In our hyperpartisan atmosphere, both supporters and opponents of Donald Trump have looked for similar presidents in the American past. Steve Bannon famously encouraged Trump to see himself as the new Andrew Jackson, another populist who encouraged the forcible movement of Indian tribes from the deep South to what is now Oklahoma, and plenty of Trump's critics have been delighted to embrace that analogy as well. Today's New York Times includes an op-ed by Manisha Sinha, an historian at the University of Connecticut, comparing him to Andrew Johnson, who rejected equality for freed slaves, opposed Reconstruction, and escaped removal by the Senate after impeachment by a single vote. The Johnson comparison in particular has some merit, since both of them have held office during one of the great crises in American life, and both certainly have pandered to white bigotry. Yet at the same time, a different kind of comparison of Trump on the one hand, and Jackson and Johnson on the other, shows that Trump remains an utterly unique phenomenon in American history, and one that illustrates how far our political life had to deteriorate before he could even get within shouting distance of the White House. Today's critics of earlier generations of American leaders feel much too self-righteous to pay much attention to what they actually said, or to acknowledge a very real decline in the quality of our political life.
Let us begin with Andrew Jackson, and specifically with the first annual message--what we now call the State of the Union address--that he submitted to Congress in December 1829. That message began with a lengthy survey of the foreign relations of the United States, including a careful discussion of the major issues then being disputed between the US and the great powers of France, Great Britain, and Spain. Donald Trump, asked to do the same, would undoubtedly content himself with one sentence apiece about his wonderful personal relationships with the leaders of various countries, and a complaint about the excessive burdens that the nation bears. Later, however, Jackson made a remarkable proposal for the amendment of the US Constitution, one designed to make it more democratic. I quote:
"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. . . .
"In this as in all other matters of public concern policy requires that as few impediments as possible should exist to the free operation of the public will. Let us, then, endeavor so to amend our system that the office of Chief Magistrate may not be conferred upon any citizen but in pursuance of a fair expression of the will of the majority.
"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. . . ."
It is noteworthy, to begin with, that Jackson, whom we are now taught to believe was one of our most reactionary presidents, was proposing a reform that is once again very much vogue, the abolition of the electoral college and the direct election of the President. He was to my knowledge the only president that we have ever had to make this proposal. How exactly he thought he could "preserve to each State its present relative weight in the election"--an apparent reference to the 3/5 clause--is not clear, and I am curious to look into this further, but this proposal was not one designed to preserve an oligarchy, nor could it have that effect. Jackson also had the sense to realize--as many current proponents of this reform do not--that his proposal would have to provide for two rounds of voting to make sure that the winner enjoyed an actual majority--the system now used in France and many other countries. Jackson's proposal, of course, reflected his own history as a candidate, since in 1824 he had been the first candidate to win a substantial plurality of the popular vote, but fail to win a majority of the electoral college, and then losing the election of John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives. Jackson thus differs from Trump by being a sincere small-d democrat. He was also a bitter foe of economic privilege, whose veto message killing the Bank of the United States reads as if it could have been written by Franklin Roosevelt or Elizabeth Warren. I quote:
"Every monopoly and all exclusive privileges are granted at the expense of the public, which ought to receive a fair equivalent. The many millions which this act proposes to bestow on the stockholders of the existing bank must come directly or indirectly out of the earnings of the American people. It is due to them, therefore, if their Government sell monopolies and exclusive privileges, that they should at least exact for them as much as they are worth in open market. The value of the monopoly in this case may be correctly ascertained. The twenty-eight millions of stock would probably be at an advance of 50 per cent, and command in market at least $42,000,000, subject to the payment of the present bonus. The present value of the monopoly, therefore, is $17,000,000, and this the act proposes to sell for three millions, payable in fifteen annual installments of $200,000 each. . . .
"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."
Is such a President necessarily a man we must consign to the moral dustbin of history because he owned slaves and supported the removal of the Indians, or would we do better to recognize, as earlier generations did, his very real commitments to political democracy and greater economic equality? I turn now, for the moment, to Andrew Johnson.
