From Publishers Weekly
In the latest installment of the American Presidents series edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Princeton historian Wilentz shows that our complicated seventh president was a central figure in the development of American democracy. Wilentz gives Jackson's early years their due, discussing his storied military accomplishments, especially in routing the British in the War of 1812, and rehearsing the central crises of Jackson's presidential administration—South Carolina's nullification of the protective tariff and his own battle against the Bank of the United States. But Wilentz's most significant interpretations concern Indian policy and slavery. With constitutional and security concerns, Jackson's support for removal of Indians from their lands, says Wilentz, was not "overtly malevolent," but was nonetheless "ruinous" for Indians. Even more strongly, Wilentz condemns the "self-regarding sanctimony of posterity" in judging Jackson insufficiently antislavery; Jackson's main aim, he says, was not to promote slavery, but to keep the divisive issue out of national politics. Wilentz (The Rise of American Democracy
) also astutely reads the Eaton affair—a scandal that erupted early in Jackson's presidency, over the wife of one of his cabinet members—as evidence that, then as now, parlor politics and partisan politics often intersected. It is rare that historians manage both Wilentz's deep interpretation and lively narrative.
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Best known now for beating the British in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, Jackson is truly, monumentally important, Wilentz argues, as the first great presidential champion of the common man and indivisible union. He fought the plutocratic Bank of the United States' stranglehold on credit for the sake of farmers and small businessmen. His militant expansionism--the rationale for his Indian removal policies, which he felt were better than white settlers exterminating Native Americans, as had happened in New England--aimed to facilitate American settlement and prevent foreign, especially British, encroachment. He became founder-leader of the first modern political party, the Democracy (later called the Democratic Party), to prosecute the interests of ordinary citizens, too, going so far as to advocate direct senatorial and presidential election. Even his anti-states rights and anti-secession positions reflected his social sympathies, for he considered his southern opponents on those issues would-be aristocrats. Factor in his heroic courage, iron will, and remarkable pragmatism, and Jackson's presidential stature, especially as carefully expounded here, seems towering, indeed. Ray OlsonCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved