Think of Andrew Jackson as your grandfather who spent his life in the military (old style). Many of his attitudes are absolutely abominable, especially when it comes to race. He believes passionately in democracy and freedom, but his views of who is entitled to those blessings appear to leave out the vast majority of humanity. His wartime anecdotes and views about war and other nations make you shudder. Whenever he fiercely disagrees with a person or a country, he threatens to shoot them down like a dog, and since he spent much of his life shooting people and is a leading member of the NRA this doesn’t seem an empty threat. All your educated acquaintances sneer at him. He can’t spell. He talks as if he comes from the backwoods of the Carolinas, which happens to be the truth. You don’t even share his taste in music.
And yet while you detest his service in Vietnam, you are very grateful that he fought against the Germans and the Japanese. You remember his flashes of great kindness and generosity. He is pathologically loyal to his friends. Though he became a famous man, he retained a touching affection for and loyalty to your grandmother, despite her homeliness and country ways, including smoking a pipe at official dinners. Even at your most pacific, you feel a sneaking admiration for a man who has lead poisoning from the fragments of three separate bullets wandering round his body and yet works harder than most people a third of his age. He is, as they say, as tough as hickory. He carved his way upward–almost literally–from an impoverished, orphaned and desperate youth. He committed his murders face to face, not by giving orders to others from the safety of a Washington desk. Above all, as you grow older and wiser, you understand more that he is part of you, flesh of your flesh. If he hadn’t existed, neither would you in any form be recognizable to yourself. You may hate him, but you can’t cut him out of you.
Nobody today can claim Jackson as a grandfather, but some readers of The Nation may perhaps have Southern Scots-Irish grandfathers with the above traits (full disclosure: I’m mostly German-Irish, and my grandmother was Scottish, though her family was in the British service).
Jackson was not only an immense personality and historical force. He was also one of the supreme historical representatives of the Scots-Irish frontier and military tradition in America, with its cult of “toughness, maleness and whiteness,” in the words of Michael Kazin. In this tradition the admirable and the detestable are inextricably mixed, and without it America would not be what it is today, geographically or culturally.
Andrew Jackson was born in the South Carolina Piedmont in 1767, to Protestant Scots-Irish parents who had emigrated from Ulster two years earlier. The family suffered terribly at British hands during the War of Independence, and hatred and distrust of Britain became a leitmotif of Jackson’s life. Orphaned, and a wild youth even by Scots-Irish standards, Jackson moved to Tennessee and rose in local politics thanks in large part to his leadership of militia forces against the Indians. The duels that he fought with rival local figures mostly only enhanced his reputation among his constituency. He became a national hero with his crushing defeat of the British attempt to capture New Orleans in 1815. He also gained enormous popularity for his readiness to defy international law by pursuing Indian enemies into the Spanish territory of Florida and executing two of their British suppliers.