Pragmatic and Passionate, Cunning and Callous: On David S. Brown’s “The First Populist: The Defiant Life of Andrew Jackson”

EVEN 175 YEARS after his death, Andrew Jackson is still all the rage, and a continual source of outrage. During the unexpected rise of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016, Steve Bannon and other pundits compared to the future 45th president to Jackson, ascribing to him a similar status as a champion of the people and the bane of Washingtonian elites. Trump solidified this connection by hanging a portrait of Old Hickory in the Oval Office and ventured to the Hermitage, Jackson’s plantation home, in Nashville, Tennessee, to pay his respects. Even with Trump out of the White House, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton recently described the future of the GOP as “Jacksonian” at the Ronald Reagan Library in California.

At the same time, the Democratic Party that Jackson helped birth seems unable to rid itself of the man fast enough. On the Democratic National Committee’s history page, Jackson is nowhere to be seen. Similarly, the once celebratory Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners have almost universally been renamed or disbanded. And recent Democratic presidents, first Obama and then Biden, have sought to remove Jackson’s image from the $20 bill. Statues of Jackson, along with those of numerous other famous (and infamous) American figures, were vandalized across the country during the George Floyd in the summer of 2020. “Slave Owner,” “Racist Scum,” and “Remember May 28, 1830” (a reference to the Indian Removal Act) were a few examples of the graffiti the protesters used to describe the man once known as the Hero of New Orleans.

But as David S. Brown’s The First Populist: The Defiant Life of Andrew Jackson Chronicles, Jackson produced such love, loyalty, and loathing from the American people in his own lifetime. In charting Jackson’s life, Brown, a professor of history at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, deftly conveys what made Jackson so popular and polarizing. Brown correctly points to Jackson’s conquest of the Muscogee Red Sticks during the Creek War as the origin of his celebrity, which is the startling outcome of the Battle of New Orleans only amplified. Based on that celebrity, many were eager to see Jackson in the White House, believing him to be a second George Washington, while others saw little more than an American Napoleon in the making. By the end of his two terms in office, Jackson would inspire a desperate coalition, the Whig Party, bound together by their mutual hatred of his policies, but he would also be so popular that a third term was his for the taking if he wanted it.

Whereas some biographies of Jackson paint him as a mere reactionary, Brown presents a more sympathetic view of Jackson’s personal and political development. As Brown shows, Jackson learned a great deal from his youthful mistakes squandering his inheritance in Charleston and from his early political missteps as Tennessee’s first congressman and then as a senator. Jackson may have started his career by defending creditors and pursuing defaulters, but the economic chaos caused by the Panic of 1819 shaped his animosity toward banks. In losing the election of 1824 thanks to a vote in the House of Representatives (despite winning the popular vote), Jackson found his mandate as the people’s tribune. The result is a kaleidoscopic approach, connecting moments in Jackson’s life to future episodes as well as to his legacy. In doing so, Brown effectively demonstrates both Jackson’s steadfast personability and his enduring influence on American political life.

In tracing these transformative events, Brown does an excellent job at dispelling many of the misconceptions that have developed around Jackson, such as that he was an unserious thinker with an unstable personality. Jackson may not have been trained at Harvard like John Quincy Adams, but he possessed the ability to think deeply about constitutional matters, foreign policy, and economics. By the same token, Brown describes how prone Jackson was to conspiratorial thinking and to personalizing almost every single political dispute. Brown spares little detail when it comes to Jackson’s volatile temper and vengeful response — both rhetorical and physical — to those who defied him. In the words of Margaret Eaton, the wife of a Tennessee senator close to Jackson, he “did not like or dislike people: he loved them or hated them.” He perceived a range of figures — the British, the Indians, the Whigs, the nullifiers, the abolitionists, rebellious slaves — as not merely hostile to himself but to the well-being of the American republic, which only raised the stakes in Jackson’s mind . The First Populist offers a complex portrait of Jackson, one that escapes the simplifications of polemic or hagiography.

Yet in doing so, Brown does not shrink from depicting Jackson’s cruelty. In 1804, Jackson offered the then handsome reward of $50 for the recapture of one of his runaway slaves, and was willing to pay “ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.” So brutal were his military exploits against the Red Sticks, and so deep was his betrayal of his indigenous allies during the Creek War, that he earned the title “Sharp Knife.” Eager to stamp out Black rebellion and Indian resistance, Jackson illegally invaded Spanish Florida and rained cannon fire on “Negro Fort,” a haven for Native American refugees and fugitive slaves. But while Jackson’s standing in American history has plummeted over the years because of such atrocities, Brown is quick to note that the past and present denunciations of Jackson feature plenty of overlap. Large portions of antebellum society Jackson criticized for the same reasons modern Americans condemn him today, from his championing of Indian removal to his hostility to abolitionism. Yet, while certainly not apologizing for Jackson, Brown does highlight the fact that many of his most controversial acts, most notably his invasion of Florida and the Indian Removal Act, enjoyed popular approval across much of the US and had presidential precedent. In other words, there is plenty of condemnation and culpability to go around.

