In a 1997 essay entitled “American Political Biography,” Robert V. Remini assessed the state of the field and found it wanting: “Old-fashioned political biographies of ‘dead white males’ that are ‘character-driven narratives’ seem to have little appeal for graduate students. . . . These biographies could be written by doctoral candidates and would add significantly to our understanding of the Jacksonian era” (150). Remini noted that there were several significant Jacksonian-era Tennessee politicians who still had not had book-length biographies written or whose biographies needed a modern treatment. The list included:
William Blount (Territorial governor and U.S. senator)
- Willie Blount (Governor)
- William Carroll (Governor and U.S. senator)
- John Coffee (Military officer, Jackson advisor)
- Andrew Jackson Donelson (Kitchen Cabinet member, two diplomatic appointments, D.C. newspaper editor, and Know-Nothing party vice-presidential candidate)
- John H. Eaton (U.S. senator, secretary of war, territorial governor of Florida, minister to Spain)
- William B. Lewis (Kitchen cabinet member, second auditor of the Treasury)
- John McNairy (Federal judge)
- John Overton (State judge, Jackson advisor)
- John Rhea (U.S. representative)
- Archibald Roane (Governor, state judge)
- John Sevier (Governor, U.S. representative)
- Hugh Lawson White (U.S. senator, Whig presidential candidate)
There are several other Jacksonian politicians who could be added to Remini’s list if it were expanded geographically and chronologically, including:
- John Bell (U.S. senator, Constitutional Union party presidential candidate)
- Thomas Hart Benton (U.S. senator)
- Francis P. Blair (Kitchen cabinet member, Democratic newspaper editor)
- James Buchanan (President, U.S. senator, various high-level government appointments)
- Millard Fillmore (President, U.S. representative)
- William Henry Harrison (President)
- Richard M. Johnson (U.S. senator, vice-president under Martin Van Buren)
One politician who should have been on Remini’s list, but wasn’t, is Felix Grundy. J. Roderick Heller’s new biography of Grundy, Democracy’s Lawyer: Felix Grundy of the Old Southwest (2010), is an excellent overview of this important Tennessee and national politician. (My review of the biography will appear in the next issue of the Journal of East Tennessee History.)
Besides Grundy, other overlooked politicians who have received biographical treatment in recent years are:
- Andrew J. Donelson–My own Old Hickory’s Nephew: The Political and Private Struggles of Andrew Jackson Donelson (2007) filled this gap. Donelson was a second-tier politician who never held elective office but was involved in many of the major events of the Jacksonian and antebellum periods.
- Amos Kendall–Donald Cole’s A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy (2004) is a superb biography of the man who was probably Jackson’s most important presidential advisor. (Blair would be the other contender for this designation.) Kendall’s tenure as the U.S. postmaster general was important for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the censorship of abolitionist pamphlets in the U.S. mail in 1835. He was also instrumental in preserving Jackson’s papers before and after the latter’s death.
- Franklin Pierce–Peter Wallner’s two-volume Franklin Pierce (2004, 2009) covered the life of “Young Hickory of the Granite Hills.” While Pierce’s presidency was a disaster, his earlier career in Congress and the Mexican-American War were important in shaping his attachment to Jacksonian principles.
Thirteen years later, Gordon Wood has echoed Remini’s criticism, if not explicitly, then implicitly. As he recently wrote,
[A]dvising academic historians that they have to write more stimulating prose if they want to enlarge their readership misses the point. It is not heavy and difficult prose that limits their readers; it is rather the subjects they choose to write about and their conception of their readership as fellow historians engaged in an accumulative science.
The problem at the present is that the monographs have become so numerous and so refined and so specialized that most academic historians have tended to throw up their hands at the possibility of synthesizing all these studies, of bringing them together in comprehensive narratives. Thus the academics have generally left narrative history writing to the nonacademic historians who unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive monographic literature that exists. If academic historians want popular narrative history that is solidly based on the monographic literature, then they will have to write it themselves.
I share Remini’s and Wood’s disappointment. There is still room for biography in the arena of Jacksonian politics, but very few historians seem interested. The biographies don’t have to focus solely on political and military events; in fact, they shouldn’t. Unfortunately, I suspect that many graduate students who might be interested in writing biographies as dissertations are discouraged by their advisors. I experienced this criticism from one of the department chairs who served while I was at Mississippi State; fortunately, my advisor was (and is) an excellent biographer and enthusiastically supported my work on Donelson. Hopefully, there are more advisors like my own who will be willing to train their graduate students in the art of writing biography.
Note: The Remini essay can be found in American Political History: Essays on the State of the Discipline, ed. John F. Marszalek and Wilson D. Miscamble (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1997), 143-152.