A man reflects on the complicated life of President Andrew Jackson.
It seems fair to say that former president Andrew Jackson is a man whose popular reputation has suffered some loss in luster since his heyday in the nineteenth-century. Many would argue quite reasonably that there is good reason for souring on Jackson. Reagan conservatives resent the legacy of a strong and proactive federal government he helped establish. Purist watchdogs of government activity would draw our attention to the ‘spoils system’ as a harbinger of nepotism during the administration of Ulysses Grant, corrupt political machines in the age of Boss Tweed, and all the various ways that political patronage has undermined the integrity of the American political system.
Others would simply point out that Jackson built a thriving plantation on the backs of slaves, while Native Americans would not hesitate to insist we take note of his Indian removal policy which culminated in the Trail of Tears which saw thousands of Native Americans suffer and die as they trekked hundreds of miles to Oklahoma after refusing to honor a treaty signed on their behalf by a man named Major Ridge who represented a minority faction and had not been authorized by Cherokee Chief John Ross, leading the United States government to not ask, but demand, that they leave their homelands throughout the American southeast.
Still others simply find Jackson’s uncouth personal habits, fiery temper, provocative combativeness, and ruthless ambition to be unbecoming, even repugnant, for a man elected to the position of president of the United States.
None of these criticisms is without merit. Yet none of them conveys the full measure of a man credited as the founder of the modern Democratic Party. Nor does all of them taken together. Perhaps it must be conceded that the standards by which we judge a man who would be president are necessarily more elevated than the standards by which we would judge the ‘common man’ for whom he became known as a champion. After all, as president, his peculiar flaws and shortcomings would be writ large on American society, not simply disregarded as the sound and fury of yet another barfly dispensing with pleasantries from the perch of a bar stool. Yet that does not negate the simple fact that Andrew Jackson was still a man like any of the rest of us, a human being born and raised in a particular historical set of circumstances, witness to his own family tragedies as a boy, beholden to his own congenital inclinations of personality, and responsive to the siren call of his own inner song and that of the general will of (only) men in the historical era into which he was born.
Whenever men of prominent position are viewed from afar, whether by another face in the crowd listening to him giving a speech, or by a person reading that speech in a history book in some future era, there is an innate tendency for an observer to see a caricature rather than a man, a stage rather than a reality, whereby a man becomes an abstraction composed of some scattering of isolated facts about his life rather than a dynamic consciousness interwoven with the particular circumstances of his life and the particular ethos of the era in which he lived his life. It is a natural impulse that is less likely to arise when you get to know a person in the flesh, or at least take the time to study the complexities that made him a man of flesh and bone in his own time. As James Comey, director of the FBI once stated in a speech about race and policing, ‘it’s harder to hate up close.’
I oppose ‘presentism’ in the study of history. A Google search defines ‘presentism’ as ‘uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.’ The key word is ‘uncritical.’ The study of history does not have to preclude making judgments about people and events based on the social, political, or ethical standards that prevail in today’s world. If that were the case, one might be in the absurd position of arguing that we should not condemn slavery. The point, rather, is to remove the blinders of anachronism so as to understand the context in which things have come to be as they are.
History is rarely so pure as to be without conflict, and human nature is rarely, if ever, without shortcomings and moral failings both trivial and serious. The study of history is the study of humanity, and that means that when we embark upon our journey of learning about the past we are like Dante proceeding down into the nine circles of the Inferno, before climbing to the heights of Paradise, with an interval of penance spent in Purgatory. We should be prepared to encounter the best and worst that humanity has to offer—for the peculiar mix of good and bad in a given set of circumstances is the essential stew from which a story of human and civilizational progress, or in many cases, regress, is written.
I am not a practicing Christian, and I will even go so far as to say that I have little, if any, capacity for faith. But I do read the Bible (daily), not only to be reminded of the inconsistencies of (what I consider to be) its fictions, but also to find solace in (what I also take to be) the wisdom of its stories and parables. Among the most well-known is the comment Jesus made when asked to condemn a woman accused of adultery: ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ If ever there were a Biblical saying that captures the heart of humanism, this is it. The aim of literature, a branch of humanism, is to divulge the secrets of humanity in all its frailty and find catharsis in the solemn quest for some measure of aesthetic redemption for its failings. But redemption is hardly ever whole, because forgiveness is a lifelong trial of faith that one will ultimately find an essential goodness in mankind, a lesson that can be hard to draw from the many dreadful events scrawled into the pages of history.
Such thoughts come to mind when I think of the legacy of Andrew Jackson. It seems uncontroversial to claim that Andrew Jackson was a coarse, vain fellow. From an early age, he gained a reputation as a rambunctious and spirited man who was not averse to cursing, fighting, and even dueling (he killed a man in a duel in which he took a bullet to his chest, because the man had allegedly insulted his wife). One might be inclined to take into account Jackson’s humble, tumultuous upbringing. He lost his mother (cholera) and two brothers (one to heat stroke, one to smallpox) in the Revolutionary War (his father died before he was born, which was two years after his father emigrated from Ireland to America with his mother and two brothers). Also during the war, he obtained a lifelong scar on his head when a British officer disciplined him with a sword because the fourteen-year-old Jackson, a prisoner, refused to shine the officer’s shoes.
While the evidence is scant, according to historian Sean Wilentz, that Jackson resented his parents for dying before their time, or that any estrangement he felt from his extended family was unique for a young man from the Carolina backcountry, the evidence is plentiful that he harbored a deep hatred for the British and their empire given his teenage experiences during the war, which could go a ways toward explaining the impetuous wrath and temper of the lanky, grim Jackson, especially when coupled with “a mighty drive to gain honor and respect, according to the prickly mores of southern manhood.”(1)
The humble beginnings of Jackson were those of a boy from the frontier hinterlands who grew up with limited means (despite a modest inheritance from a distant Irish grandfather that he frittered away on wine, women, and the wild whims of gambling), in an era when personal lifestyle habits of health and diet were perhaps, to put it mildly, a bit less regulated than they are today (Mr. Jackson exacerbated rather than mollified his own combustible temper and fiery nature with some bad habits that caught up with him over time. Sean Wilentz writes; “Years of ingesting calomel and watered gin to combat his chronic dysentery had left him almost toothless. An irritation of his lungs, caused by a bullet he had caught in one of his early duels, had developed into bronchiectasis, a rare condition causing violent coughing spells that would bring up what he called ‘great quantities of slime’.” Moreover, “Rheumatism afflicted his joints, and his head often ached, the effect of a lifetime of chewing and smoking tobacco….His outbursts of irascible fury…owed partly to his suffering and to his efforts to suppress it.”) (2)
While Jackson was prone to being distempered, he was not unstructured and without the focus of ambition. In North Carolina, he was able to obtain training in law sufficient to become licensed as an attorney. Within a few years, he moved to Tennessee, where he also became a commander in the militia, a precursor to his involvement in the War of 1812 that would gain him national fame.
By the time of the War of 1812, he had been active in the Tennessee militia for a decade (he was elected major general in 1802). It was in the war of 1812 that he earned a reputation as a war hero, becoming known as the ‘Hero of New Orleans’ for his role in defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans (allowing him to exact revenge against the British, for whom he nursed a lifelong disdain). It was in the War of 1812 where he first engaged in consequential affronts against the Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, when, allied with the Lower Creek and Cherokee Indians, he defeated Upper Creek Indians, who were allied with the British, in what ultimately amounted to a massacre of the Upper Creek Indians, who were batted in by a log barricade they had set up at the entrance to a peninsula-like ‘bend’ caused by a river which wrapped around the plot of land like a horseshoe.
After Jackson established his reputation as a general in the War of 1812, he had procured not only a national reputation but also the unwavering loyalty of his troops (doing things like walking home from battle while allowing his wounded soldiers to ride on horses). Then, in the winter of 1817-18, President Monroe sent Jackson, a major general of the U.S. Army, to Georgia to confront the Seminole and Creek Indians. The conflict ended up spilling over into Florida, where Jackson drove out the Spanish and the Seminoles, while executing two British citizens along the way, and setting up temporarily as governor of the territory in defiance of orders. The upshot of the campaign was the Spanish ceded Florida to the United States, but not without a diplomatic crisis and a Congressional investigation into Jackson’s alleged acts of insubordination. Monroe eventually appointed him governor of the Florida territory in 1821, but Jackson seethed from a sense of persecution he felt was directed at him by a Congressional investigation and an act of Congress that forced him to resign as major general. In typical fashion, he quit and returned to his plantation in Tennessee.(3)
A few years later, Jackson rode his war fame into the White House, and ushered in an administration that was one of the most consequential and significant in our history. As the first president from a humble origin not associated with the aristocracies of Massachusetts or Virginia, he took on the financial monopoly when he vetoed the charter for a Second Bank of the United States, an act of extraordinary courage considering the forces of money and political influence aligned against him (not to mention the additional stress that a steadfast resolve may have put on the state of his health at the time, which had been aggravated ever since he won the presidency by a resentment of the political partisans who publicized during 1828 campaign his elopement with his wife Rachel, then married to another man she did not love, some thirty years before, which he blamed for Rachel’s death just before he took office in 1828), and justified himself with rhetoric that sounds a great deal like the rhetoric employed by Bernie Sanders in the world we currently live in.
Jackson also helped give birth to corporatist machine politics by implementing the so-called ‘spoils system,’ explaining it then as a maneuver of rotation in office that would ensure against bureaucratic corruption by allowing for elections, i.e. the popular will, to determine patronage. In addition, he set a precedent of strong executive leadership when he successfully fought off John Calhoun and his band of South Carolina insurrectionists who advocated an extreme version of state rights when arguing for a state’s right to nullify federal legislation in the face of the ‘tariff of abominations.’
In short, Jackson solidified the strength of executive power embodied in the position of president, and used it to advance the cause of the ‘common man’ against an acute bias in favor of the property-holding aristocracy held by many in the founding fathers generation and leaders of the early Republic. Some argue that he merely seized upon an underlying societal trend toward more expansive democracy rather than spearheading the movement himself, but nevertheless modern day liberalism can in large part be traced to the stirrings of Jacksonian democracy, and I would venture the opinion that modern progressives would be thrilled to have a leader so sturdy and resolved to stand at the helm of progress.
But of course, progress in Jackson’s time was progress for white males. This is part of a severe moral reckoning on such topics as slavery with which America is still coming to terms. One of the enduring and remarkable qualities of American society is its ability to ultimately have these self-examining conversations and moral reckonings, however fractious and un-smooth the journey of introspective discovery may be given the inertia and tribal conservatism of humanity in a ‘democratic’ society so long grounded in the institutionalization of white power. Even now, almost two hundred years later, we are still fighting to extend the benefits conferred to white males to everyone. Much progress has been made in the form of civil rights legislation, the ongoing battle to combat institutional racism, the fight for gender equality, and more, but there is much more still to be made.
In this light, the recent Treasury decision to put Harriet Tubman on the face of the twenty-dollar bill is one more step in this evolution. The faces of American currency have undoubtedly failed to reflect the diversity of the American experience. Until the recent Treasury decision to make Harriet Tubman the face of the twenty-dollar bill, the paper currency of the American dollar has been graced entirely by the portraits of white men in American history. On one level, it is difficult to object to the portraits of such storied American leaders as George Washington (one-dollar bill), Thomas Jefferson (two-dollar bill), Abraham Lincoln (five-dollar bill), Alexander Hamilton (ten-dollar bill), Andrew Jackson (twenty-dollar bill), Ulysses Grant (fifty-dollar bill), and Benjamin Franklin (one-hundred-dollar bill). But on another level, it seems a reasonable policy to change it up from time to time and put the portraits of a more diverse set of storied figures in American history.
That seems to have been part of the impetus behind the recent decision by the Treasury Department to place Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill. Personally, I celebrate the decision. Ms. Tubman is an important and admirable figure in American history. The only concern I have is that there are many who see this not simply as a decision to broaden the representation of our heritage to reflect the full scope of the American experience, but as some kind of retribution or reparation.
In some sense, I can understand the perspective. It is certainly true that Andrew Jackson was a slaveholder at his Hermitage plantation in Tennessee. It is certainly true that he threatened to punish slaves who escaped. And although his policy on Indian removal was too nuanced and complicated to be reduced to a hatred of Native Americans, he was responsible for a policy that set in motion the tragic Trail of Tears. The study of history must never erase or gloss over the full range of experience over which a president presided. Judgments can be made, criticisms can be developed, and conclusions can be drawn. But what one hopes is that Jackson is not remembered solely as a slaveholder, or solely as the president who advocated a policy that eventually led to the Trail of Tears, not because we should overlook those aspects of his life or presidency, or because those aspects should receive less weight in the analysis than other aspects of his life and presidency, but because Jackson was a creature of his time, a complicated and mixed bag of motives, experiences, aspirations, opinions, and moral failings, in a time in American history when it was the norm, at least in Southern society, to own other human beings as property, or to regard Native Americans as nuisances to be treated callously rather than native inhabitants of the land.
It is wrong to deem this acceptable simply because of the times in which he lived, but it is also anachronistic and shortsighted to judge the historical significance of a man solely by a subset of his actions and strictly by the cultural norms that prevail today. It is like dismissing all the philosophical contributions of Aristotle because Aristotle considered slavery to be a natural state of affairs and justified the practice of slavery on the grounds that some people were born to rule and some people were born to be ruled.
