Andrew Jackson: An Epic in Homespun
by Minton, Baleh & Co. 1927. 8vo. xii+301 pp. Illus.. New York:
IN the long roll of American presidents Andrew Jackson may not be the most commendable figure. or even the most substantial, but surely no other is so picturesque, so energetic, so intensely temperamental, Hence no other, except Washington and Lincoln, has been so extensively written about, and the varied portrayals of Parton, of Sumner, of Bowers, of Barrington, of the Boards, all bear witness to the power-of the man, to his historical significance, and to the fascination he still excels, as he exerted it in his lifetime, over all who come into contact with him.
There are two ways of dealing with such a character of fire and fury. There is the method of Professor Bassett, in his elaborate and thorough biography. You treat the man with careful and thoughtful justice, exactly as if he himself had known in his life what thoughtful justice was. You analyze his antecedents, you dissect his motives, you weigh and measure and balance, with all the cold gravity of the practised historian, and your result nun be a permanent historiral verdict, worthy at all times of serious consideration, but perhaps somehow missing just that intense spark of vitality that made the man so vividly alive and alive forever.
Or you go at it as Mr. Johnson has, putting into the work as much as possible of the spirit that, animated Jackson himself. You fight fire with fire, perhaps-even surreptitiously you add a little superfluous chemistry of flame, where it might seem at first that no addition was needed. However it is done, there can be no question but that Mr. Johnson s Andrew Jackson lives, with all his human imperfections and all his undeniable charm. You do not go far in the book before you see what it was that made the people love him and makes them love him still. As Mr. Johnson vigorously puts it: ‘Americans have never known how to resist a man who could talk like a pirate and act like a Presbyterian, and Jackson could do both to a perfection not approached by any of his successors until the days of I heodore Roosevelt.’
How the man hated and how he loved! His enemies, Henry lay and John Calhoun, were not just plain human beings like himself; they were incarnations of evil, specially created to thwart the good intentions and benevolent designs of the great President whom God Almighty had appoint ed as His peculiar agent to ameliorate the destiny of the American people. And there was the same energy in loving. As Mr. Johnson phrases it, with as much truth as sympathy: ‘The man’s passions ran high, but his love ran higher than his hate. He spent more, he risked more, he endured more, to gratify his affections than he ever did to appease his wrath.’
As the passages I have quoted show, Mr. Johnson has a high-wrought and telling mode of expressing himself. Such expression has its dangers, and Mr. Johnson does not always escape them. But it is peculiarly effective in dealing with a high-wrought figure like Jackson. And in general it may be said, and has not enough been said, that in biography, as in all other literature, it is style that finally counts. It is style that gives life, and the lack of it is fatal and mortal. Style made the success of Strachey’s Queen Victoria. Mr. Johnson has style, though he may need to prune it a little. Whether he does or not, I hope to see him use it to resuscitate many other great Americans.