Ask that question of most Americans regardless of ethnicity, and you’ll probably receive a blank look in reply. The person on the other end of the question no doubt would be thinking the following: Hold on a minute — were John F. Kennedy’s parents immigrants? No, they couldn’t have been, right?
No, they weren’t. What’s more, despite popular opinion, John F. Kennedy was hardly the first Irish-American to take up residence in the White House.
The first and only child of Irish immigrants to win the nation’s highest office was Andrew Jackson, who was elected president in 1828 and re-elected in 1832. He was, among other things, the last Democratic president elected to two consecutive terms in the 19th Century.
Jackson’s presidency is back in the news, at least at an intellectual level, because of a new biography by H.W. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas — Austin. Published by Doubleday, Professor Brands’ book is being touted as the first new look at the Jackson era in more than two decades.
Jackson also has provided the inspiration for two other soaring works of history: “The Age of Jackson,” by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and Robert Remini’s three-volume biography. What’s more, the Brands book is about to be followed by another Jackson biography to be published later this month, this one by noted historian Sean Wilentz.
It’s interesting to note how many reviews of the Brands book neglect to point out that Jackson was the son of immigrants. This, you would think, is a fairly important fact, and one that is especially significant today as we grapple yet again with questions of immigration and identity.
Why so many reviewers chose to overlook this part of Jackson’s life is for them, and their editors, to answer.
Why the Irish in America choose to overlook Andrew Jackson is, however, another matter, and one we all ought to consider.
You could search hither and yon in the general histories of the Irish in American and find nary a mention of Andrew Jackson, a man whose parents emigrated from Co. Antrim in 1765. (For that matter, Woodrow Wilson isn’t exactly part of the Irish-American narrative, either, even though his grandfather emigrated from Co. Tyrone. Of course, Wilson’s hostile views of Irish-America may have something to do with his omission from the pantheon.)
It’s not particularly hard to figure out why Jackson hasn’t been adopted by the Irish-American community: Jackson was a Protestant. That complicates matters, doesn’t it?
Well, it shouldn’t. While I realize that Jackson’s faith would disqualify him from leading the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York, he nevertheless deserves to be understood and appreciated as an Irish-American, and as a child of immigrants.
So much of the Irish-American narrative consists of stories about men and women who overcame poverty to find success in the New World. It would be hard to find a more-moving example of that journey than Andrew Jackson.
He never knew his immigrant father, who tried to carve out a new life for his family in the backwoods of the Carolinas. The senior Jackson died just days before Andrew was born — the dead man’s body fell from a wagon en route to the cemetery, but nobody noticed until they arrived at the grave.
Jackson, his two older brothers and their mother lived a hard life on the frontier, far from the cities of the Carolina lowlands. All three Jackson boys fought in the American Revolution, in that forgotten but savage sector of the war in the South. Jackson was only 13 years old when he and his middle brother were captured by a squad of British soldiers. Ordered to shine an officer’s boot, young Andrew refused, and received a blow to the face from the officer’s sword. He was left with a noticeable scar on his face.
Jackson’s oldest brother died during the war, and his middle brother died of smallpox during his captivity. Young Andrew came down with the disease, too, and might have died had not his mother nursed him back to health. But then she, too, became ill and died, leaving Andrew with neither parents nor siblings. He was just 15 years old.
It would be hard to find a more-tragic Irish-American biography.
His later rise to military glory and then to the presidency used to be better known, but Andrew Jackson has fallen victim to historical neglect. In part, that’s because of his treatment of Native Americans, which was awful. But, ironically, he also represents an ideal now very much in favor among American writers and academics: He was the original American anti-aristocrat, a man loathed by America’s founding elites. His democratic sensibility became part of America’s political vocabulary, summed up in the phrase “Jacksonian democracy.”
It was said of Andrew Jackson that if he could become president, anybody could. At the time, that formulation was meant as an insult. Today, we celebrate that idea.
Not so long ago, the Democratic Party throughout the country used to celebrate both Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson with Jefferson-Jackson dinners, similar to the banquets thrown by Republicans to celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday.
But today’s Democrats seem as reluctant as Irish-Americans to claim Andrew Jackson was one of their own. True, he was a slave-owner and he was responsible for atrocities against Native Americans. But his presidency and his sensibility set in motion events that helped make today’s mass democracy possible. He showed that one needn’t be an American aristocrat to be President of the United States.
Not a bad accomplishment — for a Democrat, and for an Irish-American.