Book Review: Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party

So far this month, I’ve read two Andrew Jackson related books in order to, once again, celebrate Andrew Jackson’s birthday. For those of you who clicked the title because you’re interested or very, very not interested in Democrats, please realize that the Democrats of the 1820’s and 30’s have very little in common with today’s incarnation.

The Book

41sqii0vf6l._sx331_bo1204203200_Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party
Author: Robert Remini
1959
Amazon Link

I’ve been interested in Andrew Jackson ever since I first read about him in American History in high school.  I understand that he wasn’t perfect, and I definitely get that he’s controversial (in fact, that’s part of why I love studying him and his era). I also know I like Robert Remini’s style (at least his style in the 70’s and 80’s – it will be interesting to see if his style when he was younger will be the same or what he’s changed). I have no good book cover image because this is an obscure book for an obscure president.

Martin Van Buren may not have been one of the more memorable presidents, but he was vital in Jackson’s cabinet and Kitchen Cabinet. He was instrumental in shaping American politics into what we see today, and I needed to know more about him to get a better picture of the era.

Non-Spoiler Review

Counting this book, I’ve read 6 of Remini’s works. After I finished this one, I finally gave in and admitted it:

Remini’s one of my favorite authors.

One of the primary criticisms of Remini as a historian is that he too easily takes the viewpoints and sides of his protagonists. He definitely does that with Martin Van Buren, because it’s easy to see his pro-Van Buren tone and, simultaneously, Van Buren’s absolute sliminess. It was a fascinating look at a totally underrated American figure.

This was also the earliest of Remini’s works that I’ve read. Published in 1959, it’s almost twenty years older than the next-oldest Remini work I’ve read. The way the book reads has enormous similarities to the later works, and I can see a lot of how Remini formed his own thoughts on the historical context. I enjoyed that, too.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

5 Discoball Snowcones

SPOILERS REVIEW

Van Buren’s role in making the Democratic Party is readily apparent even in high school history, but the depth pursued in this work is incredible. The scummy flip-flopping Van Buren had to do in order to maintain his Albany Regency political machine was especially interesting. He went from someone who thought Jackson was “incredibly dangerous” to a guy who came lapping at his feet, hoping to ride the coattails of the General.

Van Buren would also shoot himself in the foot if it meant keeping overall control of his machine. Remini was a master of storytelling, even if he was a historian, and he excellently built towards the climax of the Tariff of Abominations. Van Buren’s two-faced, evil machinations with that tariff gave the book something of a “Breaking Bad” sort of feel.

I don’t expect pretty much anyone reading this to be interested in 1820’s New York politics as much as me, but here’s been the review anyway.

Next week:

This is a 5-week month! What sort of Jacksonian machination is going to appear next? Stay tuned!

Book Review: American Lion

Let’s celebrate Andrew Jackson’s birthday with another book full of bloodlust and hatred for Calhoun and Clay. This Pulitzer-prize winning book has a fantastic reputation, and Meacham is one of the most famous pop historians of our day. I have no idea how you could possibly do justice to Jackson in a single volume, but oh well! Gonna jump right in!

The Book

519liaiuttlAmerican Lion
Author: Jon Meacham
2008
Amazon Link

Perhaps it’s because I believe Remini’s 3-volume work gave an appropriate, scholarly overlook necessary to appreciate Jackson’s full range of character, but I’ve been suspicious of American Lion since I saw it published in 2008 (I was in undergrad at the time). This book was a Pulitzer Prize winning piece, so it’s got the award chops to back it up, but will that mean its ability to interpret from a Jacksonian Era lens will be marred?

Anyway, when Trump was elected, Time magazine produced an issue dedicated to my main man Andrew Jackson, and the magazine was largely based off this biography.* My desire to read this book grew in proportion to my suspicion, and I really want to see how you can possibly incorporate much nuance in such a short space. Which Jackson will Meacham see in his reading of original documents?

*This is probably due to the fact that Jon Meacham is probably one of the most popular historians around today, and the other part is probably that Robert Remini died in 2013 and couldn’t have written the magazine article even if they wanted him to. Which I would have.

