In a plain second-floor office off the old reading room in the Hoskins Library, the leading Jacksonian scholar in East Tennessee wears green Converse sneakers and blue cords. A wiry, energetic fellow of middle age, Dan Feller is, in fact, one of the nation’s leading authorities on the career of America’s seventh president. For that reason, Feller will be featured on next month’s two-hour PBS special about the many-sided Jackson, appropriately titled Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil, and the Presidency, which will be broadcast nationwide on Jan. 2 at 9 p.m.
Not all historians get to be on national television, and you’d think that such a debut might be a high point of a scholarly career. But if you talk to Feller today, he may not even bring it up. It’s a considerably bigger deal to him that he’s now getting the first copies of a project called the Andrew Jackson Papers: Volume VII. This book is a thick one, about 800 pages, containing nearly every document that Jackson held in his hands during a single year as pivotal for him as for the nation: 1829, his first year as President of the United States.
Feller may be the single world authority on reading Jackson’s untutored scrawl, and there are nearly 200 white boxes of it in the office, each barely containing a different story of back-room dealing, angry vituperation, or stubborn principle. The number of boxes makes the rooms Feller shares with his two assistant editors, Laura-Eve Moss and Tom Coens, look like an office preparing for a move. In fact, they’ve already begun work on Volume VIII of a 16-volume series. After 36 years, they’re not quite halfway done.
“In the reading of Jackson’s handwriting, there’s nobody better,” Feller says. “We’ve all become experts.” To modern eyes that scrawl might look something like Jefferson’s, or maybe Jefferson’s after a couple of slugs of sour mash, with more creative spelling and some idiosyncrasies of penmanship. “Jackson made his a’s like o’s. Nineteenth-century American English had a certain rhythm to it. By steeping yourself in the rhythm and vocabulary, you can know what the next word is.”
Laid out on a table are a couple of legal-sized papers with that scrawl, much of it marked out like a declassified document vetted by the FBI. Feller reads it almost as handily as he might read a large-print newspaper. He can even read the marked-out parts, though it slows him down a little. This particular document has to do with a Washington scandal known as the Eaton Affair. When Jackson’s Secretary of War, former Tennessee Sen. John Eaton, married a lively and voluptuous young widow with whom he’d previously been alleged to have carried on an extramarital affair, Washington society, including other cabinet members, shunned Peggy Eaton. The chivalrous or perhaps naïve Jackson scolded his cabinet about it. Exactly what he said, when, and how, became the subject of a controversy that contributed to the resignation of some of his original cabinet members.
Three in particular—Secretary of the Treasury Samuel Ingham, Secretary of the Navy John Branch, and Attorney General John Berrien—roused Jacksonian ire. “Jackson suspected they were trying to embarrass him,” Feller says. Whether Jackson demanded they have the Eatons over for tea became a political issue.
“I am fully impressed with a belief that you & your families have...taken measures to induce others to avoid intercourse with Mrs. Eaton....” wrote Jackson. “It is I who am responsible to the community for this alledged [sic] indignity to public morals.”
The marked-out parts aren’t necessarily the most interesting part of the document, but show how Jackson first attempted to work with his own cabinet via an intermediary who apparently botched the message.
More than a year later, when the matter was coming to a head with a scandal unprecedented in the office of the president—and the resignation of cabinet members, including all three of those with whom Jackson was concerned in writing this memo—the Globe, a political paper edited by Jackson ally Francis Blair, published what was purported to be the text of a memo Jackson read to Ingham, Branch, and Berrien, as if to set the record straight. It’s a version significantly altered from this already-altered document. Feller and his colleagues found three different undated documents from three different sources and assembled them in the only way that made sense.
“Jackson clearly did not read to them what Blair said he did,” Feller says. Historians had suspected as much. “It doesn’t change the basic story, but it does explain how this could have happened.”
The three documents had been in three different collections, without context to each other. Part of the value of the project is to bring such documents together in such a way that they can be compared.
There are a few authentic Jackson documents under the roof of the old Hoskins Library, in UT’s Special Collections, but none of them are in the Jackson Papers. “We never want ownership,” Feller says. “One letter might sell in the five figures.” Even if they could afford to buy them, Feller and his colleagues prefer to work entirely with photocopies. They shuffle them around in ways that might leave fragile originals in shreds.
