Far too many American schoolchildren have been taught that Andrew
Jackson was a great man because he killed many Indians and British.
Others, scholars with minds of schoolboys, have found in him the
qualities of a great democrat, a revolutionary against the moneyed and
aristocratic interests of the country. He leads the list of "strong"
Presidents that is often advanced, usually to the detriment of the
incumbent of the moment.
His childhood excites sympathy, for his father died before his birth and
two brothers were killed by British soldiers in the Revolution. His
mother had to work as a housekeeper. But childhood misfortune
cradles many a criminal, as well as many a saint. His grandfather left
him a small fortune at the age of fifteen. He was of a slaveholding
household, and in due course bought and
kept slaves until his death.
He was by far the least educated of the Presidents up to his time in
office. He was a land agent and speculator very early in life and
became a lawyer. He had more than his share of the ordinary male
vices of the time. Once he killed his opponent in a duel, waiting to
shoot until the man had used up his bullet first. Whatever he did, it
must be said, he did with fierce determination. His temper would
frequently explode. He was rash and impulsive. He was not
introspective; he would be what a psychiatrist might call an
extroverted rage type. And while at it, the psychiatrist would also call
Jackson a borderline schizophrenic, because of his inconsistencies of
thought and behavior and relationships. He became rich. He became a
general in the Tennessee militia.
He came from Scots-Irish stock, which might have been cited first, in
explaining his character, the first President to be such and symbolizing
the coming of age of this large group of the population who had gone
destitute to America and had been blamed with some reason for a century of
troublemaking on the frontiers. He was not a religious man.
He became Senator from Tennessee after his Indian and New Orleans
adventures, but he was not a legislator, never framed a piece of
legislation. He was "a man of the people" - whatever that means.
He helped measurably to destroy the most Europeanized and stable of
the Indian nations, the Creeks and the Cherokees, and to drive the
Seminoles and escaped free Africans into the interior swamps of
Florida and to compel the Spanish to sell the territory to the United
States, all so that land-greedy and earth-ravishing Southern Whites
could seize more land and, if profitable to do so,
bring in slaves to work it.
He had ideas that were stupid and destructive in most areas that they
touched upon: race relations, human rights, currency and banking,
government administration, land settlement, and public works and
transportation. His position on the tariff issue labored with
contradictions. He is to be praised for his strong position in the face of
states rights' advocates attempts at nullification of federal law and
secession from the Union. He may not have been constitutionally
correct on these or on other issues, and he may have driven the
country closer to Civil War.
Still, if one agrees that a single nation was better than a Northern and a
Southern nation, he must be seen as striving forcefully toward that
end. One must commend him for his famous toast, amidst agitated
states rightists at a Jefferson Day banquet, for having lifted his glass to
exclaim, "One Union - It must be preserved!" At the same time, one
must appreciate that the man giving the toast really wanted this Union
so that people like himself could roam up and down the nation, in
command of a populist majority, doing whatever they pleased.
Jackson was eliminated in his first run for the Presidency. It was 1824.
Four candidates were in the field. He and John Quincy Adams were
close in popular vote and electoral votes, both falling well short of a
majority of the Electoral College. The House of Representatives had
to decide. Henry Clay, Speaker of the House and himself a candidate
running a poor third, pulled his votes over to Adams, defeating
Jackson. There was an uproar over his tactic, accusations of a "deal" ,
seemingly confirmed after Adam's inauguration, when
Clay was named Secretary of State.
Adams presented the nation with what we would today regard as
an ideal program for the Republic, but it brought him nothing but defeat
after defeat in the Congress, and defeat in the next election. He called
in his inaugural address for measures that would distinguish a
President even today: a national University; investment in scientific
research and development; and a national network of roads,
bridges, and canals; among others.
The election of 1828 found Jackson primed for office. He won easily
in the popular vote and in the Electoral College. Jackson invited
everybody to the White House reception following his inauguration. A
great many came, all too many, many of the "boys in the back room"
class, and descriptions of the event have ever since sent shivers
down the backs of respectable hostesses. He was a widower of
two years, so he might forgivably escape the grounds behind a
tipsy human screen when the gathering became
unbearably noisy and unruly.
His wife Rachel, some say and he said, had died partly from shame at
the campaign slurs directed at them because, unaware that her divorce
had not been valid, the couple had "lived in sin" (legally construed)
until the matter was straightened out. Obviously there was fully at
work then the sleazy slurring element that had come in at the very
beginning with the Puritans from Britain and Germany, and had been
paralleled by Jackson's Presbyterian forebears, and exists, and prospers
to this day. There was also the expectation now that the tactics and
propaganda of political campaigning need stop at nothing;
all was fair in war and politics.
