Review of Kilmeade and Yaeger’s Jackson Book

Popular history books can be a mixed bag. Oftentimes, they are well written but contain poor history. Finding the sweet spot–a well-written, well-researched book–is not easy, although one can think of journalists (Jon Meacham, Doris Kearns Goodwin) and historians (Bill Brands, Stephen Ambrose) who have been successful to various degrees in this regard.

Fox News personality Brian Kilmeade, whose background is in sports reporting, has ventured into the world of writing popular history. Along with his co-author, Ken Yaeger (whose background is also in sports journalism), Kilmeade has written three books: one on George Washington, one on Thomas Jefferson, and the one I’m reviewing here: Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny (hereafter AJMO). [1]

Kilmeade and Yaeger (hereafter K&Y) frame their book with a prologue that focuses on Jackson’s Revolutionary War experience. In particular, they position Jackson as someone who used that period of his life as fuel. After suffering physical wounds at the hands (or, more accurately, the blade) of a British officer and losing his mother and two brothers, Jackson’s life became one of seeking revenge against the British. “Great Britain had left him an orphan,” they write, “and one day he would settle the score” (5).

One would think that AJMO would logically follow that thread of revenge. It doesn’t. K&Y only return to this idea a couple of times (e.g., p. 135), and they never fully tie it in to Jackson’s role in the Battle of New Orleans. I, for one, am grateful, because I think the revenge factor for Jackson is mostly myth. [2]

Along with an undeveloped argument, the writing in AJMO is absolutely pedestrian, especially considering that the book is intended for a popular audience. Many of the most compelling episodes in Jackson’s life–his controversial marriage to Rachel Donelson Robards, his duel with Charles Dickinson and brawl with the Benton brothers–are passed over quickly without much detail. That makes sense, since AJMO is supposed to be about the Battle of New Orleans.

K&Y spend a lot of time on troop descriptions and maneuvers, most of which is uninteresting. I know that some people love a military history that gives blow-by-blow accounts of which division was here and which general was there. There’s a need for that type of scholarship, but in a popular history book not about the Civil War or World War II, it’s an odd choice, and it doesn’t work for AJMO. Ironically, for a book with the Battle of New Orleans as its centerpiece of conflict, 8 January 1815 receives a very abbreviated treatment.

Unsurprisingly, my main complaint with this book is its history. While academics are not the intended audience, K&Y emphasize their determination to produce good history. In the Acknowledgments, Kilmeade writes, “I have a tremendous amount of appreciation for the enthusiasm that scholars, researchers, and reenactors bring to their study of the people and events who helped shape their corner of the world and the nation at large” (331). K&Y note that “[t]he research component of this project was staggering in its magnitude–primary documents, secondary documents, tangential documents that proved essential, and in-person tours of numerous sites” (333). They also claim that to ensure historical accuracy, “we have proceeded with great care, working from the earliest sources where possible, quoting and citing the individuals who were actually on the scene” (361).

Don’t take them at their word. Let’s start with their sources. Familiar names to the study of Jackson and the War of 1812 appear in the bibliography: John Spencer Bassett, Robert Remini, Gene Smith, Tom Kanon, and Don Hickey, to name a few. K&Y also rely on several documentary editions of primary sources, namely the Adams, Clay, and Jackson papers. Interestingly, only two women appear as primary sources, and only one identifiable woman, Jane Frances Heaney, appears as a secondary source. (More on her later.)

While these sources are listed in the bibliography and are sometimes cited in the text, the co-authors rely mostly and heavily on some questionable and inaccurate sources. As they acknowledge, K&Y are under the impression that the earlier the source, the better. That is not necessarily the case, particularly in the 19th century, when “history” was more about patriotism and hagiography rather than accuracy.

One such example is the work of Augustus Buell, about which I’ve written previously. K&Y use a  frequently cited but almost certainly made-up quote from Buell, in which Jackson allegedly says, “I have never in my life seen a Kentuckian without a gun, a pack of cards, and jug of whiskey” (259). (K&Y actually get the quote quite wrong, which doesn’t engender faith in their research process.)

