Nothing dominated the American conversation of the decade of the 1820s more than the idea of Andrew Jackson as president. The back-and-forth between the pro-Jackson and anti-Jackson forces is bewildering and dizzying even to the biographer who has the grand advantage of hindsight…

The Great Depression of 1819 and the Missouri slavery question of the same year ended, rather abruptly, the so-called “Era of Good Feelings.” In that fell year of 1819, Andrew Jackson, the “Hero of New Orleans,” remained not just the great symbol of what America had done, but also the great hope for what the American republic could achieve in the coming decades. He had become an American myth, and, as such, the vast majority of the American people clung to his image throughout the 1820s as the one person who could, perhaps by sheer force of will, restore the glories of the republic of 1776 and 1787. Indeed, the very people who saw him as the future of America were those who had flooded the West after the conclusion of the War of 1812. In large part, though through no intention of his own, Jackson had secured the republic for his very own constituency. That he had, as governor of Florida, given each male the vote—irrespective of race, religion, or property ownership—was not lost on a frontier people who believed they had as much right to remake the land as they had to govern themselves. True, Jackson had not been a great legislator or a great judge, but he had more than proven himself in the third branch of governance, the executive. Perhaps, many conjectured, that same executive prowess would work in a civilian office as well as it had in a martial one.

In terms of American culture and interest, nothing dominated the conversation of the decade more than the idea of Andrew Jackson as president. The back-and-forth between the pro-Jackson and anti-Jackson forces is nothing but bewildering and dizzying even to the biographer who has the grand advantage of hindsight.[1] At some point, the American people must have experienced a kind of “Jackson fatigue” due to his frequent appearances in the newspapers. The brutality of the 1824 and, especially, the 1828 elections becomes almost comedic farce and tragedy wrapped into one, at least for the modern-day biographer. Despite the elections being contests between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, the real division of the decade was between Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. Clay was the real opponent—so much so, that John Quincy Adams, despite being the sixth president of the United States, must have felt like one of America’s least important persons, a mere prop, extra, or stagehand in his own play.

If Jackson had thought of assuming the White House prior to 1821, no records indicate this. Indeed, as a good republican and a man fiercely in love with his wife and his farm, he just wanted to retire from public life. He had done his duty, he knew, and he was ready to retire to the good life. Yet, that very same republican longing that told good men to retire rather than pursue power also laid claim to the virtuous leader. When called to serve, serve he must. Republicanism informs and frees as much as it possesses and demands.

In late 1828, Andrew Jackson handily defeated John Quincy Adams for the presidency of the United States. Jackson won fifty-six percent of the popular vote, fifteen of twenty-four states, and 178 out of 261 electoral college votes. While Adams won all New England, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, Jackson won every western and southern state. Though statistics cannot prove everything, they reveal much, and the electoral map had changed much since 1824. The “Great Migration” of peoples, 1815-1830, following the end of the War of 1812, radically re-oriented the country. With a population no longer so dependent upon the states bordering the Atlantic, the American frontier made itself felt not just in numbers and economic production but in actual exercise of political power. The very same people that Jackson had protected in the first two decades of the nineteenth century and trusted to make America were doing so. Interestingly enough, though it had not been his intent at the time, the very same families he had once supported in their livelihoods now turned to him as their republican hero. Andrew Jackson was, without question, the first president elected by the frontier.

As Jackson entered Washington for the first time as the president-elect, a number of things ran through his head and his heart… and, most certainly, his soul. First, he believed, not inaccurately, that the city was a modern Sodom, full of corruption, laziness, and manipulation.[2] We moderns tend to think of corruption on a massive scale, such as that associated with Watergate, and we tend to accept minor corruptions, such as the misuse of eminent domain for some private gain. We may not like it, but we tolerate it. In Jackson’s mind, the mind of a radical republican, corruption arrived every time a person used the machinery of government for his own benefit, regardless of the scale of the corruption itself. For Jackson, corruption might mean embezzlement of public funds or it might mean a government officer reading a novel during work hours. “Corruption in some and in others [is] a perversion of correct feelings and principles,” Jackson explained, which “divert government from its legitimate ends and make it an engine for the support of the few at the expense of the many.”[3]

Second, he believed that the most effective governance took place at the lowest possible levels of society, that is, generally, around families and private associations. The further away from the problem, the less likely governance could solve the problem. A strict constitutionalist on most things, Jackson believed the federal government should act rarely, and, then, only when urgency regarding the entire country demanded it. The Constitution, in Jackson’s mind, did not give the government the right to govern; it restrained the government so that average Americans—as individuals or in groups—could solve their own problems, make their own decisions, and find their own way in this world. Jackson began his presidency disliking taxes, debt, and tariffs, and these libertarian tendencies only increased as he served out his two terms as president. If, regarding political economy, Jackson began the presidency as a relatively moderate radical, he ended the presidency as a confirmed radical, believing in the most limited government possible, and in laissez-faire economics.

Third, as indicated by his refusal to allow military salutes to begin his presidency, Jackson distrusted the federal government but loved the Constitution. As such, he feared a standing Army. Standing armies were, to Jackson’s understanding, the playthings of kings and despots. Necessary only when the Union was in danger, an Army should be called into action, rather than simply linger over time. Article I of the U.S. Constitution states that Congress may never allocate money for the Army for a duration longer than two years. As with most things in the Constitution, Jackson took this quite literally but also symbolically. Republics defended themselves, first and foremost, by militias, temporary but virtuous volunteers ready to defend and protect hearth and home.

Fourth, as a people, Jackson never believed that America had a mission to remake the world in its own image. Indeed, Jackson feared the European influence on American manners, customs, norms, and mores. Just as we would never allow Europeans to land their troops on American soil, so we had no intention of landing American troops on European soil. The problem of emerging Latin American republics complicated matters, but Jackson generally believed that republics—as republics—must find their own way toward independence and self-governance.

Author’s Note: This essay is Part V in a series of “director’s cut” pieces from the forthcoming Regnery book, In Defense of Andrew Jackson, available September 10, 2018, but available for pre-order now. Part I may be found here. Part II may be found here. Part III may be found here. Part IV may be found here.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[1] On a personal note: after spending hours and hours and hours reading campaign literature, I finally wrote in frustration in the margins of Papers of Andrew Jackson, volume 6, “the back and forth is just *tedious.*” Many Americans complained that the 2016 election was the most brutal in history. Frankly, the actual brutality of the 1828 election is simply beyond compare in American history. It makes the Trump-Clinton fight of 2016 look like an election for a second-rate office in a Home Owners’ Association.

[2] A constant theme of both of his administrations was to identify and root out any corruption at any level of the government. See, for example, Albert Somit, “Some Sidelights Upon Jacksonian Administration,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 35 (June 1948): 91-98.

[3] Andrew Jackson, Message to Congress, December 8, 1829.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email