Review by Francis P. Sempa, Contributing Editor
The Age of Jackson and the Art of American Power, 1815-1848 by William Nester, Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2013, ISBN 978-1-61234-605-2, 362 pp., $35.00 (Hardcover)
William Nester’s The Age of Jackson and the Art of American Power, 1815-1848, poses as an objective historical analysis of Andrew Jackson’s exercise of power as both general and president, but in reality is a mix of ideological judgments and political psychobabble. Nester reveals his ideological preconceptions in the book’s Introduction and its final chapter entitled “Legacy,” where he compares Jackson to the hated George W. Bush, describes his contempt for the law as similar to that of Bush and Ronald Reagan, and calls Jackson a neoconservative and an inspiration to the “far right Tea Party.” He reveals his penchant for psychobabble in remarks scattered throughout the book where he attributes this or that Jackson policy as resulting from Jackson’s “volcanic hatreds” or “inner demons” or “persecution complex.”
Nester, a professor at St. John’s University in New York and the author of several works on early American history, begins the book by categorizing the art of power as exercised by American presidents as Hamiltonism, Jeffersonism, or Jacksonism. Hamiltonism, named after Alexander Hamilton, believes in a “muscular, problem-solving” national government and is based on reason, history, science and progressivism. Jeffersonism, named after Thomas Jefferson, believes in a weak central government and a diffusion of power. Jacksonism, according to Nester, combines mostly bad elements of both Hamiltonism and Jeffersonism, including the notions that “greed is good” and “might makes right.”
Nester’s attempt at categorization is reminiscent of James David Barber’s The Presidential Character, which claimed to be able to predict presidential performance by categorizing twentieth century presidents as active-negative, passive-positive, passive negative, and active-positive. Barber’s most admirable and effective presidents (“active-positive”) were liberals like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy, while his less successful and less admirable presidents were conservatives like Coolidge, Hoover, Eisenhower, and Nixon. Similarly, Nester places the presidents he admires mostWashington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obamain the Hamiltonism fold, while Jackson, Polk, Reagan, and George W. Bush are consigned to the Jacksonism category. Alas, history and the actions of historical figures are never that neat and simple.
Nester provides a biographical sketch of Jackson from his birth in North Carolina, his service as a courier and scout during the Revolutionary War, his law practice, move to Tennessee, and his rise in Nashville society and Tennessee politics. Jackson rose to national prominence as a general during the War of 1812, especially due to his victory over the British at New Orleans in 1815. He later secured Florida for the United States during the Monroe Administration.
After winning a plurality of the popular vote but losing the presidential election of 1824 to John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives (as a result of the so-called “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Henry Clay), Jackson swept to victory four years later in populist campaign.
Nester emphasizes the negative in Jackson’s two-term presidency: scandals within the administration; his widespread use of the spoils system to reward friends and political supporters; his opposition to the National Bank; his appointment of “slavocrats” to the Supreme Court; and his Indian Removal policies.
The author does praise Jackson for his leadership and policies during the nullification crisis in 1832-33, especially his prudent exercise of the commander-in-chief power to protect the federal forts in Charleston Harbor. Nester also gives Jackson high marks for his foreign policies. Jackson, Nester notes, negotiated trade deals with the Ottoman Empire and Russia; and secured American claims for seized vessels from Denmark, France, Portugal, Spain, and Naples, using diplomacy backed by the threat of force. Jackson, writes Nester, “resolved several challenges with low-key but effective policies that promoted or advanced American interests,” and “displayed a sensitive, patient, and compromising spirit in his relations” with the world’s powers.
Jackson, like some of his predecessors, sought the annexation of Texas, but hoped to accomplish it without war. In the end, Jackson’s protégé, James Polk, accomplished it with war and in the process fulfilled the Manifest Destiny sought by many of the Founders, including Nester’s hero, Hamilton. Nester’s discussion of the Mexican-American War is mostly balanced and fair, yet he cannot refrain from blaming Polk’s decision for war on “demons lurking in both his psyche and ideology,” and comparing Polk to the hated George W. Bush.
In the end, Nester’s book is politics masquerading as history, and the masquerade is quite flimsy. Jackson, he concludes, was like today’s neoconservatives with their “crusade in Iraq, disdain for the Constitution or laws, and ability to whip up a mass fear, hate, and hope to convert this zeal into an outpouring of populist support through votes and money.” Jackson’s views are “in near-perfect accord with the Tea Party movement, which champions balanced budgets; the gutting or outright destruction of all government programs except the Pentagon ; the expulsion of all illegal aliens; majority rule over minority rights ” Jacksonians, he opines, “have repeatedly shot the nation in the foot whenever they have taken over the government.” What is needed for the United States, he writes, is “a lean, muscular state run by worldly, pragmatic, problem-solving, virtuous men who have mastered the art of progressive power.” (Emphasis added).
Nester rightly notes that Jackson’s image; beliefs, acts and character profoundly influenced American politics between 1815 and 1848. It is too bad that Nester saw fit to transform the “Age of Jackson” into an ideological sword to wage the political battles of the 21st century.