When some random documents came available in the estate of billionaire Malcolm Forbes, a promiscuous collector of historical documents, these scholars made a surprising discovery. Forbes had some incomplete pages that, though obviously written in Jackson’s hand, didn’t make much sense. As it turned out, they matched some other Jackson papers in the collection at the Hermitage. Working with photocopies, the Jackson Papers editors reunited a complete letter Jackson had written in 1824, to his wife, Rachel. Today the reassembled letter appears in Volume V.
The Jackson Papers sometimes play a role in turning up forgeries. The text of a prized letter in the Forbes collection bore an astonishing resemblance to another letter already in the Jackson Papers. Further research disclosed that the addressee’s name on the top of the Forbes collection letter was not exactly in Jackson’s handwriting—and that a facsimile of the original letter had appeared in a newspaper, giving a forger an opportunity to do a magnified tracing.
The two scholars who started the Jackson Papers, Sam Smith and Harriet Owsley, are now deceased. Feller’s predecessor, Harold Moser, is retired and living in Knoxville. Embarking on a project like this is not for those who favor instant gratification. It’s more comparable to working on a cathedral; you don’t work on it with any confident expectation of living to see it completed.
Part of the time is spent in gathering copies of the documents. Feller says that in all, the Jackson Papers may have gleaned documents from 500 different sources. “Even that understates the breadth of resources, because some places supply documents from many different collections.” Volume VII alone has papers from about 100 different sources, about 75 of which are libraries or archives.
“Our biggest sources are the Library of Congress and the National Archives,” he says. They’re comparatively easy to deal with. In 1983, the project sent letters to all known archives of period documents, asking, “Have you got anything?”
Many are harder to find, in private collections. A letter from a president is often a treasured heirloom. “We’re finding stuff at a vastly accelerated rate, as a result of the Internet,” Feller says.
He says there’s still a frustrating, and not necessarily rational, motive to hide privately owned documents: “There’s an owner ethos that the reason for my owning it is that you can’t see it!” Fortunately, an added bonus of Internet sales is that the sellers often displays good photos of the documents—which is often all that scholars need, anyway. “We have a better background on some documents than the people who own them,” he adds.
There are some documents in particular he’d like to find, like the letter the adventurous Jackson swore he got from President Monroe in 1818, via Tennessee Congressman John Rhea, authorizing his invasion of Spanish Florida. The invasion resulted in the addition of Florida to the United States, and Rhea went along with Jackson’s story, but Monroe consistently denied ever issuing such an order.
Part of the long timetable—the entire Jackson Papers project may take close to 60 years—is just clerical work. “Arranging the papers in chronological order takes more time than you might think.” Many papers are dated, but many are not.
Most of the Jackson Papers are laid out in chronological order. “Normally we don’t editorialize in footnotes,” Feller says. But in an 1829 letter to John Overton, Jackson claims that he had long considered that Texas, still marginally controlled by Mexico, was a natural part of the United States, and that any thought otherwise was a Northern conspiracy to keep the West down. But Feller remembered an earlier letter in the collection, from 1819: “Texas,” the younger Jackson wrote, “we can well do without.” In a footnote, Feller pointed out that curiosity.
Feller answers questions about Jackson quickly, and in great detail. There’s only one that he seems to struggle with. He twists his face in consternation, and you wonder if you’ve finally stumped him. It’s the question of how he got interested in Andrew Jackson. The Maryland native had spent much of his youth in California and Oregon before winding up studying history in grad school at the University of Wisconsin, with a vague interest in the Civil War.
“It wasn’t Jackson, himself,” Feller answers at length. “It’s the period, the so-called Jacksonian Era, that I found so interesting. It’s modern enough to be recognizable, but old enough to be quaint.
“It was more serendipity than anything else.”
“The dissertation is the fateful moment when you get pigeonholed,” he says. He ran across the famous Webster-Hayne debate of 1830, and found an oddity that he didn’t understand. “I couldn’t make sense of it: What did nullification have to do with public-land policy?” To a scholar, incomprehensibility can be inspiration. Feller’s dissertation turned into a scholarly book, The Public Lands in Jacksonian Politics, in 1984. “And a job opened up at the Jackson Papers.” He lived in Nashville for three years, then got work as a professor at the University of New Mexico, and continued to publish books and essays about the Jacksonian era. In the meantime, the Jackson Papers project moved to UT Knoxville.
