Andrew Burstein. The Passions of Andrew Jackson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. xxi + 292 pp. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-375-41428-2.
Reviewed by Daniel Feller (Department of History, University of Tennessee)
Published on H-SHEAR (June, 2003)
In his magisterial 1860 biography of Andrew Jackson, James Parton wrote that "the political history of the United States, for the last thirty years, dates from the moment when the soft hand of Mr. Van Buren touched Mrs. Eaton's knocker." Parton's readers would have known the story well. In 1830 Martin Van Buren was President Jackson's secretary of state. John C. Calhoun was vice president, and Margaret (Peggy) Eaton, an innkeeper's daughter recently widowed, was the scandal-tarred new wife of Jackson's old army comrade and secretary of war, John Henry Eaton. Van Buren and Calhoun had led the two main wings of the Jackson electoral coalition in 1828 and were rivals for the presidential succession. Jackson's anointment of the one and banishment of the other had momentous consequences: it meant not only that Van Buren would be president next and Calhoun never, but that the emerging national Democratic party would bear the organizational stamp and policy orientation of Van Buren's New York instead of Calhoun's South Carolina. And all this, Parton suggested, because the clever Van Buren had the wit to pay court to Peggy Eaton and thus humor Andrew Jackson's obsessive, pigheaded belief in the chastity of a salacious Washington barmaid.
The question of Jackson's character has never ceased to tantalize. All agree that he was remarkably strong-willed and strong-tempered. The real issue is whether he was master or slave of his own passions. Detractors see a willful, self-obsessed, perpetually angry man, blown by powerful emotions beyond reason or control. Defenders portray a man of cool intelligence, artfully steering his legendary rages and tantrums to a carefully calculated end. Was Jackson the puppeteer or the puppet, the consummate dramatist or an unwitting actor doomed to play himself? How well did he really comprehend his own motives?
It will not do to dismiss this question by complaining (as Professor Sean Wilentz has recently done) that a focus on Jackson's personality belittles the seriousness of political history. For it is exactly how we should understand that history that is at stake. If spites and resentments ruled Jackson's mind, if some deep-seated animus controlled his actions, then that is a fact worth pondering. The question of character is no more off-limits for Jackson than for Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. As the late Edward Pessen opined, "there was an issue, too, in the fact that the American political system permitted its Chief Executive the latitude it did to determine the fate of grown men over such matters" as the Eaton affair. If Jackson was not truly the master of his fate, the captain of his soul, then was he someone else's tool? If he was an unsavory and violent character, what does that say about the party that exalted him, the generations of Americans who idolized him, and the historians who canonize him? If the answers to these questions prove unflattering to American democracy or to ourselves, it is best that we should know it.
What keeps the argument over Jackson's character ever fresh is the nearly perfect balance of evidence on both sides. Parton, who gathered firsthand testimony from many of Jackson's contemporaries, stated the conundrum in classic terms, and Andrew Burstein begins by reframing it: "Which was Jackson?... Brave or unbalanced? Or both? Was he steel wrought in a fiery furnace, or an uncontrollable monster irresponsibly unleashed into the political world?" This is the crux of the matter, and as Burstein shrewdly remarks, "that sense of duality is as close to the historic Jackson as the modern record comes" (p. xiv). One could hardly conceive a better way to frame a new assessment of Jackson. Unfortunately it is all downhill from there.
Burstein begins by parading his claim to superior sagacity and detachment. He faults predecessors for revealing more of their own predilections than of "the historic Jackson." "Too many popular biographers refuse to confront the problems of their own pretense and ideology, the problems inherent in how they relate to their subject." Forgetting the duties of "humility and self-monitoring," they "distort history with varying degrees of subtlety" (pp. xix, 250-251). His book will be different. Written "as dispassionately as possible," it will "present a deliberative, demythologized view of Andrew Jackson" (pp. xviii, xx). To uncover the man beneath the myth, Burstein holds out three novel approaches. The first is more scrupulous research and deeper reading, "to find what Jackson's biographers have missed--documents that were overlooked, events oversimplified, quotations misapplied, relationships undervalued." The second is "an attentive dissection of language," by which one can "fathom meaning" from even the most casual expressions (pp. xv-xvi). The third is to focus on Jackson's friendships as a tool to unlock his character.
Burstein promises to boldly go where no biographer has gone before. But the narrative that follows is shallow and misshapen, offering little new. Mostly it recounts the same old stories and rehearses the same old controversies. Burstein concentrates on Jackson's early years, reserving only a chapter for the presidency. Over time, historians have rooted Jackson's personality in various milieus, elucidating such shaping influences as western land-hunger, national acquisitiveness and ambition, the frontier's ambivalent impulses towards savagery and freedom or civilization and control, manly obsessions with honor and violence, slaveholders' thirst for patriarchal dominance, and the post-Revolutionary generation's fear of declension and inadequacy. Burstein invokes them all without choosing between them or sorting out their contradictions. What novelty there is in his account derives from facile psychologizing and airy speculation. Hemmed in by whites, according to Burstein, Indians beat their wives "to stave off an unendurable sense of inadequacy," while white frontiersmen fought and swore "in order to conquer or deny their fears of the wilderness condition." Jackson's own ambition ignited from his "first encounters" with the degraded Catawbas of his neighborhood and his craving to distinguish himself from them (pp. 15, 17, 5). Not only is the motive hypothetical, but so are the encounters themselves. Jackson never mentioned seeing any Catawbas.
