Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times
By H.W. Brands (Doubleday, 620 pages, $35)
Any single-volume life of Andrew Jackson will inevitably leave out the details and nuanced analysis that can so enrich a reader's understanding of America's seventh president. In the biography Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, author H.W. Brands not only cleans up the erratic spelling in Jackson's papers, he also turns a blind eye (or at least a sympathetic one) to most of Jackson's faults. This is Old Hickory with the bark off.
By Brands' reckoning, for instance, Jackson was a reluctant slave owner who was forced into the trade by his complex business dealings but treated his human property with fairness and compassion. This despite the fact Jackson once offered a $50 reward for the return of a runaway slave—with a $10 bonus for every hundred lashes given the slave up to 300. Jackson's interstate trade in slaves also troubled the leader enough that he altered documents to cover it up while running for president. Brands likewise seems at a loss to explain Jackson's lifelong penchant for dueling, which so damaged his health as to make him almost an invalid at the Battle of New Orleans. He attributes Jackson's foul disposition to his poor health, although it was probably the other way around: The bullets left in his body from so many duels led to recurring infections and lead poisoning that would afflict him all his life.
Brands also glides over the many outrages that so infuriated Jackson's enemies, such as the Ambrister-Arbuthnot affair. In it, Jackson convened a court on then-foreign soil (Florida) to try two British nationals on charges stemming from actions occurring outside the United States in peacetime. The court recommended hanging one and lashing and imprisoning the other, but Jackson executed them both. Despite the lip service he paid to preserving American liberty, Jackson was a virtual dictator in the South who suspended habeas corpus and other constitutional niceties whenever it suited him. A reassessment of Jackson's popularity in American memory is no doubt overdue, but Brands is not the historian to make it.
H.W. Brands appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, Oct. 27. Free.