Andrew Jackson is getting a lot of attention lately, none of it favorable. Meanwhile, President Trump, while rather vague on certain details of American history, has expressed admiration for him. And many commentators have argued that they are, in fact, similar in important ways. All this is hard for me to assimilate, because when I was growing up, Andrew Jackson was something of a liberal hero, if not quite of the stature of Jefferson or Lincoln or FDR. He believed in more direct democracy, he hated financial privilege, he was supported by a coalition of workers and farmers, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had specifically painted him as a kind of prototype for FDR. Now, of course, we are paying more attention to Jackson's status as a slave owner, and his involvement in the removal of Indian tribes to the west of the Missisippi. I decided to spend a few minutes to try to rediscover who Jackson actually was--with particular reference to the question of whether he in fact had anythng in common with Donald Trump.
Neither time nor space permits an exhaustive examination of this question, but it didn't take long to find some interesting excerpts in his lengthy, careful annual messages to Congress. This one comes from his first, in December 1829--and calls for direct popular election of the President! Here are Jackson's words.
"To the people belongs the right of electing
their Chief Magistrate; it was never designed that their choice should
in any case be defeated, either by the intervention of electoral
colleges or by the agency confided, under certain contingencies, to the
House of Representatives. Experience proves that in proportion as agents
to execute the will of the people are multiplied there is danger of
their wishes being frustrated. Some may be unfaithful; all are liable to
err. So far, therefore, as the people can with convenience speak, it is
safer for them to express their own will.
"The number of aspirants
to the Presidency and the diversity of the interests which may
influence their claims leave little reason to expect a choice in the
first instance, and in that event the election must devolve on the House
of Representatives, where it is obvious the will of the people may not
be always ascertained, or, if ascertained, may not be regarded. From the
mode of voting by States the choice is to be made by 24 votes, and it
may often occur that one of these will be controlled by an individual
Representative. Honors and offices are at the disposal of the successful
candidate. Repeated ballotings may make it apparent that a single
individual holds the cast in his hand. May he not be tempted to name his
reward? , , ,
" I would therefore recommend such an amendment
of the Constitution as may remove all intermediate agency in the
election of the President and Vice-President. The mode may be so
regulated as to preserve to each State its present relative weight in
the election, and a failure in the first attempt may be provided for by
confining the second to a choice between the two highest candidates. In
connection with such an amendment it would seem advisable to limit the
service of the Chief Magistrate to a single term of either 4 or 6 years.
If, however, it should not be adopted, it is worthy of consideration
whether a provision disqualifying for office the Representatives in
Congress on whom such an election may have devolved would not be proper."
The abolition of the electoral college has become a favorite liberal demand, all the more so because Jackson's proposal, had it been embodied in the Constitution, would have kept both George W. Bush and Donald Trump out of the White House. I don't have time to find out exactly how and why Jackson's proposal failed of adoption, but it appears to mark him as a genuine champion of the people's rule, albeit, of course, within the framework of his time, in which women were not allowed to vote and slavery still existed in 15 states. There is, however, another aspect to this proposal, which casts it in a different light.
Jackson was in effect complaining that he was only in his first year in the White House instead of his fifth. The party system had broken down in 1824 and he had run for President against three other candidates from the Democratic Party: William Crawford, John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay. Jackson had won the popular vote handily, but he had not won a majority in the electoral college and the election had gone to the House of Representatives. There he had been bested by Adams, to whom Clay had thrown his support. Then Adams made the great political blunder of his career by naming Clay Secretary of States, and cries of "corrupt bargain!" rang through the land. Rather than tweeting that he had been the real winner, Jackson was more discreetly referring to these events in his address. He may have been a sincere Democrat--but he could also hold a grudge. Many years later, in retirement, he reportedly said that he had only two regrets--that he had never been able to shoot Henry Clay, or to hang John C. Calhoun.
A year later, in December 1829, Jackson commented on the quick, nearly bloodless revolution that had replaced the conservative Bourbon monarchy in France with the more liberal and constitutional rule of Louis Philippe. He put this development in the context of world history, in which the United States was now playing a key role,
"The important modifications of their
Government, effected with so much courage and wisdom by the people of
France, afford a happy presage of their future course, and have
naturally elicited from the kindred feelings of this nation that
spontaneous and universal burst of applause in which you have
participated. In congratulating you, my fellow citizens, upon an event
so auspicious to the dearest interests of man- kind I do no more than
respond to the voice of my country, without transcending in the
slightest degree that salutary maxim of the illustrious Washington which
enjoins an abstinence from all interference with the internal affairs
of other nations. From a people exercising in the most unlimited degree
the right of self-government, and enjoying, as derived from this proud
characteristic, under the favor of Heaven, much of the happiness with
which they are blessed; a people who can point in triumph to their free
institutions and challenge comparison with the fruits they bear, as well
as with the moderation, intelligence, and energy with which they are
administered -- from such a people the deepest sympathy was to be
expected in a struggle for the sacred principles of liberty, conducted
in a spirit every way worthy of the cause, and crowned by a heroic
moderation which has disarmed revolution of its terrors. Not
withstanding the strong assurances which the man whom we so sincerely
love and justly admire [I do not know to whom this referred] has given to the world of the high character of
the present King of the French, and which if sustained to the end will
secure to him the proud appellation of Patriot King, it is not in his
success, but in that of the great principle which has borne him to the
throne -- the paramount authority of the public will -- that the
American people rejoice."