Jackson had a bad cold and could hardly be heard as he delivered his
inaugural speech. It had some original passages, atypical of the genre.
The passage that foretold the most trouble read nicely,
generously. It said, in effect, anybody could be President,
or if not that, the next best place. The duties of public office were such
that an ordinary person of intelligence was qualified to handle them.
Men too long in office grew indifferent to the public interest and failed
to discharge their duties. "As few impediments as possible should exist
to the free operation of the public will."
Scholars have calculated the damage in his administration. He
replaced under a quarter of all the persons he might have fired and
replaced. They do not include the many cronies and followers for
whom he created jobs and placed in jobs that turned up as a result of
his policies. Or the jobs that his appointees could
fill and did fill with small fry.
Too, the need for dedicated and experienced diplomats to aid, control,
and inform the rush of American interests overseas was frustrated by
Jacksonian spoils system policies. There resulted mediocre, often
corrupt, American representation abroad for the
balance of the century.
It is no accident that he turned to a man quite unlike himself as his
confidante and successor, a man from already "wicked old New
York," a professional politician insofar as such existed in those days,
Martin Van Buren, a Dutch descendent of seven generations -
without a single intermarriage, he would boast - a clever son of a
tavern owner who also owned slaves where
slaves were practically non-existent.
And this man Jackson preferred to a man who was one of the most
keen in the nation, from his own culture but much higher in its class
structure, who was a nationalist and should have been kept on that
track instead of being driven into the states-rights camp, John
Calhoun, who was his Vice-President, and had at one time as
Secretary of War had the temerity to think of removing Jackson from
command of the Army in Georgia for going on a rampage in Spanish
Florida, invading, shooting and hanging without due process of law.
(Behaving rather like the Mexican Revolutionary chieftain, Pancho
Villa, a century later, but then President Woodrow Wilson would
react by invading Mexico.)
Jackson did not finally discover Calhoun's attempt at discipline until so
informed when he was President, and - irony always - the man who
had saved his post and thus ultimately made him President was his
political foe, then President J.Q. Adams, whom his campaign managers
later smeared as nobody could smear until Joe McCarthy appeared on
the scene 125 years later. Learning that Calhoun had in 1819 called his
conduct into question, Jackson now instituted an exchange of
communications, the termination of which left little doubt in anyone's
mind that Calhoun would not be Vice-President
next time around. Nor was he.
But Calhoun, presiding over the Senate, made another mistake. When
President Jackson nominated Martin Van Buren to be Minister to
England, the Senate presented itself evenly divided for confirmation.
Calhoun had the deciding vote. He could not resist the urge to put
both men down. He exulted. He cast his ballot against the nomination.
When the next election rolled around, Calhoun returned perforce
to South Carolina and States Rights. Van Buren was called from his
interim appointment in England to receive plaudits from his home state
and the nomination as Vice-President under Jackson. There was little
problem in electing the duo this time.
Calhoun, who at one point would try to do anything to save the union
provided he could also save the slave culture, get low tariffs, etc., now
turned his genius into composing a finely wrought thesis on
nullification and states rights. Its argument will be summarized later.
But we cannot postpone telling what happened under Jackson because
we are still almost a generation away from the Civil
War crisis of states rights.
The issue was the tariff. Jefferson believed in charging for goods
brought into the country at rates merely sufficient for obtaining
revenues to run the government. He sought to keep both tariffs and
governmental expenditures low. This was good Democratic-Republican
Party doctrine. However, the party had slipped in a
Federalist direction and the Northerners had succumbed to
Hamiltonian policy, so that the tariff had risen higher and higher. It
became indubitably and deliberately a protective tariff. It kept the
goods of the industrial countries of Europe from being sold freely in
America while these same countries were buying - or so it was hoped
- great amounts of the South's staple crops,
Would they not be unable to buy from the South if they could not sell
to the USA what they produced? The Southern argument was logical
and probably true. There were, we hasten to add, other reasons for
shifts in world trade. Other countries besides the United States were
producing cotton in increasing quantities and all else that the South
produced. Furthermore, why could not the South sell well to the North,
whose increasing industrial work force could sell them the
manufactured goods that they needed.
One would have to analyze the character of the middlemen here to
give a straight answer. There was a large body of agents, middlemen
between South and Europe as between South and North and these
were in competition too, and eager that their particular kind of tariff
should succeed. So they were manipulating their principals, as agents
will usually do, given the chance.
