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The Rise of Andrew Jackson: Myth, Manipulation, and the Making of Modern Politics, David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler

Reviewed by Adam Pratt


It would be easy to read David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler’s study of the improbable rise of Andrew Jackson to the nation’s highest political office and equate it with the even more improbable rise of the current occupant of the Oval Office. Indeed, the text is littered with quotations that make it nearly impossible not to draw parallels to contemporary politics. As early as 1822, for example, the influential editor of the Richmond Enquirer, Thomas Ritchie, admitted that a Jackson presidency had not been taken “by anyone, seriously,” until the Tennessee legislature nominated Jackson (p. 131). Such a myopic reading would be a mistake, though, for the Heidlers have written a book that transcends our current political situation and speaks more directly to the power of communicating myths about political candidates by a committed group of supporters whose machinations can propel their favorites to the highest levels of success in American electoral politics.

In 15 deftly written chapters, the authors trace the course of Jackson’s career as he entered the public imagination after his resounding triumph at the Battle of New Orleans, to his divisive invasion of Spanish West Florida, the controversy over the Election of 1824, and finally to his nomination and victory in 1828. Although this is a very familiar route that almost all historians trace, the authors shine in two distinct areas. The first is their use of character studies, especially the eccentricities of powerful figures, to demonstrate how power and personality shaped the outcome of key events. From John Quincy Adams’s annoyingly perfect enunciation to William H. Crawford’s likability and charisma, the Heidlers capture the essence of these figures, which makes them more relatable as humans and less like inscrutable solons obscured by the fog of time. Central to this politics of personality is Jackson himself. The authors paint him as volatile, touchy about his reputation and that of his wife, and unwilling to forgive his enemies—unless it suited his purposes. Mystified by Jackson’s vendetta against him, Crawford could only throw up his hands in exasperation: “With the man I have not had a direct quarrel” (p. 153).

Where the authors also shine is in their description of the clique of true believers (whom they refer to as Jacksonites) who propelled Old Hickory to success. The central figure of the Nashville Junto who orchestrated Jackson’s 1824 campaign, John Overton, is carefully sketched as a deliberate, shrewd, and prescient political actor. These operators paved the way for Jackson’s unexpected success by upstaging John C. Calhoun’s popularity in Pennsylvania and using Crawford’s health woes to their advantage. In the process, they promoted Jackson as a political outsider intent on upending corruption, especially the undemocratic King Caucus.

Central to the messaging was John Eaton, whose 1817 biography of Jackson paved the way for a mythology to form around Old Hickory. Here the authors do an impressive job of discussing just how important messaging was to Jackson’s rise to political prominence. The ability of the nascent political structure forming around Jackson to control the narrative of both the elections of 1824 and 1828, especially the “corrupt bargain,” points to the important connection between the use of media to mobilize voters and alter the democratic spirit. This diverse and ideologically inconsistent circle, populated by the partisan Jacksonites and the more ideological Jacksonians, who desired universal white manhood suffrage, expansion, and a return to a more limited central government, at times made strange allies. One hopes that the authors will follow up on this well-written and illuminating volume about the rise of Andrew Jackson and his political allies with a sequel that spells out the inevitable fall.

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