American History for Truthdiggers: Andrew Jackson’s White-Male World and the Start of Modern Politics
Editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “Make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?
Below is the 14th installment of the “American History for Truthdiggers” series, a pull-no-punches appraisal of our shared, if flawed, past. The author of the series, Danny Sjursen, an active-duty major in the U.S. Army, served military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught the nation’s checkered, often inspiring past when he was an assistant professor of history at West Point. His war experiences, his scholarship, his skill as a writer and his patriotism illuminate these Truthdig posts.
Part 14 of “American History for Truthdiggers.”
* * *
“… When the right and capacity to do all is given to any authority, whether it be called people or king, democracy or aristocracy, monarchy or a republic, I say: the germ of tyranny is there. …” —Alexis de Tocqueville, “Tyranny of the Majority”
There are precious few presidents, indeed, who can claim to have an entire era bearing their name. Andrew Jackson is one. Historians have long labeled his presidency and the years that followed it as “Jacksonian” America. This is instructive. Whatever else he was, this man, General—later President—Jackson, was an absolute tour de force. He swept to power on a veritable wave of populism and forever altered the American political scene. One might argue, plausibly, that we live today in the system he wrought.
Born to modest means in the Carolinas, Jackson led a hard life and somehow found prosperity. Orphaned as a child, he volunteered as a courier for the Continental Army when just 13 years old. Captured by the British, he refused to shine the boots of a captor and was struck on the head with the officer’s sword. Jackson would bear the scar, and his hatred for all things British, throughout his life. He became a lawyer, moved west to Tennessee and eventually amassed a fortune (and many slaves). As a general in the War of 1812 he stood out as the only real hero of that costly draw of a conflict. Called “Old Hickory” by his troops, Jackson is perhaps the first president to bear a catchy nickname. By the 1820s, Jackson was a household name and a staunch Democratic politician. He sought power for himself and, ostensibly, the “common man.”
Politics and presidential campaigning were forever changed by Jackson. This was a man who knew how to win—no matter the cost. Before Jackson, although many early presidential elections were highly contested, the tradition among candidates was to eschew personal campaigning. These were refined gentlemen and they thought themselves above rank electioneering. They sought to evoke a disinterested and modest persona and left it to newspapers and partisans to make arguments on their behalf. Not so, Andrew Jackson. Here was a man who exuded confidence and personal popularity. His was the era of the first political party conventions and of outright campaigning. Democrats were more proud of their candidate than their policies, and ran on Jackson the man.
All of this is ironic because it is unclear that the Founding Fathers actually intended for democratization in the way Jackson and his backers envisioned it. In fact, the U.S. was designed as a republic, not a direct democracy, and institutions such as the Senate and Electoral College were designed to curtail popular rule. Probably, given human nature and the tendencies of the systems the Founders created, the Revolutionary generation misunderstood where their republic would lead—toward greater democratization. Still, it is interesting and worth pondering the fact that Jackson, and the Democrats, stood in contrast to the visions of most Founders.
Indeed, America’s contemporary political culture owes more to Jackson than to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, which, admittedly, is an uncomfortable truth. In the volume that follows, take a moment to consider whether democracy really is the best possible form of government. Think on the winners and losers inherent in the Jacksonian political revolution and ask whether there existed a better way, an alternative path. We live in the political world Jackson created. It is well we should know something about it.
A Corrupt Bargain?: The Opposing Personalities of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson
Jackson faced off against the son of President John Adams, John Quincy Adams, in two consecutive elections, in 1824 and 1828. These were among the dirtiest and most contested campaigns in U.S. history. An older generation of historians, as well as the Jacksonians of the day, depicted Adams as an aloof aristocrat, out of touch with the average American. And, indeed, in a sense he was. Adams lacked the “common touch” or charisma of Jackson. That said, Adams was arguably the most well-prepared and qualified presidential candidate in history. He had been a Harvard professor, senator from Massachusetts, ambassador to Prussia, Russia, Britain and the Netherlands, negotiated the treaty to end the War of 1812 and served as President James Monroe’s secretary of state. He spoke several languages.
