Monday, April 20, 2015

Book Review: Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democrats by Dr. Mark Cheathem

Cumberland University's Dr. Mark Cheathem has written a new book about Andrew Jackson that is geared more towards a book for students.  A member of the Vise Library decided to read and review this book in order to understand the research of one of our own.  It is also intriguing due to the fact that Andrew Jackson was from the mid-state area like we are!  Read on to find out more about the book and to read a brief interview with Dr. Cheathem.  (He has some jokes thrown in, so don't miss those!!)

About the book:

In this chronological examination of the Democratic Party’s origins, award-winning author Mark R. Cheathem traces the development of both the Democratic Party and the second American party system from its roots in the Jeffersonian Republicans in the 1790s to its maturation during Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the 1830s. The book explores the concept of politics and its effects on the national government of the early American republic.

This historical reference is filled with fascinating facts and anecdotes about 19th-century politics in the United States, most notably how Martin Van Buren acted as the architect of the Democratic Party; what factors contributed to the Democrats’ rise to power; and how the Bank War created the second American party system, pitting the Democrats against Whigs. Content features key political writings from the period, portraits and political cartoons of the time, and a helpful chronology detailing influential events.
I will say before I read this book I was very ignorant of Andrew Jackson.  All I remember learning about him in school was that he was tall, had the nickname Old Hickory, and that there was apparently a wild party after he was inaugurated.  (For some reason that last part has always stuck in my mind since the third grade).  This fact is very sad since he is such a prominent figure in this area.  His home is  located here and there streets, places, buildings, restaurants with the name Old Hickory attached to them.  Even though Andrew Jackson is prominently featured in this book, to me it is more about events leading up to and surrounding his presidency and the impact of it on the Democrats.  

You receive a lot of background information about the political foundation and climate of the times before he takes office.  You also read about his life including his military career (which at times was used against him), that he would challenge anyone to a duel (anyone may be an exaggeration, but he does get shot a few times and kills someone), how he earned the nickname Old Hickory, and his marriage (which was a very hot button topic).  The last sixty pages or so of the book includes a look at "The Significance of Jacksonian Democracy" as well as several essays.  These essays outline the "what-ifs", who deserved to be president in 1824 (arguing both sides of the point) and key moments in Jackson's terms in office.  There is also a section of small bios for some of the influential people of the time.  Lastly, you get a peek into history with some of Jackson's important speeches from start to finish.  Those were great to read.

Andrew Jackson did not set out to become president.  According to this book he was quite happy to retire to The Hermitage after he was the governor of Florida.  However, he does garner quite a bit support for the presidency and is the one of the top candidates in the 1824 election. The election that year was wild and I never realized how crazy it was.  Jackson won the most electoral votes but not the required amount to be named the winner of the election.  The President that year is instead decided by the House.  Jackson believed there was some shadiness and plots happening against him (which could be true).  Unfortunately for Jackson, he does not come out victorious.  Instead John Quincy Adams is named the President of the United States by the House.  There is speculation about an underhanded deal to ensure that Adams becomes the President. Jackson could be correct in thinking something was happening to keep him out of Washington.  There is inference that something was plotted between Adams and another candidate, Henry Clay (who was Speaker of the House at the time and was named Secretary of State under Adams).

After his defeat, Jackson sits on this loss and at first decides that he's just fine being in Tennessee.  However, he decides that the common people were not listened to and seeks help to make Adams a one term president.  In this book you read about how Jackson campaigns in some of the key states and who some of the main players in those states are.  You also learn that Martin Van Buren in a way helps Jackson establish the party.  At the time, there were not clear cut party lines, but that changes with Van Buren's help (and ultimately changes certain parties and elections to come).  Jackson runs the following election with a lot of help from newspapers and gains support from key states.  Jackson has a pretty significant margin of victory against Adams (178 electoral votes to Adams' 83).  

Like any President, he has success and he has things that happen to draw divisions between parties and defines them (which this book is about).  There are some key circumstances that happen in his presidency that create turmoil around him.  There is a public shunning of the wife of the Secretary of War.  Since Jackson saw his wife's name dragged through the mud, he was always against this practice.  So naturally when John Eaton's wife, Margaret, had the same experience, he was very adamant about defending her.  This caused a lot of friction between Jackson and his cabinet members and their wives (who refused to socialize with Margaret).   Jackson also signed the Indian Removal Act, which some believed that he was overstepping his power and boundaries.   The treatment of the Native Americans with this act is also called into question.  Jackson also had to deal with South Carolina threatening to nullify, which fueled the debate of state's rights versus the federal government's power.  This issue eventually created turmoil and division within the Democratic party (there are tariffs, military presence, and imprisoned missionaries involved).  One of the major issues that Jackson faced was if the national bank should be rechartered.  Jackson was very against this and distrusted banks.  The recharter was a huge fight and eventually he vetoes a bill that gains him a true nemesis. This book extensively outlines things that are set in motion with this bank fight that cause unrest in some of states.  There is a ton of violence that stems from these actions and fingers are pointed in all directions at the cause.  All of these issues combined define Jackson, his political outlook and a party.  

