Andrew Jackson’s reputation is drifting down, down, down, like a sere autumn leaf. Whereas in 1948, the first year of Arthur Schlesinger Sr.’s poll of historians, Old Hickory ranked sixth among the presidents, in recent surveys by a variety of sponsors he has dropped into the midteens. It seems only a matter of time before Jackson is banished to the reputational basement with Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, presidents who never dragged their country into war, which is the yellow brick road to greatness.
Brad Birzer, a professor at Hillsdale College and the author of very fine biographies of Russell Kirk and Charles Carroll of Carrollton, has taken up the cause of Old Hickory, the man and the president, with In Defense of Andrew Jackson, a slim but well-argued and very welcome book from Regnery.
“For much of the nineteenth century,” writes Dr. Birzer, “Jackson stood as the great symbol of American democratic achievement—a man who came from the common people and represented them in the White House.” Inheritor of a defiant, ferine spirit, he fought Indians and aristocrats, Southern nullifiers and nationalist Whigs. He left office with blood on his hands, a clear conscience, and the love of his countrymen.
Jackson is, or was until Donald Trump took the oath of office, the most un-PC president, a dueling Celt whose democratic attitudes count for little in an age that celebrates the compleat anti-democrat Alexander Hamilton as its paragon of a Founding Father. Jackson endorsed broadening suffrage to include hardscrabble whites, a demographic that many of the upper-middle-class white women who pay $500 per ducat to see hip-hop Hamilton would like to disfranchise.
The Obama administration sought to remove his visage from the obverse of the $20 bill, a development unlikely to have troubled the hard-money Jackson, who scorned paper money as shinplaster. The Trump administration has stayed Jackson’s currency execution, and the president hung Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office. Jackson’s party, however, has stuffed him down the memory hole; the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners that once were a festive fundraising tool for the Democracy have been discontinued in our enlightened age, due to the recent discovery that both men owned slaves.
To which Brad Birzer responds, “If Jackson has become unfashionable, it is not because we have outgrown his virtues, but because we have need of them.”
These virtues, asserts Dr. Birzer, obviously omit slaveholding but include honesty, bravery, and respect for women. Jackson “admired sexual purity,” he says, and “revered women as morally superior to men.” Unlike Mr. Trump, the seventh president would not even grab a lady’s hand, let alone more intimate parts. Like the current occupant of the White House, Jackson could be impulsive and autocratic and did not suffer from a surfeit of intellectual curiosity.
But he “knew the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and his own experiences on the frontier and in war,” writes Dr. Birzer. “That was more than enough to make him an American, a republican, and a great president.”
He was also an expansionist, a forceful proponent of a strong presidency, and the architect of the cruel and unforgivable deracination of tens of thousands of American Indians whose roots in this country far predated those of Andrew Jackson. Which is to say he was a very mixed and very American bag.
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Dr. Birzer credits Jackson’s mother, the formidably Presbyterian and prematurely widowed Elizabeth, with inculcating lessons in childhood that stood him in good stead throughout his life. Jackson recalled such pointed maternal aphorisms as:
—“In personal conduct be always polite but never obsequious.”
—“Never wound the feelings of others. Never brook wanton outrage upon your own feelings. If you ever have to vindicate your feelings or defend your honor, do it calmly. If angry at first, wait till your wrath cools before you proceed.”
—“Avoid quarrels as long as you can without yielding to imposition. But sustain your manhood always.” (Jackson’s “as long as you can” was rather briefer than that of most men.)
Young Andrew was captured as a fourteen-year-old scout during a Revolutionary War skirmish against the British. He refused to shine an officer’s boots and for his impudence was struck and cut with a sword. His brother was also wounded, though more seriously, and died after being released. Mother Elizabeth, serving the Patriot cause as a nurse, died too. So Jackson imbibed his Anglophobia the honest way. He hated the British with a consuming passion, and only the soulless will wonder why.
The orphan boy had sharp, angular features, and a personality to match; one woman who knew him said that “when he talked to you he always looked straight into your own eyes.” He studied law, wed the vivacious Rachel under murky matrimonial circumstances, and amassed a considerable estate by swapping legal services for land. Jackson rose rapidly in Tennessee politics, passing in and out of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and serving as a judge of the Tennessee Superior Court. He had a quick temper—in baseball terms, he had a severe case of rabbit ears—and lived by the code duello.
