Cheathem said he found it fascinating he grew up surrounded by the very history that now stands at the center of his research for his book, “Andrew Jackson, Southerner,” which will be released in October.
“Our church used to play softball at Red Clay, the final gathering place of the Cherokee before they were rounded up and sent on the Trail of Tears. Little did I know that 20 years later, I would be writing a book on the man most responsible for that tragedy.”
The son of Danny and Brenda Cheathem, Cheathem grew up in Cleveland. He attended several church schools before graduating from Grace Christian Academy in 1991. Much of his childhood, he said, was spent at the old library (the current history branch of the library) — reading books, “but I also loved exploring the Craigmiles House.”
Cheathem said he wrote the book on the seventh president after having a conversation with his former doctoral adviser, Dr. John Marszalek. In the summer of 2006, he and his family were eating dinner with John and his wife, Jeanne, in Starkville, Miss. He told Marszalek some of his ideas for a new book project, including a biography that interpreted Jackson as a Southerner, and asked him for his advice.
He asked Cheathem what he wanted to be known for and he replied, “I want to be recognized as one of the major Jacksonian scholars.”
John’s response, “Then you need to write this biography.”
This biography is revisionist, Cheathem explained. “Many people think that historical revisionism is a bad thing, but all we mean when we use that term is that we are offering a different interpretation of a topic. In my case, I decided to look at Jackson from a different perspective. Instead of seeing him as a frontier Westerner, I looked at him as a Southerner who brought the values of his early life in the Carolinas to Middle Tennessee.” He said that meant exploring what upper-class white Southern men valued — honor and kinship, for example — and considering the slave labor that made their lives as elites possible.
“Providing a different interpretation also meant examining evidence that has often been dismissed or overlooked,” Cheathem continued. He said, for example, he spend a lot of time in the biography discussing Jackson’s treatment of slaves, which most historians have neglected to consider in any detail. “I also outline the many ways in which Jackson’s male kin helped him become a successful politician,” he said. “Jackson was not a self-made man. Much of his ability to become one of the wealthiest men in Tennessee came from his connections to male relatives, who introduced him to prominent politicians and loaned him money to become an independent planter.”
Cheathem said he spent a lot of time at various archives, such as the Library of Congress, the Tennessee State Library and Archives and The Hermitage (Jackson’s home in Nashville), reading microfilmed letters and newspapers. Thankfully, he said, many of Jackson’s papers have been published in book form, which make them much easier to read.
It also helped that Cumberland University in Lebanon, where Cheatheam teaches, is only 20 minutes from The Hermitage and 35 minutes from the state archives. He said, “If I were still teaching in Manchester, the research would have been more costly and time-consuming. Besides, New Englanders are not nearly as interested in Old Hickory as Middle Tennesseans are.
He said he was also struck by how the political environment of East Tennessee during the Civil War fits the political principles Andrew Jackson stood for during his presidency. Many East Tennesseans opposed secession and supported the United States in its fight against the Confederate States.
Cheathem said it is impossible to say whether Jackson would have stood up to his fellow Southerners who wanted secession in 1860-61, “but I would like to think that he would have stayed true to the argument that he made when South Carolina threatened to leave the Union in 1832-33: ‘[It is] my determination to execute the laws — to preserve the Union by all constitutional means — to arrest, if possible, by moderate but firm measures, the necessity of a recourse to force; and, if it be the will of Heaven that the recurrence of its primeval curse on man for the shedding of a brother’s blood should fall upon our land, that it be not called down by any offensive act on the part of the United States.”
Cheathem said he thinks growing up in Cleveland encouraged his love of history. “I used to love going down North Ocoee Street and seeing the old homes there,” he said. And, “when we come back to visit my parents, I still make sure to make at least one drive on that street.”
Editor’s Note: Mark R. Cheathem earned his bachelor of arts degree in history from Cumberland University in Lebanon, his master of arts degree in history from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, and his doctorate in history from Mississippi State University. After teaching at Mississippi University for Women and Mississippi State University, he moved to Manchester, N.H., in 2004 to serve as an assistant professor of history at Southern New Hampshire University. In 2008, Cheathem returned to his undergraduate alma mater as an associate professor of history, where he serves, also, as history program director. “Andrew Jackson, Southerner” is available from LSU Press and Amazon. He is the author, also, of “Old Hickory’s Nephew: The Political and Private Struggles of Andrew Jackson Donelson” (2007). To read more about the author, visit http://Jacksonianamerica.com/blog.