In "Andrew Jackson," Sean Wilentz shows how Andrew Jackson's stock among historians has risen and fallen. Over the years, Jackson has been hated and beloved, mocked and revered, by historians. Wilentz's book portrays the president as a champion of democracy who firmly believed in democratic ideals, although Jackson may hardly be viewed as such by today's standards. Wilentz traces Jackson's life from youth through his presidency, describing his major political contributions and crises, as well as details from his personal life.
Wilentz's book provides a diverse characterization of Andrew Jackson. Wilentz shows readers how Jackson was the first truly democratic president, in the sense that he was the first political figure who rose from the masses to power and who represented common Americans. At the same time, Wilentz describes Jackson as a shameless opportunist who pandered to different groups for political expediency. Jackson is also portrayed as a war hero and a devout loyalist to the the country. He is shown as committed to the U.S. Constitution and, paradoxically, willing to abuse the elasticity of the Constitution as necessary to suit his particular political agendas of the moment.
The book includes biographical information about Jackson, beginning with his 1767 birth around the South Carolina/North Carolina border. Wilentz describes how Jackson and his brother were drafted at the end of the Revolutionary War. They were captured by British soldiers, and when he refused to shine a British officer's boots, Jackson received a blow to the head with a sword. The gash scarred him permanently, but served as a reminder of Jackson's distaste for Britain, aristocracy and privilege. Wilentz discusses Jackson's family, including his parentage and his marriage to Rachel Donelson, for whom he fought several duels to uphold her honor.
Wilentz spends a chapter on Jackson's views on slavery. As a slave owner who profited greatly from his slaves, Jackson is not regarded favorably by historians on this issue. When abolitionists began to use the mail to distribute political propaganda, South Carolina was indignant about receiving such "objectionable materials." Jackson ordered postal officials to stop delivering such materials, despite the federal government's duty to deliver the mail.
Entry Into Politics
Wilentz describes Jackson's coming to politics and his strategic use of political and personal connections to become Tennessee's first member of the House of Representatives and then a senator. He served on the Tennessee Supreme Court and in the War of 1812. Wilentz describes Jackson's various military encounters, including a massacre of the Creek Indians in Alabama and his famous routing of the British in the last battle of the war in New Orleans, which earned him the title "The Hero of New Orleans." In 1822, Wilentz reports, Jackson was nominated for president by the Tennessee Legislature, but lost the 1824 election despite winning the most popular votes and electoral votes. The House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams instead, causing Jackson to advocate for the direct election of the president by popular vote.
Jackson won the presidency in 1828. He was criticized for instituting "the spoils system," since he fired Adams' cabinet members and replaced them with own loyal supporters. Several of his own cabinet members resigned when he supported John Eaton for secretary for war; Eaton had been involved in a marriage scandal. Jackson's major actions as president included the removal of the Cherokees to western territories ("The Trail of Tears") and the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States. He was also known for the Nullification Crisis. This last issue involved South Carolina's rebellion against high tariffs, which were hurting trade and which, South Carolinians believed, were unfairly being used to fund projects in the north and east. The state threatened to secede, and Jackson authorized the use of force to collect tariffs, sending ships out to sea to collect tariffs before ships could dock in Charleston.
Wilentz writes that Jackson's campaign for reelection in 1832 focused on the Bank Veto as a platform. He easily defeated Henry Clay with new Vice President Martin Van Buren. During his second term, Jackson refined the Bank of the United States. At the end of his presidency, Texas split from Mexico, but Jackson was unsuccessful in annexing Texaco to the the United States, though he ardently believed it was a natural part of the country.
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