Downsizing Andrew Jackson
Why the warrior president is no hero for our polarized times.
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.
Louis P. Masur, a Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University, is the author of Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union, and is guest curator of “Promise of Freedom” at the Fairfield Museum and History Center.