Archive | October, 2015

Review of Andrew Jackson, by Sean Wilentz

27 Oct

I am glad I finally got around to reading Princeton professor Sean Wilentz’s brief book on the presidency of Andrew Jackson, published nearly a decade ago as a part of the “American Presidents” series by Times Books under the able editorship of the noted historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. While I know a good deal about Jackson’s life and influence, I found Wilentz’s explanation of the man’s importance in American history to be among the most convincing attempts to place him in proper context that I have seen. In summary, Wilentz demonstrates that while Jackson has become a symbol for a lot of things both positive and negative in American history, he remains relevant primarily for his role in expanding American democracy.


His last sentences at the conclusion to the book are perhaps his best:

“By pushing the idea of democracy as far as he did, and by equating the Union’s survival with the survival of free government, Jackson expanded the terms upon which Americans conducted the national experiment in popular sovereignty. As president, he established democratic and nationalist principles that have endured to this day. If his own standards of equality and justice fall beneath our own, he helped make it possible for today’s standards and expectations to be as elevated as they are. His tragedies are undeniable. So are his triumphs and his greatness.”

This brilliant insight, offered more coherently than most other serious scholars of Jackson’s era have attempted, are no doubt offered as a rebuke to the modern ahistorical political correctness surrounding the man’s influence in America’s past. Still, the statement is undeniably true in my opinion, for I have always thought that the modern vilification of Jackson misses the crux of his pivotal role in American history; a role in which our contemporary demonization of him was ironically made possible.

Wilentz approaches his understanding of Jackson’s political life through a cascading revelation of the core tenet of the worldview which animated his actions. In simplest terms, Jackson saw America’s experiment in democracy as nothing short of a battle against the powerful wealthy and privileged and the hard-working and disadvantaged common majority. He saw it as his mission to place as much power as possible directly in the hands of the people as the only possible safeguard against corruption of the dream of the Revolution, a pursuit that seemed as radical in its day as the decision to go to war against Britain a generation earlier. Jackson grew up in an age in which political leaders were famously skeptical of the ability of the populace they governed to understand or properly administer the functions of government, and had literally built into the government checks on their power far more limiting than what we have today. While Jackson was not necessarily a visionary thinker, famously reacting on visceral instinct to challenges that confronted him—sometimes leaving historians to wrestle with seemingly vexing contradictions—he was clearly inspired by notions of republican idealism expounded by founding father Thomas Jefferson. This philosophical outlook was shaped by experiences during a life on the rugged American frontier and guided by his famed indomitable will. The two together, Wilentz shows, yielded a political leader with iron principles but one whose inflexible nature simultaneously laid the groundwork for his greatness and threatened his success. Yet Wilentz makes a convincing case that Jackson could rely as much on political savvy as backswoods brawling to get his way in most circumstances. And he almost always got his way.

Jackson’s shortcomings are infamous, and they are highlighted in this book. As with a great many political leaders of his day and an overwhelming majority of the nation’s citizens, he approved of slavery and viewed Native Americans as an inferior race that could only be saved from extinction by removal from their homeland. But Jackson, Wilentz shows, was positively incapable of separating even these issues from the context of his consuming passion for the expansion of American democracy. In Jackson’s thinking to limit slavery meant infringing on constitutional rights, and acceding to Native American sovereignty within the states in his mind was an affront to the self-determination that was the result of the War for Independence. Jackson’s views on many issues would clearly be anathema to most informed American leaders today, but I would venture to say that so would those of a great majority of the men of his time. This hardly negates their importance in shaping our government today, or their relevance to our contemporary society. Jackson’s claims to fame in the political arena are many, from helping birth the modern American political party system to helping define the sphere of Federal authority. Wilentz convincingly shows that above all he remains transcendent because of his unique commitment to expanding democracy at a critical period in the country’s development. Without it, we would not be the country we are today.


Donald Hickey’s Reflections on the Bicentennial of the War of 1812

22 Oct

Fort McHenry fireworks

Noted War of 1812 historian Donald Hickey recently posted an excellent summary of his thoughts about the effort to commemorate the bicentennial of the war in the Johns Hopkins University Press blog. We thought it was worth featuring here since it is an excellent summary of not only what the celebration produced but why it remains relevant as one of the more important chapters in our country’s history.

Donald Hickey

Donald Hickey


Creative Preservation

20 Oct

I have always appreciated the good work of all those professionals whose labor and skill makes possible the preservation of our nation’s historic structures. A recent preservation project in Mobile, Alabama caught my eye both for the quality of the work and for the unexpected unique modern element it brought to the city’s streetscape at the same time. The project involved the meticulous renovation of the Van Antwerp building, the first skyscraper in the city of Mobile, Alabama, completed in 1908. As a part of the project, an adjacent space was also refitted to serve as an event center. Rather than attempt to mimic the magnificent Beaux-Arts architecture of the Van Antwerp, project designers opted for a more unique form of complimentary construction that in the process has created a new downtown landmark referencing local history.