Many of his contretemps concerned Rachel, whose divorce was not final (though she had assumed it was) when she became Mrs. Jackson. The couple had married in sin, it was whispered—or shouted from the rooftops—and Rachel was called a whore and worse. Jackson shot and killed Charles Dickinson, who had profaned Rachel’s name, and only the presence of cooler heads kept him from slaying Tennessee governor John Sevier, who unwisely remarked to Jackson, “I know of no great service you have rendered the country, except taking a trip to Natchez with another man’s wife.”
A man could have, writes Dr. Birzer, “no worse enemy, no better friend.”
Jackson’s military exploits catapulted him onto the national political stage. His vastly outnumbered forces won a smashing victory at the Battle of New Orleans, that capstone of the War of 1812, but the laurel-draped Major General Jackson did not retire to the plow. Despite his assurances to Rachel that he longed for her heavenly arms and the bucolic abode of his Nashville-area plantation, the Hermitage, he stayed in the service of the U.S. Army, waging war against the Seminoles and Spaniards in Spanish Florida, where he “burned towns, took hostages, and seized strategic points,” earning the prison-tattoo-quality sobriquet “Sharp Knife.”
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1823, Andrew Jackson lost the presidency the next year to John Quincy Adams in a race decided by the House of Representatives. Jackson had won the popular and electoral votes by significant pluralities in a four-way contest, but he was jobbed out of the presidency, he believed, by a “corrupt bargain” between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, in which Clay threw Kentucky’s support in the House to Adams in exchange for his appointment as secretary of state. Although Old Hickory preferred his revenge served hot, preferably in the molten shape of a bullet, he would take it cold and peacefully if necessary; Clay must have known it was only a matter of time till the day of reckoning.
Four years later Jackson routed the phlegmatic Adams, winning every state of the South and the West. He took office with a heavy heart, as his Rachel died in the interregnum between Election Day and Inauguration Day. When the latter came, the capital city was invaded by The People in all their rude glory, muddy and raucous and drunk. It was “King Mob,” the ochlocracy come to town, a nightmare for old Federalists and proto-Whigs, and it betokened eight years of coarse and knotty democratizing, for better and for worse.
The protean nature of the Jacksonian persuasion once mesmerized political historians. Vernon Parrington, the Oklahoma Sooners football coach and author of the whilom influential Main Currents in American Thought (1927), called its avatar an “agrarian liberal” and “our first great populist leader, our first man of the people,” paladin of an anti-monopolist coalition of “western equalitarians and eastern proletarians.”
Arthur Ekirch, the historian of liberty whose The Decline of American Liberalism (1955) richly merits rediscovery, called Jacksonian Democracy “a program for the lower middle class, or the plain people, whether they resided in urban or in agricultural areas.” This was laissez-faire for the common man, for the mechanic and farmer and laborer, not the speculator or financier. As Ekirch writes: “Throughout the 1830s, the belief prevailed that the average pioneer’s interests would be better served by reduced Federal spending, lower taxes, and a more liberal land policy.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., bending, folding, spindling, mutilating, and otherwise making history “usable” in The Age of Jackson (1945), treated Jackson’s administration as a precursor of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, despite the inconvenient fact that, as Dr. Birzer writes, “Jackson was an economic libertarian who would have found the New Deal unsound and dangerous to constitutional liberty.”
Dr. Birzer cites Jackson’s abhorrence of debt, his preference for lower tariffs, his vetoes of internal improvements, and his war against the “hydra of corruption,” the Second Bank of the United States, that redoubt of the moneyed and privileged class of the Northeast.
Equal rights for all; special privileges for none, as Jacksonian Democrats sloganeered throughout the nineteenth century.
But to call Jackson an “economic libertarian” is stretching it a bit. The phrase may with justice be applied to the Loco Focos, the Northern radical libertarians whose leading light was another duelist, the journalist William Leggett, as well as to those more Jeffersonian-than-Jefferson “Old Republicans” of the South, carriers of the Spirit of ’76 such as John Randolph, Nathaniel Macon, and John Taylor of Caroline. Jackson was not among their number, “being too western, and, thus, too pro-expansion,” notes Dr. Birzer.
