U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Irony, History, and Andrew Jackson

Of all the pleasures of historical study, historical irony thrills me the most. It might be weird to put it in such terms, for the consequences of this irony are quite grim, but I have a favorite historical irony. I first caught a fleeting glimpse of this irony quite early on in my academic studies and it is to a large degree what drew me to study early 933085-moby_dickrepublic and antebellum American history. Though it took me more than a decade to understand it in these terms and it might take me a few more decades to fully grapple with it, here it is: how a nation that expanded violently over a continent to avoid the perils of a world beholden to the whims of the market came to embody its worst fears, to a large extent as a result of that very expansion. This is of course one of the most fundamental contradictions in American history, and hardly a new realization. Perhaps the greatest American novel, Moby Dick, explored this very irony more than 150 years ago with unparalleled gusto. But I’d like to point out particularly one book, which I came to relatively late, that more than any other study explicated to me the terms and stakes of this irony: Michael Paul Rogin’s Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian

I have a few more go-to books I like to consult about this historical problem, such as The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America by Steven Watts, Richard Slotkin’s masterful two books, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 and The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890, as well as The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief by Marvin Meyers. Truly a delicious collection of books, but none deliver as well on this particular front as Fathers and Children.

Though Fathers and Children—an all too phsycologistic biography of Andrew Jackson—spends much ink discussing Jackson’s various psychoanalytical complexes, many of which to me at least do not seem all that compelling, one should not let such noise undermine what I think is the most penetrating psychological insight this book has to offer. Rogin’s argument hinges on the notion that Jackson’s life centered around one dominant predicament—how to reconcile his economic, political, and moral designs, both for himself and for the nation. At an early age Jackson had secured vast landholdings and considerable political influence in his adopted state of Tennessee by the combination so common to early America: the integration of land speculation and politics. Around the age of 40, however, after gaining notoriety for killing a man in a duel and after Aaron Burr almost lured him into his rogue expansionist schemes, he had a mid-life crisis; Jackson felt a strong urge for self-vindication. He then dedicated the remainder of his life to purge his conscience of moral ambiguity. Like Washington before him, he forced himself on the nation as a military hero—after all there was no better way in early America to wash away such anxieties than basking in the glory of patriotic heroism. For Washington it was the Revolutionary War, for Jackson it would be the war of 1812.

Thus the years leading up to the War of 1812 found Ahab Jackson, as a newly elected militia general in need of a war. And when the war broke out Jackson embarked on a decade long filibuster (the term often used to refer to rogue expansionist military schemes) under the symbol of nationalism in efforts to secure the future moral character of America. Indeed, one way Rogin explains Jackson’s zeal for expansion over his latter years is by highlighting his Jeffersonian obsession with agrarian life as a moral refuge from a world of havoc. Herein lies the powerful irony of Jackson’s life and of America: by destroying the Indian peoples of this vast region and by obtaining by force an abundance of land that purported to secure a non-commercial way of life for white male agrarians, he drew America ever more deeply into the webs of the global market.

Indeed, Jackson, according to Rogin, was the single most important actor in providing the United States with much of the unopened tracts of prime cotton growing land that fueled the primitive accumulation necessary to ignite the rise of capitalist America. These lands, of course, were then held by the Natives of the region, also known as the “five civilized tribes”: the Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Choctaw peoples. During Jackson’s military career, in the 1810s, he oversaw the assault on the entrenched resistance of Red Stick Creeks and the Seminoles as he forced Natives of the region to cede lands to the United States. As a president, a decade later, he removed those who had remained, including many Indian peoples who thought they had bought America’s amity by cooperating with Jackson’s military efforts just a short while earlier. Even a Supreme Court decision in favor of the Cherokees could not stand in the way of Jackson as head of the executive branch of government.

As we well know, the deep South did not become a refuge of homestead farms, but rather one of the central nodes of an integrated market economy. It was fertile ground for men like Jackson in his early days, many of his fellow southwestern elites, to integrate political and economic designs and secure the prime cotton lands of the black belt. These market oriented endeavors, as we can read in Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, would provide the raw material that transformed not only the American economy but the world’s economy. “Dispossessing Indians,” concludes Rogin, “Jackson had set in motion an acquisitive capitalism which undermined agrarian dreams. He was still groping, in the 1820s for a way to overcome the contradictions of his life.” (1)

Furthermore, Jackson’s crusade against the U.S. Bank in the 1830s was but another failed strike at what he thought was the heart of the white whale of moneyed power; yet another fervid self-destructive crusade to crush the forces of commerce that undermined the independence of white male farmers; but to little avail. The more localized banks that replaced Biddle’s bank did just as much if not more to secure the hold of the market on the land Jackson had taken by force from the Indians. By dismantling old and more rigid economic structures in the name of the common man, Jackson both unleashed free market forces and sanctified free market ideology. “Jackson himself,” reminds us Rogin, ultimately did very little to alleviate the anxieties of white America, for he “offered neither human cooperation nor social control of wealth as alternatives to market competition. He exemplified instead the power of the individual will to slay the demons which confronted it.” (2)

[1] Michael Paul Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (New York, 1991 edition), 256

[2] Rogin, Fathers and Children, 294