Andrew Jackson, American South, Jacksonian politics, Southern honor
Back in 1996, the late Bertram Wyatt-Brown marked SHEAR’s Nashville-based conference with a Presidential Address on “Andrew Jackson’s Honor.” That paper, subsequently published in the Journal of the Early Republic, forged a link between Old Hickory’s dueling, Indian-fighting, and general orneriness and the traits of “southern” honor that so fascinated Wyatt-Brown.
Mark Cheathem’s new book takes a cue from Wyatt-Brown’s classic piece even as he moves beyond the most clearly sensational parts of “Old Hickory’s” career (there were many) so as to apply the “southern honor theme” to the entire life of this seminal political figure. If Jackson has often been treated as a “representative of the trans-Appalachian frontier,” Cheathem insists that a Waxhaw upbringing and a subsequent Tennessee political apprenticeship made him “truly a southerner” (4). His political appeal across the slaveholding states thereby can be seen as a function of Jackson’s “southern identity,” as evidenced in his well-known “propensity toward violence, defense of honor, enslavement of African-Americans, embrace of kinship, and pursuit of Manifest Destiny.” With such powerful associations came a cross-class appeal, with the willful old General earning the plaudits of “many contemporary white southerners, elite and non-elite” (4).
The merits of Cheathem’s approach are most evident in areas where he has the greatest expertise. His earlier work on Jackson nephew and namesake A. J. Donelson lends considerable authority to this new book’s treatment of the patriarchal Jackson. The Hermitage, we learn in vivid detail, was situated as the central node of a far-flung network of kin ties, local political alliances, and plantation initiatives. This dense social and cultural web of interconnections linked Jackson’s impulsive and often arbitrary political style not simply to his command of the frontier militia but to the world of the Middle Tennessee gentry. Like Wyatt-Brown, Cheathem sees this world of “gentlemanly” honor and hyper-masculine [End Page 510] assertiveness as a regional ideal. More specifically still, this integrated complex of cultural values, perspectives, and imperatives yielded a certain political style that set the slave states apart from the rest of the country. Jackson’s standing with his peers (which at first meant fellow slaveholding gentry but would eventually would encompass all white republican patriarchs entrusted with the franchise) rested on the ways he exercised authority over household white dependents, political subordinates, and the enslaved workers whose labor formed the basis of Jackson’s own considerable (though remarkably precarious) wealth.
The greatest challenge of Cheathem’s approach is to show how the “private” Jackson informed the actions of that domineering “political” figure associated since with an entire era of democratic assertiveness. His emphasis on regional traits as a vital link between local and national power is buttressed by citations to Wyatt-Brown, David Hackett Fisher, Kenneth Greenberg, T. H. Breen, and others. Harkening back to this late-twentieth-century scholarly corpus appears fresher than it otherwise might, in that the theme can be revivified by our current tendency to divide political maps (especially those involving presidential politics) between dyed-in-the wool neo-Jacksonian “Red States” and the “Blue State” northern, coastal, and urban enclaves where selective elements of a Whiggish ethos have prevailed as a distinctive cultural style.
Jackson’s presidential ambitions and his two-term “Red State” presidency span fully eight of the book’s twenty chapters. This coverage is where Cheathem’s main theme seems strained. What happens in these years was crucial, given the extraordinary influence that Jackson had over the office of the American presidency. His martyrdom as the frustrated “People’s choice” of 1824 de-legitimized John Quincy Adams’s single term; Jackson’s victories in 1828 and 1832 consolidated his appeal so as to put a Van Buren succession in place for 1836; as a political finale, Jackson threw his vital support to Polk in 1844. In his sway over national executive politics, Jackson, and his two decades of influence, had few...