Andrew Jackson scholars have often downplayed Jackson’s southern identity and instead emphasized his frontier roots. Mark Cheathem’s succinct biography helps correct this oversight by arguing that the values and customs of South Carolina’s western Waxhaws region—where Jackson grew up—framed his identity. Rather than seeing the Waxhaws as a frontier, as Frederick Jackson Turner and subsequent historians have argued, Cheathem stresses the region’s connections to the lowcountry planter elite of South Carolina. Cheathem argues that Jackson “possessed all of the characteristics attributed to his western identity—his independence, violent temper, and hatred of Indians” before he moved west to North Carolina and Tennessee (p. 2). To make this case, Cheathem insists that Jackson’s “southern” characteristics included an emphasis on kinship, honor, violence, Manifest Destiny, and slave owning.
Jackson’s life before he became president accounts for the book’s first half. Despite the early loss of his parents, Jackson developed a strong kinship network. His 1794 marriage to Rachel, of the prominent [End Page 666] Donelson family, helped make Jackson into a well-connected member of the elite, for “kin loaned money, bought and sold property, and connected political aspirants” (p. 24). Cheathem also stresses Jackson’s slave owning (and trading). By 1804, Jackson owned more than twenty slaves and engaged in the domestic slave trade through a partnership with the Natchez merchant Horace Green. Cheathem correctly notes the hypocrisy in Jackson’s criticism of his 1804 duel opponent, Charles Dickinson, for participating in the slave trade. Jackson, Cheathem writes, preferred to envision himself as one of the “innocent” southerners who simply bought and sold slaves (p. 53). Stressing Jackson’s dependent slaves, wife, adopted children, and wards, Cheathem portrays Jackson as firmly established in the southern patriarchy by his 1828 election to the presidency.
Despite Jackson’s nationalist rejection of South Carolina’s nullification movement and support for federal tariffs, Cheathem argues that “Jackson’s identity as a southern president was significant” (p. 180). He highlights Jackson’s “southern” policies including limitations on the distribution of abolitionist literature and his appointment of Supreme Court justice Roger B. Taney, who later ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) that federal law did not recognize African Americans as citizens. Cheathem also portrays Jackson’s dedication to Indian removal as an expression of his southern identity. His Indian removal policy displaced approximately ninety-thousand Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole Indians to present-day Oklahoma. By securing over twenty-five-million acres of southeastern land, Jackson helped create the “new South, expansive in its desire for land, cotton, and slavery” (p. 204).
Cheathem draws from Jackson’s personal and professional correspondence and recent studies on Jackson, southern culture, and slavery to provide a valuable contribution to Jackson historiography. Still, his replacement of frontiersman Jackson with Old South planter Jackson prevents his otherwise engaging biography from becoming the new standard on Jackson’s life. It remains unclear why many characteristics—especially the emphasis on violence, kinship, and [End Page 667] Manifest Destiny—that Cheathem identifies as “southern” did not equally apply to frontier cultures. The desire to extend slavery undoubtedly contributed to Jackson’s desire to banish Indians from east of the Mississippi River. Yet, Jackson’s experience during Tennessee’s Chickamauga Wars (1788–94) and prominence in a culture that dwelled on the alleged mutilation of white women and children by Indians certainly contributed to his belief that sovereign Indians could not persist among white settlers. Historians should blend Cheathem’s attention to southern identity with Jackson’s frontier experience to understand how both slaveholding and frontier expansion shaped the seventh president.
MELISSA J. GISMONDI is a PhD candidate in early American history at the University of California–Davis. Her dissertation, tentatively titled “The Lives of Rachel Jackson: Family, Gender and Violence on the Southeastern Frontier, 1760s–1820s,” considers the role of the family in Tennessee’s frontier settlements during the early republican period.