Saturday, June 17, 2017

J.M. Opal's "Avenging the People"

J.M. Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of Beyond the Farm: National Ambitions in Rural New England and the editor of Common Sense and Other Writings by Thomas Paine.

Opal applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation, and reported the following:
This passage from Avenging the People covers the mysterious ending of a mysterious war. From 1792 to 1794, Cherokee and Creek men attacked the far reaches of the Southwest Territory, which became the state of Tennessee. Andrew Jackson and one of his mentors, James Robertson, played key roles in the climactic “Nickajack” campaign, during which white militiamen torched that town, killed most of the inhabitants, and took some girls as captives.

From page 99:
Legend says that Andrew Jackson took part in this campaign as a humble private, not as judge advocate. There is no way to verify this claim…. Jackson buried much of what happened deep inside. Clearly he emerged from Tennessee’s two-year nightmare as one of its trusted avengers, a man who bore its scars and secrets. In 1795, Robertson took the fall for Nickajack…. Some years later, after Robertson again offered his services, Jackson paid his respects to the old warrior. The men who served under your command, Jackson told Robertson, were a “Corps of Invincibles.” They revealed a courage “to be found only in republicks”...[displaying] a “union of Sentiments and Action” in the face of demonic foes. “My God!” Jackson concluded. “How can I express my sensations!!!”
Much of Andrew Jackson’s military career is shrouded in myth. As such we rely on veiled references to the awful things that happened in the Tennessee woods, far away from any law. This points to one of the main themes of the book: the conflict between frontier elites like Jackson and Robertson, on one hand, and the national government on the other. Eastern politicians simply did not understand the terrifying bloodlands of North America, Jackson seethed. “How can I express my sensations!!!” The key to those “sensations” was Jackson’s deep feeling of prior innocence—and the resulting thirst for vengeance.

Where did those convictions and obsessions come from? For Jackson, the world had first turned on him during the American Revolution, when he lost his mother and two brothers. His sense of victimhood deepened when people whispered about his beloved wife, Rachel, in the early 1790s. It reached a fever pitch that decade as hundreds of settlers were killed by natives who were protected, to some extent, by the U.S. government. (Jackson made no mention of the more numerous native victims of this war, nor of the fact that speculators like him bore much of the blame for starting it.) His rage often made him unpopular, even in Tennessee. But during the War of 1812, his fury merged with the larger sense that the American people still suffered at the hands of the British and their native allies, forging a powerful “union of Sentiments and Action” between Jackson and his nation.

But look carefully: Jackson was not only a maverick warrior but also a “judge advocate” who brought the rule of law to the southern frontiers. In other words, he felt innocent because he served the law, even—or especially—when that law was unpopular. His life was thus an epic drama, a chronic struggle between his duty to inflict the law and his desire to transcend it. And that left a real mark on the United States.
My Book, The Movie: Avenging the People.

--Marshal Zeringue