As president, Donald Trump has often been linked to Andrew Jackson in both good qualities and bad. Trump has braced the comparison since he chose to grace the Oval Office with Jackson’s portrait as well as laid a wreath at his grave at the Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee to honor his 250th birthday. Though he doesn’t try to claim that he shares the policies and attitudes Jackson embraced, he’s proposed to be in the 21st what the seventh president was during the 19th. After all, what made Jackson so fondly remembered by some was his connection to ordinary people as well as his embodiment of populist politics. Meanwhile, detractors often note how Jackson was an unapologetic racist and slave owner whose harsh treatment of Indian tribes eventually led to the Trail of Tears. And they often remark compare it to how Trump used racism to win over the support of working class whites as a political outsider taking on the establishment and riding into Washington to return power to the people. However, though understand Americans’ need to make historical comparisons, I find the idea of likening Trump to Old Hickory deeply insulting to Andrew Jackson and his memory.
Now I understand that Andrew Jackson wouldn’t rank among many Americans’ favorite presidents for very justifiable reasons. Sure he was an unapologetic racist who defended slavery without question and his policy on Indian removal in the Southeast resulted in tragic consequences such as the Trail of Tears, destruction of tribal culture, and genocide. In addition, Jackson’s dismantling of the Bank of the United States led to the Panic of 1837 as well as decades of frequent bank failures and economic instability until the creation of the Federal Reserve. Jackson’s practice of appointing personal associates, wealthy friends, and party loyalists to federal offices as a reward for victory generated what would later be called the spoils system which led to a lot of government corruption for decades and eventually the assassination of a US president. And yes, I understand that like Trump, Jackson could be especially harsh on his enemies, violated political norms and constitutional concepts he didn’t like, had some anti-intellectual tendencies, was obsessed with the media, occasionally had little regard for the law and institutions, and was seen by his detractors as an unstable demagogue and a would-be dictator.
However, besides inspiring distrust in certain elements of political elites in their day along with some other qualities, Trump and Jackson have little in common. In fact, Andrew Jackson would’ve despised Trump and liken his sham populism to an image of William Henry Harrison drinking hard cider in front of a log cabin. Jackson certainly would’ve been greatly insulted of Trump citing him as his hero and a reflection of himself. Such notion that a draft-dodging elitist and opportunist who’d apply to his high-born privilege in order to skirt the consequences for his legion of despicable business practices and did nothing to demonstrate a commitment to public service could resemble Old Hickory basically desecrates almost everything about him and what he stood for. Whenever you see Jackson’s portrait in Trump’s Oval Office, don’t see it as being enshrined in a place of honor regardless of what you think of him. Rather think of Jackson’s presence in the Oval Office as one of great misfortune of having to see a man like Trump exploit him as nothing more than a mere prop to shamelessly project his faux populist image in order to deceive his constituents with no second thought. Only to betray his lowly supporters by using his presidential power to enrich himself along with his elitist friends, backers, allies, as well as the GOP and corporate establishment at the common people’s expense. All Jackson can do is hopelessly watch by, unable to tell the world what he was all about in his defense while Trump distorts his image and legacy for his own benefit. Jackson may not have been an exemplary role model, but he was certainly no Donald Trump. And we should see Trump’s honoring him as nothing short of disgraceful to a man who’s currently turning in his grave.
