Jacksonian Democracy: Myth or Reality?

By James L. Bugg Jr. | Go to book overview
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Andrew Jackson shares with Abraham Lincoln the role of the nation's leading folk hero. A man who gloried in the fierce controversy that constantly surrounded him, he engendered during his Presidency a passionate and often irrational loyalty in his followers, who cast him in heroic mould. His enemies, who reacted with a bitter hatred that also often transcended the bounds of logic and reason, pictured him as a crude, unlettered demagogue who manipulated the people that he might mislead and even despoil them. After his death, he continued, as man and myth, to arouse intense feelings among disciples and critics. As the legends, which were forming even before his death, thickened around his name, Jackson and the democratic movement he led became the common property of a host of scholars and pseudo scholars who sought to dissect and to analyze and to explain him. They too, and often against their original intent, entered the ranks of his disciples or those of his foes.

James Parton, the first scholarly biographer of Jackson, collected a mass of conflicting evidence from contemporaries who were still alive in order to publish his three-volume study in 1860. Into its preface he wrote a despairing admission that later scholars have wearily echoed. From the evidence, declared Parton, Jackson could be called both "a patriot and a traitor. He was one of the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. A writer brilliant, elegant, eloquent, without being able to compose a correct sentence, or spell words of four syllables. The first of statesmen, he never devised, he never framed a measure. He was the most candid of men, and was capable of the profoundest dissimulation. A most law-defying, law-obeying citizen. A stickler for discipline, he never hesitated to disobey his superior. A democratic autocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint." Here, in these few words, lies the essential problem that confronts those who would understand Jackson and the movement which bears his name.

The passing years brought a host of books and articles seeking to enlighten and to clarify, but Jackson remained the controversial figure which Parton had depicted in his preface. Some saw him as the disciple of Jefferson who led the forces of democracy to a triumphant victory over privilege and autocracy;


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