The Law of Nations, the Law of Revenge, and Andrew Jackson

J.M. Opal’s new book interprets the history of the southern frontier from the late colonial period through Andrew Jackson’s presidency as a tale of constant violence and brutal grasping for power. “Old Hickory,” the main character of the work, appears as a bloodthirsty, self-righteous opportunist who, after clawing his way to elite status, searches for ways to maintain that status.

Taking vengeance in the name of the people became a main part of his strategy, according to Opal, an associate professor of history at McGill University. The southern part of the American frontier is, by Opal’s lights, no haven for democracy a la Frederick Jackson Turner but a place of violent competition for land, wealth, and power. The exploitation of peoples—red, white, and black—lies at its heart. Ultimately, Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation is a morality play fixed in a particular historical setting. It sometimes succeeds in unmasking the reality of the frontier, but at other times scores political points at the expense of the complexity of the subject.

Opal’s deeply researched revisionist narrative would focus our attention on “the popular efforts and egalitarian ideas” that Jackson and his followers “helped to bury.” Three groups dominate the story.

First, the populists, who appear at various points in the book, profess egalitarianism, and wish to subject the rising commercial order to democracy. They believe (as does Opal) that having a sovereign nation means being able to use popular sovereignty to do anything, especially to redefine and expropriate property in the name of the people. At various points, Opal’s heroes advocate inflation to help debtors, state economic relief for the poor, and, sometimes, political decentralization. This group ends up losing out to Jackson and his friends, the villains of the piece.

The Jackson men are nationalists, not decentralists, who seek to order the frontier through violence and then law. Punishing those who threaten their order—contentious slaves, Indians, and white debtors—and then rigging the political and legal system to protect their acquisitions of land, enslaved people, and commercial wealth is the stock-in-trade the Jackson men. Vengeance, sovereignty, and order are their slogans. They cultivate their self-interest at the expense of others.

The third group is the nationalistic Federalists—essentially nicer, more cosmopolitan versions of Jackson’s men. They too seek a legal order friendly to commerce and peace on the frontier. But unlike the Jackson men, their overriding concern is to see that Americans conduct their affairs honorably and take their place in the community of nation-states. In Opal’s telling, the Federalists fail to fully perceive the danger from Jackson’s vision of vengeance, which uses the authority of the people as its justification. The Federalists get out-foxed, and the wicked prosper.

The author uses the theme of vengeance to explain the violence that swept the colonial southern backcountry from the Cherokee War (1758-61) until the end of the American Revolution. Indian violence marred the southern frontier near the end of the colonial period, contributing to the Regulator movements in North Carolina (which Opal likes) and South Carolina (which Opal dislikes, purely on class terms). Social unrest created a dangerous environment, which the British deliberately enflamed during the Revolution. Opal is actually quite perceptive about this, writing that:

For the patriots, the most alarming part about British repression was that it named them “rebels” or even “traitors,” insurgents who, according to Vattel and Blackstone, were not entitled to any mercy from their sovereign’s vengeance.

Defining one’s enemy as being outside of the law meant that civilized rules of warfare did not apply. Violence in the South during the War of Independence,  therefore, became legendary as people settled old scores. Everyone suffered in a seemingly endless cycle of revenge.

Opal perceives the ensuing period as a continuation of the struggle between the forces of order and those of “radical democracy.” After the war, when the courts reopened, judges heard a slew of cases, most relating to property. Young Andrew Jackson became a lawyer, defending the rights of property owners and creditors. Opal admits that lawyers could “protect the widows, orphans, and strangers” who had been left without community support in the wake of the Revolution; but it was also lawyers who turned “against the most egalitarian versions of the Revolution.” Jackson, for example, pushed westward and used his legal training to defend land speculators like himself. Land speculation became big business in the West as, one by one, the original 13  states began to cede their western lands to the central government. But, in order for land titles to be secured by the new lawyers like Jackson, the Indians had to be silenced. Enter the “regional warlords” like John Sevier, the “muscle” for the more respectable elite who sought profits from real estate.

East Coast nationalists abhorred the tinderbox on the frontier, seeking instead a peaceful commercial order. James Wilson of Pennsylvania appears here as an example of the nationalists of the 1780s. According to Opal, Wilson believed “he could make the American nation a better version of the British hegemon, if only he could get past the American people.” Being anti-democratic, the Federalists sought constitutional reform to prevent the radical democrats from passing laws threatening the rights of property. Thus the 1787 Constitution, for Opal and the neo-Progressive school of historians from which he comes, signified yet another defeat for the forces of good.

Following scholars such as Andrew Cayton, Opal expertly demonstrates that Federalist policy regarding the frontier caused significant problems during the 1790s that contributed to the Federalist Party’s fall from power in 1800. Federalists like Henry Knox, Washington’s Secretary of War, realized that peace was necessary on the frontier but lacked the resources to enforce order. Thus federal treaties with Indians could not be policed.

Violence exploded in Jackson’s western settlements. Opal notes that the “total body count” among the Cumberland settlers between 1780 and 1794 was 435, “perhaps 5% of the Cumberland’s white population during its first fourteen years” of organized settlement. Western settlers, feeling abandoned by the federal government, sought their own solutions. Some became Spanish subjects to secure land and peace with the frontier Indians. Others visited vicious retaliation on Indian nations, including scorched-earth campaigns that killed indiscriminately.

