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Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times

July 13th, 2011 · 1 Comment

The third book I read for my Civil War reading project is Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H. W. Brands.  I’ve been meaning to read this book for awhile now, having enjoyed several of Brand’s other books.  Why read a book about Andrew Jackson for a study of the Civil War?  Because Jackson:

  • represented the rise to political prominence of the American South in the early 19th century
  • faced (and beat down) the first stirring of succession sentiment in South Carolina
  • was a prominent member of the Southern aristocracy during the time in which slavery was becoming the bedrock of Southern society

One of the things that struck me reading this book was how young the South was in 1861 when the war started.  Tennessee, Jackson’s adopted state, joined the Union in 1786 but Mississippi didn’t become a state until 1817.  The Civil War started less than 50 years after Mississippi joined the nation.

The Nullification Crisis of 1832 was sparked by a tariff passed by Jackson’s predecessor as President, John Quincey Adams.  Southern states found the tariff unacceptable; it protected Northern manufacturers from competition from British manufacturers but indirectly hurt the Southern states who supplied the British with raw materials.   A sectional crisis had been brewing since 1800 over a wide range of issues and, for South Carolina, this was the final straw.  When Jackson became President and failed to take action on the hated tariff, South Carolina passed a law declaring that the tariff unconstitutional and void in the state.  Jackson promptly declared that South Carolina was engaged in treason and promised to personally lead the US Army to Charleston to put down the rebellion.

As a son of the South, many were surprised at Jackson’s energetic (some would say violent) reaction.  They failed to take into account two facts:

  • Jackson had a great deal of personal animosity toward John Calhoun, who had been his Vice-President but resigned to lead the fight against the tariff in his home state of South Carolina.  Jackson was not one to forgive what he regarded as a personal betrayal.
  • Jackson had an almost-mystical love of the Union, dating back to his childhood during the Revolution.  He lost a brother, who died after a short but brutal imprisonment at the hands of the British, and then his mother, who contracted Cholera while nursing prisoners on a British prison ship.  Having lost his entire family by the time he was 14 years old, the young Jackson gained a life-long reverence for the Union and a life-long hatred of the British.

As an adult, Jackson owned slaves his entire life and prided himself on his “humane” treatment of them.  Like most other whites of his generation, he seems to have been largely blind to the staggering contradiction between the existence of slavery and the Founding Father’s ringing statement that All Men Are Created Equal.  The abolition movement had not really gathered steam before Jackson’s death so it’s impossible to know how how he would have reacted to the political crisis over slavery that started in the late 1840s.  Brands doesn’t really address this; he wasn’t out to write about hypotheticals.  Would Jackson’s love for the Union have trumped his loyalty to the South?  We’ll never know but I suspect that he would have joined those who blamed the crisis on Northern radicalism and stood by his region.

Tags: The Civil War

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