IF YOU ARE going to judge a book by its title, you better also include a judgment about its author. Hillsdale College's Bradley Birzer is one of the most thoughtful conservative historians writing today, and his In Defense of Andrew Jackson challenges us to rediscover our own values by comparing them to those of America's seventh president. If you also accept those values, then no doubt you will find Birzer's case extremely convincing; if you reject those values, you will nonetheless be sharper for having wrestled with Old Hickory's ghost. Few people today would set out to write a defense of Andrew Jackson, but this one deserves to be read.
Following Russell Kirk's John Randolph of Roanoke, the book is written with more empathy than detail. That makes for a compelling read, but it presents significant problems, too. Birzer writes, "My account of Andrew Jackson might not be the man in detail, but I hope that in its own way it offers the man in full." Yet because Jackson was a living myth--the frontier incarnate--emphasizing "the man in full" over "the man in detail" mixes legend and reality.
BIRZER'S NARRATIVE BEGINS with what should have been one of the happier moments in Jackson's life: his inauguration as president. But on his first day in office, he was in mourning for his wife Rachel, who had recently died of a heart attack after the press called her an adulterer and a sex worker. Jackson never really wanted to be president, which made Rachel's death more painful and tragic. The press even attacked his mother, who had died when he was only 14 years old, leaving him an orphan alone on the frontier--alone but for the other frontiersmen. Jackson was always at home with them.
Easterners, though: They were suspicious. So many of them were rank pro-British Federalists--and like any good child of the revolution, Jackson hated the British. His youth and manhood were periods of nearly constant warfare across the frontier zone, and Jackson understood that wars with Britain meant devastation. His primary concern was the well-being of his fellow frontiersmen, but Birzer also painstakingly details Jackson's complex relationship with Native Americans, whom the British often used as pawns. To save the natives from the settlers, to save the settlers from the natives, to save the whole country from Great Britain--for those reasons, Jackson said, natives should be removed beyond the limits of white settlement. A frontiersman could never rest comfortably...