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.