By all accounts, Andrew Jackson was a complex and fascinating man who remains one of the most studied and controversial Americans in the 19th century. Whether you love him or hate him, there are plenty of qualities about the man you have to respect as well as the impact he made. And despite all the awful stuff he did, there’s a reason why historians rate his presidency so highly. Generations of parents named their sons after Jackson, often placing both his names before their surname. Jackson’s election to the presidency comes off as a vindication of American ideals and affirms American greatness. Jackson’s unapologetic defense of slavery and infamous policy regarding Indian removal have marred his complicated legacy and for very good reason. The fact he made his fortune speculating Indian lands as well as owning (and possibly trading) slaves doesn’t help his reputation. Yet, he was a staunch believer in popular democracy (at least among white men) and believed in the sanctity of the American Union with almost religious conviction. But despite his lasting reputation as an aggressive, no nonsense, I’ll-do-things-my-way kind of guy, Jackson was far more than the one dimensional caricature he’s often depicted as. He was self-raised, self-educated, and well-read in current events (with a subscription to 17 newspapers). He conducted himself as a quintessential Southern gentleman with exquisite manners and a rather gallant attitude towards women. Though nasty and spiteful to enemies, he was generous, considerate, and loyal to his friends and a devoted husband to his wife Rachel. Though strong in his convictions and an intense partisan, he was not without moments of compromise and indecision. And he wasn’t above appointing cabinet members who disagreed with him like his closest advisor Martin Van Buren as well as Edward Livingston and Louis McLane. Nor did he always hold grudges for he welcomed Thomas Hart Benton back into the fold despite being a longtime foe. Furthermore, he considered his word his bond as well as strived to exhibit fidelity, honor, and integrity.
We need to understand that what attracted ordinary people to support Jackson was totally different than what attracted people to Trump. Though 19th century political campaigns often involved nasty mudslinging, Jackson’s appeal to the common people had much more to do with the great positive sentiment Jackson evoked in the average Americans at the time. What ordinary Americans loved most about him was that he really was one of them. His father died before he was born while his mother died in his teens. Everything Jackson achieved in life came through his own efforts. What Jackson projected is the belief that any kid can grow up to be president. If a poor kid from the Carolinas can reach the White House, then it must be the case that talent, grit, and honor could make up for the humblest beginnings. His modest background as a self-made man on the frontier who championed those of his former station cast him as an outsider from the aristocracy of Washington’s political elite. The people loved him for it and voted for him out of affinity and pride. His 1829 inauguration saw one of the largest crowds by that point as he took the oath of office at the US Capitol’s East Portico. After the ceremony, Jackson invited the public to the White House for a reception where thousands of his supporters held a raucous party, inflicting a degree of damage to the fixtures and furnishings
And Andrew Jackson had done plenty in his lifetime of public service to earn his supporters’ admiration that they were glad to cast their vote for him. He served as a courier to a local colonial militia during the American Revolution and at the Battle of Hanging Rock during his early teens. At 14, he was taken captured by the British, where he braved small pox, starvation, and being slashed by a British officer for refusing to clean his boots. When he moved to Tennessee as an adult, he spent much of that time in the service of his adopted state and the US. He helped write the state’s constitution and served as a circuit judge. He represented Tennessee in the House and the Senate. He was governor of Florida while it was a federal territory. Most famously, Jackson commanded Tennessee militia and later US Army troops during the War of 1812, earning the name “Old Hickory” for his resilience in combat and willingness to endure the same hardships as his men. He fought a war against the Creek Indians with an arm in his sling from a shoulder wound. His victory at the Battle of New Orleans was the signal triumph of the American armed forces between the Revolution and the Civil War. During that time, Jackson was broadly acclaimed as second only to George Washington among the pantheon of American military heroes. Because despite the War of 1812 being virtually over for 2 weeks thanks to the Treaty of Ghent, the British had still viewed the Louisiana Purchase as illegitimate. Had the Brits seized on New Orleans, they were prepared, treaty or no treaty, to declare the Louisiana Purchase a dead letter and redraw the political map of North America. Jackson’s victory ensured that the British wouldn’t renegotiate peace terms ending the war. Though some people questioned Jackson’s politics, nobody questioned his courage and patriotism.
