I am not an Andrew Jackson scholar, but I have taught him for more than two decades. In the U.S. survey I usually frame my treatment of Jackson in terms of the tensions between what historian Harry Watson calls “Liberty and Power.” I discuss with my students how different groups in America understood the nullification crisis, Indian removal, and the debate over the National Bank. Some viewed Jackson as a defender of “liberty,” while others interpreted these events in terms of Jackson’s tyranny and unbridled use of presidential “power.”
In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I wrote about Trump’s relationship with Jackson. Here is a taste:
Donald Trump did not find Andrew Jackson; Andrew Jackson found him. When historians and pundits began to compare Trump the populist with Jackson the populist, the candidate took notice. Moreover, Jackson is a favorite of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former political adviser and campaign manager. [And Dan Feller has recently taught us that much of Bannon’s understanding of Jackson is filtered through conservative commentator Walter Russell Mead]. By the time Trump entered the White House in late January 2017, an 1835 Ralph E.W. Earle portrait of Andrew Jackson was hanging in the Oval Office. In March 2017, Trump visited Jackson’s home in Nashville and laid a wreath on his tomb to commemorate the seventh president’s 250th birthday. There was also, of course, Trump’s misinformed claim about Jackson and the Civil War:
“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, “There is no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”
Historians were quick to jump on the president’s comments by pointing out that the overwhelming consensus is that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Andrew Jackson owned a hundred slaves and had always been a strong advocate for the spread of the institution into the West of this country. Jackson died in 1845; the Civil War began in 1861. And if Jackson had been around to do something about the tensions between North and South, he would have probably sympathized with the Confederacy,
Andrew Jackson was the president of the United States during what historians call the “Age of Democracy.” Universal manhood suffrage (the right for white men to vote regardless of how much property they owned), the rise of something akin to the modern political parties, and the influx of millions of new immigrants, changed American politics forever. Democracy in that era empowered white men. While nothing close to social equality emerged then, political participation did reach an all-time high. Jackson’s life story, which was characterized by a rise from poverty and hardship, made him the ideal man to lead the country in this new democratic age. His popularity among ordinary voters was unprecedented. By the time he entered office in 1829, Jackson had risen above the hardships of his past, had a national reputation as an Indian fighter and slaveowner, and was well known as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, the last battle of the War of 1812. Jackson was a man of passion who often let his temper get the best of him. His lack of self-control prompted the elderly Thomas Jefferson to wonder whether Jackson’s emotional volatility might disqualify him from the presidency.
Jackson won 56 percent of the vote in the 1828 presidential election and, as a result, believed that he had a mandate to serve the people who cast ballots on his behalf. Jackson viewed himself as a savior of the ordinary farmers and workers who voted form him by the millions, and his commitment to these men shaped his policy decisions, especially when he dealt with the elites who controlled American financial institutions such as the National Bank. Jackson was a strong nationalist: during the nullification crisis, he turned against South Carolina, a state filled with fellow slaveholders, because he did not believe that a state had the right to reject any law (in the case of South Carolina it was a tariff law) over the sovereign will of the American people as represented in the Union. When the passion-filled Jackson asked Congress to pass a “force bill” enabling him to use the army to crush dissent in the Palmetto state, talk of civil war was in the air. In the end cooler heads prevailed and Congress reached a compromise to avoid secession and military conflict. Jackson’s show of force further solidified his support among the nation’s working people.
During his speech at Jackson’s tomb, Donald Trump described the former president as a “product of his times.” This was especially true when it came to race, slavery, and Jackson’s policy toward Native Americans. Much of Jackson’s Southern constituency relied on the president to defend slavery and white supremacy, and the president was more than happy to oblige. As we saw in chapter 3, many of these slaveholders lived in fear of insurrections. Poor whites who did not own slaves worried about what might happen to them if slaves were set free and forced to integrate into white society. For example, in 1835, during his second term as president, Jackson, in a blatant attempt to limit free speech, tries to stop the United States Post Office from delivering abolitionist literature into the South. “Democracy” was white.
When it came to Native Americans, Jackson believed that they were racially inferior and an impediment to the advancement of white settlement across the continent. He eventually developed what he described as a “just, humane, liberal policy toward the Indian” that would remove them from their lands to unoccupied territory west of the Mississippi. He believed that he was a great father to the Indians. He explained his decision to oust them from their ancestral lands by claiming that he was protecting them from a possible race war with white drunk on Manifest Destiny. Drunk or not, the white men who voted for him in 1828 and 1832 simply wanted Indians out of the way. Jackson, as a steward of the people who supported him in a democratic election, needed to act in response to their will. During the 1830s, Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole Indians from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, escorted by the United States Army, embarked on what has been described as the “Trail of Tears.” Thousands of natives made the 800-mile trek to Jackson’s new “Indian Territory,” located in what is Oklahoma today.
It is fair to call Andrew Jackson a populist president. By the time he took office, he was a wealthy man, but he always presented himself as one of the people, a defender of the “humble members of society–the farmers, mechanics, and laborers.” Yes, as we have seen, Jackson’s nationalism, populism, and commitment to democracy was deeply charged with racial hatred and the defense of white supremacy. Is this the era of American history that Donald Trump has in mind when he says he wants to make America great again?