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In format, this is a pretty standard documentary, tracing largely step
by step the life of Andrew Jackson, focusing, of course, on his rise to
power from extremely humble and troubled beginnings to becoming the 7th
President of the United States. It provides all the necessary details,
including a good look at Jackson's relationship with his beloved wife
Rachel, and you do come away from this with a sense of knowing Jackson
better than you did before - although I'm fairly knowledgeable about
Jackson's presidency and his military record in the War of 1812, for
example, there was a lot about his boyhood that I didn't know - so, for
the casual historian, this is worthwhile.
The content - and more particularly the historical analysis - is more inconsistent, however, in spite of the fact that the documentary includes reflections by a lot of historians. For example, Jackson is largely condemned in this for his attitudes toward slavery and black Americans, and yet the extremity of the language used - calling him an "evil man" for keeping up to 140 slaves and supporting the institution - is surely historically unjust. Jackson was a product of his times. Slavery was a natural way of the life in which he was raised. That doesn't make it right, but to suggest that Jackson was evil because he accepted as normal the normal way of life he was brought up in is both ridiculous and bad scholarship. He was certainly wrong, but he wasn't evil. More convincing is the documentary's very critical view of Jackson's policies toward native Americans. Here, Jackson is rightly perceived as being both contradictory and ungrateful in his actions - readily accepting help from the Cherokees in the War of 1812, then forcibly removing the Cherokees from their land as president; portraying himself as the "Great White Father" to the natives, then defying the Supreme Court to seize their lands. Against those negatives, though, is portrayed the positive - that Jacksonian Democracy, while it had little room for slaves or natives or women, was the basis on which all three groups began to demand equality, and is therefore (even if unintentionally from Jackson's perspective) one of the great egalitarian movements in American (and perhaps world) history.
The great failure here, in my view, was that this really didn't address the fundamental way in which Jackson changed the presidency. The film pays lip service to the idea - it notes, for example, that before Jackson the president was seen as the leader of one branch of the United States government, and beginning with Jackson the president began to be seen as the leader of the United States - a significant change. But I found little analysis of how that happened, or of how Jackson expanded the scope of the presidency's powers. We hear that it did, but it was strange, for example, that no mention was made of how Jackson revolutionized the manner in which the president's veto power was used. Prior to Jackson, vetoes were only used when a president considered a bill unconstitutional. Jackson began using the veto as a policy-making instrument (the film notes Jackson' use of the veto in the "Bank War" - the dispute over the re-chartering of the Bank of the United States - but doesn't note the new way in which the veto was being used.) Instead, the section of the documentary dealing with Jackson's presidency focuses largely on political issues - and, in particular, his rivalry with and antipathy for Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and John Quincy Adams.
In the end, the documentary portrays Jackson as a mass of contradictions - "urbane savage," "war hero with no military knowledge," "autocratic democrat," etc. It's an interesting portrayal - worthwhile if somewhat lacking in analysis.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a two-hour biography about one of the most controversial men in
American history, Andrew Jackson. Martin Sheen narrates and much of the
film consists of recreation of events from Jackson's life as well as
interviews with many historians and biographers. The style is VERY
typical of a made for PBS documentary--and this is a very, very good
Much of the film focuses on the extreme behaviors of Jackson's life--behaviors that, in many opinions, made him a bit of a sociopath. However, others view these same behaviors in very positive terms (which I am sure MANY would find offensive today)! This is an interesting dichotomy. So, when he invades Florida on his own and executes a couple British prisoners (which could have started another war), some interviewees were aghast--others saw it as a sign that he was a very determined man! And, when he stole Cherokee Indian land and killed thousands in their forced march to Oklahoma,...well, no one really could defend that but some seemed to ignore it. Nor could they defend his owning 100 slaves, marrying a woman who was still married to another man and his being a blood-thirsty dueler. I should point out that, in some ways, the biography actually way underplayed Jackson's blood-lust, as it only talks about his having fought one duel--while he actually fought several and had two bullets embedded in his body during most of his life as a result of these bloody fights! He's the only president that I can think of that has killed people not in warfare (and I am not counting one president who hung a man during his capacity as a lawman-- not a murder or manslaughter).
While this was a very good film about Jackson, there were two problems with it. One was that SOME of the folks who talked about Jackson seemed to almost have a slobbering love affair with him. How could they tout his great successes while completely ignoring his dark side? This does NOT mean I wanted everyone to hate the man and say nothing but ill of him, but I was confused how people today who are well-educated and know all about him can just ignore the things that don't fit into his image as a champion of democracy. Another problem is that although the film did discuss both the good and bad of Jackson, it never tried to analyze him in a psychological sense.
