May 8, 2010


Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire
by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler
336 pages, Louisiana State University Press

Review by Kate Kasserman

Historians, naturally, like any story-tellers, have points of view that inform their interpretation and presentation of the past. Because I read a great deal of American history, which is evidently a particularly tempting field for authors to trot out their prejudices, hopes, fears, and general neuroses, I’ve had to learn to deal with a thousand flavors of spin.

Old Hickory’s War lands in the interesting zone where I cannot say the authors are impartial – they make no bones about offering the routine and facile “Native American = good, white = bad” perspective – and yet they also offer a very readable and engaging account of a neglected patch of history that is brimming with oversized characters (notably, of course, Jackson himself) and entertaining anecdotes, whether shocking, depressing, occasionally noble, or often just…so very telling, as when at the conclusion of the War of 1812, the terms of the peace being “status ante bellum” – all boundaries to return to their pre-war state – the Americans refused to give up the land ceded by the Creeks. The Americans said that the Creek War was a different thing from the War of 1812. The English questioned this; the Americans replied yes, it was certainly a quite distinct conflict, and also the Creek started it, so we were just defending ourselves and it was all their fault anyway. The English muttered unhappily that the Americans always said that about wars they declared – but Britain also wasn’t willing to go to bat for the Creek, and so we got our way.

I mention the Heidlers’ spin because if you are going to be annoyed by that sort of thing, as I generally am (regarding it as simplistic and generally insulting to all parties involved), I recommend that you grit your teeth and brace yourself, because the book is well worth your time nevertheless. For one, it is patent in the text when the authors are moralizing, and their personal opinions about the actions and behaviors of the people involved are clearly separable from their recounting of the facts – which is well-researched and compelling. For two – we’re talking mostly about Andy Jackson and his dealing with the Native Americans here, and, seriously, your only realistic choices on that front are to regard him as amoral or immoral.

We also see Andy screwing the Spanish, as well as two of his very favoritest enemies: the English, and his hierarchical superiors. Mopey Monroe was simply not the man to rein Jackson in (if ever such a person even existed). Jackson stormed through the south as a sort of American id monster; a lot of people wanted that land, and FEROCIOUSLY, but they just weren’t quite sufficiently mean-as-a-snake to do the nasty, false-hearted, disingenuous, bloody work to get it done. And so they turned a blind eye to Jackson’s gleeful predations, no matter how paper-thin his “justifications” to do exactly what he wanted to do: take it all by force, for no damned reason other than it was there. He wanted the Floridas (yes, there used to be two of them – clearly, this matter required our intervention), he wanted the prime land owned by the Creek, and he meant to get it.

And he certainly did, devil take the hindmost (and the consequences).

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