Not the Same Old Hickory: The Contested Legacy of Andrew Jackson

Article excerpt

The Passions of Andrew Jackson, by Andrew Burstein, New York: Vintage, 320 pages

THE RYMAN AUDITORIUM--Nashville's original Grand Old Opry--has become a concert stop for a variety of touring musicians, among them the singer-songwriter Tori Amos. The granddaughter of a Cherokee, Amos has added verses to the traditional tune "Home on the Range" for her own "Home on the Range: Cherokee Edition," a version that recalls a bleak chapter in Native American history: "Well Jackson made deals, a thief down to his heels/Hello, Trail of Tears."

When she sings those lyrics in Nashville, she's not far from National Park Service markers that note where the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail land route winds past the city. Equally close, and equally a part of Nashville, sits the Hermitage, the historic home of the very president who made the Trail of Tears a reality: Andrew Jackson.

A tour of the Hermitage today includes the thrilling rags-to-riches story of a gallant frontiersman, chivalrous romantic, and political reformer. The almost painfully pleasant members of the Ladies' Hermitage Association, which operates the property, all seem to suffer from selective memory where the object of their affections is involved. Of course, these ladies are not really responsible for the rose-colored glasses through which they view the seventh president. Historians of recent decades also have fallen under Old Hickory's charismatic spell. Andrew Burstein's The Passions of Andrew Jackson seeks to reverse this trend and balance our understanding of Jackson, the man and the leader. Burstein, a professor of history at the University of Tulsa, sheds new and harsh light on the Sage of the Hermitage and what he represents to Nashville and the country at large.

Burstein's work challenges a shelf of canonical texts that currently influence scholarly and popular opinion. These works present Jackson as the symbol of the common man thanks to his dual positions as a self-made son of the frontier and military hero; the enemy of the elite thanks to his attack on the Second Bank of the United States; and the champion of the Union thanks to his definitive response to state nullification of federal law. Jackson's individual style, from his avid personal campaigning to his presidential use of an advisory "kitchen cabinet," is now considered the trademark of a larger-than-life figure who embodied the will of the nation. This mainstream view of Jackson admiringly moves the man from history into legend.

Consider the most famous example. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s The Age of Jackson (1945), its Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding, spoke much more to Schlesinger's own era, his adoration of New Deal policies and zeal for populist democracy, than to Jackson's political means or ends. Schlesinger in effect read history backward to cast Jackson as a reformer in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt; the result amounted to a lively and articulate love lest that had little to do with Jackson himself.

Nevertheless, Schlesinger's warm fuzzies attached themselves firmly to Jackson's mystique. William Ward's Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age (1955) and Marvin Meyers' The Jacksonian Persuasion (1957), both able books, considered Jackson more as a symbol than as a human being, and therefore did not challenge Schlesinger significantly.

The reigning biography on Jackson remains Robert V. Remini's trilogy--Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Empire, 1767-1821 ; Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832 ; and Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845--published between 1977 and 1984. Remini did not revise Schlesinger as much as add detailed personal flourishes to Schlesinger's broad political strokes to complete an admiring portrait of Jackson the hero.

Schlesinger himself praised the way in which Remini moved "boldly beyond the scholar's monograph" in his work, which is to say that Remini regularly embellished, imagined, and championed Jackson's point of view and behavior. …