Be that as it may, Jackson is probably most remembered in today’s world for Indian removal. Indian removal was a divisive issue in Jackson’s time that pitted the imperatives of land settlement and a gold rush in Georgia against the moral imperatives of Indian well-being as often articulated by evangelicals allied with the Indian cause. The issue reached a climax in Georgia when the Georgian legislature decided to no longer honor federal treaties with the Cherokees in light of the Indian Removal Act. Two cases before the Supreme Court (Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia, and Worcester v. Georgia) reached opposite conclusions about whether the state of Georgia had standing to nullify federal treaties with the Cherokee nation. Jackson in practice sided with the state of Georgia, which one might argue stands in hypocritical contradiction with his exertion of federal power in the case of the nullification crisis in South Carolina. But it was precisely because he was embroiled in the nullification crisis that he did not want to fight a war about constitutional prerogatives with the states on a second front.
Constitutional issues aside, Jackson believed that removal was the most beneficent policy, a policy with some merit except, as Wilentz notes, for the “crucial one of having the Indians’ assent.”(4) It is perhaps because removal was forced removal under appalling conditions that Jackson’s Indian policy stands as the central drama of Jacksonian democracy by some modern accounts.(5) But as Wilentz explains:
“Like all historical caricatures, this one turns tragedy into melodrama, exaggerates parts at the expense of the whole, and sacrifices nuance for sharpness. Jackson truly believed that, compared to his predecessors’ combination of high-minded rhetoric, treachery, and abandonment, his Indian policy was ‘just and humane,’ and would leave the Indians ‘free from the mercenary influence of White men, and undisturbed by the local authority of the states.’ Compared to some of his main political adversaries—notably Henry Clay, whose racist contempt for Indians had once prompted him to remark that their annihilation would cause ‘no great loss to the world’—Jackson was a benevolent, if realistic paternalist who believed that the Indians would be far better protected under federal jurisdiction than under state law. (Having adopted an orphaned Indian boy in 1813, he was literally a paternalist.) Complaints from northern humanitarians sounded, to him, hollow and morally convenient, considering the devastation and dispossession wreaked by their ancestors on the Pequots, the Narragansetts, the Delaware, and the rest of a long list of all but extinct northeastern tribes….Jackson, reflecting on the history of white abuse of Indians, said he wanted to ‘preserve this much-injured race.’” (6)
Though the Jacksonian movement was primarily a class-based movement, it was an early culmination of a general trend in American society of expanding democracy and as such was a forerunner of the anti-slavery cause of the 1850s, though the antislavery cause had to be taken up by factions that splintered from the original Jacksonian coalition, which had frayed by the 1850s. Moreover, Jackson’s presidency ushered in a transformation in American politics to which modern progressives can trace a legacy. The suffrage movements found their first tremors of a voice in Jacksonian democracy, and a great deal of subsequent progressive advances in the march of majoritarian democratic progress can be traced to the Jacksonian movement. The ten-hour workday and other labor reform initiatives were additional legacies of Jacksonian democracy.
Jackson’s presidency also exemplified the belief of progressives that strong executive leadership and government intervention are necessary for correcting extreme social inequalities and other shortcomings that arose in the wake of industrialization. This turned him into a hero of the ‘common man.’ In taking on Nicholas Biddle and the Second Bank, Jackson incurred the wrath and invective of the monied class and remained undeterred. He had not an audacity of hope but an audacity of conviction that he was right in defending the common man against the social exclusiveness and exploitation of a class of propertied men whose privilege was in large part based in charters and monopolies granted by legislative authority. Jackson’s belief in strong executive and federal authority also put him at the center of the nullification crisis against John Calhoun of South Carolina, in a rivalry that illustrated differing interpretations of constitutional power in which Jackson came out on the side of solidifying the seat of federal power that supported the union.
Judging exclusively and uncritically by contemporary norms is a case of ‘presentism.’ That’s not to say that hindsight is wrong. The benefit of progress is that we can more clearly see the wrongs of a previous era that a previous era simply could not see for themselves. It is the task of historiography to understand how and why things happened when they did. It is the task of history itself to move forward into the future. That takes time. It also takes the courage of people like Harriet Tubman to foresee a more just future and take the actions and risks necessary to see it implemented. Jackson was only one man and many others had to take up the fight where he could not. Like, for example, Harriet Tubman. Andrew Jackson had his time on the front of the twenty-dollar bill. Now he recedes to the back of the bill to make room for Tubman on the front of the bill. It’s about time, not because Jackson never belonged there, but because other people do too. Like Harriet Tubman.
Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 2005, p. 169.
Ibid, p. 301.
Ibid, pp. 243-244.
Ibid, pp. 428-29.
Ibid, p. 324.
Ibid, pp. 324-325.
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