We should also understand that there was much more about Andrew Jackson than this image of a wild backwoodsman initially suggests. When a young woman from South Carolina named Julia Ann Conner visited his Hermitage in 1827, she found him to be nothing like she expected. Rather she wrote him to be a “venerable, dignified, fine-looking man, perfectly easy in manner.” She noted how Jackson kept articles he received from the Washington’s family on his mantelpiece as “preserved with almost sacred veneration.” Conner even joined him in a game of chess and referred Jackson as an “excellent player” as he “frequently directed my moves—apparently much interested in the fate of the game … there were no traces of the ‘military chieftain’ as he is called!” This is a very different portrait of Jackson than what many Americans are used to. But it nonetheless explains much of his character. Though he may come off as reckless, he more often played games in politics and war with skill and patience. His enemies and much of posterity never quite understood that what was the most fundamental fact about Jackson wasn’t a problem with his temper, but more often than not, his ability to control it and harness that energy in ways that would’ve driven other politicians to ruin such as intimidating his foes or advancing his agenda. Sure he was prone to fits of rage and for getting into duels and brawls, especially as a young man. But he was self-aware enough to understand his weaknesses and took care to compensate for them. With that came a kind of self-restraint, which worked so well his closest advisor, Martin Van Buren marveled how Jackson could turn anger on and off at will. But as Conner noted, he was as at home with his chessboard as he was with charging blindly forward. Though he certainly was a powerful personality, Jackson’s rise from his humble beginnings could never be possible without his shrewdness, resourcefulness, as well as his capacity to cultivate himself while retaining an image as a fearsome and violent man of action he used to his advantage. Yet, seeing Jackson this way makes the idea of him being a reflection of Trump astoundingly laughable.
Andrew Jackson’s distrust for elites and the Washington establishment was also very different from Trump’s. A political centrist and believer in Jeffersonian principles, Jackson believed that monied and business interests would corrupt Republican values. While his defeat of the Second Bank of the United States and his opposition to federal public works projects hurt ordinary Americans, his rationale behind both reflects that sentiment. Back in the 19th century, legislatures often granted corporations charters to build infrastructure which gave them valuable privileges. State governments often shared corporate ownership with private investors. Jackson feared that public investments offered unearned advantages to insiders that would surely lead to corruption and as he put it, “destroy the purity of our government.” Nevertheless, despite vetoing the Marysville Road project, Jackson’s administration saw more federal funding on infrastructure than all his predecessors combined. And Jackson’s Marysville Road veto had more to do with it connecting two towns in Kentucky, which he viewed as nothing more than a pork barrel project for Henry Clay’s home state.
As for the Second Bank of the United States, well, it was a public-private corporation partly funded by taxpayers but controlled by private investors, some of whom were European. Despite its hold on the nation’s currency gave it immense economic powers such as destroying state banks by calling in their loans, it faced no democratic oversight. And its capital was twice the federal government’s expenditures. The Panic of 1819 was particularly devastating for ordinary Americans thanks excessive land speculation, unsecured loans, misrepresentation, and the unrestrained use of paper money. The Bank did little to relieve since it was deeply enmeshed in these inflationary practices. Jackson opposed the Bank because he considered it a privileged, monopolistic, and undemocratic corporation. He was sure the Bank made dubious loans and campaign contributions to influence politicians and editors as well as to even buy elections. When the bill to renew the charter reached his desk, Jackson vetoed it bristled with populist attacks ringing eerily familiar. He charged that “The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” They sought special favors “to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful,” rightly leading “the humbler members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers … to complain of the injustice of their government.” In his farewell address, Jackson warned that the people, “have little or no share in the direction of the great moneyed corporations,” and were always “in danger of losing their fair influence in the government.” Today, you’d find many of these anti-big business sentiments in a Bernie Sanders speech against the Citizens United ruling, a Supreme Court decision that Jackson would’ve certainly not enforced. Trump, on the other hand, clearly sees absolutely no problem with corporate influence on government as illustrated by his donations to various political entities including Citizens United, receiving generous campaign contributions, and appointing billionaire CEOs to cabinet positions.
