In This Review

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson
By Sean Wilentz
Times Books, 2005, 224 pp.
Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times
Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times
By H.W. Brands
Doubleday, 2005, 640 pp.

Two strong biographies of Andrew Jackson demonstrate the continuing importance and relevance of the last American president to fight in a duel -- and the only U.S. president who ever killed someone on the field of honor. Wilentz's concise and clear short biography (part of a remarkable and useful series of short presidential biographies under the editorship of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) reflects the research behind his accomplished Rise of American Democracy and does a slightly better job at setting Jackson in his historical context. Brands offers a somewhat longer and more detailed -- but still very accessible -- life that provides a rich description of the seventh president's remarkable personality.

Jackson is one of the most remarkable figures in both American history and American historiography. Originally celebrated or deplored as a simple hero of democracy and the frontier, he was embraced by New Deal historians as a precursor to Franklin Roosevelt. There was some truth in this picture, but Jackson was a complicated man. Not only a slave owner but sometimes a slave trader, a proponent of states rights, a supporter of an "original intent" reading of the Constitution, an opponent of activist Supreme Court judges, an author of the removal of the Cherokee Indians, and a lifelong defender of the idea that American democracy was for white males only, Jackson is an increasingly awkward presence at modern reunions of American Democrats. To their credit, both Wilentz and Brands let Jackson speak for himself, rather than trying to present him as a figure who fits into the conventional left-right distinctions of a republic very different from the one he knew. What emerges is an irascible, touchy man, utterly confident in his own righteousness and equally devoted to honor, democracy, and union. These values, combined with his military achievements, gave Jackson a unique place in the hearts and minds of his compatriots. To his supporters, and to many historians since, Jackson seems to have embodied the country of his day -- its nobility, its vulgarity, its aspirations, its values, and its blind spots. Wilentz and Brands introduce readers to Jackson, and then leave them to come to terms with the general on their own. That is surely the best way to proceed.