I have an unusual perspective, having been both a psychotherapist and history teacher. I've always just assumed Jackson was nuts--and the documentary did little to change my opinion--with large doses of Paranoid, Antisocial and Narcissistic personality disorders. In modern terminology, he was a type of Borderline Personality--and an extremely successful one at that. So why couldn't the film find someone who could say all this or give their own perspective on the emotional health of this man? This critical analysis is missing and would have clearly raised the quality of this film--giving the viewer additional insight into this very confusing yet great man.
It appears to be a reasonably thorough and balanced visual biography of
the seventh president of the United States. It uses enactors, excerpts
from period documents, and is narrated by Martin Sheen. And it's pretty
interesting in a way that, say, William Henry Harrison's biography
Jackson grew up a wild, hot-tempered kid in the hardscrabble South, became a lawyer, and moved to Nashville. There, he and Rachel Robards fell in love and ran off to Natchez for a while. . Unfortunately, "Robards" was Rachel's married name, and the Zeitgeist didn't take this sort of business lightly. Robards, the aggrieved husband, sued for a divorce on the grounds of adultery and it was granted. Not long after, Jackson and Rachel were married in Nashville.
In 1796s, Tennessee sent Johnson as its lone representative to congress. He loathed Washington. It was a place where issues were negotiated and people traded favors with one another to get things done. (He might be a popular politician today.) He resigned and returned home, making a living by raising race horses. When someone made a disparaging remark about Rachel Jackson killed him in a duel. Jackson himself was hit in the chest and carried the bullet for the rest of his life.
He became a military hero in the War of 1812, slaughtering the Creek Indians who had allied themselves with Britain. Jackson went on to defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans and the press turned him into a popular hero. Jackson built a huge plantation, "The Hermitage," on part of that land and prospered as a farmer owning more than one hundred slaves. Cotton was king. All of it was grown and processed by slaves. This was unfortunate for the slaves. It was also unfortunate for the Creek and Choctaw Indians who owned the best cotton-growing land. They kissed it good-bye ceded Alabama and Mississippi to the US after their defeat..
Many of the Indians and escaped slaves landed in Florida, which was owned by the Spanish and where slavery was outlawed. Jackson soon put an end to that nettlesome problem. He invaded and conquered Florida without orders from Washington. He captured two British officers whom he felt guilty of inciting insurgency. His own military tribunal found them innocent but Jackson had them executed anyway.
When Jackson became a candidate for president, he was thought of as a wild-eyed frontiersman. His more literate supporters turned that reasoning on its head. It wasn't education or diplomatic experience or brains that counted; it was principle and determination and character. The politicians in Washington were considered spoiled and corrupt elitist. What was needed was a fresh face from outside, a man of his word, with no political experience to speak of. Is this beginning to ring a familiar chord? I ask because it sounds very familiar in 2015. Jackson didn't win a majority so the choice went to the Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, who, not finding Jackson to be a fit president, gave the office to John Quincy Adams. In the next election, in 1828, Jackson ran against Adams by mounting the first true campaign soliciting the vote of all white males.
The general outlines of Jackson's presidency are probably better known. He invited his motley supporters -- rugged farmers and all -- to the Inaugural Ball where the mob got drunk, fought each other, broke a lot of fine glassware, muddied up the place, and generally acted as if they were at a frat party. The White House was so jammed that nobody could get in or out except through the windows. As president, Jackson booted out more high-level bureaucrats than all his predecessors combined. In their turn, Jackson appointed friends, many of whom had no virtues but their willingness to obey his commands. His cabinet collapsed because of a sexual scandal.
He initiated many actions on his own. When congress passed a tax law that might interfere with slavery, John C. Calhoun proclaimed that "nullification" by the states could be used. Nullification was popular in the South, hated in the North by those who feared it might lead to a breakup of the union. South Carolina threatened to secede. Jackson finally declared his opposition to nullification. He didn't do it reluctantly either. He was diplomatic but forceful. War was only narrowly averted.
He initiated the Indian Removal Act, which sent the Eastern Indians, especially the Cherokee, to Oklahoma and elsewhere. But the Cherokee had already adopted the Western way of life, with an alphabetic language, a justice system, street lights, slavery, and everything. The problem was that they lived in Georgia. The Supreme Court decided that the land they occupied was theirs. Jackson disagreed and booted them out, sending them on what became known as The Trail of Tears. More than 2,000 died of disease on the trail. It was regarded then as the disgrace it was.
As president, he worked to dissolve the federal bank that controlled credit, and he opposed the many corporations then being formed, claiming they were soulless paper entities whose bottom line was profit. He was right about that. Corporations are legal entities that can be held accountable but its members are protected. You can sue a corporation -- you can bankrupt it -- but none of that comes out of the owners' pockets.
I'd better leave it at that because I'll run out of space. His was a twisted, revolutionary presidency that was one of the most important in American history. Many candidates to follow were to call themselves "Jacksonians" and the period is sometimes known as the "Jacksonian era."
It seems to me to have been a mixed blessing.
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