Nevertheless, what’s the most outrageous about the Trump-Jackson analogy is the most basic. Regardless what you think about him, Andrew Jackson was the president who more than any other, secured the future of American democracy. For the quarter-century before Jackson, presidents were essentially aristocrats who essentially appointed their own successors with the Election of 1800 being the only exception. When he was elected to the presidency in 1828, he won with 56% of the popular vote which was 12 points more than his opponent, John Quincy Adams. By frustrating Adams’s bid for reelection, Jackson broke the mold and became president at a time when states had started abandoning their property and residency voting requirements, which he both encouraged and benefitted from. Sure Jacksonian democracy fell short of today’s model since most women and blacks couldn’t vote. But by enfranchising all white males other than property owners, it represented a huge step forward from the unabashed elitism characterizing the 18th century. That elitism was part of why many in the political establishment in Jackson’s time likened him to a dangerous demagogue as well as an unstable, would-be dictator. We should note that the Founding Fathers came up with the Electoral College and election of senators through the state legislatures because they harbored a lot of distrust toward the common people and likened democracy to mob rule. Jackson knew this and as president, had repeatedly called for a constitutional amendment to abolish it for reasons we don’t have to get into after 2016. And it was certainly why then Speaker Henry Clay encouraged the House of Representatives to choose John Quincy Adams over Jackson in 1824, which resulted in his appointment as Secretary of State. Furious Jackson supporters would call this a “corrupt bargain” because their candidate won at least 42% of the popular vote. Yet, because no candidate received a clear majority of electoral votes (due to the race consisting of 4 different guys), the decision fell to the House. Still, had Jackson succeeded in eliminating the Electoral College, Trump would’ve never become president since he lost the popular vote by the largest historical margin of anyone who’s ever won the presidency.
Moreover, Andrew Jackson’s character and worldview reflected a genuine conviction in the people’s ultimate wisdom. He came to that populism through his experience and his own humble beginnings. As a self-made man, he saw his political mission to remove what he believed to be corrupting influences such as the Second Bank of the United States, entrenched federal appointees, and money speculators. That so ordinary Americans which he called “the planter, the farmer, the mechanic, and the laborer” could rise to prosperity. In other words, Jackson believed the federal government should benefit the interests of all Americans and that political participation should be a right. And he expanded the role of the presidency from mere executive to active representative of the people. Another one of Jackson’s most central beliefs was the inviolability of the federal Union and that concepts like secession and nullification were unacceptable. The fact he was willing to go to war with South Carolina when it threatened to secede during the Nullification Crisis illustrate this. Jackson believed that popular democracy spoke most clearly when the nation spoke as the nation. Not as separate polities in individual states. And that the union must be preserved above all else. His ideas in popular democracy and devotion to the Union above all else have left an indelible mark in the American consciousness, both of which he considered as inseparable. Generations after him have built on them and expanded on and in ways even he wouldn’t have imagined. Yes, his idea of popular democracy only included all white men. But it nevertheless provided a foundation for women and minorities to campaign for their voting rights as well as inspired almost every liberal and progressive movement and policy ever since. Jacksonian democracy became a touchstone of American politics that every presidential candidate since had to possess a common touch or effectively fake it. His idea of the president being the people’s representative has helped shaped the modern American presidency as we know it. And the Jacksonian concept that the union must be saved above all else strongly influenced the Union cause during the Civil War. Jackson’s policy during the Nullification Crisis set a precedent for Abraham Lincoln to follow through by sending military force against the Confederacy.
