“Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams
In my last few posts I have been delving into a lesser-known speech from Abraham Lincoln’s early public career and asking whether Lincoln’s political commentary might provide a useful lens for viewing our own political world. In his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of 1838, Lincoln warned of the occasional appearance of men of genius and ambition who would so “thirst for distinction” that they would be willing to tear down America’s free institutions instead of build them up. When such individuals arose, Lincoln predicted, the only protection against tyranny would be an electorate “united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent,” that is, guided more by reason than by emotion.
The Young Men’s Lyceum was not a political club, and it would have been poor form for Lincoln to have delivered an overtly partisan address to that assembly, but I strongly suspect that when Lincoln spoke of a would-be tyrant who might jeopardize the people’s liberty, the template in his mind’s eye was not some generic abstraction but the man who had vacated the White House less than a year before. Lincoln was a Whig in every fiber of his being, and the Whig Party, which Lincoln had embraced from its inception, emerged on the political scene in the early 1830s first and foremost as an anti-Jackson coalition. Whigs caricatured Jackson as “King Andrew the First,” denouncing him as a despot who, after pronouncing his zeal for the public welfare, had expanded the power of the presidency while trampling on the Constitution.
Ideally, the study of history can be “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” to quote historian David Harlan, but if we are to understand what our conversation partners are saying to us, we always have to situate their pronouncements in the concrete historical context that gave rise to them. When it comes to understanding Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, we’ll make much better sense of Lincoln’s warning if we refresh our memories of Jackson’s presidency.
To the degree that history has remembered Jackson kindly, it has done so for two main reasons. First, Jackson responded forcefully to the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833, when South Carolina attempted to nullify federal tariff legislation and threatened disunion if Jackson insisted on enforcing the objectionable laws. Second, Jackson seemingly embodied a new democratic ethos that exalted the nobility of the “common man” and the moral authority of the majority. As a rude frontiersman elevated to the nation’s highest office, Jackson became the face of Jacksonian Democracy and the “symbol for an age.”
In truth, Jackson received too much credit in both respects. Jackson’s “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina”—a vigorous argument for federal supremacy and the perpetuity of the Union—was in fact ghost-written by Senator Edward Livingston of Louisiana. What is more, Jackson’s approach to federal authority was far from consistent. At the same time that he was threatening to hang “nullifiers” to the closest tree he could find, this champion of the Union was effectively inviting the state of Georgia to abrogate federal treaties with the Cherokee and encouraging them to defy the U. S. Supreme Court. And when it comes to Jackson’s relation to the rise of American democracy, it is hard not to see that correlation as almost entirely coincidental. Jackson’s political leadership was too personal, too impetuous, too erratic to credit him with a purposeful contribution to a more democratic public square.
Although the Whigs could be guilty of exaggerating Jackson’s political sins for partisan purposes, and they were not above duplicating them for partisan gain, their fundamental indictment of Jackson was pretty much on target. Jackson too often functioned as a reckless, anti-intellectual populist. His knowledge of, and respect for the Constitution was suspect. And he had a knack for framing issues in a way that made the people feel aggrieved and willing to accord him more power so that he could protect them from the powerful. Let me unpack this seemingly harsh assessment.
First, when I say that Jackson was reckless, I mean that he was motivated more by instinct, emotion, and personal feeling than by any systematic political philosophy or vision. His temper was legendary, he chafed at restraint, and he always took disagreement personally. He was involved in multiple duels. He killed a man for insulting his wife. He exceeded his authority as a military commander after the War of 1812, very nearly embroiling the United States in a war with Spain and prompting Secretary of War John C. Calhoun to recommend his removal. Once in the White House, he very nearly brought his administration to a grinding halt because the wives of some of his cabinet members refused to socialize with the wife of his Secretary of War.
Jackson was also the first populist U. S. president. A populist sees (or claims to see) the world as a struggle between the people—always clothed in robes of moral righteousness—and a powerful minority who would subvert the people’s welfare for their own selfish gain. A populist politician routinely portrays himself as the hero of this drama, a noble champion charged with defending a helpless populace against the insidious forces that threaten them.
There was little in Jackson’s public life prior to 1824 to predict that he would become a populist. Born in poverty, he parlayed influential connections and a knack for land speculation into a fortune that made him one of the largest land- and slave-owners in Tennessee. During the War of 1812 he exploited a political appointment as general of the Tennessee state militia into a series of important military assignments, but he quickly built the reputation of a harsh disciplinarian not averse to putting deserters in front of a firing squad.
Then in 1824 the Tennessee General Assembly nominated Jackson as a candidate for president and support for his candidacy began to grow, particularly in what was then “the west.” This growing support was not due to his political experience, of which he had very little, but rather a tribute to his military success in defeating Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and then the British army at the Battle of New Orleans.
Jackson took approximately 40 percent of both the popular and electoral vote in the four-man presidential election that followed, which is another way of saying that three-fifths of voters wanted someone else to be president. It was then that Jackson discovered the moral authority of majority rule—or plurality rule, to be more precise—because when John Quincy Adams won the run-off in the House of Representatives, Jackson insisted that the system was rigged and that he had been robbed of the presidency. In private letters, Jackson lashed out at Speaker of the House Henry Clay, a rival for the presidency who had actively worked against him in the run-off. The Kentuckian Clay became the “Judas of the West,” a metaphor that could only hold if Jackson was analogous to Christ.
