FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Andrew Jackson and the American Psyche

Like most of us, Andrew Jackson was a product of where and when he was born.  His birthplace was in what is now western North Carolina.  This region of the land is defined by its mountains, streams, violent thunderstorms and a general remoteness.  It is a tough place to farm and a great place to hide out from the rest of humanity, especially the law.

In Jackson’s time it was populated by a couple different Native American nations, some squatters, and a few outlaws.  Land speculators and gentry coveted the land if only so they could claim riches when they went to the bank or to the slave traders.  The law was a sometime thing and almost always in service of those with land and those with money trying to steal the land.  When the law failed, as it often did, private militias were formed and the land was taken by force.  This precipitated a desire for revenge from the Cherokees and other Indian tribes which in turn led to a spiral of murder and pillage.  Jackson joined in on some of these escapades—sometimes as a private citizen and sometimes as a member of the judiciary.

According to most biographers–even those downplaying this aspect of Jackson’s biography–his participation in what were essentially trips to hunt down and kill Native Americans only seemed to increase his lust for their blood.  Furthermore, these trips intensified his ever present self-righteousness and gave him greater justification for his (and the US nation’s) continued slaughter in the name of civilization.

J. M. Opal has written the most recent biography of this most American of men.  Titled Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation, Opal’s text describes a nation at odds with itself yet seeking some kind of political harmony in order to continue its conquering ways.  As Opal describes and explains Andrew Jackson’s childhood and early years on his own, the reader is presented with a picture of a man who seemed to embody the domestic conflicts of the young United States.

Torn between a desire for complete independence from its colonial relationship with Great Britain while remaining economically hamstrung and tied to the Empire, a young United States struggled to maintain some kind of harmonious stability while its citizens demanded the right to be as free and independent as they wished.  These conflicting desires resulted in occasional attempts by settlers of various, often remote, regions to form their own nations.  More frequently, they resulted in those settlers just ignoring the laws and dictates from both state and the national capitol.

Opal’s portrait of Andrew Jackson paints a man whose actions and words found him trying to uphold the law of the faraway capitols yet also often taking the law into his own hands.  His political life as a lawyer and legislator is one of contradiction; a struggle between a belief that anything he and his people wanted they could take and a desire for some kind of order that would prevent others from taking what he had taken for his own.

Naturally, Jackson’s contradictory approach was not his alone.  The point that Opal makes again and again throughout the text is that this very contradiction was the nature of the North American frontier.  If one was a white man, then the property of other white men was sacrosanct and if one violated this understanding the law was empowered to take action against him.  This concept of property included slaves along with land and livestock.  What this meant in daily life is that Indian land was up for grabs, even if it was protected by some treaty.  As far as the legality of such land grabs went, that was often a different story.  There were those in the federal government who respected those agreements and attempted to enforce them.  Then there were those like Jackson who not only saw them as restrictive, but almost as personal insults to their rights as white men.  As for African slaves and their descendants, what comes across in Opal’s narrative is that Jackson and those who shared his mindset, these men and women were not even human.  Indeed, their lives were of no more importance than the lives of a cow or goat.

When I was asked to review this book, I immediately thought of the current president’s fascination with Andrew Jackson.  Indeed, there are obvious similarities in their public personas that by themselves make Mr. Trump’s fascination with Jackson unsurprising: their brashness and racism are two that come immediately to mind.

As I read the book, other more political and philosophical comparisons became apparent.  While every political leader in the United States believes in some way in the arrogant assumption we call American exceptionalism, Jackson and Trump both represent assumption in its most arrogant and egotistical manifestation.  Trump, a rich man who perceives himself simultaneously one of the people yet better than them because of his wealth, shares Jackson’s disdain for the law except when it serves him.  Their egocentric natures define their politics as ultimately self-serving and potentially destructive to not only their enemies but to the national polity itself.

Avenging the People is a comprehensive biography of Andrew Jackson’s life and political career.  It is also a history of a young United States.  The contradictions between personal sovereignty and a national community are explored and discussed; as is the fact that for some individuals to be sovereign, others must be degraded or destroyed.

By combining Jackson’s personal narrative with his political, military and legal careers, J.M. Opal gives the reader a fairly complete story of the beginnings of a certain still powerful political strain in the United States.  Important not only in the context of the current rule of the Trumpists in Washington, DC, this book is a beneficial and comprehensive addition to the discussion of how the United States became what it is today.

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

July 17, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Trump & The Big Bad Bugs
Robert Hunziker
Trump Kills Science, Nature Strikes Back
John Grant
The Politics of Cruelty
Kenneth Surin
Calculated Buffoonery: Trump in the UK
Binoy Kampmark
Helsinki Theatrics: Trump Meets Putin
Patrick Bond
BRICS From Above, Seen Critically From Below
Jim Kavanagh
Fighting Fake Stories: The New Yorker, Israel and Obama
Daniel Falcone
Chomsky on the Trump NATO Ruse
W. T. Whitney
Oil Underground in Neuquén, Argentina – and a New US Military Base There
Doug Rawlings
Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” was Nominated for an Emmy, Does It Deserve It?
Rajan Menon
The United States of Inequality
Thomas Knapp
Have Mueller and Rosenstein Finally Gone Too Far?
Cesar Chelala
An Insatiable Salesman
Dean Baker
Truth, Trump and the Washington Post
Mel Gurtov
Human Rights Trumped
Binoy Kampmark
Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off
July 16, 2018
Sheldon Richman
Trump Turns to Gaza as Middle East Deal of the Century Collapses
Charles Pierson
Kirstjen Nielsen Just Wants to Protect You
Brett Wilkins
The Lydda Death March and the Israeli State of Denial
Patrick Cockburn
Trump Knows That the US Can Exercise More Power in a UK Weakened by Brexit
Robert Fisk
The Fisherman of Sarajevo Told Tales Past Wars and Wars to Come
Gary Leupp
When Did Russia Become an Adversary?
Uri Avnery
“Not Enough!”
Dave Lindorff
Undermining Trump-Putin Summit Means Promoting War
Manuel E. Yepe
World Trade War Has Begun
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Stomps Britain
Wim Laven
The Best Deals are the Deals that Develop Peace
Kary Love
Can We Learn from Heinrich Himmler’s Daughter? Should We?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Franklin Lamb, Requiescat in Pace
Weekend Edition
July 13, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Brian Cloughley
Lessons That Should Have Been Learned From NATO’s Destruction of Libya
Paul Street
Time to Stop Playing “Simon Says” with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: In the Land of Formula and Honey
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s Intellectuals Bow to the Queen of Chaos 
Michael Collins
The Affirmative Action Silo
Andrew Levine
Tipping Points
Geoff Dutton
Fair and Balanced Opinion at the New York Times
Ajamu Baraka
Cultural and Ideological Struggle in the US: a Final Comment on Ocasio-Cortez
David Rosen
The New McCarthyism: Is the Electric Chair Next for the Left?
Ken Levy
The McConnell Rule: Nasty, Brutish, and Unconstitutional
George Wuerthner
The Awful Truth About the Hammonds
Robert Fisk
Will Those Killed by NATO 19 Years Ago in Serbia Ever Get Justice?
Robert Hunziker
Three Climatic Monsters with Asteroid Impact
Ramzy Baroud
Europe’s Iron Curtain: The Refugee Crisis is about to Worsen
Nick Pemberton
A Letter For Scarlett JoManDaughter
Marilyn Garson
Netanyahu’s War on Transcendence 
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail