Andrew Jackson & Donald Trump Redux
Earlier this week President Donald Trump laid a wreath on the grave of former president Andrew Jackson. The forty fifth president has advertised his admiration for the seventh one on many previous occasions. Jackson’s portrait hangs in Trump’s Oval Office.
Small wonder that Trump reveres Jackson. Nicknamed “Old Hickory” for his tough and unbending character, he is widely held to have been a political disruptor, a long haired fiery badass from the boondocks, who ended the hegemony of the overly philosophical, effete founding fathers who hailed from the staid east coast. In this view, he returned the country to “the people” who had fought and died to forge it in the fires of revolution. His passion for the common people, it has been said, created America as we know it today.
There was much more to Jackson, though. He was opinionated, temperamental, and had a volatile temper. A contemporary described him thus:
General Jackson stoops to gain the favor of the majority; but when he feels that his popularity is secure, he overthrows all obstacles in the pursuit of the objects which the community approves or of those which it does not regard with jealousy. Supported by a power that his predecessors never had, he tramples on his personal enemies, whenever they cross his path, with a facility without example; he takes upon himself the responsibility of measures that no one before him would have ventured to attempt. He even treats the national representatives with a disdain approaching to insult; he puts his veto on the laws of Congress and frequently neglects even to reply to that powerful body. He is a favorite who sometimes treats his master roughly.
–Alexis deTocqueville, Democracy in America
Former president Thomas Jefferson addressed his concerns about the possibility of a Jackson presidency to then Rep.Daniel Webster during the 1824 Adams/Jackson campaign:
I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President. He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place. He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions, and is, in fact, an able military chief. His passions are terrible. When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings. I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage. His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; he has been much tried since I knew him, but he is a dangerous man.
Jackson engaged in dueling, gambling, and sexual scandal during his public career. He was a rhetorical bully who was not above making up facts, or at least stretching the truth beyond the breaking point. He accused John Quincy Adams of using public funds to buy gambling equipment for the White House, when he had actually bought only a chessboard and a pool table, using private funds. He accused Adams of procuring American women of dubious virtue for the court of the Tsar Alexander I of Russia, in order to gain diplomatic favor while he was ambassador there.
After his first presidential bid in 1824, Jackson blamed his loss to Adams (settled in the House because none of the four candidates had won a majority) on a “corrupt bargain” with Speaker of the House Henry Clay, whom Adams then appointed as Secretary of State, the very post that Adams himself held before the election. This led to a four-year campaign of vituperation and rabble-rousing that culminated in a decisive electoral victory for Jackson over Adams in 1828. It also kindled a bitter political rivalry that would follow both men throughout their careers.
On taking office as president, Jackson fired scores of federal workers, from Washington lifers to remote territorial postmasters, and replaced them with Jackson loyalists. In those simpler times, he was actually able to deconstruct the administrative state, even before it had a name. There was a “we won, you lost, so just get over it” quality to his presidency, especially early on, that has a remarkably modern and familiar ring.
He was unabashedly, aggressively racist. A wealthy planter and slave owner, he once offered a $50 reward for the return of a runaway slave, and “and $10 extra for every 100 lashes any person will give him, to the amount of 300 dollars” prior to his return. Do the math: Jackson was offering to pay for three thousand lashes, without even a nod towards due process, to punish this man he accused stealing his own freedom.
Jackson’s exploits as an Indian fighter were legendary; he vowed to “exterminate” the Creeks, and nearly did. By one account, the Tallapoosa River literally ran red with the blood of the native born—warriors, women and children alike—who tried to flee across it from Jackson’s army.
Among the first achievements of Jackson’s presidency was the passage of the Indian Removal Act, which culminated in the forcible expulsion of all Cherokees from the southeastern US , on foot or in travois and wagons across the trackless frontier, to semi-arid territories west of the Mississippi. This act of ethnic cleansing resulted in the Trail of Tears, along which more than 4000 aboriginal men, women, and children died of starvation and exposure. “I feel conscious of having done my duty to my red children.” Jackson wrote, taking patronization literally. “If any failure of my good intention arises, it will be attributable to their want of duty to themselves, not to me.”
Trained as a frontier lawyer, Jackson had an an odd view of the separation of powers built into the constitution. He held that the legislative, executive and judicial branches should operate completely independently of one another, considering the action of another branch only to the extent that they agreed with it.
“The opinion of the judges has no more authority over Congress than the opinion of Congress has over the judges,” Jackson wrote, and that “the President is independent of both.” He concluded that “the authority of the Supreme Court must not…be permitted to control the Congress or the Executive when acting in their legislative capacities .” Jackson believed that the president need afford the courts only “such influence as the force of their reasoning may deserve.” When Chief Justice John Marshall’s Supreme Court ruled that the State of Georgia had no right to abrogate the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation, Jackson simply ignored the Court, and began the Indian Removal anyway.
Jackson was fond of the executive order and the veto. During his two terms of office he vetoed more bills than all six previous presidents combined. Some of these had lasting consequences.
Congress established the Second Bank of the United States under President James Madison to help restore a national economy devastated by the War of 1812. It was modeled after the first BUS, set up by Alexander Hamilton. Jackson considered it “the Devil’s bank”—a corrupt monopoly designed to enrich its private stockholders, many of whom were foreigners, at the expense of the common people. When Congress considered the renewal of the bank’s charter in 1932, both houses passed it handily, only to see it vetoed by President Jackson. To be sure he had killed it (and out of spite towards Henry Clay, a BUS supporter), he used executive power to withdraw all federal deposits from the bank, without which it withered away. Jackson was censured by Congress for these actions, but the rebuke had no effect. During the proceedings he compared Henry Clay to”a drunken man in a brothel”
Jackson loved a good war. At age 13, he served as a courier during the Revolutionary War until he was captured and became a prisoner of the British; all his life he bore the scars where a British officer had slashed his face and hands for refusing to clean the officer’s boots.
He earned his military chops commanding the Tennessee militia against Shawnee chief Tecumseh; Sam Houston and
David Crockett served under him in this command. In 1815, both sides unaware that the War of 1812 had ended in 1814 under the treaty of Ghent, Jackson’s 5000 man army won a decisive victory over the British force that occupied New Orleans. Later he attacked the Seminole Indians in Florida, where he forcibly deposed the Spanish governor and served for nine months as military governor of the territory. During this time, he executed two Britons for abetting the Indians, and at least six volunteers for insufficient fealty to him.
As president, with the stated goal of freeing the government from the residual corruption of previous administrations, Jackson launched presidential investigations into all executive offices and departments. The result was a purge of many officers he deemed corrupt.
Sexual scandal invaded Jackson’s White House, as well. The Petticoat Affair involved the wife of Secretary of War John H. Eaton, who was accused of prostitution in her younger years while working in her father’s tavern. Jackson, seeing his cabinet threatened, roared to her defense, declaring her “chaste as a virgin,” and fixing the blame on the rumormongers themselves—fake news! Nevertheless, he fired nearly all his cabinet and reappointed a “Parlor Cabinet” of Washington notables for show, and a “Kitchen Cabinet” of trusted supporters for advice. He also bought the new Washington newspaper, The Globe, as an outlet for his own propaganda.
Among the three great influencers of political thought in early 19th century America, Jackson was alone in championing a strong president who governed by fiat. Henry Clay, known as “The Great Compromiser”, strove for consensus building, where, after good faith debate, final policies gave everybody something, and denied everybody something as well.
John C. Calhoun favored a decentralized power where the states had the power to veto (“nullify”) specific principles of federal law with their borders. He believed in “concurrent majority” in which minorities can exercise a sort of veto power then their basic rights are infringed, a theory of governance among people similar to the principle of nullification among states. It is diametrically opposed to Jackson’s “numerical majority.” For a concurrent majority to prevail, consensus was required as a means of avoiding the “tyranny of the majority.”
It is easy to see why Donald Trump favors Andrew Jackson, though I fear it is for the wrong reasons. His fiery temper and fierce, heartless command mirror Donald’s own temperament, and Jackson’s arrogant need for iron control over his advisers, his politics, and even the facts, must ring true to Mr. Trump. He was a rich man who justified his vast powers with a claim of an almost mythic connection with “the People.”
But does he also admire his deportation of the Indians, a policy that led to something very close to genocide? His disdain for powers delegated by the constitution to branches other than the executive? His ability to rally “the people” to consolidate his personal power? His cruel treatment of his own black African slaves? His execution of volunteers for questionable loyalty? His shadow cabinet? His lies?
Mr. Trump has recently discovered, and wants to let everyone else know, that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. I’m very curious to see what develops if he continues to watch the History Channel. Will he still fawn so over Jackson when he discovers he was a Democrat? Yes, Don, the Democratic Party is older than the GOP.
Where are the leaders of towering intellect and honor to guide us through this time of troubles? Where is our Henry Clay, to show us the path to a compromise we all can live within together? Where is our John C. Calhoun, to save us from the tyranny of a demagogue-smitten majority? Where is our Daniel Webster, to do battle with the Devil on our behalf? Where on earth are we headed now?