K&Y also love to use Alexander Walker’s Jackson and New Orleans (1856) for source material.  Walker, who was born four years after the war ended, was a New Orleans judge and newspaper editor. He presents his book as “an authentic narrative” that seeks “to do full justice to American valor and patriotism,” but he also admits that it “does not aspire to the dignity of history” (Walker, iv). While I haven’t studied this book as closely as I have Buell’s mythical monstrosity, a number of the quotes used from Walker’s work strike me as unreliable in authenticity. Since K&Y rely on Walker quite a bit, there are more than a few to pick from (e.g., AJMO, 204-205). [4]

Another possibly inaccurate source is Jane Frances Heaney’s A Century of Pioneering (1993).  K&Y cite her work as the source for their claim that four Ursuline nuns wrote Jackson in December 1814. Neither vol. 3 of The Papers of Andrew Jackson (PAJ), nor the Guide and Index to the Microfilm Edition list such a letter, which suggests that the letter is fictitious. [5] My thanks to Andrew Fagal for finding this letter.

The co-authors also seem only to cite direct quotations, which leads to issues. (Before someone leaps on this as an accusation of plagiarism, I want to be clear that this very likely was a publisher decision, which makes sense given the intended audience, and that I’m not calling it an issue of dishonesty.) The problem with citing only direct quotations is that K&Y take literary license, some of which is based on shaky ground and some of which seems to be purely imaginative. [6]

An example of the former is the claim that Jackson’s favorite horse was Duke (181). I’m not an expert on Jackson’s horses, but that name didn’t ring a bell with me. So, I started looking for the source of this description. Jackson mentions Duke in a December 1815 letter to Robert Butler, and the PAJ editors note in an annotation that “Duke had been AJ’s war horse during the Creek campaign” (PAJ, 3:398n3). A quick search of Parton, Remini, and Marquis James didn’t turn up a mention of Duke, much less Jackson’s opinion of him. I turned to Google, which brought up numerous mentions of Duke’s favored status. The earliest seems to be Mary French Caldwell’s Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage,  which says, “One of General Jackson’s choice saddle horses was Duke, who is said to have been his favorite during the New Orleans campaign” (44). In the larger scheme of things, this isn’t an egregious insertion of myth, but it speaks to the co-authors’ willingness to use colorful “facts” that aren’t grounded in reality.

An example of imaginative literary license is in K&Y’s description of William Weatherford. “Bare to the waist,” they write, “the light-skinned Indian wore buckskin breeches and moccasins” (63). None of the three sources cited (all pre-1852) describe Weatherford’s appearance in this way, so the reader is left to assume that it is solely the authors’ imagination at work here. Could Weatherford have been dressed this way? Yes. Is this description based on source material? Not that I could uncover. [7]

I’ll admit to being pedantic about these details, but it seems to me that if you’re going to claim that your research “was staggering in its magnitude,” then somewhere along the way, you would ensure that your sources were accurate.

At the risk of beating a dead horse (not named Duke, thankfully), I also want to point out that K&Y’s history is sometimes blatantly wrong. The most egregious example is when they discuss the Jackson marriage. They describe Rachel as a woman “who had recently escaped a violent first marriage” when Jackson met her and their marriage as one that occurred “after she extricated herself from a marriage already gone bad” (136, 14). It’s too bad K&Y didn’t look at the research of Ann Toplovich or Andy Burstein or even volume 1 of PAJ, all of which clearly show that Andrew and Rachel were not innocent in forcing the dissolution of her marriage to Louis Robards.

The lack of a fully realized argument, the pedestrian writing, the mediocre history–all three made me wonder, who exactly is the audience for this book? The only answer I came up with was Fox News Channel viewers who watch the channel religiously and know Kilmeade. That approach worked for Bill O’Reilly, so it would make sense for K&Y to use it as well to maximize sales.

If that was the plan, then I think K&Y missed the mark. Given the comparisons made between Jackson and Donald Trump and given the solid base of viewers who would buy anything put out by one of the FNC personalities, I wonder why the co-authors didn’t work that angle more. They hint at it in ch. 13 when they describe Jackson: “He wasn’t a complicated man . . . He was a man who could be fired by anger. Jackson hadn’t been much of a student . . . His intelligence was not book-learned; he operated on instinct and experience.” All of that could apply to Trump. But they then undermine what could have been a powerful argument for the Jackson-Trump comparison by writing that his “orientations” were “duty to country . . . ; duty to God; and duty to family,” none of which appear to be at the top of Trump’s list of loyalties (310). If I had been their marketing consultant, I would have made the connection as blatantly as possible and talked about Jackson’s mistreatment of minority groups, his disregard for congressional authority, and, most importantly, his magnificent hair.

