Reviewing the wave of political upheavals around 1830 that overthrew the Bourbons in France, detached Belgium from the Netherlands, secured Catholic emancipation to Ireland, brought the Reform Bill to England and unleashed civil wars in Spain and Portugal, in his Age of Revolution Eric Hobsbawm saw the most radical popular advance of the time in the election of Andrew Jackson as President of the United States. Viewed comparatively, two landmarks of his presidency stand out. The electorate of 1828 that put Jackson into power, with a record 56 per cent of the vote, was by far the largest in history: over a million strong, it was three times the size of the American turnout in 1824. The mobilization that produced this majority, moreover, was the work of the first modern mass political party. The second development was more original than the first, but together they spelt a lasting transformation of American democracy, of whose importance posterity has never doubted. The reputation of the man personifying this change remains far more contested. In his own day, Jackson was hailed by many as a heroic democrat, the beau ideal of a self-made man who rose to the nation’s highest post as a foe of social privilege and slayer of the ‘monster bank’, saviour of the nation and fearless champion of the people. Others saw him as ‘King Andrew’, a divisive tyrant driven by petty personal prejudices, contemptuous of the law of the land and merciless to the weak, who debauched government with a spoils system and destroyed the nation’s prosperity with a fixation on hard money.

The facts of Jackson’s career are stark enough. He was born in 1767 of poor Scots-Irish parents, immigrants from Ulster, in the former lands of the Catawba peoples, where North and South Carolina meet—an area well known for its opposition to the eastern elites. At the age of fourteen, he served the insurgents against George iii. Captured by the British, he was slashed with a sword-blow by an officer, leaving a declivity in his skull for which Jackson never forgave them. For the rest of his life, he continued to believe that they wanted to retake the continent. Becoming increasingly obstreperous after his mother’s death soon afterwards, he frittered away a sudden inheritance from a grandfather in Ireland, but learned enough law to get himself appointed by a drinking companion as a prosecutor in the frontier zone of Tennessee—not yet a state—at the age of twenty-one. En route to Tennessee, he purchased his first woman slave. Like many later ambitious presidents, he then moved up the social and political ladder through marriage to the daughter of a state surveyor and land speculator. Jackson rose swiftly on the frontier as a cotton planter, speculator and slave trader. In his early thirties, he became Tennessee’s first Congressman, and a year later was briefly Senator, before quitting for a lucrative job as a circuit judge back home.

However, Jackson’s real political breakthrough came from the camp, not the courtroom. A trigger-happy brawler, duellist and warmonger, who had long itched for military command, he got his chance in 1812, when war broke out with Britain. Ordered south by Madison to block any danger of Indian insurgents linking up with British forces or the Spanish in Florida, he crushed a small Creek rising, unleashing a proverbial hatred for the enemy with an exemplary massacre, and was allowed to dictate terms of surrender that confiscated more than half of Creek lands—territory covering most of today’s Alabama and a sizeable part of Georgia—regardless of whether or not the population had fought against him. Soon afterwards, Jackson cemented his military fame with a successful defence of New Orleans against an assault by British regulars, a battle fought—unknown to both sides—as the ink was already dry on the Treaty of Ghent that concluded the war. Nonetheless, he was widely feted as a second Washington, who had saved the nation—after the humiliation of the torching of the White House by Admiral Cockburn’s forces—in its second ordeal against Britain.

Now a full General, and appointed the us military commander in the South, Jackson made sure he stayed in the limelight with a series of annexations and lunges beyond the Union’s borders. In these years, he pioneered operations of ethnic cleansing. Explaining that whites and Indians could not coexist in peaceful proximity to one another, he implemented the transfer of thousands of Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Creeks beyond the Mississippi, nominally in compensation for the loss of their lands to the east, in practice with widespread loss of their lives as well. In 1818, on the pretext of a punitive expedition against the Seminoles, without any constitutional declaration of war he seized Florida from Spain, summarily hanging a couple of stray Britons for good measure, with Cuba as his intended next stop—actions that caused a storm in Washington, but were eventually covered, leading to the satisfactory detachment of the peninsula from Madrid with the Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819. With more dead Indians and more land, Jackson’s star climbed ever higher in the political sky.

By 1824 he was poised to run for President. The Republican Party created by Jefferson, still overwhelmingly dominant, was split between competing regional contenders—Adams from the Northeast, Clay from the West, Crawford and Calhoun from the South—allowing Jackson to enter an evenly divided race, in which he won more popular votes than any of his opponents. But because the Electoral College was unable to muster a majority, the election was thrown to the House of Representatives, where Henry Clay, who detested Jackson as a lawless adventurer, swung the presidency to Adams—who then appointed Clay Secretary of State. Capitalizing on this ‘corrupt bargain’, and casting himself as a fearless outsider challenging an iniquitous establishment, four years later Jackson won by a landslide.