Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

History General

Avenging the People

Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation

by (author) J.M. Opal

Oxford University Press
Initial publish date
Mar 2020
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    May 2017
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2020
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


Most Americans know Andrew Jackson as a frontier rebel against political and diplomatic norms, a "populist" champion of ordinary people against the elitist legacy of the Founding Fathers. Many date the onset of American democracy to his 1829 inauguration.

Despite his reverence for the "sovereign people," however, Jackson spent much of his career limiting that sovereignty, imposing new and often unpopular legal regimes over American lands and markets. He made his name as a lawyer, businessman, and official along the Carolina and Tennessee frontiers, at times ejecting white squatters from native lands and returning slaves to native planters in the name of federal authority and international law. On the other hand, he waged total war on the Cherokees and Creeks who terrorized western settlements and raged at the national statesmen who refused to "avenge the blood" of innocent colonists. During the long war in the south and west from 1811 to 1818 he brushed aside legal restraints on holy genocide and mass retaliation, presenting himself as the only man who would protect white families from hostile empires, "heathen" warriors, and rebellious slaves. He became a towering hero to those who saw the United States as uniquely lawful and victimized. And he used that legend to beat back a range of political, economic, and moral alternatives for the republican future.

Drawing from new evidence about Jackson and the southern frontiers, Avenging the People boldly reinterprets the grim and principled man whose version of American nationhood continues to shape American democracy.

About the author

Contributor Notes

J.M. Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of Beyond the Farm: National Ambitions in Rural New England and the editor of Common Sense and Other Writings by Thomas Paine.

Editorial Reviews

"Many Americans long for a strong man to lead the nation and avenge their grievances. In this eloquent book, Jason Opal astutely and vividly recovers the backstory to that longing in the personal charisma, frontier violence, legal reasoning, and assertive self-righteousness of Andrew Jackson and his America."

--Alan Taylor, author of American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804

"A timely study of how American democracy set limits on its own egalitarian potential while enacting bloody vengeance against people defined as enemies to American progress."

--Kathleen DuVal, author of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

"If you think there can't be much more to say about Andrew Jackson, you will share my excitement at how much Jason Opal has discovered. In his subject's diverse hatreds, against Whigs and Indians, Britons and bankers, Opal has found a unifying thread--Jackson's obsession with revenge--that helps to explain them all."

--Woody Holton, author of Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution

"A scholarly study of Andrew Jackson's troubling sense of persecution and vindication for the poor, white frontier folk who flocked to his name and legend... Given some of the views of the current occupant of the White House, it is certainly relevant."


"Jason Opal shows how a violent frontier ruled by vengeance shaped the characters of Andrew Jackson and so many of his countrymen. This vivid, wide-ranging, meticulously documented narrative will fascinate history buffs and scholars alike."

--Daniel Walker Howe, author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

"A thoroughly researched and quite sophisticated book... Opal's portrait of Jackson and his world is insightful and vividly rendered."

--Richard White, Boston Review

"[Opal] certainly has an eye for the telling anecdote and a knack for capturing in a few words the essence of Jackson's vengeful character... Opal also offers a big idea to frame his lively prose. Jackson, he argues, was hardly the thoughtless figure [Richard] Hofstadter described, who believed that might always made him right. Instead, Old Hickory had a more sophisticated view of power: He legitimated his aggression in politics and war by invoking the concept of the rights of sovereign nations."

--Michael Kazin, The Nation

"What a riveting book this is! How is it that Americans, a professedly civilized and peace-loving people, have at times behaved so savagely and even gloried in their savagery? J. M. Opal's provocative take on Jacksonian character rewrites Andrew Jackson not as common-man champion but as avenger-in-chief, the avatar of a nation whose defining trait was not equality or democracy but an unslakable craving for vengeance."

--Daniel Feller, University of Tennessee

"Excellent research and impressive erudition."

--Library of Law and Liberty blog

"A beneficial and comprehensive addition to the discussion of how the United States became what it is today."

--Ron Jacobs, Counterpunch