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by Andrew Burstein

Pub Date: Feb. 17th, 2003
ISBN: 0-375-41428-2
Publisher: Knopf

Brawler, liar, adulterer, murderer. This was one of the great presidents?

Burstein (History/Univ. of Tulsa; America’s Jubilee, 2001, etc.) clearly does not share the generally favorable view of Andrew Jackson popularized in the last couple of decades by Robert Remini, the author of a now-standard three-volume biography published between 1977 and 1984. In his highly critical reconsideration, Burstein keeps his eye on the individual, treating Old Hickory as something out of the pages of Shakespeare in the Richard III/Coriolanus/Titus Andronicus vein, with perhaps a dash of Lear’s madness. Like them, Jackson was ruled by his passions, which were many and elemental; they got him in more than one scrape in his long life (1767–1845), whether running off to the then-Spanish borderlands of Mississippi with the estranged wife of a neighbor or fighting Cherokees on the Tennessee frontier (in which service, Burstein suggests, Jackson’s deeds have been much overrated, though this is the fault of later mythmakers and not of Jackson himself). Several constants arise in these pages: Jackson’s overarching hatred of Indians and conviction that the only way to treat them was by force; his certainty that “virulent enemies were plotting against [him]” at all times, an irrational belief that he shared, Burstein claims, with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; his ardent defense of slavery, though his last words to his slaves were, “I want all to prepare to meet me in Heaven. . . . Christ has no respect for color.” The overall effect is, of course, a whittling away of the Jacksonian legend, so much so that by the end, readers will wonder how he came to be considered great in the first place. This diminution Burstein achieves with good evidence at hand, though he is sometimes given to judging Jackson and his contemporaries by modern standards rather than those of the day.

Nicely written and generally well-considered: particularly useful for students of the Jacksonian era.