The Age of Jackson and the Art of American Power, 1815-1848. By William Nester. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2013. 362 pp.
Andrew Jackson continues to loom over interpretations of American history between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. In the latest volume of his study of American power, The Age of Jackson and the Art of Power, William Nester argues that Jackson "dominated his age for many reasons but ultimately because he had mastered the art of power." Defining the art of power as "getting what he wanted, getting others to do what they would otherwise not do, preventing others from doing what they would otherwise do, and taking from others what they would otherwise keep," Nester argues that Jackson married essential elements of Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian ideas of power to create "Jacksonism," which transformed American power through "the assertion of overwhelming, brute force," which, in Nester's view, ultimately damaged the United States (p. 2).
Nester structures much of his examination of American power around Jackson's life and personality. Jackson's "twisted psyche," "unresolved pathologies," and "volcanic" personality are transferred onto the postrevolutionary generation and its approach to exercising power (pp. 117, 129,3). Despite Jackson's limited role in the coming of the War of 1812, Nester believes his hunger for conflict explains how the nation entered the war. "For Jackson, war for vengeance, honor, and character filled an existential void for the entire nation" (p. 29)- The eager, young generation of Americans pushed President James Madison into war while still clinging to the Republican philosophy of limited government. The prosecution of the war under this political ideology created a disaster, and proved "a devastating failure of both the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian versions of the art of power" (p. 90). Jackson's overwhelming victories against Indians in the South and the British at New Orleans allowed Americans to reimagine a failed war as a victory for their honor and injected hubris into Jeffersonianism. In the postwar era, Jackson dominated American public life and brought his militant personality to bear on American public discourse, where "enemies faced either complete annihilation or capitulation" (p. 90).
Nester portrays Jackson as a demagogue who manipulated others to follow him into irrational political battles. The electorate's concerns over important issues such as the national debt, government...