Jason Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University. This interview is based on his new book Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation (Oxford University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write Avenging the People?
JO: I had always been fascinated by Andrew Jackson and his intense following in the United States, especially in the wake of his controversial invasion of Spanish and Seminole Florida in 1818. I was also struck by the tone and vehemence of the Congressional debates that followed in early 1819. The pro-Jackson representatives talked about the “laws of nations” and the “rights of nature,” suggesting that Old Hickory symbolized a new claim to national sovereignty within the brutal world he saw.
But what made me want to dig deeper was what happened right after these debates—not the bitter controversy over slavery in Missouri, but the severe economic crisis that lasted from 1819 to 1822. Here, Jackson was an arch-conservative foe of public banks, stay laws, and other assertions of democratic sovereignty against international “laws” of commerce. Here, he rejected some of the most popular—and, in some sense, nationalistic—measures of his day. This just did not fit with the traditional view of Jackson as a patriotic champion and democratic reformer. Nor did it align with the usual critiques of Jackson, which stress his hostility to native peoples and black Americans.
So, I wanted to offer a new look at the towering enigma from Tennessee, one that stayed as close as possible to primary sources (rather than historiographical debates) and that scrutinized Jackson’s early career and political education (rather than his legendary times in the White House). I did not intend to besmirch Jackson, nor to condemn his fans. I just wanted to see what he was about, and to understand why so many Americans loved him so fiercely.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Avenging the People?
JO: I argue that Jackson led and embodied one version of American nationhood—of the American people as a nation who shared blood—that grew out of the long struggle with the British Empire and its native and black proxies during the post-Revolutionary decades. This kind of nationhood asserted American sovereignty vis-à-vis its enemies, including the right to avenge American blood around the globe, while restricting their sovereignty in times and places of peace, that is within the society they reluctantly composed.
JF: Why do we need to read Avenging the People?
JO: Especially since the United States, unlike most western democracies, still functions according to its first written Constitution (with amendments), it is always important to study the Founding era. In a way, this history is not history at all, but a kind of ongoing past.
Jackson was not one of the Founders of 1787, but he was probably the single most important figure in the later, longer rise of “democratic” models of American nationhood and popular sovereignty. Understanding that is especially important now that President Trump repeatedly and (I think) sincerely invokes Jackson’s name to authorize an “America First” course of action.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JO: I have loved history for as long as I can remember and was determined to become a history professor by the time I was in eighth or ninth grade. (One viewing of Les Misérables at the Shubert Theatre in Boston clinched it.) I honestly can’t imagine anything more compelling than the debatable record of what people have done and what it all means.
I decided to study the early United States after I took Mary Beth Norton’s class on the American Revolution at Cornell in the spring of 1996. I turned to cultural and social history after working with Jane Kamensky at Brandeis in 1999. Inspiring teachers have that effect!
JF: What is your next project?
JO: Moving to Montreal in 2009, right when I was starting this project, gave me a new vantage point on American history. It also revealed the importance of other languages, which had always been a weak point for me. I’m comfortable at last in French and am now studying Portuguese, both of which will help for my new book project, a global history of Barbados. As many early Americanists have shown, this island was the center of the early English empire and the starting point for its seventeenth-century turn to black slavery. I want to retell the island’s long ordeal by drawing in the associated histories of the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British empires and of the many African nations that later gave rise to the Bajan people.
I’m also working on two collaborative projects. The first is a collection of essays on the “Patriot” rebellions of the late 1830s along the US-Canadian border. I’m writing about the economic priorities that underlay US-British rapprochement and that helped to doom the Patriots. Maxime Dagenais of McMaster University and Julien Mauduit of Université du Québec à Montréal are editing this book, which I hope will reach people in both French and English Canada and in my native country. Second, I’m writing a history of epidemic diseases and the American people with my dad, Dr. Steven Opal of the Brown University School of Medicine.
JF: Thanks, Jason