If Walt Disney had made a television series based on the life of America's seventh president rather than Davy Crockett, no one would have complained. As portrayed in ANDREW JACKSON: His Life and Times, H.W. Brands offers plenty of action and patriotism to create a compelling "show."
Jackson's is a rags-to-riches story, as was that of many of our early leaders. Born into poverty and orphaned at an early age, Jackson was a fighter since he was a preteen. His early experiences in participating in the fight for independence are harrowing and reminiscent of Mel Gibson's film The Patriot.
Even when he wasn't officially at war, Jackson was not what one would call a man of words. His tenderness toward his wife, Rachel, is shockingly contradicted by the ease with which he would frequently lose his temper; he took umbrage often and found himself enmeshed in numerous feuds and duels.
Jackson's courage under fire was an inspiration to those who fought under him, particularly at the Battle of New Orleans (as if he needed any help, Jackson's victory was immortalized in a hit song by Johnny Horton in the late 1950s).
Brands does a wonderful job explaining political concepts that easily could be deathly dull. He also manages to facilely explain the myriad treaties and alliances (both national and individual) among the British, French, Spanish, and several tribes of Native Americans. The author makes liberal use of letters about life in the States in general, and General Jackson in particular, to emphasize his points without a perception of "lecturing."
Jackson's military success coupled with his love for America augured well in his political aspirations. A real "man of the people," Jackson earned the admiration (not to mention the votes) of his countrymen, helping him to win two terms as president.
Despite the heft of this new biography on "Old Hickory," Brands makes it come to life with a combination of action-packed heroics, massive amounts of research, and a fluid, easy-to-take writing style. Anyone can state facts and try to paint a picture of the "life and times" of any "fill-in-the-blank." The trick is to make it informative without being dull, a feat that Brands pulls off admirably.
If I were a student of history at the University of Texas at Austin, where Brands teaches, I would demand him as my professor. If he can bring all of his curriculum to life as he does in ANDREW JACKSON, he can inspire any of his charges to follow in his footsteps.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (RonK23@aol.com) on January 11, 2011