After Donald Trump entered the White House, he gave a portrait of Andrew Jackson a prominent place in the Oval Office — a nod from one populist president to the other. Jackson’s image was already a familiar sight in Louisiana, thanks to a huge statue of him in Jackson Square.
That iconic spot celebrates the man who led Americans to victory against the British in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, an accomplishment that eventually landed Jackson in the White House. As Jackson’s Louisiana admirers sometimes tell the story, his victory in New Orleans caused his political career to skyrocket.
But as a new book persuasively argues, Jackson’s political popularity took time. Authored by David and Jeanne Heidler, “The Rise of Andrew Jackson” casts Old Hickory as “America’s first anti-establishment candidate.” Because he was so unconventional, Jackson’s political appeal wasn’t as automatic as the legend would have us believe, the Heidlers suggest. It took a horde of political operatives a good while to cultivate.
“Over the course of 15 years, they changed American politics by creating an irresistible force out of a man whose sole claim on the public’s affections derived from a 30-minute battle on the banks of the Mississippi River in 1815,” the Heidlers tell readers. “They did this by launching the first modern presidential campaign in American history, the first instance of deliberate image building and mythmaking and of skillful manipulation of public perception and popular opinion.”
Jackson was obviously formidable — no one could have prevailed at the Battle of New Orleans without courage and skill — but he had a temper and could be impetuous. His inner circle of supporters decided that a makeover was in order.
“They published quaint stories of his kindness and heroic tales of his courage,” the authors note. “They contrived ways to make him seem measured and statesmanlike. They made him the friend of debtors (he dismissed them as deadbeats), the advocate for low tariffs or high ones (he had no opinion on the matter), and the enemy of grasping bankers (who were some of his best friends). He was made an icon in the tradition of George Washington, though he had been among those most critical of Washington at the end of his presidency. Jackson was made the ideological heir of Thomas Jefferson, though he had openly opposed President Jefferson, and the Sage of Monticello was openly dismayed by Jackson’s rising popularity.”
Centuries later, people still look at Andrew Jackson and see the man they choose to see. Little wonder that the debate about his legacy remains vigorous in Louisiana — and in a nation where the current commander-in-chief has held up Jackson as a model.