Downsizing Andrew Jackson

Why the warrior president is no hero for our polarized times.

Andrew Jackson, the warrior president who simultaneously denounced big government and expanded executive power, has been riding high recently, a bipartisan hero in polarized times. Historian Sean Wilentz and others, following lines first laid down in Arthur Schlesinger’s classic The Age of Jackson (1945), have heralded Jackson for his assault on privilege and aristocracy. In this telling, Jackson served as a powerful executive who used the authority of his office to save the Union, defeat the moneyed interests, and, less happily, remove the Cherokees from their ancestral lands.

In a very different spirit, Karl Rove has compared George Bush to Andrew Jackson: a man of the people who believed in providence and opposed big government. In American Lion, his new biography of the seventh president, Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, dutifully wrings his hands at all the right places—at Jackson the slaveholder, Jackson the killer, Jackson the hothead—but adds his voice to the admiring chorus. Jackson was “a great general and a transformative president,” he concludes, a leader “genuinely committed to the ideal of democracy,” who was “strong and shrewd, patriotic and manipulative, clear-eyed and determined.” He was the president who, of all the early presidents, “is in many ways the most like us.”

There certainly are parallels to be drawn between the incumbent and Jackson, an imperious man who stretched the power of the presidency, flouted international law, ignored the Supreme Court, filled government positions with partisan supporters, relied on an elaborate campaign apparatus, and espoused small government while proceeding to expand its size. But that is only to say that Jackson was modern less by virtue of his principles than in his willingness to bend them when it suited his purposes. If he is a model for our times, it is not a very heroic one. Nor was Jackson in fact the decisively formative force in his own era that the hagiography suggests. As David Reynolds, who teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, demonstrates in his astute and concise history of the period, Waking Giant, the times defined Jackson as much as he defined the times.

If anything, Jackson belonged to the past, not the future. Barely in his teens, he fought in the Revolutionary War, and he held dearly to dreams of land and community at a moment when capitalism and individualism felt liberating. He was the first president born (in 1767) in a log cabin, the first not from Massachusetts or Virginia, the first not to attend college. He was an orphan. He made something of himself, and the American people loved that, but he was also a Mason at a time when an anti-Masonic movement suspicious of the secretive society gathered support across the nation. He also lived in the Southern world of honor, rooted in loyalty to kin relations and vigilance in defending the virtue of women: It was a world crumbling around him. Jackson, the president whom people proclaimed as one of their own, was very much up to date in one regard: He liked his comforts and introduced a novelty to the White House enjoyed only by aristocrats and guests at swank hotels—running water.

Jackson’s election in 1828 did not single-handedly usher in a democratic revolution; as Reynolds points out, he benefitted from an expansion in voting rights for white males that occurred during Monroe’s presidency. Suffrage expansion came for different reasons in different places: competition between Federalists and Republicans before the Democrats existed, economic interests, even the need for bodies to serve in local militias. Many new voters in 1828 flocked to Jackson, mobilized by a new political style and culture. But it wasn’t because of him that they were able to vote.

Nor was his party the catalyst of a national transformation; what is arguably more notable is how little the Democratic Party figured in the seismic shifts under way. It is telling that for all but two terms between 1828 and 1860, the Democrats controlled the presidency, but the Whigs shaped the overall direction of society. Sen. Henry Clay’s American system of banking and investment, protective tariffs, and internal improvements refashioned the nation. To be sure, the Democrats also had an impact, advancing the dogma of Manifest Destiny and encouraging Westward expansion. But it was the Whigs who rewrote American law and in the process transformed the nation’s infrastructure, making expansion possible. Jackson’s name has attached to the age, but there are many other candidates, including Clay, after whom the era might just as aptly be labeled if labels are required.

As Reynolds shows, this was the period of the Second Great Awakening, when evangelical enthusiasm burned across the nation and Americans experienced religious conversions in record numbers: It was the age of the Rev. Charles Grandison Finney, whose flock consisted of Protestant Whigs, not Catholic Democrats. This was also a time of expanding market relations, nascent industrialization, and triumphant capitalism: It was the age of John Jacob Astor, who made one fortune in fur and another in real estate and who supported the arts, something Jackson had little interest in. This was an era of social reform when moralists urged the abolition of social evils such as alcohol and began an aggressive assault on the institution of slavery: It was the age of William Lloyd Garrison, whose incendiary writings, along with those of other abolitionists, Jackson argued should be barred from circulation in the South. Emerson called it the “age of the first-person singular.” Clearly, Jackson fit the mode of self-reliant American individualist, but so, too, did many others.

A recent poll on the presidency ranks Andrew Jackson 10th, primarily, I suspect, on the strength of his defense of the Union against extreme states rights. Jackson’s Nullification Proclamation, however, played a small part in resolving the crisis of 1832 (reduced tariff rates mattered more) and did nothing to strengthen the Union in the long run, though it did provide a useful precedent for Lincoln. What Jackson did as a military hero in the War of 1812, winning the Battle of New Orleans, certainly helped propel the United States into a new era of confidence and nation-building, and his military record might also account for the high esteem with which he is held. Fighting was what Jackson knew (he carried a bullet near his heart from a duel in 1806), and it was a style that also contributed to turning his presidency into a battleground against imagined monsters, as even admirers like Meacham acknowledge. Jackson’s presidential combat—pressing for passage of the Indian Removal Act (1830), having his Cabinet resign over an affair of honor (1831), and destroying the Bank of the United States (1832)—hardly makes him worthy of our admiration. Assessing Jackson’s character in 1860, James Parton, one of his first biographers, said he was “a democratic autocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint.”

Jackson’s career should caution us about the fallacy of drawing simplistic lessons from the past. Meacham sees in Jackson “a turning point in the making of the modern presidency.” It is an empty exercise, however, to argue that because he seemed to have expanded the power of the executive, he therefore set a precedent for the attempts of other presidents to arrogate power. Both Meacham and Reynolds point out how often Jackson used the veto. But subsequent presidents who also availed themselves of vetoes did not need to rely on Jackson as a model for doing so. It is equally misleading to get too swept up in rhetoric that suggests an individual, even the president, makes the times. Jackson was obviously very much embroiled in the age in which he lived. But there were many other players, and the show closed long ago.