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  • Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation by J. M. Opal
  • John Mayfield (bio)
Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation. By J. M. Opal. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. x, 337. $29.95 cloth)

It is not common to begin a study of Andrew Jackson with an analysis of Sir William Blackstone and Emer de Vattel, but this is no common book. It is, rather, a book about the rule of law in the shaping of the early republic. More exactly, it is about two divergent conceptions of law—civility and vengeance—and how the latter came to dominate American attitudes and actions towards other nations, Indians, and by extension government itself. Jackson appears as the embodiment of this shift and its acknowledged leader. Deeply researched, skillfully argued, and written with an eye for irony, J. M. Opal's book is necessary reading for anyone wishing to understand how American exceptionalism so often turns out so mean.

There was a time, Opal writes, when disciples of the Enlightenment looked forward to a new era where humans moved out of the state of nature and settled their grievances through deliberate action by the state, not personal revenge. America was to be a "civil society" that took vengeance out of the hands of individuals and substituted rational (and merciful) codes of conduct in reply—no more knifing each other over property lines. This they got from Blackstone. The same civility extended to statecraft and relations among other rational, civilized nations. This they got from Vattel, among others, who [End Page 106] argued that great nations acted with restraint and fought each other with an eye towards peace, not extermination.

It was a nice ideal that did not last. The aspiration to civility broke down under a weight of pressures. The embargo didn't work; the War of 1812 unleashed a fearsome jingoism; the Panic of 1819 eroded faith in government and its power to maintain order; the breathtaking move west stretched the limits of law and statecraft. The victims were many: settlers, squatters, speculators often took out their grievances in violent and vengeful ways. None, however, suffered more than the Native Americans of the Old Southwest. Treaties during the 1790s recognized Creeks, Cherokees, and others as "nations," if only as a formality. By 1812, these nations were in the way, and squatters and settlers began hacking away at them both geographically and physically. Who could call this "statecraft"? More to the point, was there a place for the Indians in the Enlightenment's hopes for world of civil societies?

The short answer is "no," and this is where Jackson assumes his role as proponent and executioner of the code of vengeance. His personal vendettas and propensity to settle insults violently are well known, as is his shrewd ability to speculate in western lands. What is less apparent is the fact that he was well read. Jackson was no doubt familiar with Vattel, whose Law of Nations was a popular text. Civility may have been Vattel's vision, but he had left an escape route: "civil" statecraft applied to civilized nations, not necessarily to the treatment of "savages." These were expendable. If Jackson needed a rationale for his extermination of the southern tribes, he had one. Civility was for the effete. Vengeance was the law of the frontier.

The rest is, as they say, history, and a sad one it is. Vengeance became the core attitude of those who bristled at state-imposed restraints of any type—those whom we call "Jacksonians," which indeed they were, for good reason. Opal's narrative of the Creek wars, Jackson's pivotal treaty with the Indians in 1814 and his excursion into Florida later on, and the cascading violence that defined it all invite thoughts of what might have been if an alternate vision of American civil society [End Page 107] had prevailed. Avenging the People is in its own way a lament.

If there are criticisms to be made, they are these: Opal implicitly presents his case as a stark choice between vengeance and civility. The national narrative...


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