Feller moved here to rejoin the Jackson Papers project as its director in 2003. “Tennessee is a more congenial environment, in that the importance of Jackson and this period doesn’t have to be argued.”
Feller sounds frustrated with some common simplifications. “Jackson as Indian Oppressor,” he says, is a recent phenomenon.
He remarks that Arthur Schlesinger, the future Kennedy consultant, wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning The Age of Jackson in 1945, and hardly mentioned Jackson’s relations with Native Americans. “Then, nobody said, ‘How the hell can you write a 500-page book about Jackson and not mention Indians at all?’”
He acknowledges that the Treaty of New Echota, which laid out a plan to move the Cherokee west, with monetary compensation, was not a generous agreement. Jackson’s administration made only token efforts to get Cherokee chiefs to agree to it. The forceful and badly administered execution of the removal known as the Trail of Tears occurred during the Van Buren administration, more than a year after the 70-year-old Jackson had left office.
“There’s a lot of invented memory, a lot of invented folk memory. Now you hear that Jackson, to the Indians, was known as the ‘Great Devil.’” Feller, who has never found anything of the sort in historic documents, believes it to be a 20th-century invention.
“He was a cultural supremacist,” he says. “As was everyone else. I used to say he didn’t hate Indians any more or any differently than he hated everybody who crossed him,” he says. Jackson blistered the British with crippling grapeshot at New Orleans, hanged British civilians in Florida, and shot and killed a gambling associate who had insulted him. (On two occasions in and near Knoxville, he even threatened Gov. John Sevier with sword and pistol.)
One thing, according to Feller, is clear in the record: “He had an amazing ability to not acknowledge facts that inconvenienced him.
“Some think he had a lifelong hatred of Indians, and a cultural hatred of Indians may have been part of the cultural wallpaper of the frontier. But the childhood association that remained in adulthood is his hatred of the British.”
During his presidency, Jackson seemed much more preoccupied with white enemies, especially in Washington.
He often railed against the “monied aristocrasies,” and favored working classes in his rhetoric. “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes,” Jackson wrote, explaining his famous bank veto of 1832. “When the laws...make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers...have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.” Some historians look at Jackson’s writings and see the germs of something like class warfare.
Several of Jackson’s convictions have a modern ring to them. After a deadly cholera epidemic in 1832, Congress passed a resolution calling for a national day of prayer and fasting. Jackson vetoed it. He was a religious man, but thought prayer was none of the government’s business.
After all these years, Feller’s not quite sure what to make of Old Hickory. “Jackson never explained anything. You’re not going to find him divulging his innermost thoughts. He was not anti-slavery, for example, but he was not pro-slavery either. What did Jackson think about slavery as an abstract moral issue? I don’t think he thought about slavery in those terms. And maybe he didn’t reveal himself because there was not any self to reveal.”
Two years ago, Feller helped in the launch of a Center for Jacksonian America to be based at UT, entailing annual lectures, graduate-student curricula, and perhaps a scholar in residence, to some extent combining with the two other presidential-papers projects at UT, those covering the careers of James K. Polk, a Jacksonian-era president, and Andrew Johnson, whose political career was forged in the same era.
With any luck, and if its editors don’t spend too many long lunch hours talking to reporters, the Jackson Papers project may be done by, say, 2028. Feller’s not sure he’ll be there at the end. He’ll be well past retirement age, for one thing; he also wants to spend some time on another much-less-renowned Jacksonian figure: one Benjamin Tappan, senator, mineralogist, conchologist, and proponent of slave rebellion. It turns out that Feller is one of the nation’s authorities on Tappan, too.
After a quarter century of studying his work, does Feller admire Jackson? “I haven’t made up my mind,” he says. “I doubt I ever will, and it’s just as well that I don’t. I will say that I’m impressed, having spent a lot of time with him, how he’s still able to amaze me.”
“By the time we get to the end, books as we know them may not exist. Nobody’s ever gonna do these again. They may become irrelevant, but nobody’s ever gonna do these again.”