The anti-Jackson campaign represents the overripe fruit of two generations of anti-Jackson scholarship. A century ago, progressive historians like Charles Beard saw Old Hickory as the champion of the frontier farmers and workers, fighting the Eastern moneyed classes; decades later Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. focused on Jackson’s fiercely democratic politics, his class appeal rather than his sectional appeal. But in the 1970s New Left historians such as Michael Paul Rogin, awakening to problems his predecessors had ignored, placed Indian removal at the core of Jackson’s legacy and racism at the heart of his vision. More recently Jackson’s warlike nature and contempt for modern notions of civil liberties and due process have stained his reputation even more deeply. For years now, this unforgiving picture has been a staple of high-school lesson plans and popular culture.
Unfortunately, these high school-level popular understandings of Jackson typically veer into the cartoonish. His record on Indian removal is bad enough without resorting to the anachronistic charge that he committed “genocide.” (That term was coined after World War II to describe the deliberate extermination of a people, as in the Holocaust.) Jackson’s maintenance of a slave-operated cotton plantation at the Hermitage is odious enough without mischaracterizing him as an advocate of slavery, rather than as a defender of the problematic Missouri Compromise, which aimed to keep slavery out of national politics.