Old Hickory was a man of actions, not ideas—but a better president than past historians have held.
Few politicians these days, even of a demagogic bent, go out of their way to claim descent along Jacksonian lines, and for good reason: The conservatives of Jackson’s time reviled him as “an American Caesar who had stirred the blockhead masses, seized power, and installed a new despotism”; the liberals of the day and their intellectual progeny reviled Jackson for his anti-abolitionism and his conduct of genocidal campaigns against southeastern Indian peoples. Wilentz (The Rise of American Democracy, 2005, etc.) allows the inutility of using modern labels to categorize political views of the past, and in all events, Jackson is hard to pin down. Wilentz portrays Jackson as a populist who was fonder of Jeffersonian movement than of Federalist stability, who prized egalitarianism over privilege and who personified what other historians have called the Age of Democratic Revolution, which began with the American and French experiments and ended with 1848. He “dedicated his presidency to vindicating and expanding [the prospect that America could be the world’s best hope] by ridding the nation of a recrudescent corrupt privilege that he believed was killing it,” and he was particularly committed to defeating the entrenched wealthy in their own temples—namely, the new banks. Jacksonian monetary policy, always a confusing topic, is rendered fairly lucidly here, though Wilentz plays against tough odds when he has to condense the controversies over hard money versus soft and the effects of international debt on the economy of the early republic into only a few paragraphs. In the end, Wilentz does a solid job of explaining the contributions of the Jackson presidency—and notes that, despite Jackson’s expansionist reputation, during his eight years in office, “Andrew Jackson did not add an inch of soil to the American dominion.”
A worthy introduction to the Age of Jackson, now receiving increased attention from historians.