Andrew Burstein, The Passions of Andrew Jackson, Knopf Publishers, 2003, ISBN 0-375-41428-2
Before the recent renaissance of Andrew Jackson scholarship brought on by HW Brands’s 2005 biography, cultural historian Andrew Burstein( America’s Jubilee) tackled Old Hickory’s impulsive nature in a slender but effective volume. Heavier biographies like Jon Meachem’s American Lion, borrow extensively from Burstein’s unflinching look at the 7th President, a historically tragic figure: “Every tragic figure requires a flaw rooted in good intentions, and Jackson’s was his incessant pursuit of virtue in the political realm, where virtue, so greatly desired, can scarcely exist.”
According to Burstein, Jackson’s life was defined by conflict, much of it his own doing. Jackson suffered from a “corrosive vanity” that demanded utter loyalty from those around him. Jackson’s burning pride, rooted in the harsh realities on the Tennessee frontier, caused him to place a “defiant honor” above all other virtues. Burstein explains how honor and an “incessant need for redress” nearly ruined Jackson’s public career following the murder of Charles Dickinson. The book adeptly displays Jackson’s varied understanding of loyalty and how it caused him to make questionable, if not dangerous relationships; for example, his misguided defense of John Eaton and the nefarious negotiations with Aaron Burr, expose the darker side of Jackson’s character. Jackson’s impassioned virtues produced two rocky terms as President- the raucous persona of “Old Hickory” was popular with the newly enfranchised “common man,” but his careless policy decisions were ultimately destructive.
Recent attempts at comparing Jackson to Washington are quickly negated by Burstein’s incisive summation of Jackson’s place in our history, “Washington appointed to his cabinet the greatest talent he could find; Jackson appointed men whom he expected to think like him and do what he said. Washington knew his intellectual limitations and took considerable time to reach decisions, while the more impulsive Jackson made it appear…that he was somehow the recipient of a pure light of inspiration.” Driven by the desires of honor, loyalty, and redress, Andrew Jackson cut a jagged path through the formidable years of our republic. Burstein’s analysis provides valuable new insight into the mind of a man shrouded in democratic mythology.
James Madison Preparatory School
The rivalry between Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay defined American… political history during the Age of the Common Man. But this competition was far from standard, civil political discourse. Clay and Jackson despised each other.
Merely a Military chieftain
Jackson infamously described Clay in the following vitriol:
“He’s the basest, meanest scoundrel that ever disgraced the image of his God….nothing too mean or low for him to condescend to…(Clay) is the Judas of the West.”
Just Sour Grapes?
Clay never believed Jackson to be fit for public office:
“He is ignorant, passionate, hypocritical, corrupt, and easily swayed by the basest men who surround him. I cannot believe that the killing of two thousand Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies a person for the various difficult and complicated duties of the presidency”
Clay feared an unpredictable and potentially dangerous man… was using his martial popularity to win the nation’s highest office:
“But the impulses of public gratitude should be controlled by reason and discretion… I was not prepared blindly to surrender myself to the hazardous indulgence of a feeling… I solemnly believe General Jackson’s competency for the office to be highly questionable.”
Henry Clay was first elected Speaker of the House… on November 4, 1811. America was on the verge of war with Britain and the new Speaker(and freshman House member) immediately set the agenda. No previous Speaker had used the gavel in such a way. Henry Clay was not only pushing his country into war, he was revolutionizing policy making in the People’s House:
Henry Clay of Kentucky
“What are we to gain by war, has been emphatically asked? In reply, he would ask, what are we not to lose by peace?—commerce, character, a nation’s best treasure, honor! Let those who contend for this humiliating doctrine, read its refutation in the history of the very man against whose insatiable thirst of dominion we are warned. Let us come home to our own history. It was not by submission that our fathers achieved our independence.”
Clay’s silky smooth delivery in a deep baritone that commanded attention… made floor debates his stage. But, the Speaker’s conference room was where Clay was able to hammer out deals to guide difficult policies through the House. The War of 1812 was his first great accomplishment. Ever the gambler, Clay felt the struggle was worth the risk:
“But it is said that we are not prepared for war, and ought therefore not to declare it. This is an idle objection, which can have weight with the timid and pusillanimous only. The fact is otherwise. Our preparations are adequate to every essential object. Do we apprehend danger to ourselves? From what quarter will it assail us? From England, and by invasion? The idea is too absurd to merit a moment’s consideration.” –Henry Clay, 1811
A time for action…running the gauntlet
David Glasgow Farragut had guts…and it showed in his decision to push past the forts protecting New Orleans. For seven full days, the Union navy had shelled Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Some ships were shaken to pieces by the repeated concussions, well over 15,000 shells were fired. Farragut had enough by April 24, 1862, ordering his ships to steam past the forts at 2a.m. Aggressive action was lacking in the Union war effort through most of 1862. Farragut’s decision was precisely the type Lincoln had been waiting for.
Confederate defenses approaching New Orleans
Farragut’s fleet took damage… but the Confederates had no answer for the boldness of the move. Once past the forts, Farragut’s ships easily defeated a makeshift fleet sent to meet them at the mouth of the harbor. A desperate attempt to set Farragut’s flagship on fire was also stymied and the city was his for the taking. At noon on April 25, 1862, Farragut climbed onto the levee of New Orleans. Four days later, 10,000 Union troops occupied the city.
Forget heroics, it just takes guts
Abraham Lincoln had to sneak through… the city of Baltimore on the road to his inauguration. His election had stirred a hornet’s nest in that town as violence and secession were proving to be inseparable. Plots were discovered to kill Lincoln as he passed through the city- so much for the rule of law, republican elections, and the will of the people. Lincoln would effectively deconstruct the illogical foundation of secession in his inaugural address, the violent streets of Baltimore served as living proof of its absurdity.
A violent, pro-secession mob shed first blood… in the American Civil War. Massachusetts militiamen were assaulted on the streets of Baltimore while traveling to Washington DC. Lincoln used the provocation to suspend habeas corpus in Maryland. The city was placed under martial law and the mayor, members of the town council, and eventually one third of the state legislature were arrested. All involved, at least in part, played a role in inciting the violence. Lincoln had to enforce ALL the laws, in ALL states- Maryland wanted special treatment, in a sense to be ABOVE the Union.
In April of 1864 Lincoln returned… to Baltimore with a message. The city was still hostile, but pacified under Lincoln’s direction. He reminded the people there that liberty was not a word they owned- it had a bigger, more profound meaning. He told them, “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty…” Self interest and narrow-minded politics influenced the violence in Baltimore- and the Civil War. Lincoln was the shepherd guiding the country toward the truth.
The mythology surrounding Lexington and Concord often obscure the history… of the events of April 19, 1775. General Thomas Gage tried to put the day’s events into perspective for his anxious superiors across the Atlantic. Gage knew too well that this was not going to be a suppression of “farmers with pitchforks.”
every hill, fence, and house
“…a continual skirmish for the space of 15 miles, receiving fire from every hill, fence, house, barn, etc.. the whole country was assembled in arms with surprising expedition, and several thousand are now assembled about this town threatening to attack…and we are very busy making preparations to oppose them.” Gage to Earl of Dartmouth, April 1775