The Life of Andrew Jackson — Robert V. Remini

After the dryness that characterised the presidency, and the biography, of John Quincy Adams, Jackson proved to be a refreshing break. He is probably the most interesting president I have read about since Jefferson. He is an attractive subject for many of the same reasons as Washington: a strong personality, a colourful military career, and the clear admiration of others. He had a strong code of ethics and it was hard not to admire many of his character traits. Moreover, Jackson was influential on the political scene beyond his election to the presidency. Jacksonian Democracy developed the Republican principles of Jeffersonian Democracy and emphasised the value of the common man. It also increased the power of the executive branch, in contrast to Jeffersonian Democracy which maintained a stronger Congress. It has had a lasting legacy.

Remini’s biography was originally a three-volume exploration of the life of Jackson, condensed into a single-volume edition in 1988. Remini dedicated his life to studying the Jacksonian era and produced many works about Jackson and his contemporaries. This pays off in the biography which demonstrates a superb understanding of the issues surrounding key events and the different personalities of the figures involved.

Where the book is strongest is its portrayal of the individual. Jackson’s personality shines through the pages and I could see why he was such a potent figure on the political scene. Remini tempers this with useful analysis of the significance of various events, including a downplaying of the real import of the Battle of New Orleans, and a well-judged section analysing the Bank War, about which I had no knowledge but came away feeling confident I understood the salient points.

My main criticism of Remini is that he is a little too forgiving of Jackson’s failings, particularly regarding his treatment of the Indians. Remini does acknowledge the suffering caused by the Indian Removal Act but is a little too eager to side with Jackson’s view that it was the only way to preserve Indian life and culture. Firstly, I think it is risky to take public statements about the motivations behind legislation at face value; and secondly, I don’t think the Trail of Tears can be so easily defended. A biographer becoming a little overly attached to his subject’s point of view is becoming a recurring refrain, so I don’t think it fair to judge Remini too harshly for this in what was otherwise a superb book.

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