Non-Spoiler Review

I have a total and complete hard-on for Remini’s historical analysis. A the same time, I really, really liked Meacham’s delicious writing style. His ability to craft a sentence is phenomenal. He’s also got a really good grasp of storycraft and can turn what I thought were some of the more boring parts of the Jackson administration into a fascinating story.

One issue I had with this book was probably unavoidable. Because it was limited to one volume, Meacham chose to glance over Jackson’s early life. I think this is a misfortune because without knowing this information, Jackson feels relatively inconsistent in his political beliefs and stands. Meacham attributes what I think is too much to Jackson’s orphaning and experiences in the revolution, and not enough to his marriage, victory at New Orleans, and insane, bloodthirsty time working with the Blount faction. I personally don’t believe in attempting historical psychology, which Meachem definitely tried to do.

I enjoyed this book because it focused on some of the social aspects of 1820’s and 30’s politics that Remini basically glanced over. The Petticoat War was fascinating in this book, though I think Meacham could have done more to show Van Buren’s massive influence in the set of events. I absolutely loved his analysis of Emily Donelson’s recently unearthed letters on the subject, and I thought that was a great addition to the story. The way he incorporated Peggy Eaton’s memoirs and letters was fantastic. If nothing else, Meacham’s telling and analysis of the Petticoat War is worth reading.

In the end, though, I do think too much focus was put on Andrew Jackson Donelson, one of Jackson’s nephews and wards. Though Jackson was indeed the central figure, he didn’t really feel like the “protagonist” of the book as much as Andrew and Emily Donelson. I think this can be attributed to the new documents Meacham had access to (some of Andrew and Emily’s letters), but I still thought the book was somewhat scattered because of this.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones (because let’s be honest, I loved it despite all the above complaints)

5 Discoball Snowcones

SPOILERS REVIEW

Oops I think I spoiled everything above.

Except guess what? I read the author’s notes, and my main man Remini helped edit. In 2008, I think there was no other choice. Mwahahaha! I knew you couldn’t leave that dude out!

Next week:

Another character/person in Andrew Jackson’s life that doesn’t get enough credit is freaking Martin Van Buren. Next week, I’ll try to do him a little bit of justice as I read Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party.

Which was written by Remini, btw.

 

Book Review: A Being So Gentle

Let’s be honest – this is a great book to read for Andrew Jackson’s birthday, because there was nothing and no one Jackson obsessed over more than his wife, Rachel. Rachel Jackson was extremely influential as a First Lady even though she didn’t live long enough to wield that title properly, and this is the first legit biography I’ve seen of her. I already know the love story of Rachel and Andrew is NUTS, so this is gon’ be gud.

The Book

51qsr2bcvtslA Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson
Author: Patricia Brady
2011
Amazon Link

Last year for March, I read the definitive Robert Remini biographical trilogy on Andrew Jackson. This year, I’m branching out a bit more and looking at a couple people associated with his presidency. Rachel Jackson was incredibly important to Andrew, and she should have been more important to the people he killed in defense of her virtue and honor. She was a quick-witted lady and skilled with running her husband’s plantation (God knows Jackson wasn’t terribly good at keeping money in his pockets), and she’s very underestimated in terms of historical importance.

A biography of her is inevitably going to be hard to write, though, because most of her writings were destroyed in a tragic house fire that occurred years after her death. Moreso than other ladies of her era, she must be discovered through secondary sources and other people’s eyes. That’s part of why I’m excited to see what historian Patricia Brady was able to dredge up.

Non-Spoiler Review

I was very pleased with how Brady teased Rachel out of the few surviving documents about Rachel. She did have to make a lot of suppositions based off what other people said about her in letters or based off some of the letters Andrew Jackson apparently wrote in response to her lost writings.

One thing I was interested in was how far the both of them went in order to please the other. It is apparent that Andrew Jackson’s absences from home in order to murder the British and the Indians distressed his wife, but she also wrote letters and sent out dispatches to preserve his character while he was out. Unlike a lot of men (especially wealthy ones at the time), it seems Jackson did not abandon his wife for mistresses due to old age, weight, or unstylishness (because she worked the farm, she was tanned, at the time a big no-no).

