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.

Once in power, Jackson’s first priorities were a purge of the civil service to install his supporters at all levels of the federal bureaucracy, and more sweeping measures of ethnic cleansing, rammed through Congress with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Next came an assault on the country’s proto-central bank, the congressionally chartered but privately owned Second Bank of America, viewed by Jackson as a citadel of monopoly wealth and improper political influence. This was a hugely popular campaign against the ‘monied interest’ that helped him win a resounding second term in 1832, when the rallying power of the newly created Democratic Party machine, the country’s first mass political organization, came into full play; in 1828, Jackson had headed a faction, but by 1832 he could count on the support of Party conclaves across the country at state and local levels. His final years in office saw him embroiled in tariff disputes with South Carolina, efforts to censor abolitionist mail to the South, and a speculative bubble that burst soon after his exit. Of more lasting significance, Texas was prised away from Mexico, if without Jackson himself being able to annex it, and mass deportation and death visited on ever larger numbers of indigenous people. His immediate legacy was secured by the election of Van Buren, his long-time political manager and lieutenant, in 1836, and—in a more emphatic sense—by that of his Tennessee client James Polk in 1844, arguably the most successful expansionist in us history.

Jackson polarized American opinion in his own lifetime, and has divided historians ever since. Sean Wilentz’s portrait of him, produced for a series edited by Arthur Schlesinger, draws heavily on his recent Rise of American Democracy (2005), of which—Jackson looming larger than either Jefferson or Lincoln—it can be regarded as a biographical distillation. ‘Old Hickory’ does not lend himself easily to political hagiography, but Wilentz has shown himself capable of rising to the occasion. Well-regarded in the eighties as the author of Chants Democratic, a radical study of the early industrial working class in New York in the tradition of Edward Thompson, in recent years Wilentz has caught the public eye for the intensity of his identification with the Democratic Party, and its last president. A ‘family friend’ of Clinton and intimate of his courtier Sidney Blumenthal, whose apologia for the President he vetted, Wilentz shot to prominence with an impassioned address to the House of Representatives, in which he warned that to impeach the incumbent would ‘leave the Presidency permanently disfigured and diminished, at the mercy as never before of the caprices of any Congress’; ‘the Presidency, historically the centre of leadership during our great national ordeals, will be crippled in meeting the inevitable challenges of the future’. Even the New York Times found him excessive. Extolling Clinton for launching the Balkan War—‘the first us President to stop a genocide’—Wilentz has since explained to Rolling Stone that his successor (notwithstanding ‘high marks for ousting the Taliban’) is the worst president in American history. Modern Republicanism, indeed, is a toxic descendant of the very party that was created to frustrate Jackson’s Democracy, the Whigs of the 1830s and 1840s. With these retrojections, the scene is set for an update of the man they vilified. The onset and outcome of an American epic become joined in a time-warped loop, as Wilentz’s outbursts at detractors of Jackson—‘losers’ literature’—match fulminations at critics of Clinton at the other end of the Democratic narrative: the former’s ‘forceful style’ establishing ‘the foundations of the modern democratic presidency’ menaced by the impeachment of the latter.