Nearly two centuries after his death, Andrew Jackson, America's backwoods Machiavelli, continues to enthrall us, whether the subject of scholarly inquiry or the star of his own Broadway musical.
The debate over his legacy rages today: Although Jackson is widely credited with inventing our concept of the American president, his views on democracy — and on racial minorities in particular — mar his reputation, with dissenters aplenty. This year a woman may be poised to replace him on the $20 bill.
Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR's "Morning Edition" and an award-winning journalist, enters a crowded field with his engaging and spirited "Jacksonland," smartly narrowing his focus to the complicated relationship between the seventh president and a now largely forgotten genius of the Cherokee people, Chief John Ross, who lived in his nation's heartland, along the Georgia-Tennessee border.
In brisk, crisp chapters, Inskeep charts how the two men circled each other for decades, first during Jackson's military campaigns and then later, after Jackson's inauguration, when the president sought to claim Indian lands for the U.S. and exile the Indians beyond the Mississippi River.
Although something of a pacifist, Ross stood in Jackson's way: "He fought Jackson within the democratic system just as that system was taking shape. Each man came to personify a basic democratic value: Jackson, the principle of majority rule; Ross, the principle of minority rights."
Entrepreneurial and educated, Ross was only one-eighth Cherokee, and "yet something drew [him] away from the whiteside and closer to his Indian identity. … Ross gradually strengthened his ties to the group that was smaller, more vulnerable, and seemingly destined to lose."
He shuttled back and forth between the South and Washington, D.C., lobbying for the Cherokees' right to self-determination and nurturing a free press in the Cherokee language. He even drafted the Indian nation's constitution, closely modeled on the U.S. government's founding document.
Inskeep details Ross' herculean efforts with flair, anchoring his narrative with several vivid set pieces, including Lafayette's triumphant American tour during the mid-1820s; the brief brilliance of the Cherokee Phoenix, a bilingual newspaper, and Catharine Beecher's quiet mobilization of New England women on behalf of Indian freedoms. Ross relentlessly pursued his legal and political options, but in the end, American military might allowed Jackson to seize millions of acres from the Cherokees, ushering in the Trail of Tears.
Jacksonland's greatest achievement is to rescue Ross from history's dustbin, highlighting a master strategist who prefigured Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
As Inskeep notes, "The Cherokees were more than mere victims: they were skilled political operators who played a bad hand long and well. Their resistance to Indian removal … foreshadowed modern movements for the rights of racial minorities, and added to our democratic tradition."
Hamilton Cain is the author of "This Boy's Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing." He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.