Andrew Jackson may have done plenty of terrible things that have hurt a lot people during his lifetime as well as led to plenty of negative repercussions even after he left office. He could sometimes be woefully wrong on what he thought was best for the American people. He may have stood on the wrong side of history in regards to defending slavery and removing Native Americans from their land so his friends could build plantations. Yes, he personally profited from stealing land from the Indians during the Indian wars. Yes, he brought a new coalition to elites into power such New York politicians, Pennsylvanian businessmen, and Southern slaveholders. And yes, he tended to their special interests as any typical politician. Still, Jackson was no opportunist and didn’t use populism as a political device. He didn’t use his image as a temperamental man for mere theatrics. He wanted to accomplish things. He never ever threw his friends under the bus even it was expedient to do so. He never embarrassed foreign dignitaries nor handled diplomatic disputes with anything other than moderation and skill. Nor did he try to profit from the presidency since he asked a friend to settle his business affairs after he won the election so he could focus on being president. But regardless of how we view Jackson today, he was a military hero who served his country in combat and a politician who generally placed the nation’s interests above his own. He symbolized the democratic struggle among the great majority against unearned power and special privilege. Furthermore, he was a firm believer in American democratic values as he once said, “As long as our government is administered for the good of the people, and is regulated by their will; as long as it secures to us the rights of persons and of property, liberty of conscience, and of the press, it will be worth defending.”
As Thomas Hart Benton said of the Jackson presidency, “Great is the confidence which he has always reposed in the discernment and equity of the American people. I have been accustomed to see him for many years, and under many discouraging trials; but never saw him doubt, for an instant, the ultimate support of the people … He always said the people would stand by those who stand by them.” Andrew Jackson was a very flawed man whose life and legacy reflected the best and the worst of America in his time and all time. Yet, even the ugliest parts of his life and legacy don’t dismiss him as any less than a man who tried to be worthy of the American people’s support. After all, despite that America has viewed itself as a beacon of liberty, democracy, and prosperity, it was also built on slavery and Native American displacement and genocide. And Jackson’s attitudes and actions regarding slavery and Native Americans are so glaring that they can’t be ignored. Nor should they be. Though his grave sins keep us from viewing him as an icon of reverence, Jackson’s life should teach us that even heroic men like him are seldom pillars of perfection. Jackson knew this for though he may have been critical of the founding generation, he nonetheless appreciated those responsible for crafting and refining the systems of checks and balances on which the nation was based. Even though he didn’t always observe them as president. Not to mention, a lot of Jackson’s own supporters didn’t always agree with him including close friends and advisers. Still, if Jackson and his fellow Democrats can get things so badly wrong, then we’re forever vulnerable as well. History may well remind us that we’re always at risk of falling short in the unending search for a more perfect Union.
Nevertheless, while Jackson shouldn’t be idolized on a pedestal, he doesn’t deserve outright vilification either even if he deserves being called out for his sins. Nor should he ever be reduced to a one-dimensional caricature since there’s nothing simple about him. Such approaches do a disservice to him as the complex and fascinating man he was and how he should be remembered as. Nor should he be embraced by a president who knows nothing about him, shares none of the causes he championed, and praises him so he can depict him in his own image. Donald Trump is no Andrew Jackson nor does he even come remotely close. Unlike the 7th president, this unrespectable man has repeatedly demonstrated that he cares more about himself than the American people and what is best for this nation’s future. His praises of dictators show he has more affinity for a culture common in authoritarian systems where ruling regimes have a monopoly on truth. Though he has promoted himself as a successful businessman, he’s very much a product of inherited wealth and unearned privilege which have gotten him where he is today. And he often used his status to avoid military service, federal taxes, and taking responsibility for his despicable business practices. Nor was his success the result of his hard work and natural ability. It’s very clear that Trump’s populism is a sham. Then there’s the fact Trump has promoted his real-estate investments during his presidential campaign as well as acknowledges that he “might have” discussed his global business interests in his talks with foreign leaders since his election. Even as president Trump hasn’t separated himself from his business, which puts him in clear violation of the Emoluments Clause. It’s very clear he’s profited from both his campaign and his presidency. His business interests abroad might have an impact on American foreign policy. To equate Jackson with Trump normalizes the latter in ways that should offend us in 2017. Jackson for all his faults doesn’t deserve to be equated to this unrespectable man, regardless of his sins. Jackson may not have been a great hero to many people’s eyes for very good reasons. But what Trump embodies basically goes against almost everything that Jackson stood for as well as exemplify why Americans still admire him today.