Sunday, March 6, 2011

Two Tributes to Andrew Jackson as the Embodiment of the American Spirit

by Michael Kaplan

The Lion in Winter.  Andrew Jackson in 1840, by Jacques Amans.

Respecting the character of Andrew Jackson and his influence, there will still be differences of opinion. One fact, however, has been established: during the last thirty years of his life, he was the idol of the American people. His faults, whatever they were, were such as a majority of the American citizens of the last generation could easily forgive. His virtues, whatever they were, were such as a majority of American citizens of the last generation could warmly admire. It is this fact which renders him historically interesting. Columbus had sailed; Raleigh and the Puritans had planted; Franklin had lived; Washington fought; Jefferson written; fifty years of democratic government had passed; free schools, a free press, a voluntary church had done what they could to instruct the people; the population of the country had been quadrupled and its resources increased ten fold; and the result of all was, that the people of the United States had arrived at the capacity of honoring Andrew Jackson before all other living men.

Andrew Jackson, more than any other individual, embodied the American spirit in all of its strengths, weaknesses, and contradictions. In life and in death, Jackson was a controversial figure. To his supporters in the Democratic Party, Jackson (like Washington) was Cincinnatus. They celebrated their Hero as the knight-errant of the frontier, tribune of the people, and the champion of democracy. But to the political opposition—supporters of Henry Clay and the Whig Party—Jackson was Caesar, “King Andrew the First,” who abused executive authority and trampled the Constitution under foot.

Old Hickory was a true American original whose life exemplified the values and culture of Jacksonian America. He rose from a childhood of poverty and deprivation to achieve renown as a military chieftain and the supreme political leader of his generation. And Jackson achieved all this through the force of his personality. As historians Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton write: “His was a brutish world in which freedom and violence were so inextricably intertwined that those who prospered did so less by virtue of their social connections . . . than because they were tough enough to strike at potential enemies before they could land the first blow.” Jackson thus made his reputation as a skilled practitioner of the art of violent confrontation: first by fighting duels with his Tennessee rivals, later by defending American liberty and advancing American empire in wars with the Indians and the British. Liberty, as Jackson understood it, meant personal autonomy and the freedom of local interests from federal interference. This was the liberty of white male patriarchs, like Jackson, to lead their families and be masters of their domains. Jacksonian men were first and foremost the protectors of women, children, and the community. As he moved from the local to the national arena, Jackson developed a passionate belief in the unity of the American nation that could not be compromised by sectionalism. A strong union, he believed, was needed to preserve America’s hard won liberty. Building a North American empire through ethnic cleansing of the Indians, in which Jackson played a central role, allowed white Jacksonian men to see themselves as a band of brothers united in the defense of liberty. Unfortunately, Jacksonian nationalism also forged a racially exclusive definition of who was an American and who was entitled to enjoy the blessings of liberty.

James Parton, Jackson’s first major biographer, understood why Old Hickory embodied the American character better than any other figure. Unlike their European forebears, Americans did not passively accept what fate and circumstance handed out. The Jacksonian code of honor valued courage above all else, viewing life as a struggle against those hostile forces conspiring to grind a man down into the dust. On the early American frontier those forces could be savage Indians, perfidious Britons, the capriciousness of nature, or treacherous eastern elites. Yet the Jacksonian American, like Jackson himself, conquered all enemies and surmounted all obstacles, to emerge triumphant as the master of his destiny. As Parton put it, “not only had [Jackson] no such word as fail, but no belief, not the slightest, that he could fail in any thing seriously undertaken by him. And he never did.” Of course not all Jacksonians met success and triumph in their lives; many pioneers on the frontier fell victim to those forces lined up against them. But they did go down fighting. Jackson’s life story was the ideal to which those Americans who shared Jacksonian culture and values looked up to and tried to emulate.

Death of General Andrew Jackson, by James S. Baillie, 1845.  "Oh, do not cry.  Be good children, and we will all meet in heaven."

Jackson’s death in June 1845 was marked by an outpouring of oratory and writings that celebrated and tried to make sense of what his life meant for a democratic America. The Hero, who had been born in poverty on the frontier and achieved greatness on the battlefield, died in his bed surrounded by family in an atmosphere of romantic sentimentalism typical of mid-nineteenth-century America. His reported last words were: “What is the matter with my dear children? Have I alarmed you? Oh, do not cry. Be good children, and we will all meet in heaven.” General Sam Houston, Jackson’s protégé and surrogate son, who had achieved greatness as the founding father of Texas, hurried to reach his beloved mentor’s deathbed to see him one last time. But when Houston arrived at Jackson’s Hermitage, he learned that Old Hickory had passed on three hours earlier. Taking his young son Sam Jr. in his arms and lifting him up, Houston said “My son, try to remember that you have looked upon the face of Andrew Jackson.”