Unlike Donald Trump, whose enthusiasm for public works is redolent of a 1980s New Jersey or Pennsylvania politico, Andrew Jackson had constitutionalist scruples regarding federal subsidy of internal improvements, as evidenced by his 1830 veto of federal aid for the Maysville Road, which traversed rival Henry Clay’s state of Kentucky. Jackson was no votary of Clay’s “American System” of tariffs, a national bank, and generous national subvention of roads and waterways, though surely he also relished vetoing a project close to Clay’s heart. Take that, you corrupt bargainer!
The veto gave Jackson an exaggerated reputation as a foe of internal improvements, for he was not opposed to such appropriations as he believed would pass constitutional scrutiny. So while he nixed aid for the Maysville Road, which benefitted Clay’s Kentucky, he did not object to the Cumberland Road, which connected several states and was thus of national character. In fact, federal expenditures on internal improvements averaged more than $1.3 million annually throughout Jackson’s eight years in office, almost double the average of $702,000 during the single term of that rhetorical champion of national greatness President John Quincy Adams.
Jackson’s reverence for the Constitution, whose ultimately fatal flaws were seen with gimlet eye and diagnosed with furious pen by such unheeded prophets as the Anti-Federalists Luther Martin, Melancton Smith, George Mason, and Thomas Tredwell, actuated him during the episode for which he is today most often praised: the South Carolina nullification crisis.
The Palmetto State, in protest over what the free-trade South was calling the 1828 Tariff of Abominations, hinted at disunion. Though Jackson sought a compromise between agricultural and manufacturing interests, his vice president, South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, proposed a doctrine of “interposition” whereby a state could nullify what it regarded as an unconstitutional law.
The only civil war resulting from this clash was one that sundered the Jackson-Calhoun ticket. At a Jefferson Day celebration in April 1830, the president offered a pithy toast: “Our Federal Union: It Must Be Preserved.” To which Vice President Calhoun—who had traveled some distance from his nationalist youth, when he hawked for the War of 1812 and in a flight of fancy over his desired policy of internal improvements let loose with the grandiose cry, “Let us conquer space”—replied, “The Union—next to our liberty the most dear.” An effective retort, though he spoiled it with an addendum about respecting the rights of the states. No one likes a prolix toaster.
The parties to the dispute found a resolution that fell well short of dissolution. Calhoun resigned as vice president; Jackson issued a proclamation declaring that nullification is “incompatible with the existence of the Union”; the president signed the Force Bill, threatening South Carolina with coercion unless the state accepted the tariffs; Congress reduced the tariffs; and South Carolina backed down, at least for another three decades.
“Andrew Jackson supported the Union but never nationalism,” writes Dr. Birzer, who claims him for the decentralists, even for partisans of subsidiarity, because, says Dr. Birzer, the “Union’s primary purpose was to protect these millions of associations—families, schools, businesses, clubs, churches, or states.” That would have been news to Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, and the other arch-centralists of the Constitutional Convention. But even if ’twere so, judging by the engorgement of the central state and the enervation of the associational sector over the next two centuries, Jackson would seem to have bet on the wrong horse.
Jackson opposed a standing army in time of peace and insisted that “a well-organized militia is the bulwark of our Nation.” But he was an expansionist, like Jefferson a believer in an “empire of liberty,” never seeing that empire carried the seeds of liberty’s destruction. Manifest Destiny and westward expansion would swell the nation to a point beyond which republican government was impossible. (Jefferson considered Jackson “unfit” and “dangerous.”)
And the dilation of the nation brings us to the issue over which Andrew Jackson is today most reviled: his Indian policy.
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Eschewing presentism, assessing his subject as a man of his time, Dr. Birzer argues that Jackson’s view of the American Indian was “nuanced.” In 1814 he adopted a Creek Indian boy, Lincoyer, whose parents Jackson’s soldiers had slaughtered. Jackson treated him with great fondness, viewing him as an orphan like himself. (Lincoyer died at age sixteen of tuberculosis.)
But while Jackson could show mercy and even love to individual trees, he tried to clear-cut the forest. He regarded the American natives as a savage people standing in the way of settlement. They were obstacles to the Manifest Destiny that would catalyze the eventual transmogrification of the American Republic into an empire.
