Tag Archives: populism

ANDREW JACKSON AND DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN

I recently finished reading Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, by Michael Chevalier.  Don’t feel too bad if you haven’t read it (or even heard of it)–it’s current ranking on Amazon is #2,875,870.

Chevalier was a twenty-eight-year old Frenchman sent to the US by the French government in 1833, two years after the far more famous mission of his fellow countrymen Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont.   An engineer, Chevalier’s assignment was to study the American transportation and communications systems, which he did diligently and systematically over the next two years.  During his travels, he periodically sent back lengthy letters (thirty-two in all) that were published at the time in a French journal, and then compiled and released in book form after his return.  The first English translation appeared in 1839.

Chevalier paid greatest attention to railroads, steamboats, and canals, but he was interested in economic development generally (he discussed American banking at length) and also discussed U. S. politics extensively as it intersected with and influenced the nation’s economic life.  It was in that context that I came across the quote below with regard to Andrew Jackson.  I’ve previously written about some of the parallels between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump (a comparison that the latter actively invites), but the quote below was so striking that I had to pass it along.

Chevalier begins with a compliment of sorts: “General Jackson possesses in the highest degree the qualities necessary for conducting partisan warfare,” he observes.  The president is “bold, indefatigable, always alert, quick-sighted . . . harsh and terrible to his enemies.”  But then he elaborates:

For reasons of domestic policy . . . many enlightened men who had at first treated the idea of supporting him for the presidency with ridicule gave in to the plan, trusting that they should be able to exercise a salutary influence over him.  His fiery temper seemed in fact to be calmed by his elevation; the recollection of his oath of office which, at the moment it was made, was made in good faith, was yet fresh.  He conscientiously resolved . . . to be moderate, patient, and calm. . . . But this state of constraint was insupportable to him; it is too late to reform at the age of sixty years.

Sound familiar?

This drawing by Matt Chase first appeared in the New York Times, February 17, 2016.

ANDREW JACKSON: ROLE MODEL?

A few more thoughts about Andrew Jackson:

If you were following his itinerary last week, you will know that President Trump visited the grave of the nation’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson, on the way to a political rally in Nashville.  Mr. Trump counts himself “a fan” of Old Hickory, almost certainly not because of anything he has read about the Tennessean, but because adviser Stephen Bannon has convinced his boss that Jackson was an 1830s version of himself.  When Bannon lauds Mr. Trump as “Jacksonian,” he is expressing his wish/hope/vision/agenda that history will remember Trump as a “populist” leader who gave birth to an entirely new and permanent political party.

President Trump pauses after laying a wreath at the Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

History will show whether he was right.  But in the meantime, I can’t help worrying about other aspects of the Trump-Jackson analogy.  In his regular column in the Washington Post last Thursday, Wheaton alum Michael Gerson lamented that the president had chosen “a deeply disturbing hero.”  I agree.

I should say at the outset that I am not an expert on Jackson.  The only real archival research I have done that even touches on Jackson remotely was decades ago.  During the summer of my first year in graduate school (not long after fire was invented), Chalmette National Historical Park hired me to conduct research in Tennessee on the role of the Tennessee militia in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans.  I spent much of that summer at the Tennessee State Archives and the Hermitage (Jackson’s middle Tennessee plantation), poring over military records and copying—by hand—the muster rolls of Tennesseans who served in the Louisiana campaign.  (FYI: It was no picnic.  Only a handful of Tennessee soldiers became battlefield casualties, but over 10 percent died of disease during the few brief months of their service.  I digress.)

Having confessed this limitation, I’ll say on the other hand that I have been teaching on both Jackson and Jacksonian democracy for thirty years, and on balance I have found Jackson to be more scary than admirable.  Over the weekend my view was reinforced as I read H. W. Brands’ biography Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (Anchor Books, 2005).  Brands is a distinguished historian at the University of Texas, author of twenty-five books, and twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  His take on Jackson is deeply researched, engagingly written, and largely sympathetic.  And yet Jackson’s character flaws leap off the page.

Without doubt, Brands reminds us that Jackson had admirable qualities.  He was unquestionably courageous, had an iron constitution, an indomitable will, and an almost mystical attachment to the nation.  Yet as Brands sketches him, Jackson was also a man of great passion and monumental self-confidence, and throughout his life he found it impossible to believe that anyone who disagreed with him could be motivated by honorable convictions.  Any opposition to his will was always evidence of corruption or cowardice or both.  For example, when his hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, was defeated in the presidential election of 1840, Jackson concluded, without evidence, that “Corruption, bribery and fraud has been extended over the whole Union.”  Yes, Jackson was a stalwart champion of popular democracy, but he was also utterly convinced that the people, unless they were misled by dishonest demagogues, would always agree with him.  As Brands puts it, “Jackson never had trouble detecting the authority in the voice of the people when they agreed with him, but when they disagreed . . . he concluded that they had been deceived by the ‘machinations’ and conspiracy’ of the enemies of democracy.”

