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Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil and the Presidency (2008)

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Credited cast:
Jamie Blaine ... Richard Lawrence - Assassin
... Congressman
... Henry Clay (voice)
Daniel Feller ... Himself
Lacie Madison ... Rachel Jackson
David Michael McArdle ... President Jackson (as David McArdle)
Bruce Williamson ... James Parton
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PBS

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2 January 2008 (USA)  »

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A Worthwhile Biography Somewhat Lacking In Analysis
16 June 2010 | by See all my reviews

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.


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