Promises notwithstanding, Burstein breaks no new ground in research. He uncovers no overlooked evidence, and his linguistic turn appears in practice to be a rationale for doing history on the cheap. In graduate school I was given a list of Historian's Commandments attributed to William Hesseltine. One was to "write about thy subject, not about the documents concerning thy subject." It is the historian's task, we were told, not simply to string together and comment on what our sources reported but, using their statements as evidence, to fashion our own self-standing narrative. A history should not lurch from document to document, but unfold from event to event.
Burstein's focus on "Jackson-as-communicator" makes Jackson's words, not his actions, the primary subject (p. xvi). This justifies not bothering to craft a life story anew from scattered and fragmentary sources. Instead the text offers a kind of running commentary on Jackson's letters and on the failings of previous biographers, especially Robert V. Remini. Burstein wanders through this record, dispensing platitudes with an air of oracular profundity. "Patriotic mythmaking is always hard to temper," he gravely intones. "Dangerous consequences frequently accompany private ambition--it is almost a truism to say so" (pp. 119, 96).
Burstein has located a contemporary dictionary and uses it to offer up pearls of insight. For instance, when Jackson felt aggrieved he often spoke of "redress." Now this same eighteenth-century lawyer's term was also used by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence in the very next passage after one that complained of Indian savagery (p. 19)! Later we learn that Jackson and Willie Blount signed letters with "sincerely your Friend." They exchanged "respectful compliments" and offered "respects to your brother" and to "your good Lady" (p. 89). What of it? These were standard phrasings. It would take more effort than Burstein has made to sort out what in Jackson's language was conventional and what was idiosyncratic--which words reveal the times, and which the man.
On the subject of Jackson's marriage, Burstein promises to "set matters straight." He will dispel myths that "we have been asked to believe for nearly two centuries" and reveal "what really happened." "What really happened" (he repeats this) was that Jackson and Rachel began living together as husband and wife without waiting for her estranged and departed first husband to get a divorce, perhaps even to provoke him into getting one. Though this made them technically adulterers, "in fact what they did was reasonable and expedient--and not unheard of on the frontier" (pp. 30-31). Gasconading aside, it is not clear what is new in this account. Remini, the favorite target of Burstein's scorn, said it all twenty-five years ago in the first book of his three-volume biography.
Burstein votes emphatically for Jackson as a vengeful and violent character. A strong case for this reading can certainly be made. Parton and Pessen made it, as did James C. Curtis in Andrew Jackson and the Search for Vindication. But Burstein argues it so badly that even the most inveterate Jackson-hater may be moved to protest. Consider Jackson's relations with two fellow generals, James Wilkinson and John Cocke. Jackson detested Wilkinson. He denounced him as a tyrant to President Jefferson in 1804, and later accused him of treason in the Burr conspiracy. To Burstein, Jackson's vitriol betrays his explosive self-righteousness: his "disputes invariably centered on character assessment--and character assassination" (p. 66). But he was dead right about Wilkinson. The American National Biography, not given to character assassination, states Wilkinson's occupation as "soldier and intriguer," and recounts a career of monumental duplicity, corruption, and incompetence. Jackson spoke no worse of him than did General Anthony Wayne, who called Wilkinson "a vile invidious man," or John Randolph, who declared him "a mammoth of iniquity" and "the most finished scoundrel that ever lived." Rather than probe Jackson's psyche to explain his animosity, a fair reader might wonder with him why Jefferson clung to this snake for so long.
At a low point in the Creek War of 1813-1814, Jackson, "physically ill, and mentally distraught, ... took out some of his hostility" on Tennessee militia general John Cocke, "whom Jackson suspected of withholding supplies and undermining his campaign out of envy and spite" (p. 101). His suspicions were well founded. With Jackson embattled deep in Creek territory and expecting reinforcement from Cocke, the latter ordered troops who were already marching to join him to halt and take a different direction "in which we can share some of the dangers and glories of the field." When Jackson learned of this shocking directive, he coolly forwarded it on to the governor, saying "it will require no comment." Compare this episode with Jackson's careful subordination to Wilkinson himself during his 1812 march to Natchez. If one were to mount a defense of Jackson as both a discerning judge of men and a soldier who could hold his temper when duty required it, one could hardly pick better cases to argue than these.
Like other critics of Jackson, Burstein highlights his ruthless discipline, including the famous case of militiaman John Woods, shot for leaving his post in 1814. Burstein remarks Jackson's curious stress on discipline even in peacetime, before the War of 1812. To be sure, Jackson was at times a fierce taskmaster, as have been some other notably successful military men. Burstein fixates on the ferocity and misses the success. For Jackson was also far and away the most victorious American general of his era. Over and over he conquered where others fell short. This record demands some explanation, which Burstein does not offer. Perhaps discipline had something to do with it.
