February 2003

The life and times of Old Hickory

By Andrew Burstein
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Andrew Jackson, our seventh president, held ideas about the role of government that were shaped by his experience on the American frontier. In that environment, ambitious men vied for wealth, property and political power in the midst of hardship and violence. Unless we understand Jackson within the context of his pre-presidential years, according to historian Andrew Burstein, we cannot appreciate his actions as president or understand why he was both so loved and so hated.

Burstein explores the life and times of Old Hickory in his consistently illuminating new book, The Passions of Andrew Jackson.

Politics in Jackson's day was vicious and often violent, and he thrived in the atmosphere. Burstein notes that Jackson possessed two paradoxical personality traits: "imperiousness (unassailable opinions) and identification with the democratic (folk) temper." When viewed in the context of Jackson's political generation, the author says, Jackson "was not necessarily any more fierce, profane, or irrational than his competition." The author is keenly aware that many others have written about Jackson; two approaches distinguish his study. First, as he has done in his books about Thomas Jefferson and others, the author effectively dissects Jackson's correspondence, which shows him to be more than a man of action.

Second, Burstein emphasizes Jackson's friendships, showing the reader who Jackson identified with and why. Friendship was important to Jackson, but only on Jackson's terms. Some of his close friends became bitter enemies, though he regarded himself as one who "never abandoned a friend, without being forced to do so, from his own course toward me." Burstein skillfully reveals the complex central figure in his narrative while also conveying the upheaval taking place in the country during the era of western expansion. Despite Jackson's flaws, Burstein believes there is a strong case that he was the right leader to help fulfill the founders' vision of a "manifest continental destiny." This rewarding study convincingly explains how and why he filled that role.


Roger Bishop is a frequent contributor to BookPage.

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