“Jackson was in no way a racist,” writes Dr. Birzer. “He believed Indians were people created by God, and inherently equal to whites, even if he also believed Indian civilization lagged behind . . . he firmly believed that Indian removal served the interests of both the Indians and the white settlers who would otherwise come into conflict—one that the Indians would surely lose—with each other.” Yet as Dr. Birzer concedes, “Jackson’s Indian removal policy, as implemented . . . was a humanitarian disaster.”
Jackson promised a “just and liberal policy” toward American Indians in his first inaugural address, after which he signed into law the unjust and illiberal Indian Removal Act of May 1830. (The practice of euphemistically labeling legislation had yet to catch on; had Newt Gingrich been Speaker of the House in 1830, the measure might have been tagged the Native American Travel and Opportunity Act.)
The Indian Removal Act, passed by narrow margins in Congress at Jackson’s fervent urging, sought to transplant the tribes of the Southeast from their ancestral homes to a place well west of the Mississippi River, mostly in what is now Oklahoma. The tribes were to exchange their lands for public tracts, which they would own, it was promised, in perpetuity. Their mass hegira would be underwritten, in part, by the federal government. Jackson claimed that only removal and segregation could “save the remaining tribes from extinction.”
Southern Democrats lined up en masse for removal; National Republicans and Anti-Masons were mostly against. The fierce opposition to the Indian Removal Act was led by New Jersey senator Theodore Frelinghuysen, later president of the American Bible Society, who thundered: “We have crowded the tribes upon a few miserable acres of our Southern frontier: it is all that is left to them of their once boundless forests; and still, like the horse-leech, our insatiable cupidity cries, give! give! give!”
The act targeted Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole. Jackson had insisted upon voluntary emigration, saying it would be “cruel” and “unjust” to “compel the aborigines to abandon the graves of their fathers and seek a home in a distant land.” Yet it was coercedly voluntary, for in practice the tribes were harried and harassed and subject to predation, threats, and bribery. Some acquiesced and started down the Trail of Tears; others defied the Great White Father and stayed put, though their legal possession of land was severely circumscribed and they would be subject to local laws, not Indian law.
The resultant black mark upon Jackson’s presidency is indelible. The cost of Indian removal was more than 50,000 uprooted, thousands (the exact number is contested) dead, and $68 million in exchange for 100 million acres of land. Curiously, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in The Age of Jackson, never mentions the Indian Removal Act. Hagiographers gonna hag.
This government-enforced expulsion was among the worst crimes committed by the American national state. Displacement is an act unthinkable, inconceivable to a man in whose breast burns love of home, a homely local patriotism. But it has been not infrequently employed by the U.S. government, as for instance with military conscription. (Which of course is temporary, at least for those who return.)
Contemporaneous with the forced evacuation of the Indian tribes of the Southeast was the rise of the colonization movement, which advocated the resettlement of African American freemen and slaves alike in Africa, despite the fact that many of these people had sunk deep roots in the United States. The American Colonization Society (ACS), as its historian Eric Burin wrote, “hoped to rid the United States of both slavery and black people”—voluntarily, though Indian Removal was also voluntary, in theory. The ACS, whose most prominent supporters numbered Jackson enemy Henry Clay, was largely a Whig project; Senator Frelinghuysen, enemy of Indian removal, was all for Negro removal.
So no one’s hands are clean, or record spotless. Would that the statue-toppling zealots of our day understood that even feet of clay, or Clay, belong on a plinth.
And fairness requires acknowledgement of eminent Jackson biographer Robert Remini’s conclusion in his study of the Indian wars and removal: “To his dying day on June 8, 1845, Andrew Jackson genuinely believed that what he had accomplished rescued these people from inevitable annihilation. And although that statement sounds monstrous, and although no one in the modern world wishes to accept or believe it, that is exactly what he did. He saved the Five Civilized Nations from extinction.”
Whatever his sins, Andrew Jackson was a man. He did not cringe before power or curry favor with oligarchs. He admired independence. He’d have appreciated Brad Birzer and his book, and so do I.
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Winter 2019).
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail of a portrait of Andrew Jackson (1824) by Thomas Sully (1783-1872), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.