The failings of unruly militia were writ large all over the history of the Revolution. Jackson certainly knew of them. One way to account for his insistence on obedience is to root it, as Burstein does, in Jackson's seething anger and aggression. Another view is that unlike many citizen-soldiers, Jackson took his military duties completely seriously. Through the years of prewar inactivity, he anticipated a call to action. He thought his men would someday be needed (he was right about that), and he wanted them, and himself, to be ready when they were. And they were ready: when fighting came, Tennessee troops under Jackson performed far more than their share. The point was proven at New Orleans, in the secondary engagement on the west bank of the river. Some newly arrived Kentuckians broke and ran at first contact--something troops that had served long under Jackson never did. Jackson blamed the Kentucky officers for their failure of discipline. Burstein (not alone) blames Jackson himself for neglecting that part of his line--while at the same time minimizing his credit for the smashing victory in the main battle fought directly under his eye.
To illuminate Jackson's "populism (what others might call demagoguery), his heated suspicions, [and] his clear sense of victimization," Burstein selects "five key friendships" with Edward Livingston, John Henry Eaton, Sam Houston, Richard Keith Call, and William Carroll. All fought under Jackson and became prominent politicians. Why choose them and not John Coffee, John Overton, William Berkeley Lewis, or Andrew Jackson Donelson--men who knew Jackson better, and longer? Because Jackson's relations with these "handpicked favorites" reveal much about his "inner drive," in particular his urge to dominate and his craving for a legacy (pp. xix-xx, 251). Jackson nurtured men whom he saw as younger versions of himself. He advanced by their aid; but he could not brook their independence or their rivalry. When they dared to assert themselves, he turned, Lear-like, against them, howling of betrayal and showering his former darlings with accusations and recriminations. Jackson's broken friendships reveal his supreme self-righteousness and self-love. The ultimate hypocrite, he projected his own ingratitude and inconstancy onto everyone else.
No biographer denies that Jackson personalized disputes. But Burstein's exaggerated thesis does not even fit the cases he picks to prove it. It is true that over the years Jackson parted ways with some intimates--as who, in a long and varied life, has not? Others he never separated from--Coffee and Overton for two. Among Burstein's five, Eaton and Call broke with Jackson over politics; both men became Whigs. Jackson took the defections personally--after such long and close association, one could hardly blame him--but they were not rooted in personality. Carroll quarreled with Jackson but later made up. Houston went his own way but never ruptured with Jackson, neither did Livingston.
Indeed Livingston's inclusion in this group beggars comprehension. The other four were younger men than Jackson and in some sense his proteges, rising from obscurity as he himself had, but not Livingston. Burstein says he and Jackson were "men of similar temperaments" (p. 113). They decidedly were not--and if they were, then farewell to Burstein's whole argument about the frontier's formative influences, for the two men's early histories could hardly have been more different. And if temperament was the key to getting along with Jackson, then what of Martin Van Buren, who had a personality precisely his opposite and yet worked hand-in-glove with him for years? Explaining Jackson's affinity to these two very different men requires attending to their politics, which Burstein does not do.
It appears that, here as elsewhere, Burstein has simply not taken the trouble to think out his own argument. He offers hasty judgment and superficial wisdom. In a concluding chapter, "Courting Posterity," he assesses Jackson's character and legacy. He compares him to Washington and Jefferson, and curiously finds all three alike. Looking for a handle, or perhaps just seeking to impress, Burstein fronts his book with three passages from Shakespeare, and proceeds to liken Jackson to a string of tragic protagonists: Lear, Richard III, and finally Coriolanus. His strategy recalls Cole Porter's sage advice:
Brush up your Shakespeare; / Start quoting him now. / Brush up your Shakespeare, / And the readers you will wow. / If you want to prove Jackson was heinous, / Just compare him to Coriolanus. / Brush up your Shakespeare, / And they'll all kowtow (I trow).
In the end, if there is a lesson in this book it is not about Americans, or democracy, or even Andrew Jackson. It is about the perils of pseudoprofundity, of reaching for deep meaning without paying the price of careful reflection. Burstein may not be wrong about Jackson, but he has not made a case that will persuade or endure. Still he offers one homily worth contemplating: "Vanity is a failing common to the overeducated as well as the ignorant" (p. 218).
. James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, 3 vols. (New York: Mason Brothers, 1861), 3: p. 287.
. Sean Wilentz, "Freedoms and Feelings," The New Republic (April 7, 2003), pp. 25-32.
. Edward Pessen, Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1969), p. 312.
. Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Empire (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), chap. 5.
. Paul David Nelson, "James Wilkinson," American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 23: pp. 400-402.
. John Spencer Bassett, ed., Correspondence of Andrew Jackson (Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1926), 1: pp. 342-343; Harold D. Moser, ed., The Papers of Andrew Jackson (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984), 2: pp. 446-449.
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