Closer Readings Commentary

"Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil, and the Presidency" on PBS

Portrait of Andrew Jackson
Photo caption

Portrait of Andrew Jackson.

In January 2008, Public Broadcasting channels offered a film about the one of the most remarkable but also divisive presidents of the United States, Andrew Jackson. Subtitled “Good, Evil and the Presidency” the two-hour documentary, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, tells the story of this controversial president through re-enactments, lithographs, letters and the compelling yet competing insights of the full range of distinguished scholars and historians of the period.

Despite his pivotal role in American history, few television programs have focused on the life of our seventh president. The documentary reveals that Jackson fought in the Revolutionary War when he was 13 years old and used the skills learned in battle to kill a man over a gambling debt; that he led the American Army to the most surprising victory in its history in the Battle of New Orleans but also launched an unauthorized invasion of Florida; that Jackson was the first great champion of the common white man and owned more than a hundred black Americans; and that Jackson dramatically expanded the United States and did so by ruthlessly wresting vast regions of the South from Native Americans. In fact, despite his reputation as the founder of the Democratic Party, Jackson oversaw one of the most controversial events in American history: the forced removal of Indian tribes, including the Cherokees, from their homes.

Companion Website

As a companion to the television program, a comprehensive PBS Website provides in-depth information about Jackson and his age. The site is built around the four stages of Jackson’s life, from his early years as an ambitious young officer in the war of 1812, to his hard-fought rise to become the seventh president of the United States. The site also features profiles of prominent individuals of the Jacksonian era, including John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Fredrick Douglass, Henry Clay and Harriet Martineau, as well as maps, image galleries, and an interactive timeline. Most of the film is available in short segments in the video section of the website.

EDSITEment Resources

EDSITEment offers a series of valuable lessons on the presidential ambition of Andrew Jackson and its transformational effect on American politics that will complement and extend the PBS documentary for history and social studies classrooms. "The Election Is in the House: The Presidential Election of 1824" curriculum unit examines the fateful election in which Jackson won a plurality of both the popular and electoral vote, but John Quincy Adams became president. Four crucial elements of our election system were highlighted in the election of 1824: the nomination of candidates, the popular election of electors, the Electoral College, and the election of the president in the House when no candidate receives a majority in the Electoral College.

A companion unit, "The 1828 Campaign of Andrew Jackson and the Growth of Party Politics," focuses on another watershed election in the evolution of the American party system. The campaign of 1828 was a crucial event in a period that saw the development of a two-party system akin to our modern system, presidential electioneering similar to current political campaigning, and the strengthening of the power of the executive branch.

Finally, several EDSITEment-reviewed Websites provide further information and insight on Jackson and his Age. The American President from the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs offers an overview on Jackson that includes a biography, timeline and scholarly essays. Harp Week’s “American Political Prints” provides a selection of newspaper clippings, cartoons and election tickets documenting his tumultuous political career.

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