Funeral commemorations for the Old Hero were held in cities and towns across the nation. New York City’s ceremony was the most elaborate of all, befitting its status as America’s premier metropolis. Eulogizing Jackson to the people of Richmond, Virginia, Andrew Stevenson emphasized triumph over adversity as the great theme of Old Hickory’s life. Stevenson saw the hand of destiny at work in Jackson’s life: “Born a simple citizen, of poor but respectable parents,” Jackson achieved greatness “by no other means than the energy of his own character, and being, as he seems to have been, the favourite of nature and Heaven!” Divine providence was helped along by Jackson’s own indomitable will. “Severe discipline and poverty, inured him, in early life, to great hardship and industry, and it has been justly said of him that he seems to have been an orphan from the plough to the presidency.” Stevenson concluded that Jackson must “be regarded as the architect of his own fortunes!” Jackson’s life could be seen as the archetype for the ordinary American, who without formal education, social polish, or inherited wealth, and through his efforts and will power, became a hero in the drama of his own journey through life. Strength of will and character are more important than the circumstances of one’s birth. This idea, which still resonates among Americans today, especially among conservatives, has Jacksonian origins. Or as Parton concluded, Jackson’s life revealed, “what man supremely admires in man is manhood.”

Walt Whitman, the great poet of Jacksonian America and a native of Long Island (he was born just up the road from where I teach), gave poetic voice to this Jacksonian vision of a democratic and heroic manhood:

O the joy a manly self-hood!
To be servile to none, to defer to none, not to any tyrant known or unknown,
To walk with erect carriage, a step springy and elastic,
To look with calm gaze or with a flashing eye,
To speak with a full and sonorous voice out of a broad chest,
To confront with your personality all the other personalities of the earth.
The two pieces presented here get to the heart of why Jackson was so important to the American people as a man and a symbol. The first, by Herman Melville, is an excerpt from Moby Dick published in 1851, six years after Jackson’s death. The second is an excerpt from a eulogy by Washington McCartney, a Pennsylvania lawyer and judge, delivered in commemoration of Jackson’s death.

Melville understood that Americans in the years after the Revolution had made an important discovery: God is a democrat. Americans in a democratic age demanded a democratic hero—a hero whose manhood had been forged in the crucible of democratic nation building. Lucy Hughes-Hallett, in her study of hero worship in western civilization, notes: “a hero is not a role model. On the contrary, it is the essence of a hero to be unique and therefore inimitable.” George Washington, America’s first hero, fit Hughes-Hallett’s description. He was neither a democrat nor a man of the people, always maintaining a quasi-aristocratic distance from his countrymen. Americans would revere Washington as the Father of the Country, but they could not see themselves in him. In contrast, as Washington McCartney told his listeners, Americans could, and did, see their own image in Old Hickory. Throughout his career Andrew Jackson was called “The Hero” and he did achieve a unique stature of heroic greatness in among his countrymen. But, far from being inimitable, Jackson was seen as the average American writ large. The qualities that made Jackson great were precisely those that the average American could find in himself. Andrew Jackson’s life and career marked the democratization of the heroic ideal.

© 2011 Michael Kaplan

* * * * * * * * * *

But were the coming narrative to reveal, in any instance, the complete abasement of poor Starbucks fortitude, scarce might I have the heart to write it; for it is a thing most sorrowful, nay shocking, to expose the fall of valor in the soul. Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workmans arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just spirit of equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God! who didst not refuse to the swart convict, Bunyan, the pale, poetic pearl; Thou who didst clothe with doubly hammered leaves of finest gold, the stumped and paupered arm of old Cervantes; Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God!

Source: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, Luther S. Mansfield and Howard P. Vincent, eds. (New York: Hendricks House, 1952), Chapter 26 “Knights and Squires,” pp. 113-114. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.

* * * * * * * * * *

What was Andrew Jackson, and what did he do, that he should receive such honours while living, and when dead, should gather a nation round his tomb? What was he? He was the imbodiment of the true spirit of the nation in which he lived. What did he do? He put himself at the head of the great movement of the age in which he lived. This was what he was, and this was what he did. For this, a nation admired him while living, and for this, a nation pays him those cypress honours in which we this day join. Let it be our theme to show that Andrew Jackson did imbody the true spirit of his nation, that he did put himself at the head of the great movement of his age, and that because he was this, and did this, he received, and yet receives, the admiration and the honour of his countrymen. Around this theme, we might cluster the thrilling scenes of his military life, the prominent actions of his political, and the praiseworthy deeds of his domestic life. For all these enter into the description of what he was, and what he did.