In the wake of the violence came “Andrew Jackson and his close allies,” who “lined up as frontier Federalists against the more populist figures from the eastern hills.” Jackson’s main concern was to defend the “right of soil” of the new state of Tennessee, which, Opal maintains, “was an implicit denial that any non-American could hold American territory.” Jackson took his perspective to the U.S. Congress when he became Tennessee’s first member of the House of Representatives.

The second half of the book focuses on Jackson’s continued opposition to “radical democracy” and his vengeance against Indians. Opal recounts Jackson’s financial losses due to President Jefferson’s embargo of Britain and France and the Panic of 1819, his heavy use of slaves to build his wealth, and his opposition at key moments in Tennessee’s history to state laws that threatened property rights. Jackson’s crusade against the Indians during the War of 1812 and his subsequent invasion of Florida were campaigns of revenge and land acquisition. Jackson defined Indians as outside of the law, and thus subjected them only to the rules of retaliatory violence.

For Opal, the key moment in Jackson’s national career came in the 1820s. Facing state challenges to the new commercial order in response to the Panic of 1819 and the unwillingness of the federal government to confiscate more Indian land, Jackson took his movement national.   The Democratic Party, then, became Jackson’s vehicle for forcibly defeating radical democracy, taking the rest of the Indians’ lands, and ensuring that his allies could expand their control and wealth over the South and West. Jackson’s presidency, Opal believes, fulfilled these goals. America listened to the wrong people and the wrong message, he says, thus delaying social democracy. This is an old lament of the Left with a long historiographical tradition.

Opal sometimes downplays important debates that could qualify the indignant tone of his narrative. For example, during the early Republic the status of Indians tribes was vociferously disputed. Were they nations and thus sovereign over their lands? Had they ever been nations? Were they defeated peoples who forfeited their sovereignty and thus ultimate control over their property? Were there distinctions to be made between less peaceable and more peaceable tribes?

Reading through the vast primary source literature on Indian sovereignty in the early Republic uncovers much sophistry, special pleading, and dishonesty from many sides. But there was an important legal debate at hand, and Jackson was part of it. Take, for instance, his March 4, 1817 letter to President James Monroe. After discussing the problems of the frontier in the context of national security, Jackson wrote the following: “The Indians are the subjects of the United States, inhabiting its territory and acknowledging its sovereignty, then is it not absurd for the sovereign to negotiate by treaty with the subject.”

He continued,

I have always thought, that Congress had as much right to regulate by acts of Legislation, all Indian concerns as they had of Territories; there is only this difference, that the inhabitants of Territories, are Citizens of the United States and entitled to all the rights thereof, the Indians are Subjects and entitled to their protection and fostering care; the proper guardian of this protection and fostering care is the Legislature of the Union.[1]

Jackson wanted Congress to dictate terms to the Indians, not treat them as citizens under the law or as foreign nations. This was not simply a question of vengeance, although it could, as Opal reminds us, be framed that way. Instead it was a contentious legal issue that taxed many of the legal minds of the United States, England, and the Continent, including men often cited in Avenging the People: Emer de Vattel, William Blackstone, and John Marshall (the last-mentioned of whom equivocated on the issue at times).[2]

In addition, Jackson often gave national security as a reason to secure the frontier. This  was part of a broader national discussion that, again, was not always connected to questions of vengeance.[3] Jackson’s base of support could therefore be construed more broadly than Opal’s narrative allows. Yes, Jackson cited vengeance often. But was his whole movement then an attempt to suppress the Revolution by declaring all enemies outside of the law? No.

Finally, in Opal’s attempt to cast the history of the southern frontier as a story of the populists versus the elites, he misses elements of the cultural fabric of the Old Southwest that better contextualize Jackson and his movement. For example, David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed (1989) provided a cultural interpretation of Jackson that sometimes fits with Opal’s general depiction of the frontier. Fischer styled Jackson a “border chief”—  a member of a tribe, the Scots-Irish, who worked his tribal connections to rise to prominence. Indeed, from his childhood in the Waxhaws region of the Piedmont to his legal education and entrance into public life, he operated within the kinship networks and primitive institutions of the Scots-Irish in the southern backcountry.

In fact, Opal’s depiction of Jackson’s early career and beliefs, especially the lex talionis (the law of revenge), compares well to Fischer’s portrayal of Scots-Irish culture on the frontier.[4] Seeing the frontier as a clash of peoples or tribes moves away from a simplistic ideological account that pits populists versus elitists while still allowing Opal’s concerns—property rights and legal defenses of commercial wealth—to play a role in the story. The southern frontier was more complex, both culturally and ideologically, than Opal’s model allows. Opal’s model, rather than his excellent research and impressive erudition, is the weakness of the book.

[1] Andrew Jackson to James Monroe, 4 March 1817, in Correspondence of Andrew Jackson, edited by John Spencer Bassett (Carnegie Institute of Washington, 1927), Volume 2, p. 279.

[2] See Tim Alan Garrison, The Legal Ideology of Removal: The Southern Judiciary and the Sovereignty of Native American Nations (University of Georgia Press, 2002). Opal cites this work.

[3] See James E. Lewis, Jr., The American Union and the Problem of Neighborhood: The United States and the Collapse of the Spanish Empire (University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

[4] David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 605-782. See also Hendrik Booraem, Young Hickory: The Making of Andrew Jackson (Taylor Publishing Co., 2001). Opal cites Booraem. Another recent book on a similar topic (Jackson and the Old Southwest) is also worth reading, Steve Inskeep’s Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (Penguin Books, 2015). Inskeep and Opal have similar, but not identical, views of Jackson.