Brady did a pretty good job teasing the life of a very reclusive person from the shadows of her husband’s popularity. Even so, it was very apparent that little direct information about Rachel survives, and much of the story was told with her husband in mind.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

5 Discoball Snowcones

SPOILERS REVIEW

I don’t think there’s much spoilers to be had in a historical book. I will say, however, that a few passages delighted me.

One was the passage in which Brady spoke of evidence the Jacksons were seeking fertility advice. That wasn’t something you really spoke of in those days, and the fact Jackson himself bought the books shows the level of distress they – and probably Rachel, especially – had over their childlessness.

Another interesting tidbit was about Andrew Jackson’s feud with John Sevier in the early 1800’s. This book had the added story about how Rachel didn’t want him to fulfill his duties as judge in eastern Tennessee, Sevier’s stronghold, but he went anyway and got very sick. A man came to warn him about a posse set to tar and feather Andrew. He advised Andrew to lock his door and hold up. Andrew got out of bed, went outside, and threatened the crowd which subsequently dispersed.

The book went into detail about how worried Rachel got over this issue, and it was intriguing how involved she was with Andrew’s exploits. He often wrote to her in pretty gruesome detail about all the murdering, and she’d reply with, “Oh, I love you, stay safe, I’ll pray for you,” and stuff like that.  

I found their loyalty endearing.

Next week:

I am excited to say my library FINALLY got a copy of American Lion, which is famous because it was written by John Meacham. I doubt it’s as thorough as Remini’s definitive work, but it’s an extremely popular and more modern analysis of Jackson! Stick around to see if I like that!

 

Reading List – March 2020

Last March, I took a weird turn and read a well-respected, seminal three-volume biography of Andrew Jackson by Robert Remini. It was one of my favorite reading months of 2019.

So we’re doing it again – Andrew Jackson month, go!

A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson – Patricia Brady

51qsr2bcvtslBy far, the most gripping and emotional part of the Andrew Jackson trilogy was in the middle of the second volume when Rachel suffered a heart attack and died. The Rachel and Andrew Jackson love story is so rife with excitement that it has been shown in film and lionized during the earlier parts of the 20th century, back when Jackson was SUPER popular. What’s interesting about this book is it’s a well researched biography of Rachel Jackson, and based off what I know about her that had to be HARD. Most of Rachel’s writings burned in a house fire in 1835, which makes it even harder to tease this woman’s importance, influence, and life out from under her husband’s accomplishments. Even so, she’s super important in Jackson’s life, and her story is one of the most interesting of the time.

American Lion – John Meacham

519liaiuttlThis is a more recent biography than the trilogy I read last year, so I assume it will contain analyses and morals of people more similar to those alive today. With Remini’s important work coming at a time when opinions on Jackson were shifting, I find it important to read something newer and see what happens. American Lion, published in 2008, saw something of a renaissance when Trump invoked Jacksonian imagery in 2016. Interest in Jackson rose, and John Meacham’s opinion was sought. Meacham is quite possibly one of the most famous history writers today (the other competitor I can think of being David McCullough), so I’m looking forward to reading my first work by his pen.

Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party – Robert Remini

41sqii0vf6l._sx331_bo1204203200_So, something I did last year after reading the Andrew Jackson books was write a fanfic. I’m not sorry. Either way, the Van Buren-based character became way more important in that book than I expected, and I considered his importance in the Democratic party and Jackson’s apex. Though Van Buren is mostly well known for being president during the crash of 1837 and only having one term, he’s incredibly important for his behind the scenes work as “The Little Magician” who ran political machines and many successful campaigns. 

Also this was written by Robert Remini, so can you blame me?

The Leftovers: Something from YOU?

Do you have a published book and a method of purchasing it that isn’t sketch as hell?  I need indie books to read!  Let me know if you have something you’d like me to peruse!

See my old reviews here

Book Review: Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845

I’ve read the first two volumes of this series this month, and it’s been an amazing journey.  I got to celebrate Andrew Jackson’s birthday with a bang, and I enjoyed reading these books a lot.  The analysis of such a controversial historical character just thrills me.  You can expect me to read another biography sometime – this was too much fun.