In sum, AJMO isn’t a well-written, well-researched book. It doesn’t have a clearly developed argument, and it isn’t interesting enough to attract the general public. By the way, it’s currently #5 on the NYT Hardcover Non-Fiction Bestseller List, so what do I know?

[1] Some of my thoughts on this book appeared in embryonic form in this Twitter thread. As an aside, if someone has any insight into how these types of writing partnerships work, please leave a comment below.

[2] I read the large-print edition, not because I’m middle-aged and my eyesight is changing, but because it was the first edition available at my local library. Honest.

[3] I discuss the myth and reality of Jackson’s need for vengeance against the British in “‘I Owe to Britain a Debt of Retaliatory Vengeance’: Assessing Andrew Jackson’s Hatred of the British,” in The Battle of New Orleans in History and Memory, ed. Laura Lyons McLemore (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016), 28-55.

[4] I’m automatically suspicious of any quote that has Jackson saying “By the Eternal!” My gut tells me he didn’t say this phrase nearly as often as it was attributed to him in popular culture at the time, but that’s an argument for another day.

[5] I wasn’t able to consult this book directly, but I’m confident that my argument is correct, whether it is K&Y or Heaney’s error. If someone has access to a copy of Heaney’s book, the citation to the letter is p. 380n4.

[6] This isn’t always the case, however. Ch. 9, n. 24 doesn’t reference any direct quotations, only descriptive material.

[7] Another example of this is a very specific, but unsourced, temperature of 84 degrees in Jamaica (151).

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9 Replies to “Review of Kilmeade and Yaeger’s Jackson Book”

  1. In addition, you conclude that (a) “it isn’t interesting enough to attract the general public” and (b) “it’s currently #5 on the NYT Hardcover Non-Fiction Bestseller List.” In other words, you acknowledge that your understanding of what the public wants and what the public wants are two very different things (something I think that can be said of most academic historians). I don’t think it was always thus and hope we can re-bridge that gap.

      1. I got that you understand that your views on what the public should like and what it doesn’t like aren’t the same.

        I think most academics also understand this.

        I’m just wondering how we can get academics to write history that will be more broadly read (or is that just the public’s problem – that they need to raise their bar?). Not a pointed question – I’m genuinely interested in how we can get people to read higher quality history than that reviewed.

        1. Some historians I follow on Twitter have been having this discussion, and it’s an important one for academics. On the one hand, we need brick makers (historians who research and write at the micro level). They may not write for the public, but their work is essential. But we also need wall builders, those who take those bricks and provide a larger framework for understanding history more broadly. Finding people who can do both is rare, in my opinion.

          I think the public has a responsibility as well, though. History is rarely easy and uncomplicated, but I don’t think that is what the public believes, for a variety of reasons. People such as Kilmeade make history seem very black and white, and I think they are able to do so because they start with an argument and work backwards. Real history doesn’t operate that way.

          In sum, the answer is both writers and readers have a responsiblity to ensure that high-quality, well-written history is both written and read. How to make that happen is a persistent problem–I wish I had the answer.

  2. The use of quasi-invented dialogue seems to be an interesting revival of an old practice. Writers like Senator Lee and Glenn Beck both make use of this device (I think Lee acknowledges it while I can’t recall whether Beck does). Interestingly, this seems to be a common practice of Catherine Drinker Bowen and possibly others in the 50s and 60s. Her work was taken seriously enough to be reviewed in scholarly journals. The use of this device and the reaction of the history community to it would be itself a very interesting subject of scholarly study.

  3. Great review. If Fox was not promoting the book, it would be quickly finding its way to the remainder bin. AJMO may be #5, but Ron Chernow’s Grant is #2.

    By the way, I have also gotten large print editions from my local library because the wait list was too long for the standard editions.

      1. I also noticed another anchor – Bret Baier – is taking up the profession. Writing (lending his name?) two books on specific 3-day periods – one on Eisenhower and one on Reagan. The Amazon reviews for both authors are quite interesting.

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