But as vicious as Jackson could be, Brown also works to dispel the image of Jackson as a backcountry dimwit barely in control of his temper. Jackson could be pragmatic as well as passionate, cunning as well as callous, depending on the situation. Though Jackson’s impulsive behavior often got him into trouble, Brown argues that he could also be “a cagey rhetorician,” able to bend people to his will or lull them into submission. He was animated by honor, duty, patriotism, and a strong sense of nationalism, qualities that could blend easily with his greed, fury, and self-importance. Jackson was certainly no Machiavelli, but he was keenly aware how much people underrated his talents and underestimated his political abilities. In one letter, he commented with bemusement how the residents of Washington, DC, were expecting to see him wielding “a Tomahawk in one hand, & a scalping knife in the other.” All of which he would use to his advantage against John Quincy Adams in 1828 and Henry Clay in 1832.

In the face of the capital’s bureaucratic entrenchment, Jackson’s advocacy of a rotation system (which his critics decried as patronage) is modestly applauded by Brown. In his view, the Bank War carries a “strong whiff of class warfare,” while Jackson’s calls for equality of opportunity had gender and racial limits, one can see why Jackson’s rhetoric has had its fans on the populist left as well as the right . But perhaps most importantly, Brown lends emotional weight and constitutional heft to Jackson’s defense of the Union during the standoff with South Carolina over nullification. Compared to other recent takes on Old Hickory, The First Populist gives Jackson’s cunning and conviction its due.

Another emphasis of Brown’s is that Jackson was as consequential as he was controversial. The first president from west of the Appalachians, his ascent finally broke the hold on the presidency exercised by Virginia and Massachusetts. Jackson was also the first president to be the target of an assassination attempt. Yet even before he arrived at the White House, he had fundamentally altered the American landscape (literally) through the Treaty of Fort Jackson and the Adams-Onís Treaty, by which Spain ceded much of the Deep South to the United States. Though the Democratic Party may have been born from “the cult of Jackson,” it was Jackson’s “preferences, choices, and initiatives” that served to launch it as what is now the world’s oldest continuous political party. Though many of Jackson’s actions, such as appointing the chief justice who would preside over the 1857 Dred Scott decision, would propel the nation on its course toward civil war, Abraham Lincoln drew on Jackson’s example in defending the Union. Although some historians have come to bristle at the term “the age of Jackson,” Brown makes a compelling case for seeing Jackson, for better or for worse, as the defining force of the period.

As Jackson takes center stage in Brown’s study, his wife Rachel is barely referenced, only coming into focus during the election of 1828 as a target for Adams’s campaigners. While her profound and enduring influence on Jackson, particularly in religious matters, is noted, it is rarely expanded upon. In fact, Jackson’s religious proclivities, from his involvement with frontier Freemasonry to his embrace of Presbyterianism in retirement, is nowhere to be seen. Given that Jackson often viewed his conquests as imbued with providential significance, or drew upon the Bible to understand his tribulations, some focus on his religiosity would have sharpened Brown’s assessment of his sense of destiny. Despite these oversights, Brown manages to convey a great deal of information about Jackson’s life and times in an incredibly short space. The pacing is swift, though it never feels rushed (at least until Jackson’s life after the presidency).

Because of his near-mythological status, pithy one-liners and apocryphal stories concerning Jackson abound in American popular culture. Thankfully, Brown’s biography is free of the influence of Augustus C. Buell, the fraudulent “historian” who is the source of most of these false stories and fake quotes. To this day, even Pulitzer Prize–winning historians reference bogus Jackson sayings concocted by Buell, such as “I never in my life seen a Kentuckian who didn’t have a gun, a pack of cards, and a jug of whiskey” or “ I have only two regrets: I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” While much of what Brown has to say about Old Hickory won’t be news to historians, they can be at least be relieved that The First Populist is firmly grounded in authentic archives.

The First Populist is not pathbreaking scholarship, but that was not Brown’s intent. He writes with precision and an engaging style, offering nuanced judgments on Jackson’s life and legacy. Brown’s life of Jackson deserves to be commended for its combination of accessibility and rigor. As Andrew Jackson continues to capture the imagination of politicians and to scandalize the public, this biography is an excellent guide for anyone interested in coming to grips with our divisive seventh president.


Daniel N. Gullotta is the Archer Fellow in Residence at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and a PhD candidate at Stanford University specializing in American religious history.

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