Andrew Jackson was a great defender of American democracy. He was a president elected by the “common man.” He believed that the people gave him his mandate to rule. “The people,” of course, were white men. They deserved his loyalty and compassion. They deserved Jackson’s protection. Jackson promised to protect their access to the American dream.
One of Jackson’s most important democratic “reforms” was the The Indian Removal Act (1830). This act gave the federal government authority to move southeastern native America groups (Choctow, Cherokee, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, among others) to a designated Indian territory in present-day Oklahoma. Tens of thousands of native Americans were sent to Indian territory on the “Trail of Tears.”
As a champion of democracy, it was essential that Jackson got the Indians out of the way so he could open-up native American lands for the “common men” who voted for him. Let’s remember what Jackson’s idea of democracy was all about. Here is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel Walker Howe:
Seeking the fundamental impulse behind Jacksonian Democracy, historians have variously pointed to free enterprise, manhood suffrage, the labor movement, and resistance to the market economy. But in its origins, Jacksonian Democracy (which contemporaries understood as a synonym for Jackson’s Democratic Party) was not primarily about any of these, though it came to intersect with all of them in due course. In the the first place, it was about the extension of white supremacy across the North American continent.
I thought about Jackson as I listened to Trump’s first State of the Union Address last night. I am not sure if Jackson ever used the phrase “American first,” but as a populist he certainly embraced the idea. Indian removal was his attempt to put American citizens “first.” White men needed this land and Jackson was going to make sure he prioritized their needs.
Last night Trump said:
So tonight, I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed. My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too.
As I argue briefly in Chapter Five of my forthcoming Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, the idea of “America first” has always been tied to racial division.