Mark Cheathem is associate professor of history at Cumberland University. His book, Andrew Jackson, Southerner (Louisiana State University Press) framed this interview with guest blogger David George Moore. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org. Dave is author most recently of The Last Men’s Book You’ll Ever Need (B & H Publications).
[DM] What circumstances led you to tackle this project?
[MC] While finishing my first book, Old Hickory’s Nephew: The Political and Private Struggles of Andrew Jackson Donelson, I began looking for a new project to undertake. I wanted to continue working in the Jacksonian/antebellum period and considered several possibilities, including an examination of slavery in Tennessee and a study of the southern Know Nothings. I settled on the book that became Andrew Jackson, Southerner largely because of a conversation with my former doctoral supervisor at Mississippi State University, John F. Marszalek. He knew I wanted to do something related to Jackson and encouraged me to follow my passion. I tell people that if I had known that Jon Meacham was going to win a Pulitzer Prize for American Lion, I likely would have chosen another project!
[DM] Give us a general idea of what you are seeking to accomplish in this book?
[MC] Tackling a subject as significant as Jackson required having something new to say. In studying his nephew, Andrew Jackson Donelson, it became clear to me that historians had largely ignored the importance of southern plantation society in Jackson’s personal life. Historians like to talk about him as the frontier westerner, but that view ignores Jackson’s South Carolina origins and his purposeful adoption and pursuit of southern gentility when he moved to Nashville. Addressing that part of Jackson’s identity in detail and connecting it to his military and political careers seemed important enough to warrant a new biography.
Looking at Jackson as a southerner does not mean ignoring his identity as a westerner, by the way. In fact, he often identified himself as a westerner, which makes sense given the geographic orientation of the American people at the time. Nevertheless, we have a different perspective of Jackson, his times, and his region than he possessed, and we can see that for most of his life, Middle Tennessee was more southern than western and that Jackson was one of many elites responsible for causing that transformation.
[DM] You mention that “One of the greatest ironies of Jackson’s life was that his identification with the South laid the foundation for the Civil War.” How so?
[MC] Jackson’s military career in the 1810s and early 1820s had removed Native Americans from millions of acres of land in the Deep South. White settlers filled this land vacuum, intent on growing cash crops that relied on slave labor. By the time he became president, Jackson was a member of the southern gentry, with multiple plantations and over 100 slaves. Logically, his southern identity should have led him to support the South Carolina nullifiers, who were concerned that the national government’s power to increase the tariff could be used to limit or abolish slavery.
Yet, Jackson opposed the nullification movement, arguing that it was treasonous and the Union was inviolable. In doing so, he appealed to a nationalist sentiment that flew in the face of his Jeffersonian roots in states’ rights.
Another great example is Jackson’s support of Manifest Destiny. He argued that territorial expansion was necessary to protect American interests and national security, but he, like many elite southerners, also took advantage of those land acquisitions to benefit his own slaveholdings.
When you consider Jackson in terms of the intertwining of nationalism and southern interests, he provided both sides of the secession crisis that arose fifteen years after his death with political ammunition: the southern fire-eaters who wanted to leave the Union to protect slavery and its westward expansion and the Unionists, including Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to keep the nation intact.
[DM] Many of us think of Jackson as the prototypical man of action and therefore rather anti-intellectual. Is that a fair assessment?
[MC] I would not call Jackson anti-intellectual. His correspondence clearly shows him as a man who read widely. He made frequent literary and historical allusions, and his private library consisted of hundreds of books. He was not as well-studied or well-educated as John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, or any number of other contemporaries, but his ignorance has been overstated.
It is also worth mentioning that Jackson was much more rational and calculating than many people then and now believe. When he was younger, he certainly seemed more apt to allow emotions to determine his actions. By the time he ran for the presidency in the 1820s, however, Jackson demonstrated that he was usually in control of his emotions. In fact, he sometimes appeared to use his reputation for emotional explosions in order to manipulate situations to his advantage.
[DM] Years back, I read John William Ward’s book, Andrew Jackson–Symbol for an Age. What do you think about employing Jackson in the way Ward did?
[MC] I agree with Ward’s argument that Jackson symbolized the changes happening in the early nineteenth-century United States. I think his perspective was limited, though. He focused on political democratization for white men, missing the ways in which Jackson also reflected contemporary views on minority groups such as Native Americans and African Americans.
One of my planned future projects, in fact, is to look at Jackson’s image from his lifetime until the twenty-first century. For example, how did the president who hated paper money come to reside on the twenty-dollar bill? And how did a man who embodied expansive presidential authority turn in to the anarchic punk rocker in the Broadway play Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson?
[DM] It seems Jackson embraced a much more authentic, Christian faith after leaving office. What were the factors that motivated him to do so?
[MC] Jackson was someone well acquainted with religion from an early age. James Parton, his first biographer, interviewed people who allegedly knew Jackson as a boy and claimed that his mother wanted him to become a Presbyterian minister. Throughout his life, Jackson was always careful to separate religion and politics. He held fast to that stance even as his wife Rachel became increasingly religious (some would even say overly pious).
One finds in reading Jackson’s correspondence a man versed in Scripture and confident in the hand of Providence actively working in human affairs. Not until after he left the presidential office in 1837, however, did Jackson officially join a church. In this case, it was the Presbyterian church that he had built for Rachel on the Hermitage property. His conversion is sometimes seen as the desperate act of a man, close to death, who regretted his life. I see it as a public expression of an internal faith that had evolved and matured over Jackson’s life.
[DM] Though Jackson could be brutal with Native Americans and in his role as a slave-owner, it is amazing how your book ends. Why did so many of Jackson’s own slaves grieve over his death?
[MC] The men and women Jackson owned as property may have had several reasons to mourn his death. They may have experienced sincere grief at his passing. They may have feared their future under Jackson’s son, Andrew Jr., who was not a very good manager of money or property. They may also have been fulfilling the role of faithful family members that was expected of them. Likely, it was a combination of these three reasons.
[DM] As a Christian who loves to read history, I am attracted to learning about complicated figures who demonstrate both virtue and vice. Do you think this is one of the dynamics which makes Jackson one of the more fascinating presidents to study?
[MC] Absolutely. My students like to kid me that I love Andrew Jackson. In reality, he can be a hard person to stomach at times, but that does not lessen my fascination with him as a pivotal figure in U.S. history.
Several individuals have asked me recently why modern film makers have not seized on Jackson’s life to make a movie. It has all of the elements of intrigue that one could want: violence, sex, conspiracy, etc. His life’s complexity, however, makes him a hard subject to present on the big screen in any manageable way, which is a shame. Jackson’s embodiment of virtue and vice won him lifelong friends and permanent enemies, and it makes him someone that we cannot overlook when we examine our nation’s history.