His first battle was over the recharter of the Second Bank of the United States.

His adversary in this battle was Nicholas Biddle, the Chairman of the Bank. In Biddle, Jackson had an adversary who was coarse, nasty, and politically inept. However, the stakes were high and Biddle's allies many. Jackson portrayed the bank as a tool of the wealthy who restricted economic growth by control of the money supply it lent to state banks. The battle went on for months and the Bank prevailed in Congress. However, Jackson's famous "pocket veto" killed the bank. Without a central banking authority, new banks sprang up overnight, land speculators in the west got rich with the flood of currency in the form of bank notes. Unfortunately, these notes were not backed by specie.

Jackson's second major battle was over the doctrine of nullification, introduced by vice president John Calhoun. Calhoun stated that, if a state did not agree with a federal law or regulation, it could nullify it by vote of the state legislature. Calhoun and other southerners were angry over new tariffs on imported goods they felt hurt southern farmers' efforts to export their wares while favoring the industrial northern states. Prior to the Civil War, this was the greatest constitutional crisis the country had ever experienced. Jackson threatened to send troops to South Carolina to enforce the tariff. With tensions running high, "The Great Compromiser" Henry Clay, was able to negotiate lower tariffs and head off the sectional crisis.

Jackson's personal life in the White House was miserable. He missed his wife terribly. Social events at the White House were often tense. This was due to the presence of Secretary of War, John Eaton and his wife, Margaret. Margaret Eaton was a DC socialite whose first husband had committed suicide. She was brash, flirtatious, and outspoken. She was shunned by other cabinet wives. The Eaton's relationship with other cabinet members actually grew into a crisis as Jackson began to interpret the cabinet's snub of the Eatons as a snub of himself. Dysfunction reigned in the Jackson cabinet through much of his presidency, primarily because of the unorthodox behavior of the wives of one of its less important members.

Jackson also suffered from debilitating illnesses while in the White House and, on occasion, appeared to be near death with various respiratory ailments. He survived two assassination attempts. While he led with great strength and character, he came to loath the presidency and longed to return to his Tennessee mansion.

Jackson was, by all measures, a successful president. James is quick to give much of the credit for Jackson's political success to Martin Van Buren. Van Buren served in the cabinet and later as vice president. "The Little Magician" was a masterful politician who had survived and won various political battles in the always tumultuous New York. Van Buren's loyalty and political acumen earned him Jackson's unwavering support for the Presidency in 1836.

Jackson was the architect of the modern Democratic Party. He was the first to appeal to the "common man" for his support. He was the first to speak directly to the electorate about issues that affected their lives. His policies were developed not with the business of America in mind, but the lives of common people. The merits of such an approach can be debated (the banking crisis of 1837 was the deepest depression this nation has ever faced, brought about by Jackson's monetary policy), but its success can not. Jackson was a successful president by any measure.

I would recommend James' book over the highly touted The Age of Jackson by the venerated presidential historian, Arthur Schlesinger. James' book is a detailed recounting of the entire life of this important American statesman.

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