Frontier Injustice | The Nation


Frontier Injustice

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Jackson's victory, and the nature of his support, led to widespread fears that the United States was following France and Mexico into mob rule and military dictatorship. In fact, while Jackson pursued certain anti-elitist policies, most notably in his successful campaign against the Bank of the United States, he generally defended the Constitution. Jackson's facing down of the threat of South Carolina secession preserved the Union for another generation. Jackson was President until 1837; he died in 1845, after living long enough to see his protégé, Sam Houston, achieve one of his greatest ambitions, the incorporation of Texas into the Union and consequent removal of any potential foreign threat to the United States from the Southwest.

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Anatol Lieven
Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College, London, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author...

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Jackson is of perennial interest as a historical figure, but far more important in today's historical climate is that we reckon with the impact of the ideology that bears his name, Jacksonianism, confronting in particular the combination of fanatical belief and extreme narrowness with which its exponents understood the concepts of democracy and freedom. We need to do this because Jacksonian ideas, however transformed over time, continue to shape how a great many Americans see their country and the world. A candid reckoning with Jacksonianism's history raises key questions about the ambiguous nature of democracy itself, and the relationship between democracy and nationalism. It also raises in acute form the point Eric Foner has made so brilliantly about the shifting definition of liberty in American history.

H.W. Brands's biography of Jackson fails completely in its approach to these questions. As an account of Jackson's upbringing, character and life, it is solid and well written. It does not add much of real importance to the 1984 biography by Robert V. Remini (now abridged into one volume), whose judgments it generally echoes. Brands's work also suffers from Remini's greatest failing, an identification with its subject sometimes tending toward hagiography, as in the statement that "Jackson's support indeed was the people" (despite his getting a minority of the popular vote). Still, Jackson's life and character were so amazing that it is always worth reading a new book about him on a plane or in bed--if you don't suffer from airsickness, nightmares or any lingering affection for Britain.

But Brands does not really deal with the deeper issues of Jacksonianism. It is striking that his bibliography contains no mention either of Michael Kazin's critical work The Populist Persuasion, which accords Jacksonianism a leading place, or of Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence, which contains an exceptionally intelligent analysis of the Jacksonian tradition. Nor is there a place for Richard Slotkin's great if problematic trilogy on the role of the frontier and its myths in American culture. As a study of how Jackson's ideas have affected later generations of Americans, Brands's book does not match Andrew Burstein's work of 2003, The Passions of Andrew Jackson.

Indeed, nowhere does Brands seriously analyze the word "democracy." In his version, whatever sins marred Jacksonian democracy, they were a product of his time and have since been redeemed by the forward march of democracy that Jackson helped to further, even to father. Jacksonianism's contribution to democracy is therefore seen as unimpeachably good: "Jackson's devotion to democracy was unsurprising in one born of the people and bred in the school of hard experience.... the Clan of Old Hickory, the tribe of Sharp Knife, was the American people." The book ends with the statement that "Andrew Jackson...devoted his life to making democracy possible."

On this point, unfortunately, Brands's book also reflects the dominant currents in the popular history of this country, as well as the way many Americans view the past, especially their own. To the extent that this sentimental, populist ethos reflects the democratic values of American civic nationalism, it is in principle positive. The problem is that it also encourages an instinctive, uncritical deference to words like "freedom" and "democracy" that can easily lead not only to great political naïveté but also ruthless political exploitation to suppress debate and dissent--as at present by the Bush Administration.

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