Yet why had the Carolinians settled upon nullification as a tactic? As
Daniel Webster had pointed out in a set of debates with Haynes in the
Senate two years earlier, the Supreme Court had designated itself
determiner of what was and what was not constitutional. Why not let
the Court decide? Anyhow, the Union was sacred and could not be
fractured, claimed Webster. Many politicians did not agree with
Webster on this point, certainly not the states-rights people, who had
watched Chief Justice Marshall's long nationalist career with
annoyance. The Court would very likely declare the act of
Following his re-election, Jackson and his congressional associates
made some concessions to the South by lowering tariffs. This was not
enough for the South Carolina legislature, after four years of the
"abominable tariff" schedule of 1828. The State was suffering in this
decade a frightening drainage of population and low prices on its
agricultural exports. To find work, to locate better land after ruining
what they had, to adventure in the wide open spaces, to live in a more
egalitarian society - such were the motives of the migrants. The
legislature called a convention to declare the tariff legislation of 1828
and 1832 unconstitutional, null, and void; this it did. It further forbade
the collection of said tariff charges.
Jackson responded with typical vigor; he loved a good fight.
He announced that he would enforce the nation's laws.
He mustered the Army for an invasion of the State,
and did send troops quietly to Federal forts there;
he sent revenue cutters down to block any exports
or imports whose tariffs had not been paid.
He issued a fine Proclamation on December 10, 1832,
and obtained a Force Bill from Congress authorizing him
to employ violence if necessary in execution of the laws.
(Presumably he had this power anyway, but thought he
should have the reassurance and commitment from Congress.)
Next Henry Clay, still at work compromising, got
Congress to cut key tariffs greatly over several years, the
cotton goods tariff by half.
Frightened, mollified, lacking support from other states, but still
prideful, the legislature rescinded the nullification of the tariff laws,
then proceeded to nullify the Force Bill as being unconstitutional.
This hardly provoked anger since force was no longer forthcoming.
Still, there it was, nullification, a dormant but not dead issue.
Jackson's threats were directed at the politicians of the slave areas,
where force was the best understood instrument of power.
Where Jackson's heart was located was displayed in 1835,
when he voiced approval of a Charleston riot against
opponents of slavery and against the anti-slavery propaganda that was
being sent through the post-office for delivery to points within the
State. He expressed the wish that he might bar
anti-slavery materials from the mails.
Decades before Jackson, during his tenure, and decades after him,
the States were democratizing their political structures
to the best of their knowledge, and the world became aware
of America as a thoroughly democratic country
(always forgetting the slave culture or dismissing it as
exceptional to the real America). But what the American
people and the world believed to be an historical fact, that
America was a pure democracy, was far from the truth.
In the first place, the word "democracy" is as close to a meaningless
word as popular and political discussion affords.
It conveys several definitions that not only are separate
but also contradictory, and yet so stuck in many minds
as to irritate them when the meanings are extracted.
Nevertheless, it must be said that democracy means equality
of all in respect to all; it means conducting business by a majority vote,
or a plurality vote, or by forcing a consensus, or by unanimity; it
means equality of opportunity to rise above one's fellows, but not
among the resulting unequal achievers; it means anarchism or extreme
individualism. It means a widespread official proclamation of
doctrines, usually to no great effect.
Harking to the pandemonium surrounding the word in America in the
first half of the nineteenth century, one detects especially the strains of
individualism and equality of manners;
a person can seek his interest and way of life without bother by others;
one man's conduct is as respectable as any other man's.
Neither of these was very true.
They reduced to the right of every man to do what he pleased
and could get away with, and the right to deny shame for the way he
was behaving. The refusal of special privileges for anybody
(above the privileges and birth position already enjoyed)
was as far into a philosophy of democracy as most moved.
Unfortunately, in practice, this included,
besides a demand for the right to vote and such like,
a suspicion of anyone or any group pursuing the
arts, intellectual subjects, and uncommon behaviors.
In this large period of United States history,
democracy was low-brow.
Most Americans believed that they were on their way to the blessed
state of democracy. The people in their voluntary associations, and
State after State, introduced populist devices into their organization
and rules. The Federal Government was less active and, in any event,
was affected by transference of practices; thus, if the suffrage for a
State's elections was widened, the same electorate would be entitled to
vote for federal representatives. Inasmuch as the Federal government
was spending little and doing less, Washington, D.C. - even with all
the battles and wars of the ante-Civil War period - was less the
concern and regard of most people,
especially the three per cent who were politically active,
than their local and state governments.
The suffrage was widened almost everywhere to the level of
universal White manhood suffrage, including, in some States, aliens
(to get them to settle down locally).
Where officers had been appointed or indirectly elected before,
they now became directly elected by popular vote,
governors and State officials, for example. Practically every
officer of significance and many insignificant ones, on the local and
State levels, and whether a new post or an old one,
became popularly elective.
