Jackson-The Iron-Willed Commander by Paul Vickery was just published this week by Thomas Nelson Publishing. Vickery opens with Jackson’s inauguration on March 4, 1829. The scene he portrays is a tumultuous one, with the rough and tumble Jackson and his like-minded followers “invading” Washington’s elite society. It is an appropriate opening to this short biographical sketch of a man best know for his bold, everyman approach to life. The rest of the book proceeds as flashback to his childhood and military career.
Paul Vickery, Professor of History at Oral Roberts University, has written what can best be termed a short primer on Andrew Jackson’s military career, with the greatest emphasis placed on his defining battle in New Orleans at the close of the War of 1812. The 19 short chapters can be grouped together roughly as follows. 1-4 deal with his childhood as an orphan and his growth into turbulent manhood. He is presented as likable troublemaker who is quick to defend his honor with a duel. In chapters 5-11 we see his development into a leader of men and a competent military man. 12-17 deal with the build up, conflict, and aftermath of The Battle New Orleans, which took place on January 8, 1815. Finally, the last two chapters discuss his elevation to the presidency and his legacy.
In Jackson, Vickery strives to present his subject as a tough as nails, bold and decisive leader. “Scarred permanently as a child by the sword of a British soldier, Jackson grew into an unwavering leader, a general whose charisma and sheer force of personality called to mind those of George Washington a generation earlier.” The author wants to extend the aura of greatness that enshrouds the Founding Fathers over this next generation leader.
Vickery is clearly enamored with his subject, repeatedly using a variety of epithets such as “iron willed”, Old Hickory”, “inspiring” and “indomitable” . His Homerian tendencies make clear his wish that the reader recognize Jackson’s toughness and independence. He seems to equate this strength of character to America herself, as if Jackson was a metaphor for the maturing country. The general is not shown not so much as a tactical genius, but as someone whose own force of personality willed his armies to victory. The author regularly eschews details battle plans for anecdotes of Jackson’s individual acts of bravery and inspiration.
The current tendency in some quarters of American society to look at elders, the elite, or intellectual class with suspicion, and to celebrate both the young and the rough-and-ready everyman, has apparently influenced this author as well. Jackson seems a cipher for that mythological, self-sufficient American ideal. One can almost read this as the Founding Father’s giving birth to a nation and Jackson as the embodiment of it’s adolescent character. As such there are times when we wince at Jackson’s stubbornness, and rush to action; yet Vickery tends to downplay these occurrences as a parent might overlook the indiscretions of youth.
The author’s proclivity to minimize Jackson’s flaws may be appropriate when your teenager breaks curfew; it is less so when the subject in question is the head of the entire southern military of the United States. Because of this, the book reads less like an objective history and more like a well meaning propaganda piece. The reader understands that Jackson was a famously successful military leader. But one also knows he was a man, with flaws and faults. If the author chose to make his subject a bit more human, he would have become more sympathetic. Additionally, his writing style lacks subtlety. He continuously hits the reader over the head with his main thesis to the point where this reads more like a young adult history textbook from the early 20th century than a modern biography of an admittedly complex historical figure.
In the end, I found this book to be informative in terms of the history of the early United states, and I actually learned quite a bit about The Battle of New Orleans and the War of 1812. However, I don’t feel I know who Andrew Jackson was any more than I did before reading this book.