The Book

41ohxarzk0l._sx324_bo1204203200_Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845
Author: Robert Remini
1984
Amazon Link

I’ve been interested in Andrew Jackson ever since I first read about him in American History in high school.  I understand that he wasn’t perfect, and I definitely get that he’s controversial (in fact, that’s part of why I love studying him and his era).

I read this trilogy for the first time more than a decade ago (I’ve been a big Andrew Jackson fan for a long time).  I loved it then, and I love it now.  Will I give you a fair, balanced, well-informed view of this book?  Absolutely not.  You will get the H.R.R. Gorman Special, TM (C) (R), where I get to tell you how fun the book was and how old school the writing feels.  So strap in for the least historical review of a history book that you may ever read.

Non-Spoiler Review

Part of why this volume deserves a non-spoiler review is that it has a few different literary criteria different from the first two.  Despite being written in relatively rapid succession (’77, ’81, and ’84), this largest volume added some significant literary and theatrical elements.  In previous volumes, Remini was a bit more no-nonsense, and his analysis was piled on top of excellent rhetoric.

Remini’s analysis does not lack in this final volume.  In fact, this final volume won a couple awards in 1984, and most historians acknowledge that Remini’s trilogy is a very important work in terms of historical review.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

5 Discoball Snowcones

SPOILERS REVIEW

This volume focused on the Bank War, which was far more complex than what they tell you in high school.  He also focused on Jackson’s international successes – of which there were a lot – and his constant battle on the political stage.

One thing I found interesting, that I obviously didn’t care about in the least back when I read these in 2009, was that Jackson was the first president to push for the president to be chosen by popular vote rather than electoral college.  At the time, each state chose its own electors, and some states did it proportionally to the vote.  Some states did it with electors partially chosen by legislature (I’m looking at you, South Carolina).  The legislature said no because, get this, they said it was the marks of democracy!  America was a republic, dammit, and letting the dirty masses elect the president was just asking for trouble!

At the end of this volume, Jackson dies.  And Remini mad it so fucking sad.  I think Rachel’s death in book 2 was sadder because Jackson’s anguish was so apparent, but the collective national mourning in the final chapter was so heartfelt.  Despite Jackson dying and being quickly buried at his rural home, 3,000 showed up at his funeral.  Empty caskets and urns were mourned in cities throughout the country, all of which were collectively wailed and missed and simultaneously celebrated.  Regardless of how terrible some of Jackson’s failures and modern legacy may be, he did do something right – something that has influenced American and, surprisingly, international democracies.

If you’ve enjoyed this series of reviews, I encourage you to think about the complexities of history, perhaps take a look at it in a way you haven’t before.  Appreciate the richness that came before you, and think about how your own culture and life has been formed.

Next week:

Next week is the first week of Indie Book Month!  I hope you enjoy my choices.  If you’ve written a book, I still have a couple spots left in my later Indie Book Months this year, so let me know if I should check them out!

Book Review: Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832

Last week, I introduced to you the first in a three-volume biographical series on Andrew Jackson.  This, the shortest installation in the trilogy, covers Jackson’s move from national hero to national overlord, including all the political nastiness of the Corrupt Bargain and the election of 1828.

Jackson, in recent years, has become ever more important in American political discourse.  It’s this book where I believe most of the 2016 election analogies can be found, and I genuinely look forward to thinking about them as I peruse this book for you.

The Book

41rbeghjusl._sx326_bo1204203200_Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832
Author: Robert Remini
1981
Amazon Link

I got this at the library and, like the last volume, the volume that I’m actually reading has been through what appears to be several wars and maybe a trench or two.  Therefore, you get a crisp picture of the modern paperback while I sit back and relish my mold-infested copy.

Anyway, I read this trilogy for the first time more than a decade ago (I’ve been a big Andrew Jackson fan for a long time).  I loved it then, and I love it now.  Will I give you a fair, balanced, well-informed view of this book?  Absolutely not.  You will get the H.R.R. Gorman Special, TM (C) (R), where I get to tell you how fun the book was and how old school the writing feels.  So strap in for the least historical review of a history book that you may ever read.

