- Andrew Jackson, Southerner by Mark R. Cheathem
For historians, Andrew Jackson has always defied easy classification. More than a century ago, Frederick Jackson Turner and John Spencer Bassett viewed the seventh president as a fitting representative of the Trans-Appalachian frontier. In the 1940s, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. saw him as a hero of an emerging urban working [End Page 220] class. More recently, in two prize-winning and magisterial books on the Jacksonian period, Sean Wilentz and Daniel Walker Howe revived the debate over whether Jackson’s brand of populism was progressive or reactionary.
Thus it is somewhat surprising that no biographer of Jackson, who owned 150 slaves at the time of his death, has sought to situate him in the world of the slave-holding South. Mark R. Cheathem seeks to fill this void with Andrew Jackson, Southerner. Much like William Dusinberre’s Slavemaster President, which examined Old Hickory’s protégé, James K. Polk, this is a book which reveals the extent to which the peculiar institution shaped both the public and private lives of Tennessee’s most prominent political leaders. The author suggests that Jackson’s behavior was not unique to slaveholders, however, but to all southern white males. Cheathem writes: “Jackson’s propensity toward violence, defense of honor, enslavement of African Americans, embrace of kinship, and pursuit of Manifest Destiny created a southern identity to which many contemporary white southerners, elite and non-elite, could relate” (4).
For Jackson, this process of self-fashioning began early. Although the future president grew up in the Waxhaw region of the North Carolina and South Carolina Piedmont, as a young lawyer Jackson aspired to gain entrance into high society, and had begun to adopt the behaviors of a southern gentleman by the time he arrived in Middle Tennessee in 1788. While many readers will no doubt be familiar with the key events of Jackson’s public career, Cheathem adds a new and important dimension to his subject by his attention to the slaveholding interests which consumed much of Jackson’s energies throughout his adult life.
Southerners did not, of course, always think and act as a monolithic bloc, and as president Jackson certainly antagonized those who opposed his heavy-handed commitment to Unionism during the Nullification Crisis. Nonetheless, Cheathem builds a persuasive case that Jackson, for better or worse, exhibited a uniquely southern brand of leadership during the White House years. Having made his fortune in plantation agriculture, he could not help but be sympathetic to the demands of whites who sought the expulsion of American Indians from tribal lands in the southern states. Of his four appointments to the Supreme Court, three supported the institution of slavery and would be part of the majority that would decide the Dred Scott case two decades after the end of his presidency. Perhaps Cheathem’s most novel application of his “Jackson as southerner” thesis is his take on the Peggy Eaton affair. With members of his own household (including his niece Emily Donelson) at the center of the effort to ostracize Peggy, Cheathem argues that Jackson’s staunch support of the embattled Eatons had much to do with his need to assert himself as southern patriarch over his extended family.
Not surprisingly, Jackson’s involvement in what would become known as the “Texas Question” features prominently in Cheathem’s monograph. Unwilling to allow the issue to play a disruptive role in the 1836 presidential election, Jackson adopted a position of strict neutrality during the Texas war for independence. By the 1840s, however, as his anxiety over the future of slavery increased, he came to regard the annexation of the Texas republic as the last great struggle of his life. Old Hickory lived just long enough to see annexation consummated, a measure that would play no small role in poisoning the political climate between North and South. While Jackson’s controversial career will no doubt continue to provoke debate among historians, Mark Cheathem’s Andrew Jackson, Southerner offers a fresh and convincing portrait of the enigmatic seventh...