There are several things I took away from this book.  One is that there is so much history out there that we never really get taught everything.  I know this is not anything new or an earth shattering concept.  When you read something like this book, it really sinks in that you only know such a tiny amount about your own country or people from your own region.  For instance, I had no idea that the Election of 1824 was as crazy as it was.  I don't remember learning about the specifics of Jackson winning in 1824, but ultimately not winning in the end.  I also took away that times have changed but people and the search for power have NOT changed.  It feels that every election season starts happening sooner and sooner every cycle, but that is nothing new.  After Jackson lost his first election, he started strategizing and campaigning in a way to gain support for the next election.  The platform of running for everyday people and dirty campaigning is old news too.  This book mentions an election involving Thomas Jefferson that claimed if he was elected then rape, murder and more would be happening all over the place.  That type of campaigning was prevalent way back then and will probably continue as we gear up for another Presidential election in two years.  A key point that is made in the book that is worth noting is that Andrew Jackson not only made the Democrats emerge, but also the Whig Party.  The author mentions that this party gains notoriety for constantly going against Jackson and his policies.  

Overall, I found this book interesting to read and enjoyed learning about events and people I wasn't aware of before this book.  I like history and I like learning about it.  I unfortunately  do not read enough about history (case and point being how little I knew of Jackson before reading this book).  I found this book had a good flow and you could tell it was highly researched.  I got a big kick out of reading some of the letters that involved insults or requesting duels or about Republicans believing they had the only right to celebrate July 4th (read to find out why).  Lastly, like any piece of history I think it is important to note that you can see the chain of events that set other things in motion.  There is no way to change things that have happened, but it interesting (and important!) to see how those things came about happening.  

A copy of Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democrats is available in the Vise Library for checkout.  


Dr. Cheathem agreed to answer a few questions about writing and about his book.  Below is the interview.  His answers are in bold and italics.

You may have addressed this at another time or book, but why Andrew Jackson?  I know
researchers focus on a topic or area and I am just curious why you chose Jackson and his time.

The late Monty Pope, who was my undergraduate adviser at Cumberland, was a Jackson expert. He convinced me to work at The Hermitage, and the rest is history. #historianjoke

How long does it typically take you research a book and then write it?

It depends. This book built on a lot of research that I had already completed for my Jackson 
biography, but it still took me two years.  

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

Finding the time. Cumberland is a teaching institution, so classes have to come first. Committee work also consumes a lot of hours. On top of that, I have a family, and I try not to take my work home with me. So, I have to block out time to write at the office and guard it like the gold at Fort Knox. #anotherhistorianjoke

What was the easiest thing?

Having access to the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Whenever I needed to look up
Jackson-related documents that weren’t already in my files, I could take an afternoon research 
trip to Nashville.

Do you have an idea in mind for the covers when you write them?  How does that work?

I usually suggest an image or images. If authors aren’t proactive, publishers may or may not ask them for ideas. For three of my books, including this one, the publisher has followed my

Do you have any advice for future (or current) historians that choose to write?

Develop a research plan, protect your writing time, and get other people’s feedback.

Near the end of the book you write a couple of what-if essays, so I decided to write a few what-
ifs.  (I actually had a few of these before I saw that section.)
What do you think Jackson would think about today’s politics?

He wouldn’t be very happy. Some of the shenanigans that politicians engage in today were 
present during his lifetime, and he didn’t have a lot of patience for them.

In the book you talk about how a peace treaty took two days to reach Washington so how do you think he would handle the 24/7 news cycle?  Also, how do you think he would fare with cameras everywhere?

Jackson could be very charismatic and charming in person, so I think he would be a good 
interview. Again, though, I don’t think he would have the patience for today’s politics.

Would he have been elected for a second term in today’s world?

An adulterer and murderer? He wouldn’t even make it to the primary season, much less win a 
nomination. Jackson would be unelectable today.

How do you think he would have handled being elected in 1824?

Jackson was reluctant to run in 1824, so I’ve always wondered if he would have sleepwalked 
through one term and then retired. What gave him the burning passion to run in 1828 was the 
belief that the 1824 election had been stolen from him. Without that motivation, I don’t think he would have had the drive to serve longer than four years.
Buy the book:

About the author:

A native of Cleveland, Tennessee, Dr. Mark Cheathem earned his B.A. in history from Cumberland University, his M.A. in history from Middle Tennessee State University, and his Ph.D. in history from Mississippi State University. He taught at Mississippi University for Women, Mississippi State University, and Southern New Hampshire University before returning to his undergraduate alma mater in 2008, where he is a professor of history and history program director.

Cheathem is the author or editor of five books, including Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democrats and Andrew Jackson, Southerner, which won the 2013 Tennessee History Book Award. He is currently completing a new book entitled The Log Cabin and Hard Cider Campaign of 1840: Politics as Entertainment in Antebellum America.

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