The three-part mural showing Mobile’s skyline past and present, adjacent to the Van Antwerp Building


Van Antwerp Building shortly after completion (University of South Alabama Archives)

Van Antwerp modern

Detail of the building today


Virtually the entire glass front of the new structure is framed by huge screen murals depicting a map of the Mobile Bay region and historic images of the Mobile skyline in 1909 and 2015. It is a stunning addition to the streetscape of Royal Street, one of downtown’s most developed thoroughfares, which is unique enough to draw attention to all passers-by but understated enough to avoid appearing as a giant billboard. As the historic image prominently features the then brand-new Van Antwerp, it is a visual reminder of the place of the venerable building in the city’s profile and the dynamic growth it has witnessed. I think it is a wonderful and well-executed concept that manages to be historically sensitive and expressly modern at the same time. Kudos to those who dreamed it up.


Review of Glorious Victory: Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans, by Donald Hickey

13 Oct

I have a particular fondness for well-written books designed to be overviews of or introductions to important historical topics. These books sometimes don’t get the attention they deserve as pieces of scholarship in my opinion. In many cases it is simply owing to the fact they summarize large amounts of information rather than delving too deeply into any one aspect of the story they tell; a true art that rarely gets the respect it is due. In other cases, it is because they are not only general but shallow to a fault, providing more summary than concise insight. I’m happy to say that Donald Hickey’s recent book, Glorious Victory: Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans, is one of the better designed and executed overviews of historical events I have read.


The fact that anything about the War of 1812 published by Hickey would be a solid contribution to understanding its topic should come as no surprise. Recognized as perhaps the foremost authority on the war, he is the author of some seven books and dozens of articles about the subject. In Glorious Victory, Hickey offers a new look at the Battle of New Orleans and the general responsible for that American triumph that places both in historical context and goes far in helping readers understand their role in our nation’s development. Though the book is a slim 168 pages, Hickey offers more background on the major campaigns of the War of 1812 and the closely related Creek War than perhaps might be expected. Moving quickly through these events as context for his major focus, he spends about half of the book detailing the weeks of fighting that culminated in the final disastrous charge by the British at Chalmette on January 8, 1815. As Hickey explains, this improbable lopsided victory in many ways helped frame our collective memory of a war that had for the most part been somewhat of a failure. In the final agreement ending the conflict, none of the reasons the war ostensibly had been fought were actually resolved. Yet it was and is heralded as a triumph of American arms and the arrival of the United States as a bona fide power on the world’s stage because of New Orleans, despite it being the last major engagement of the conflict and technically occurring after the treaty ending it had been signed. Not only was it a resounding victory, it eliminated any potentiality of territorial gain by the British and secured the American frontier from European interference.

While the book is a wonderful overview of the battle and the way it has been remembered in truth and legend, it is ultimately something rather more unique. The book is essentially a study in the leadership and indomitable will of the architect of the victory along the Mississippi, Andrew Jackson. Even as it sheds light on how this remarkable character came to influence the trajectory of American history, it is definitely not hagiography, however. Rather, it demonstrates that Jackson was a man with definite ideas, definite abilities, and definite faults. It also examines how all of those aspects of his character combined with his almost superhuman determination to accomplish his goals to make his crowning moment a landmark in U.S. history which resonates across the ages. Regardless of what one thinks of Andrew Jackson today, the fact is he was one of the greatest influences on American history, and the era in which he exerted power is still referred to as the “Jacksonian Era.” In superbly succinct fashion, Hickey helps explain how and why he and his victory are pivotal in American history through the lens of a foggy January morning along the swampy banks of the Mississippi two centuries ago, when a ragtag American force was all that stood between one of the nation’s most important cities and the world’s most powerful and well-trained army.


History In the Ground

6 Oct

I’ve always understood the important role archaeology plays in understanding history, and I’ve long been intrigued with the mysterious technical processes by which its practitioners are able to coax information out of the tiniest bits and scraps of buried evidence. After all, in many cases, their work is the only way we can gain any knowledge of certain people, places, and events which unfolded in the past. In others, it verifies and confirms things and gives us a depth of knowledge that satisfies our curiosity. As I have become more and more fascinated with historic sites over the course of my career, I have come to have a deep appreciation for the science that goes far beyond the pot sherds, bones, foundation walls, seeds, and assorted debris its practitioners commonly uncover.

Old Mobile archaeology

Simply put, archaeology demonstrates the tangible evidence of the past that lies out of our sight, buried in the ground we walk on. It reminds us that historic sites as not just places where history happened, but places where the past is still in some sense present. Even when I visit a remote historic site where nothing remains above the ground that reveals what occurred there, I’m aware that traces of the past lie just below the surface. Even with no structures and historic landmarks present, historic sites have dimensions, features, and stories to tell; we just have to look for them in different ways. On virtually every battlefield something from the conflict that occurred there lies deep in the dirt; a musket ball, an arrow point, a piece of armor. On the site of virtually every village, town, or even solitary structure, traces of the footprints of buildings remain. On the site of every cemetery, even if all the markers have long since vanished, evidence of the graves that were dug can be located by those with the equipment and expertise to recognize the clues the soil contains.

Archaeological information, then, frequently provides us with the key to unlocking some of the most enduring forms of information historic sites contain. Just knowing that information is there in some way helps the sites come alive for me. Sometimes the only physical connection we have to what occurred on “hallowed ground” is the ground itself.