Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times
By H. W. Brands
Doubleday, 620 pp., illustrated, $35
If Andrew Jackson hadn't existed, someone would have had to invent him. He was the first president born on the wrong side of the tracks, the first from the western frontier, the first duelist, the first to harbor a gut skepticism of the Eastern establishment.
By the genteel standards of the Virginia planter class, Jackson was beyond the pale -- a ruthless Indian fighter of rude bloodlines whose volcanic temper terrified friend and foe alike. During the War of 1812, he became our first Curtis LeMay. John Quincy Adams called him ''a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name." Thomas Jefferson held him to be temperamentally unqualified to be president. Today, we'd say the man had anger issues.
What Jackson brought to Washington was a new populism we now call Jacksonian democracy that permanently shaped the American character. His two-term presidency broke the choke hold on the office held by the Virginia aristocrats from Washington to Monroe, and the sophisticated Yankee father-and-son tandem of John and John Quincy Adams.
What he brought, too, with a will surpassed only by Abraham Lincoln, was a belief in the Union, which he defended at all costs from internal and external threats alike. In his address at Harvard, where he received an honorary degree, he said, ''E pluribus unum, my friends. Sine qua non."
Jackson was an American original, a wholly fascinating figure whom H. W. Brands brings to life in a big, rich biography, ''Andrew Jackson." Brands weaves together keen political history with anecdote and marvelous sense of place to produce a vivid tableau. And after a relentless diet of Revolutionary figures from the likes of David McCullough and Joseph Ellis, we receive this Jackson opus with relief and curiosity.
If the Revolutionary War has captivated us, the period following it generally has not. We routinely drop the thread of American history somewhere around Madison and regrasp it only at the Civil War. (Try naming the presidents from Jackson to Lincoln.) Yet the phenomenon of Jacksonian democracy, with its strengths and weaknesses, is as important to our understanding of where we are today as any other movement since the birth of the Republic.
Jackson was born in rural poverty in the western Carolinas. As a youth, he was badly wounded by a British officer during the Revolutionary War for not cleaning the man's boots. (He was plagued his entire life by his wounds and a panoply of ailments.) From this early experience, he developed a hatred of the British rivaled only by Jefferson, who never fought against them.
Jackson was a slave owner and trader, a lover of horse flesh, a doting husband, and a brutal military commander who ended Native American depredations along the western frontier. He made his home in Tennessee and ached to live quietly there for the rest of his life. But after his victory at New Orleans, he became a rock star of an American figure, feted everywhere he went, all the way to the White House.
As president, his states'-rights instincts collided with, but acceded to, his sense of union. Most notably, he threatened to lead an army against those in South Carolina called ''nullifiers" who believed states could reject any federal legislation deemed against their interests.
He also fought Nicholas Biddle and the broad, national power of the second Bank of the United States with typical distemper: ''I am ready with the screws to draw every tooth and then the stumps."
Brands speculates that Jackson's fervent unionism would have transcended the parochialism of his slave-owning Southern roots and made him a Lincoln had he been in office during the Civil War. That is debatable, but it sparks the kind of discussion that makes this book worth reading. On one thing we can all agree: Andrew Jackson was a piece of work.
Sam Allis is a member of the Globe staff.