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.
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.”
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.