I have no good to say about Andrew Johnson's policies. Originally a Democrat from the border state of Tennessee, he had left his party early in the Civil War and supported Lincoln's all-out attempt to crush the rebellion. He had become the war governor of his state, and the Republicans had chosen him as Vice President in 1864 to broaden their appeal among Democrats and the border states. As President, however, he immediately tried to allow the defeated states to re-enter Congress on generous terms, opposed the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal rights, and would have happily allowed the white populations to treat the freed slaves however they wished. After the 1866 elections the Republicans in Congress, who enjoyed veto-proof majorities, had passed sweeping reconstruction laws over his veto, to which they eventually added the 15th amendment forbidding disenfranchisement based on race. They also tried to take his authority to remove and replace federal officials away from him in the Tenure of Office Act, an unconstitutional measure that he violated early in his last year in office by trying to remove Secretary of War Stanton, leading to his impeachment and trial. Let me again simply quote a couple of paragraphs from one of his annual messages, in December 1867, to show what a great gulf separates him from Donald Trump.
"It is . . . a source of profound regret that in complying with the obligation imposed upon the President by the Constitution to give to Congress from time to time information of the state of the Union I am unable to communicate any definitive adjustment satisfactory to the American people, of the questions which since the close of the rebellion have agitated the public mind. On the contrary, candor compels me to declare that at this time there is no Union as our fathers understood the term, and as they meant it to be understood by us. The Union which they established can exist only where all the States are represented in both Houses of Congress; where one State is as free as another to regulate its internal concerns according to its own will, and where the laws of the central Government, strictly confined to matters of national jurisdiction, apply with equal force to all the people of every section. That such is not the present "state of the Union" is a melancholy fact, and we must all acknowledge that the restoration of the States to their proper legal relations with the Federal Government and with one another, according to the terms of the original compact, would be the greatest temporal blessing which God, in His kindest providence, could bestow upon this nation. It becomes our imperative duty to consider whether or not it is impossible to effect this most desirable consummation. . . .
"It is therefore a source of profound regret that in complying with the obligation imposed upon the President by the Constitution to give to Congress from time to time information of the state of the Union I am unable to communicate any definitive adjustment satisfactory to the American people, of the questions which since the close of the rebellion have agitated the public mind. On the contrary, candor compels me to declare that at this time there is no Union as our fathers understood the term, and as they meant it to be understood by us. The Union which they established can exist only where all the States are represented in both Houses of Congress; where one State is as free as another to regulate its internal concerns according to its own will, and where the laws of the central Government, strictly confined to matters of national jurisdiction, apply with equal force to all the people of every section. That such is not the present "state of the Union" is a melancholy fact, and we must all acknowledge that the restoration of the States to their proper legal relations with the Federal Government and with one another, according to the terms of the original compact, would be the greatest temporal blessing which God, in His kindest providence, could bestow upon this nation. It becomes our imperative duty to consider whether or not it is impossible to effect this most desirable consummation."
Now Andrew Johnson had origins at least as modest as any other American President, and may have been the only one never to have attended a school of any kind. Originally a tailor, he went into politics in his late twenties. But clearly, the above paragraphs show, he had developed a sense of the history of the United States and a command of the English language to which Donald Trump has never even aspired, and which he most definitely does not possess. Neither he nor Jackson had a team of speechwriters who could provide these documents for them. They wrote them themselves. Literary and historical knowledge, for the first two centuries of our history, qualifications that successful politicians were expected to possess--and those who had modest origins were if anything more eager to acquire them. The nomination and election of Donald Trump, who entirely lacks either one, reflects a profound decline in our political life and our broader culture. Although himself a child of privilege who attended a leading university, he clearly has less intellectual ability, and probably less historical knowledge, than anyone who ever occupied the White House before. George W. Bush, who also held office recently, would not rank much higher, in my opinion, in either of those categories either. That says something about the 21st century United States.
The leaders of earlier generations--particularly in our previous crises periods of 1774-1794, 1860-68, and 1929-45--specifically put their own struggles in the context of a broader history of the development of liberty and human rights. Lincoln and FDR explicitly built upon their ancestors' achievements, about which Trump knows little and cares less. The American sense of a key role in a broader historical drama has been under attack from both sides of the political spectrum for some time. My own profession of history has also lost interest in keeping it alive. That is one reason why about half the nation, at least, has abandoned our political class, allowing Trump to get into the White House. We have had other presidents who pursued evil policies, but our political life, in important respects, has reached a new low.