Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Jackson, Andrew (1767–1845)
Author:
Blake, David Haven
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The president of the United States from 1828 to 1836, Andrew Jackson furnished Walt Whitman with an important link between antebellum culture and the nation's revolutionary past. As a boy growing up in South Carolina, Jackson had participated in the American Revolution (1780–1781), during which he was captured and held as a prisoner of war. Jackson led American troops against both the British and the Creek Indians during the War of 1812. Although it proved to have little consequence in the outcome of the conflict, the general's victory at the battle of New Orleans (1815) made him a hero of national stature. Jackson nearly won the presidency in 1824, but as no candidate received a majority of electoral votes, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, which decided in favor of John Quincy Adams. The controversies surrounding the election helped solidify Jackson's reputation as a "man of the people," and in 1828 he defeated Adams with an unprecedented percentage of the popular vote. To admirers such as Walt Whitman, Jackson's presidency was most distinguished by his attack on the Second National Bank, an institution he successfully portrayed as an aristocratic monopoly.

As Sean Wilentz has observed, Jackson's association with democratic politics inspired a generation of artisan-laborers, and Whitman was not alone in seeing "Old Hickory" as an emblem of civic virtue. In his editorials for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Whitman frequently championed Jackson as the patron saint of the Democratic party, ranking him above even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in his trinity of national heroes. Whitman's respect for individual rights and his egalitarian vision were prevalent throughout the Age of Jackson. At the center of this sociopolitical movement was a faith in the people as the source of national renewal.

Whitman found Jackson's democratic personality extremely suggestive, and David Reynolds has questioned whether Whitman learned to imitate Jackson's peculiar combination of egalitarian despotism. The president had visited Brooklyn in 1832 when Whitman was thirteen years old, and in an 1846 editorial, he fondly recalled the crowd's excited reception of the "hero and the Sage" (Whitman 179). Whitman saw in Jackson a "truly sublime being" whose infamous will merely reflected his devotion to the public good (qtd. in Brasher 101). Despite his eventual disenchantment with American politics, Whitman always spoke of the president with extraordinary respect. Jackson was "true gold," he told Horace Traubel in Camden, "the genuine ore in the rough" (With Walt Whitman 3:30).

Bibliography

Brasher, Thomas L. Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1970.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Jackson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1946.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 3. New York: Mitchell Kinnerley, 1914.

Watson, Harry L. Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. Vol. 2. New York: Putnam, 1920.

Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City & the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850. New York: Oxford UP, 1984.


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