Non-Spoiler Review

No. I simply refuse.  You should know what happens.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

5 Discoball Snowcones

SPOILERS REVIEW

Part of why I enjoy the Remini trilogy is that, in this book, you get such an old-school perspective on Jackson.  In this day and age, his policy on Indian Removal is seen as the climactic, legacy-ruining move that it deserves – but why did people view him as a hero in prior eras (right up until the 70’s)?  Why was Jackson seen as such a strong executive and excellent president for so long?  Should we really throw out the baby with the bathwater?

This book begins to answer those sorts of things.  Remini poses Jackson as a reformer which, if the analysis of Monroe is to be believed, seems pretty legit.  Clay’s treachery in the election of 1824 is front and center, and Jackson seems the only answer to his puffing.  In response to an aristocratic, single-party machine that was unstoppable, Jackson placed the course of American politics into the hands of the voters and helped expand the definition of ‘voter’ to white men who didn’t own land.

I run the risk of getting into a political argument if I even start trying to explain Remini’s view on the Trail of Tears or the Bank War, so I’m not going to try.  Just suffice it to say that if any historian has a raging boner for Jackson, it’s this guy.

Lastly, I promised that this was the book most relevant to the 2016 election in terms of analogy.  One of the reasons YOU should be interested in the Age of Jackson is because of Trump’s efforts to use Jacksonian imagery to promote himself.  Trump tried to reimagine the 2016 election as something similar to the 1828 election – he, a man of the people, had been ‘cheated’ by elites and would ‘drain the swamp.’  Jackson, a man of the people, had been literally cheated by elites in 1824 and swore to ‘reform and retrench’ because there was only a single, corruption-ridden political party before he started the Jackson (later known as the Democratic) party.  Jackson went on to fire a bunch of people who, through economic investigations, had been largely found to have embezzled the government for millions (a very substantial sum at the time).  You can decide for yourself if the analogy holds up.

But here’s the thing… the 1824 election also happened.  The 1824 election was the first time the electoral college system failed to elect the recipient of the most votes.  Jackson, who failed to claim a majority of the popular vote but definitely outclassed his competition, was prevented from being president due to (what I happen to agree was) a corrupt bargain by Henry Clay.

So I’ll say it: Trump probably can evoke Jacksonian imagery, but he’s not necessarily reminding us of the election he thinks he is.

Relating one’s self to Jackson is such a double-edge sword.  No one should ever try, because at best they’ll fail and at worst they’ll get cut.

Next week:

We’re going to jump on in with the third book in the series in which, spoiler, Jackson is still president.  This last book won some awards for best history book or something in 1984, and is the longest in the set.  Let’s get this party rollin’!

Book Review: Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Empire, 1767-1821

You know what kind of book I enjoy but haven’t yet posted a review of on this blog?

Presidential biographies. 

So, in order to remedy that, I’m reading Remini’s trilogy on Andrew Jackson, 7th president of the United States (and one mean, angry MF). Remini unfortunately died in 2013, meaning that my dream to one day meet the premier Jackson scholar is over… so I must simply do with reading his seminal biography.

The Book

41k0zsh0ngl._sx328_bo1204203200_Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Empire, 1767-1821. v.1
Author: Robert Remini
1977
Amazon Link

Look at the price of this trilogy.  Look at it.  Needless to say, I borrowed this sucker at the library.  The picture is of the one with the nice paperback cover because you really don’t want to see the shape of the cover for the book I’m reading.  You really don’t want to know.

Anyway, I read this trilogy for the first time more than a decade ago (I’ve been a big Andrew Jackson fan for a long time).  I loved it then, and I love it now.  Will I give you a fair, balanced, well-informed view of this book?  Absolutely not.  You will get the H.R.R. Gorman Special, TM (C) (R), where I get to tell you how fun the book was and how 70’s the writing feels.  So strap in for the least historical review of a history book that you may ever read.

Non-Spoiler Review

Should I really do this?  Does a history book need a ‘non-spoiler’ review?

