Downsizing Andrew Jackson
Why the warrior president is no hero for our polarized times.
Andrew Jackson, the warrior president who simultaneously denounced big government and expanded executive power, has been riding high recently, a bipartisan hero in polarized times. Historian Sean Wilentz and others, following lines first laid down in Arthur Schlesinger's classic The Age of Jackson (1945), have heralded Jackson for his assault on privilege and aristocracy. In this telling, Jackson served as a powerful executive who used the authority of his office to save the Union, defeat the moneyed interests, and, less happily, remove the Cherokees from their ancestral lands.
In a very different spirit, Karl Rove has compared George Bush to Andrew Jackson: a man of the people who believed in providence and opposed big government. In American Lion, his new biography of the seventh president, Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, dutifully wrings his hands at all the right places—at Jackson the slaveholder, Jackson the killer, Jackson the hothead—but adds his voice to the admiring chorus. Jackson was "a great general and a transformative president," he concludes, a leader "genuinely committed to the ideal of democracy," who was "strong and shrewd, patriotic and manipulative, clear-eyed and determined." He was the president who, of all the early presidents, "is in many ways the most like us."
There certainly are parallels to be drawn between the incumbent and Jackson, an imperious man who stretched the power of the presidency, flouted international law, ignored the Supreme Court, filled government positions with partisan supporters, relied on an elaborate campaign apparatus, and espoused small government while proceeding to expand its size. But that is only to say that Jackson was modern less by virtue of his principles than in his willingness to bend them when it suited his purposes. If he is a model for our times, it is not a very heroic one. Nor was Jackson in fact the decisively formative force in his own era that the hagiography suggests. As David Reynolds, who teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, demonstrates in his astute and concise history of the period, Waking Giant, the times defined Jackson as much as he defined the times.
If anything, Jackson belonged to the past, not the future. Barely in his teens, he fought in the Revolutionary War, and he held dearly to dreams of land and community at a moment when capitalism and individualism felt liberating. He was the first president born (in 1767) in a log cabin, the first not from Massachusetts or Virginia, the first not to attend college. He was an orphan. He made something of himself, and the American people loved that, but he was also a Mason at a time when an anti-Masonic movement suspicious of the secretive society gathered support across the nation. He also lived in the Southern world of honor, rooted in loyalty to kin relations and vigilance in defending the virtue of women: It was a world crumbling around him. Jackson, the president whom people proclaimed as one of their own, was very much up to date in one regard: He liked his comforts and introduced a novelty to the White House enjoyed only by aristocrats and guests at swank hotels—running water.
Jackson's election in 1828 did not single-handedly usher in a democratic revolution; as Reynolds points out, he benefitted from an expansion in voting rights for white males that occurred during Monroe's presidency. Suffrage expansion came for different reasons in different places: competition between Federalists and Republicans before the Democrats existed, economic interests, even the need for bodies to serve in local militias. Many new voters in 1828 flocked to Jackson, mobilized by a new political style and culture. But it wasn't because of him that they were able to vote.
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.