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A New Look at Old Hickory: Andrew Jackson biography reveals how first populist president changed the way the nation elects its leaders

The nickname “Old Hickory” has stayed with him, but in 19th century America, Andrew Jackson was commonly known as simply, “The Hero.”

The United States’ seventh president and the first “everyman” to be elected to our highest office, Jackson was early America’s most vocal champion of democracy. His legacy can be seen every day in contemporary politics—when candidates roll up their sleeves and don hard hats to demonstrate that they are regular folks, when America’s foreign policy heralds the spread of democracy across the planet.

H.W. Brands
H.W. Brands

Yet apart from his well-coifed appearance on our $20 bill, most Americans know little about Jackson today. The odd discrepancy between Jackson’s reputation during his own time and his current reputation piqued the curiosity of Dr. H.W. Brands, a writer and professor in the Department of History at The University of Texas at Austin.

“During the 19th century, Jackson was considered to be the most important president of his time,” Brands says. “He was really the towering figure of public life from 1815 almost up to the Civil War. The fundamental question I wanted to answer was why Jackson was so important in his day.”

Brands does just that in his recently published biography, “Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times.” The first comprehensive biography of Jackson in decades, it’s been enthusiastically reviewed and jumped quickly onto the bestseller lists. It’s Brands’s 20th book, and as always, he tells sweeping stories with an attention to detail and engaging narration.

In “Andrew Jackson,” Brands takes the reader back to a time when democracy was new and the fate of the country was generally seen to be in question, a time contemporary Americans may have a hard time imagining.

“The whole American political experiment was very tenuous during Jackson’s era,” Brands says, “and that’s something that’s very difficult for our generation to recapture because we know that the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world and has been for 100 years. It’s very easy to read back in history and assume that this outcome was inevitable.”

His entire life, Jackson had known only struggle. He struggled against poverty as a child, against authority as a youth, against the British and Spanish and Indians as a soldier, against the enemies of popular rule as an elected official. His struggles defined him.  --H.W. Brands, Andrew Jackson: His Life and TimesIn fact, the future of the United States was up for grabs in the early 19th century. Battles with the British had stretched on for decades. The West was the scene of massacres and bloodshed. States in both the north and the south talked of seceding from the union. Violence was a part of everyday life.

It was out of this time that Jackson emerged as a hero and leader. In Brands’ engaging portrait, readers meet a Jackson whose life defines the term “hardscrabble.” He was orphaned by the time he was 13 years old, losing his mother and two brothers during the Revolutionary War. Jackson himself bore scars from a British officer’s sword on his skull and hand, and bullets from duels in his shoulder.

Unlettered and unmoneyed, he rose to prominence against the odds. He was elected to the U.S. Senate at age 30, but promptly resigned, finding politics in Washington tedious. He then became major general of the Tennessee militia, where his rousing call to potential recruits enlisted 3,000 volunteers and gave credence to Tennessee being called The Volunteer State.

He led that militia down the Cumberland, Ohio and Mississippi rivers toward New Orleans where he famously beat back the British.

“In 1815, the battle of New Orleans didn’t seem like a footnote, as we often see it now,” Brands says. “If Jackson had lost the battle, the British were poised to march up the Mississippi River and split the U.S. in two. That might have been the end of us. But Jackson against all expectations defeated the British and saved the day.

Andrew Jackson
Chief Justice John Marshall administers the oath of office to Andrew Jackson on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1829. From the Library of Congress. Reproduction number: LC-USZC4-7731.

“When the news arrived in Washington and New York – it took almost two weeks for it to get there—people thought this was almost divine deliverance.”

As a national hero who was seen to have saved the country from ruin, Jackson’s supporters campaigned to bring him to the presidency. Jackson himself didn’t campaign. He stayed in Nashville, declaring that if the people chose him as their president, he would do his duty in fulfilling the office. In March 1829 he headed to Washington to do so.

The feisty and fascinating Jackson is a perfect topic for Brands, whose books offer lively portrayals of the figures that shaped our country, at their best and their worst. The Washington Post wrote that Brands “serves up everything you might expect in a ripping yarn: murderous duels, savage Indian raids, equally savage counterattacks and a lot of detail about Jackson's scorched-earth campaigns in Louisiana and Florida.”