We have said that Andrew Jackson imbodied the ruling spirit of his country, and entered heart and soul into the great movement of his age. Run the eye across the history of the world. You observe that there are certain cycles, or ages, or periods of time, which have their peculiar spirit, their ruling passion, their great characterizing, distinctive movments. He, who imbodies in its greatest fullness, the spirit of such an age, and enters with most earnestness into its movements, receives the admiration of his contemporaries. They bestow their honours upon him while living, and when dead, they embalm his memory, and inurn him in their warmest affections. And why? because they see in him their own image. Because, in him is concentrated the spirit that has burned in their own bosom. Because, in him exists, in bodily form, in living flesh and blood, the spirit that gives them life and motion. The spirit of God descended upon the Saviour of the world in the form of a dove. The spirit of an age sometimes descends to future generations in the form of a man. An individual sometimes appears who becomes the dove-like incorporation of the spirit, that moves through vast masses of men. The admiration merited by him, and bestowed upon him, is in proportion to the nature, extent, and intensity, of that Spirit which finds its fulness of existence in him. The Redeemer of man, when upon the earth, was the imbodiment of the pure spirit that moves and directs all humanity in its regenerated life. Beside him, all approaches towards the imbodiment of the pure, life-giving spirit of the race, have been local, partial, imperfect. But in proportion as an individual concentrates within himself, the spirit which works through masses of men, and which moves, and should move them through the greatest cycle of time, in that proportion, he becomes entitled to their admiration and praise. William Tell, the spirit of Switzerland’s liberty existed in its fulness. Switzerland gazed—admired—roused itself at the twang of his bow, and still honours the hero. Luther was the typing out, in human form, of a spirit that circulated all over Europe. When the nations saw their image in him, they admired the man. Europe did him reverence. Nations gathered around him. Washington was the typing out, in living flesh and blood, of that burning spirit of liberty, that pervaded three millions of freemen. In him, it existed as in its dove-like imbodiment. Hamilton and Jefferson, became each the type and image of his party. Thousands saw in them the fulness of their own ideal of political perfection. Therefore Hamilton and Jefferson were admired. But why add to the muster-roll of names, to verify the truth, so widely felt, that he who gains the admiration of a nation, must be the type, the image, the imbodied spirit of the nation. The historical heavens are full of stars—but one star differeth from another star in glory. One shines brighter than its fellows, because it has more of the matter of light within it. But all who shine as the stars of history, derive their brightness from the degree of perfection in which they imbody the spirit the pervades vast aggregations of men. Because his countrymen saw their image and spirit in Andrew Jackson, they bestowed their honour and admiration upon him. Begin then, at the lowest grade of those who receive the praise of their fellow-men. Fill up the catalogue of stars. Go from the dimmest to the brightest. Advance from the village hero, upwards, and upwards, and upwards, till you arrive at the impersonation of all human perfection. Where, on such a list, would you inscribe the name,

The position of his name upon the list of honour, will depend upon the degree of perfection in which he was the image of his fellow-republicans.

Source: Benjamin M. Dusenbery, ed., Monument to the Memory of General Andrew Jackson: Containing Twenty-five Eulogies and Sermons Delivered On Occasion of His Death (Philadelphia: Walker and Gillis, 1846), pp. 281-282.


  1. Andrew Jackson does in fact symbolize a lot of what America is... war hero, visionary, advocate of "progress" by oppressing others his life is controversial and enigmatic to say the least

    1. Indeed, Jackson was controversial during his lifetime and as a figure of history. As were most of America's great leaders--Jefferson, Lincoln, TR, FDR, Reagan--who brought out the love and devotion of their supporters and the hostility and even hatred of their opposition. Jackson embodied both the triumph and the tragedy of American history.

    2. The above statement also applies very clearly to Donald Trump.

  2. Hi Michael,

    Well, the election is over and I have at least a sense of relief. I'm hoping Pres. Trump can in fact rein in the lost cause that is the Washington establishment and his scathing rebuke of the entrenched establishment was both refreshing and right on point. I would take it as quite Jacksonian to say the least.

    I found the following today in which the case is made that in fact Jacksonians and in turn the country were the big winners yesterday and as such, I'd love your thoughts on this:

    Year In Review
    The Winners of 2016 Walter Russell Mead & Staff
    1. Andrew Jackson
    The biggest winner of 2016 has been dead for 171 years. Old Hickory’s legacy of American populism is one of the most powerful forces in national politics. When properly harnessed, it wins wars by facing down America’s enemies with unrelenting ruthlessness. Jacksonian populists are threat-motivated at home too, and in 2016 they carried Donald Trump to victory on the back of anger about immigration, economic competition with Mexico and China, and Islamism. The establishments of both major political parties were caught completely off-guard.

    The establishment always has an uncomfortable relationship with Jacksonians, but the most effective politicians are able to earn their support. President Reagan impressed Jacksonians by being tough on the Soviet Union. President Clinton was tough on crime and presided over a substantial decline in murders and robberies.
    The last two American presidents have badly mismanaged their Jacksonian messaging. In President Bush’s case, the failure of coalition forces to find the weapons of mass destruction the administration presented as justifying the need for war undercut Bush’s Jacksonian support. Worse was the bait-and-switch rationale the administration offered in place of WMD: building democracy in Iraq. Jacksonians like democracy, but they generally don’t think this can or should be accomplished with US troops.

    President Obama never did well with Jacksonians — nor did he show much sign of wanting to. His remark during the 2008 primary about Americans who “cling” to religion and guns betrayed a disgust with Jacksonian America that President Obama has done little to hide while in office. His indifferent response to terrorism and amnesty for illegal immigrants confirmed Jacksonian suspicions. Meanwhile, Democratic pronouncements about how the multicultural Obama political coalition was rendering white America politically impotent sounded to Jacksonians as nothing less than a declaration of war on them and on their values. In 2016, they retaliated by putting the rawest Jacksonian in the White House since Old Hickory himself.


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