Publicly, Jackson lamented that the authority of the people had been disregarded and the wishes of the Founding Fathers had been trampled. Ignoring the inconvenient truth that the Framers of the Constitution had feared unfettered majority rule, as well as the fact that the Constitution does not require that there be any direct popular involvement in the election of the president, Jackson pronounced that his defeat was unconstitutional. The Constitution’s authors, he insisted without a scrap of evidence, would have condemned the election of John Quincy Adams as a violation of the people’s rights.
In 1824 Jackson’s campaign managers had primarily portrayed their candidate as “General Jackson,” the hero of New Orleans who deserved their vote because of his patriotism and self-sacrifice. In 1828 the campaign shifted to a full-throttled populism, denouncing the supposed “Corrupt Bargain” that had stolen the presidency from the people’s choice and handed it to John Quincy Adams.
Demonstrating the anti-intellectualism that so often accompanies populism, the Jackson campaign argued fantastically that Adams’s education and extensive political experience disqualified him from the nation’s highest office. While Jackson had barely a year of formal schooling and minimal political experience, Adams, after graduating from Harvard, had served as a congressman, senator, ambassador, Secretary of State, and now president. According to his political lieutenants, Jackson was the more qualified.
Without openly discussing the size of Jackson’s hands, they portrayed their candidate as a man’s man and Adams as an effeminate intellectual. Who do you want as president, they asked voters: “Jackson who can fight, or Adams who can write?” And Adams’ extensive political experience was no more an advantage than his education, for political experience undermined, rather than enhanced, a candidate’s ability to serve the public. Jackson would drive home the point in his first annual message after claiming the presidency on his second try. “There are, perhaps, few men who can for any great length of time enjoy office and power without being more or less under the influence of feelings unfavorable to the faithful discharge of their public duties,” Jackson opined.
The solution was what Jackson called “rotation in office,” or what Americans in more recent times have known as term limits. To prevent their corruption, make sure that American office holders are always novices. Nothing would be lost in terms of effectiveness, Jackson assured the nation, because “the duties of all public officers are . . . so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance.” Who needs experience?
During the eight years that Jackson was in the White House, the episode that best exemplified Jackson’s populism was the so-called Bank War of 1832-1833. In 1832 the supporters of the Second Bank of the United States—including the “Judas of the West” Henry Clay—had maneuvered a measure through Congress to extend the charter of the bank for another twenty years. The descendant of an entity originally proposed by Alexander Hamilton, the bank had been chartered by Congress in 1816 in the hope that it would provide a circulating medium for the nation’s economy and bring greater stability and soundness to the country’s often turbulent financial sector. The bank’s defenders were correct in saying that the bank was largely fulfilling these objectives. The bank’s detractors were also surely right that this private agency wielded considerable power with minimal accountability.
Jackson, who knew almost nothing about how banks actually function, did know this: the bank’s strongest champions were among his most outspoken critics, and that made the effort to renew the charter a personal attack. In the summer of 1832 he vetoed the measure on multiple grounds, two of which deserve special attention. First, Jackson portrayed the struggle over the Bank in classic populist tones. The proposal to extend the life of the Bank was nothing more than an effort of rich men to make themselves richer. “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes,” Jackson lamented. Fortunately, the victims of such injustice—“the humble members of society”—could look to him for protection.
To use current terminology, Jackson portrayed the Bank War as a scheme to use government to enrich the 1 percent at the expense of 99-percenters. In actuality, among the chief opponents of the Bank of the United States were other bankers—financiers who resented the competition of the B.U.S. and expected their profits to rise if their rival could be eliminated. There is little evidence that common folk were better off because of the demise of the Bank of the United States, and historians have long speculated that Jackson’s assault on the Bank may have contributed to a severe economic recession at the close of his second term. That is debatable, but this much is not: when Jackson removed all federal deposits from the Bank of the United States, he divvied them up among state banks—Whigs called them “pet banks”—that were run by his political allies.
In addition to denouncing the bill to re-charter the Bank as an effort to make the rich richer, Jackson further justified his veto by condemning it as unconstitutional. The problem here is that the Supreme Court had explicitly defended its constitutionality in the 1818 case McCullough v. Maryland. The Court’s ruling was utterly irrelevant, Jackson announced in his veto message. That is because “each public officer who takes an oath to support the Constitution swears that he will support it as he understands it, and not as it is understood by others. . . . The opinion of the judges has no more authority over Congress than the opinion of Congress has over the judges, and on that point the President is independent of both.”
Boiled down, to the degree that the Constitution placed any restrictions on his actions as president, Jackson alone would determine what they were. The Constitution would mean what he said it meant. With this comforting philosophy, Jackson would go on to veto more measures than his six predecessors combined. Whatever else it meant, Jackson’s zeal for the public welfare meant an expansion of the power of the presidency.
When the Treasury Department announced earlier this spring that it would be removing Jackson from the front of the twenty-dollar bill, I applauded, although I found much of the online exultation after the announcement off-putting. Most of the voices raised in support of the decision emphasized Jackson’s support for two practices—slavery and Indian removal—supported or at least accepted by the vast majority of white Americans at the time. While condemnation of these practices is the morally correct position for us to hold, it is also a morally cheap position, in that it demands absolutely nothing of us. Who in 2016 would stand up to defend either practice? What courage is required to denounce them?
What troubles me most about Jackson is not the ways in which he was a man of his time, but the ways in which he anticipated our day and age. In his elevation to the presidency almost two hundred years ago, we see a foreshadowing of the emotional, frequently irrational politics of 2016. And in Jackson, we see the combination of reckless, anti-intellectual, populist bravado that the current “presumptive nominee” of the Republican Party has so wonderfully perfected. If Jackson’s presidency teaches us anything, however, it is that successful populist politicians don’t always bring more power to the people. Sometimes they just amass more power for themselves.