On the eve of his death only four years earlier, Jefferson had reiterated the hope that liberty, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, would come to the whole world. Jackson's remarks, praising the French step down this path, were in this tradition. Two years later Britain also took a small step towards popular rule, when the Reform Act of 1832 became law. Today our President is also praising a worldwide political trend--but this time the trend is towards authoritarianism, not towards democracy. The President's long-standing admiration for Vladimir Putin is well known, but in recent weeks he has congratulated the Turkish President Erdogan on a vote that gave him even more power, invited the murderous President Duterte of the Philippines to Washington, and offered to meet with Kim Jong Un. His Administration shows signs of becoming the first American administration specifically to endorse a trend towards authoritarianism--the opposite of what Jackson and other 19th century Presidents did
In the same message Jackson mentioned that the government had had to put down a rebellion, or independence movement, among the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes in Alabama and Mississippi, and endorsed their removal to Indian territory in what is now Oklahoma. But he made no attempt to conceal the hardship involved in these measures, while trying to put them in historical context.
"Humanity has often wept over the fate of
the aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily
employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a
moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes
disappeared from the earth. To follow to the tomb the last of his race
and to tread on the graves of extinct nations excite melancholy
reflections. But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these
vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room
for another. In the monuments and fortifications of an unknown people,
spread over the extensive regions of the West, we behold the memorials
of a once powerful race, which was exterminated or has disappeared to
make room for the existing savage tribes. [He appears to be referring here to the Mound Builders.] Nor is there any thing in this
which, upon a comprehensive view of the general interests of the human
race, is to be regretted. Philanthropy could not wish to see this
continent restored to the condition in which it was found by our
forefathers. What good man would prefer a country covered with forests
and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded
with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the
improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more
than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of
liberty, civilization, and religion?
"The present policy of the
Government is but a continuation of the same progressive change by a
milder process. The tribes which occupied the countries now constituting
the Eastern States were annihilated or have melted away to make room
for the whites. The waves of population and civilization are rolling to
the westward, and we now propose to acquire the countries occupied by
the red men of the South and West by a fair exchange, and, at the
expense of the United States, to send them to a land where their
existence may be prolonged and perhaps made perpetual.
it will be painful to leave the graves of their fathers; but what do
they more than our ancestors did or than our children are now doing? To
better their condition in an unknown land our forefathers left all that
was dear in earthly objects. Our children by thousands yearly leave the
land of their birth to seek new homes in distant regions. Does Humanity
weep at these painful separations from every thing, animate and
inanimate, with which the young heart has become entwined? Far from it.
It is rather a source of joy that our country affords scope where our
young population may range unconstrained in body or in mind, developing
the power and faculties of man in their highest perfection."
Today, our universities have for decades been preoccupied with the faults of western civilization and the injuries that has inflicted upon other regions of the world, with the implication that history's course should certainly be held in place, if not reversed. And a great many Americans have come to regard their nation's founding and growth as a crime. I would suggest that it was almost impossible for an American of Jackson's age (born in 1767) to hold that view. They had experienced the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase, and the formation of many new states. They saw all this as a great human experiment in which they were the leading actors. And when Jackson pointed out that Indian civilizations had warred against one another even to the point of extinction before the arrival of the Europeans, he was only speaking the truth. I shall let my readers make their own judgments about Jackson's words and actions, and how they fit into the whole history of the United States. But I do think today's US citizens might ask themselves if they truly repudiate what our ancestors did in creating the United States as it now is--keeping in mind that so many of us, white, black, brown and yellow, would never have existed had they not done so, since our ancestors would have been so unlikely to have met elsewhere.
I turn now to Jackson's most famous state paper, his veto of the renewal of the charter of the Bank of the United States in July 1832. The Bank enjoyed special privileges under the law that created it which turned it into the equivalent of a European central bank, and Jackson complained that it had used those privileges to accumulate enormous power over the banking system, and enormous wealth at the expense of ordinary Americans. He continued:
"It is to be regretted that the rich and
powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish
purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just
government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be
produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of
Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every
man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws
undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial
distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to
make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of
society--the farmers, mechanics, and laborers--who have neither the
time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right
to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary
evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would
confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains,
shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor,
it would be an unqualified blessing. In the act before me there seems to
be a wide and unnecessary departure from these just principles."
It was this message, more than anything else, that established Jackson as the heir to the tradition of both political and economic democracy that was begun by Jefferson and elaborated upon by Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson in the twentieth century. Today that tradition survives in Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren--but they represent only one wing of the Democratic Party. Donald Trump, needless to say, is completely outside that tradition and he and the Republicans in Congress want to destroy it.
It will not have escaped the reader's attention, meanwhile, that Andrew Jackson possessed a command of the English language of which Donald Trump never dreamed, and that he took his duties as President of the world's leading republic with a seriousness of which Trump would never be capable. It has become fashionable to judge historical figures according to simple, binary moral standards, in which acts that even recognize, much less further, racism or sexism automatically mark men as evil. I have attempted to suggest that Andrew Jackson is one of many figures from our history to whom these rules do less than justice. And I have attempted to show clearly that any similarities between Trump and Andrew Jackson are far outweighed by enormous differences of political outlook and goals.