Just as troubling is Brands’ blunt conclusion that “Jackson rarely respected authority per se.”  Twice during the War of 1812 Jackson, then a general of Tennessee militia, directly disobeyed orders from the Secretary of War.  After the War of 1812 had been concluded, Jackson again ignored express instructions from the War Department and led troops into Florida—which was then part of the Spanish Empire—provoking an international incident with both Spain and England that might easily have led to war.  Jackson captured Pensacola, after first threatening the Spanish governor that if he resisted he would kill every last Spanish soldier.  “I am informed that you have orders to fire on my troops entering the city,” Jackson informed the governor in a note.  “I wish you to understand distinctly that if such orders are carried into effect, I will put to death every man found in arms.”  Back in Washington, Jackson’s superiors recognized his widespread popularity and political utility, and the administration of President James Madison tried to control Jackson’s insubordination without openly rebuking him.  For his part, Jackson claimed to care less about the opinion of the “intermeddling pimps and spies of the War Department.”

Andrew Jackson, in an 1824 portrait by artist Thomas Scully

There is much more that I could add that is troubling, for example:

* Jackson’s enduring admiration of Napoleon Bonaparte, not only when the Corsican was leader of Republican France, but even after he had made himself Emperor;

* the duels Jackson fought and the resulting bullets that he carried in his chest and shoulder for much of his adult life;

* his extensive speculation in real estate and penchant for making what would be, in today’s money, six-figure bets on his race horses;

* his advertisement offering a $50 reward for a runaway slave and promise of “ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred” (a punishment that would have almost certainly ended in the fugitive’s death); and

* his advice to his nephew, then a cadet at West Point, that if a superior should ever attempt “either to strike or kick you, put him to instant death.”

I could go on, but I think you get the point.  Mr. Trump could find a better role model.

DONALD TRUMP AND ANDREW JACKSON

[Since I am currently on leave, I am taking a temporary break from crafting new essays on faith and American history but re-posting past essays from time to time.  When I read that President Trump visited Andrew Jackson’s home before speaking at a rally last night in Nashville, I thought it made sense to re-post a piece I wrote last summer on our seventh president.  Although I am skeptical that Mr. Trump actually knows much about Jackson, he has described himself as “a fan” of our seventh president and has put a picture of him in the oval office.  I’ve taught on Jackson for nearly thirty years, and with all due respect to President Trump, I find little reason to admire his presidency.  You can read my summary assessment below.]

To the degree that history has remembered Andrew 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.

Jackson3In 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.

John Quincy Adams

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?

Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, PA

Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, PA

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.

This contemporary cartoon depicts Jackson bringing down the pillars of power and privilege through his war against the bank. Near the center of the picture, fleeing Jackson’s righteous wrath, is the president of the Bank of the United States, sporting horns and cloven hooves.

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.

This caricature of Andrew Jackson, by an unknown artist, likely appeared in the fall of 1833. Jackson stands on a shredded copy of the Constitution.

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.

This drawing by Matt Chase first appeared in the New York Times, February 17, 2016.

**********

(First other essays comparing Jackson and Trump, check out here and here.)

“KING DONALD THE FIRST”–PART TWO

“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams

constitution

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.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

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.

This caricature of Andrew Jackson, by an unknown artist, likely appeared in the fall of 1833, a little more than four years before Lincoln's Lyceum Address. Jackson stands on a shredded copy of the Constitution.

This caricature of Andrew Jackson, by an unknown artist, likely appeared in the fall of 1833, a little more than four years before Lincoln’s Lyceum Address. Jackson stands on a shredded copy of the Constitution.

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.

Jackson3In 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.

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

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?

Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, PA

Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, PA

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.

This contemporary cartoon depicts Jackson bringing down the pillars of power and privilege through his war against the bank. Near the center of the picture, fleeing Jackson's righteous wrath, is the president of the Bank of the United States, sporting horns and cloven hooves.

This contemporary cartoon depicts Jackson bringing down the pillars of power and privilege through his war against the bank. Near the center of the picture, fleeing Jackson’s righteous wrath, is the president of the Bank of the United States, sporting horns and cloven hooves.

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.

This drawing by Matt Chase first appeared in the New York Times, February 17, 2016.

This drawing by Matt Chase first appeared in the New York Times, February 17, 2016.

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(First other essays comparing Jackson and Trump, check out here and here.)