With this volume, yes.  This book is the stuff about Jackson you don’t know.  There’s nothing in here about elections to the presidency.  If you want to know about shady land deals, weird money scandals, killing native Americans, and exactly who Jackson hated (everyone except his mother, wife, and adopted kids, it seems), this is the one to read.

What I like about the Remini book is how ‘unbiased’ he tries to seem.  He does include critiques and alternative viewpoints concerning Jackson (and his treacheries against Native Americans), but Remini almost always ends up defending Jackson’s choices.  What I enjoy about reading this older biography is getting to see that viewpoint – it wasn’t until the 70’s, after all, that Jackson scholars began truly criticizing his Indian Removal policies.  Until the 1970’s, Jackson was widely regarded as a top-notch president and all-around honorable dude.  Reading Remini’s 1977 work will put you right at the crux of that change, so you get to see both the terrible awfulness of the Creek War while at the same time experiencing the jubilation of white Americans after the victory at New Orleans.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

5 Discoball Snowcones

SPOILERS REVIEW

This book covers from Jackson’s low-class birth and upbringing, through the War of 1812 and fateful Battle of New Orleans, all the way to the taking of Florida from Spain.  As such, it contains some of the really weird, shady stuff that Jackson did in his 20’s and 30’s, including (gasp!) marrying a divorced woman.

Like mentioned in the non-spoiler review, one of the interesting things about Remini’s work is how obviously pro-Jackson he was.  While this sentiment was probably more understandable in the 1970’s, it’s painfully obvious when one reads this book now.  When on one page Remini says “He was good to his slaves” then goes on to say HE CHAINED AND WHIPPED THEM, I’m going to have to argue with the author.  I can only give Jackson the benefit of the doubt in that he acted in a way similar to his peers, but that doesn’t forgive him some of the stuff he did.  It’s hard to judge the founding fathers and some of the early American heroes because of the juxtaposition of evil with good.  And, yet, it’s something I think needs to be pondered.

Remini is right that Jackson was extremely complex.  Jackson wasn’t just a murder-monster filled with hate, but he definitely did try to hunt down John Sevier, the former and future governor of Tennessee.

While Jackson was a superior court judge.

Imagine that – your governor is literally being hunted down by a judge in your state.  That’s bonkers.

Imagine that a dude decides it’s within his rights to put your city under martial law and arrest anyone who challenges him – including the federal judge who says his actions are illegal.  Then, when everyone in town is certain he’s trying to form his own little kingdom, the tyrant receives dispatch that the war is over and releases everyone he put in political prison.  Just like that, his faith in the republic allows his rule to evaporate, and he leaves.

Jackson did that.  He did that and more.  It’s really interesting, to me, that we have larger-than-life legends about Crockett and Boone, but don’t have as many legends about Jackson.  If he hadn’t become president (spoiler for the next book… sorry y’all), he’d probably still be spoken of in similar capacity to those two legends.

Because, as I see it, Jackson’s true story is far more insane than legend.

Next week:

We’re going to jump on in with the second book in the series in which, spoiler, Jackson becomes president.

Reading List – March 2019

I am a sci-fi/fantasy person, as you well know.  But March is a special month for me, and for that special month, I’m reading three special books.  Books you might not expect.

Robert Remini’s Andrew Jackson Biographic Trilogy

 

I’m pretty interested in presidents, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Jackson is my favorite to study.  Jacksonian democracy is just fascinating to me.  How can people ever think about characters like Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone when you have Andrew Jackson out there?  The man was straight-up stuff of legend.  He may have done some objectively evil stuff, but dude.  Dude.  For a peacetime president, this guy is more monumentally crucial to the path of America than like… anyone.

As later students of Jackson know, you can’t get around Remini when it comes to the definitive biography of Jackson.  If you like studying the Age of Jackson, you can’t get around reading this excellent, scholarly trilogy of books.

So stick around.  I will probably spill a few more of my political views than I’d want in this series, so… that’s a risk.  But to read this massive series, I’m willing to make that sacrifice.

Also Andrew Jackson’s birthday is March 15th.

Links to The Book Reviews:

Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3

See my old reviews here