On the Warpath

REVIEW: ‘The First Populist: The Defiant Life of Andrew Jackson’

July 3, 2022

Andrew Jackson has, more often than not, been seen as mean and angry but still a great soldier and a pretty good president. Meanwhile, David Brown, in his new biography of the seventh president (1829-1837), is clear about what makes Jackson tick. Brown has characterized Jackson as if he had grown up with him. Of course, he hadn’t—even as a child, Jackson was a loner. And he never changed.

Jackson belongs at the top of the class of American military leaders for a simple reason. While he made mistakes, a single spectacular success had a greater impact both on him and on this country than any clash in the War of 1812. It involved the destruction of British forces that sought to occupy New Orleans in 1815. They failed so badly that Jackson didn’t think a counterattack was needed. The defeat was more humiliating than the defeats George Washington inflicted on the Brits in the Revolutionary War a quarter century earlier.

In New Orleans, "an estimated 285 soldiers were killed, some 1,265 were wounded, and nearly 500 were captured or went missing," Brown writes. They were British. "By contrast, only 13 American soldiers died, with fewer than 50 wounded, captured, or missing in the main engagement." The shocking contrast in casualties gave Jackson’s army "the aura of invincibility; some, no doubt, detected Providence’s benign hand behind its stunning achievement."

Almost instantly, the reputation of the United States, its standing in the world, and especially its military prowess soared. At least Americans seemed to think so. Jackson became the most popular soldier in America and a major political figure. He came close to capturing the presidency in 1824, then was elected in 1828 and 1832. Fortunately, he had more than a decade to prepare for the White House. He needed it.

Brown quotes two scholars who wondered in 1835 if Jackson really had a "firm hold on the nation’s imagination":

A skeptical Alexis de Tocqueville described the General in Democracy In America as a "man of violent character and middling capacities" whose claim to the public’s affections "is all due to the memory of a victory he won twenty years ago under the walls of New Orleans." John Quincy Adams similarly described the battle as "a victory more complete over the people of the U.S. than over the soldiers of Great Britain." Though born the same year as Jackson, Adams, a representative of New England, a former Federalist, and a highly educated son of a past president, remained forever immune to the General’s magic. In Jackson he saw more Caesar than Cincinnatus, the legendary Roman consul who led the Republic’s forces to victory over neighboring invaders and then quietly returned to his farm. Many Americans, by contrast, regarded the battle as a triumphal referendum on their blossoming democracy, an indication that rule by citizens—the common man—now rested secure.

An episode that should have alarmed Americans was Jackson’s insistence in 1818 on executing two British military advisers who were chummy with a Seminole Indian tribe in Florida, then a colony of Spain. Jackson sought approval from American leaders, including President James Monroe, to intrude. But when American officials said no, he and his soldiers barged in anyway and the two men were put on trial.

One was a young lieutenant fresh from the British Marines. He was helping Seminoles in their struggle with American settlers. The other, at age 70, was aiding the Creeks who claimed to have been badly treated by Brits and Americans. Jackson, without giving the matter much deep thought, decided that both men "must die." When a note was found saying the younger man was organizing a raid on Americans, Jackson imposed the death sentence in this case. But that was reduced to one year and 50 lashes.

Then Jackson imposed his own sentence. He let the death penalty stand for the older man for spying and said he "disapproves the re-consideration" of the other sentence and changed it to death by shooting. The next day both were executed. Appeals were not allowed.

Jackson wrote to Secretary of War John Calhoun to explain what he’d done. "These individuals were tried under my orders by a Special Court of Select officers—legally convicted as exciters of this Savage and Negro War." Jackson left it at that.

Most striking about the Jackson presidency was the boldness of his agenda. In 1830, he began forcing Indians to abandon southeastern America and migrate across the Mississippi River. This was wildly popular with white settlers eager to claim farmlands in the South. The Indians were not given the option of staying. Thousands died during the migration. It became known as the Trail of Tears.

According to the Daily Signal’s Jarrett Stepman, the creed of Jackson was "the world is governed too much." He not only "loathed the idea of federal funds being used as a slush fund," he went out of his way to denounce "crony capitalism" and vetoed the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. He worried the national bank was unaccountable.

Jackson explained his problems with the federal government’s bank this way:

It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. … The humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers—who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.

Complaining about the faults of government was a Jackson habit. Back then, America had too many whiners and too few advocates.

The First Populist: The Defiant Life of Andrew Jackson
by David S. Brown
Scribner, 432 pp., $30

Fred Barnes is a retired journalist who covered politics for half a century. He lives with his wife Barbara in Alexandria, Va.

Published under: Book reviews