The Electoral College, supposed to be a great filter of public sentiments,
lost layers of the filtering system with the advent,
first, of state, then of national conventions, to nominate Presidential candidates,
then, with turning over election of the Presidential electors to popular vote,
binding electors in fact, if not in law, to vote as they had promised
for the President and his favorite for Vice-President.
Tenure of office was shortened in many places, so that Jefferson's
dictum that "where annual elections end, tyranny begins" was
translated into endless election campaigning for next year's election.
There was a movement to tighten even the controls that short tenure
would supposedly provide by declaring that elected officials must take
instructions from their constituents, an impossible idea to put into
practice, but one to which all, including Lincoln, had to
pay lip service.
Nor did this mean simply the right to petition the Congress
(or the government), which the Constitution provided.
It meant that somehow people would find a consensus
or at least a majority on all issues of significance and
that this would be adequate for instructing legislators on
how to vote (amendments, legal language, committee reworking,
and compromises notwithstanding).
Devices for ensuring popular "representation" were
impressive - the farther away from the scene, the more impressive,
as the abundance of compliments from radical democrats like Jeremy
Bentham and Karl Marx abroad would reveal.
But first to be realized is that the laws commanded only
a fraction of people's behavior, and government in that half-century
was so limited a band of the social spectrum,
that it could not affect deeply other determinants of
the distribution of desiderata of life.
Furthermore there were countervailing agencies,
the most important of which was the political party.
The political party in America, built up
to ensure majorities, consensus, and unanimity, was drawing
sustenance and growth hormones from anti-democratic sources. It
became a way of making a government beset by
innumerable "democratic measures and devices",
which was becoming impossible,
possible -- by integrating offices and policies.
Additionally, fraud was as pervasive under the new
direct democracy as it was in the preceding centuries.
The secrecy of the polls was still not all guaranteed.
The floating vote was enormous.
In Michigan up to the edge of the Civil War,
perhaps the hottest issue concerned requiring qualified persons
to register ahead of time in order to be allowed to vote.
The collector of federal revenues at Detroit and along a
stretch of 900 miles of lake coast
had his men hire "Kanuck voters" as watchers for
smugglers at $60 per year, provided that on election day
they would cross into the USA and
vote in Michigan for his party.
The railroads had to be built by thousands of laborers,
and these men were harbored in camps,
and they could be induced by whiskey and money to go
to any voting place, swear they were citizens and vote.
Finally we return to the "spoils system" as a democratic device
that ended by being an oligarchic one.
It was democratic in one of the senses of the term,
in that more people got a chance to have a government job,
and the elected officers could appoint more people to
government payrolls and honorary commissions, thus bringing
government, even the least political and measly clerical or labor job,
closer to the people.
It worked out oligarchically, in that this system
of fighting off bureaucracy fell prey to the oligarchic tendencies
of the political party. The jobs were filled by the band of
politicians in control of the party and offices. Once given a job,
the free and independent voter became a party henchman and hireling,
though paid out of the government treasury.
The spoils system enervated the solid nationalism that had come,
and would come again with a permanent federal bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, the cause of sectionalism was forwarded by the
strong sentimental ties and bonds of life-style between
the state and local elected and appointed political class
and the federal class, whose offices depended upon local ties.
Jackson rode roughshod over the Supreme Court and Congress,
as he did over private individuals and institutions
and his own branch of government.
When the Court decided against the State of Georgia,
in a case regarding the disposition of Indian rights, he showed no
disposition to assist the Court in having its judgement enforced.
He exclaimed: it's your decree, now enforce it yourself.
He also picked up the Presidential veto power,
hitherto employed rarely (9 times in all) and for defensive purposes,
and used it twelve times to frustrate the majority of Congress.
The veto now began its career as a major weapon of Presidential power,
and ended by practically constituting the Presidency as a
Third House of Congress.
Finally, he disposed of the deposits held by the
Bank of the United States by placing them in favored banks
of Democratic-Republican partisan persuasion --
state banks, often fraudulent and prone to bankruptcy
He had a paranoid obsession about the Bank.
It symbolized the ascendency of the Eastern financial elite;
it was that of course, but also much more, a most useful
device for keeping the country's financial system in order.
While the state banks ran amok, issuing paper money,
lending freely, and speculating wildly with depositors' funds,
Jackson was hotly promoting metal money -
the result was fiscal chaos, panic, depression.
Picturing him who ruined the currency on the modern
$20 bill is an ironic twist of history.
Jackson was as close to a crowd leader of a mobocracy
as America would ever have. He ran up a heavy urban workers'
vote as well as capturing the poorer rural votes.
Yet we cannot find in his record much that would prove him
the representative of either city or countryside workers.
As they would say a century later about President Eisenhower:
"No one likes him, except the people."
Thus proceeded "Jacksonian democracy."