But Jackson is also a perfect topic for Americans today, because we can see Jackson’s influence around us in our national commitment to democratic ideals and in the way that commitment makes populist demands on our politicians.

When Jackson won the election in 1828, he did so over John Quincy Adams, the incumbent and son of a founding father, John Adams. It was a classic match-up of establishment versus outsider, aristocracy versus everyman. For Jackson’s inauguration, the capital was flooded with an unprecedented influx of well-wishers. Observers compared the throngs to the “inundation of the northern barbarians into Rome” and spoke of their lives “without deference to fashion.” Jackson himself shook 10,000 hands.

I never have been a candidate for office; I never will. The people have a right to call for any man's services in a republican government, and when they do, it is the duty of the individual to yield his services to that call.  --Andrew JacksonSince then, Brands says, every president has been an aspiring Jacksonian.

“I was working on the book during the 2000 presidential campaign, and I remember watching the debates and seeing Al Gore and George W. Bush face off,” Brands says. “I was struck by the fact that here were two guys who were born into political families, who were born wealthy, and who between them had three Ivy League degrees. Yet each one was knocking himself out to be more the populist than the other, to be ‘just folks.’”

The office of president is peculiarly the office in American politics that embodies that ideal, and that comes directly from Jackson’s legacy. It’s the only office that potentially all Americans get to vote on, and the president then becomes answerable to all people.

The change in presidential politics was immediately apparent after Jackson’s two terms in office. When William Henry Harrison ran for office in 1840, he ran a “log cabin and hard cider” campaign, presenting himself as a simple frontiersman. He was actually a member of the Virginia planter aristocracy who had studied the classics. Jackson found this ridiculous. But populism had clearly taken root.

Populism is essentially democracy in action, and no one in the country’s early history stood for democracy as firmly as Jackson.

Book jacket for 'Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times.'
People stand in line to have Brands sign their books at the 2005 Texas Book Festival. Brands’s session in the capitol was standing room only.

“Jackson adopted the view that this was going to be a government not simply of the people, but by the people,” Brands says, “that there was nothing so difficult about running the country that ordinary people couldn’t figure out and do it. It was a rather unusual notion, but it was the path the U.S. took and the path that we’ve followed until now.”

It didn’t, however, come easily. The democracy that Jackson fought for and that we enjoy today was hard won. In fact, democracy wasn’t firmly established in the United States until the North won the Civil War, 80 years after the country’s founding. That’s an element of the quest for democracy Americans tend to forget.

“Americans almost without exception have taken the view that democracy has worked out well for the U.S.,” Brands says. “And most of us have embodied the idea that democracy will work out well for other countries, too.”

Jackson’s story, his struggles and his ideals are particularly relevant to America today as it examines its own democracy and attempts to further the cause of democracy elsewhere. To Brands, history is always relevant if a democracy is to remain healthy.

“I believe in democracy and I believe democracy works best if there’s an awareness of what’s come before,” Brands says. “Otherwise we try to reinvent the wheel.”

Jackson's appeal to the American people was the appeal of the chieftain to the tribe. They loved him because he was their protector, their hero. But they also loved him because he embodied their hopes and fears, their passions and prejudices, their insight and their ignorance, better than anyone before him.  --H.W. Brands, Andrew Jackson: His Life and TimesThat’s part of why he writes books that aim to appeal to a general audience, books you might find your neighbor or the person sitting next to you on an airplane reading. He’s taken on American history from Benjamin Franklin to the Cold War, Sam Houston to contemporary relations with the Middle East. He’s become a frequent fixture on bestseller lists and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Chapters of his books grow out of lectures he gives to his undergraduate students and the model reader he holds in his head while writing is not a lofty academic, but his own father. Don’t conclude this is about familial affection. His father represents a typical reader of historical biographies, someone who wants an interesting story that seems to be important and that expects a general intelligence from the reader but no particular expertise.

Whether teaching students, giving talks to groups across the country or publishing gripping accounts of our shared history, you might say Brands’s approach to his work is downright Jacksonian.

“I want to make my classroom as big as possible,” he says. “The more people I can fit in, the better.”

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  Updated 14 November 2005
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