Still, in the multi-sided race of 1824, the most qualified candidate lost; well, at least he lost the popular vote. Due to the peculiarities of the Electoral College, the election went to the Congress for adjudication. Horrified by the prospect of an uncouth Jackson serving as president, Speaker of the House Henry Clay threw his support behind Adams and won him the presidency. Soon after, in a move with terrible political optics, Adams appointed Clay as secretary of state, a position then considered the fastest road to the presidency. Jackson and his followers—now calling themselves Democratic Republicans, as opposed to Adams’ National Republicans—were aghast and labeled this move a “corrupt bargain.” Clay probably was one of the most qualified candidates to lead the State Department, but the charge stuck and would haunt Adams and Clay for years to come. Consider it an early example of political branding.
As president, Adams sought internal improvements (road, canal and communications infrastructure) led by an activist federal government in order to improve Americans’ quality of life. Clay labeled this the “American System,” and it would be funded and fueled by revenue from a national tariff and federal land sales. This became the core of the National Republican ideology. It was a grand ambition and, unfortunately, would never fully come to fruition. For this reason, Adams’ one-term presidency was long considered a failure. Still, a fresh look may rehabilitate Adams the man, if not Adams the politician.
John Quincy Adams’ National Republican ideology was forward thinking and presaged many federal improvements later implemented. He was a generation or two ahead of his time. He also had rather humanitarian impulses, at least for the age. He protected the Creek Indians from expulsion and a corrupt treaty, and would not countenance Native American removal under his watch. Adams also developed strong anti-slavery sentiments during his long career of public service and would die as something of a full-fledged abolitionist.
Only America wasn’t ready for Adams in 1828. They didn’t want a man like Adams or care much for his progressive, activist policies. Jackson was a war hero, a man of action, a man of violence, a man … like them. He and his many followers wanted the opposite of Adams and his National Republicans. They wanted cheap western land, rapid settlement, state and local sovereignty, and less—not more—federal intervention in their lives. The Southerners, who tended to be staunchly Jacksonian, also feared federal power. They wanted low or no tariffs so they could sell cotton in lucrative overseas markets. Furthermore, if the feds could enforce a tariff, could they not someday ban slavery? In this sense, white supremacy—in the form of slavery and Indian expulsion—stood at the heart of the Democratic agenda.
Adams would lose the 1828 election by a landslide. He wasn’t made for the new politics of the era. He was uncomfortable personally campaigning, especially since the election of 1828 essentially began on his inauguration day and lasted four years! Adams tried to make the election about issues, about his enlightened “American System.” His followers argued that the very aspects of Jackson’s personality that so endeared him to voters actually disqualified him as a viable president. Jackson, they said (not inaccurately), had a violent temper, that he was “ruled by his passions” and had “lived in sin” with a married woman, now his wife, Rachel (she had an estranged husband when she and Jackson were first betrothed).
Still, the charges never really stuck. Jackson was a natural “winner.” His supporters rarely talked policy and focused instead on the admirable qualities of the candidate himself. Jackson personally campaigned against Washington insiders and elites. This resonated with many voters (as such campaigns still do). The Jackson campaign also played dirty, dirtier than nearly any candidate before or after. His supporters (falsely) claimed that Adams was a heretic or an atheist (he was actually a Unitarian) and that while an ambassador he had sold an American girl to the czar of Russia. Adams wanted to talk platforms and policy; Jackson wanted to wage a popularity contest, and that’s what Americans got. The Jackson campaign broke down into what we would now call soundbites, as in the popular Democratic ditty that the election was “between J.Q. Adams, who can write / And Andy Jackson, who can fight.” The fighter won. As usual.
Jackson won some 56 percent of the popular vote, but the results were highly sectional. The Northeast was strong for Adams while the South and the West of that day swung to Jackson. Southerners and Westerners (Jackson himself lived west of the Appalachian Mountains, the first president to do so) trusted the Democratic candidate to better protect their system of slavery and hunger for Indian land. In fact, Adams recorded not a single popular vote in Georgia, the very state most concerned with the presence of native tribes (such as the Cherokee) on its prime cotton-growing land. Indeed, the electoral map of 1828 was remarkably similar both to that of Civil War America in 1860 and our own elections in 2012 and 2016. The South and West favored one candidate, the North and East another.
In the end, the election of 1828 was best summed up in the words of one contemporary newspaperman, Thomas B. Stevenson, who declared that the Adams campaign had “dealt with man as he should be,” while the Jackson campaign had “appealed to him as he is.” There was no love lost between the two competitors. Jackson declined to pay the traditional courtesy call to the outgoing president, and Adams responded by conspicuously not attending the Jackson inauguration. Regardless, the Age of Jackson had begun.
The ‘Democracy’ Paradox: Linking the Market and Political Revolutions
In 1800, most states limited the right of even white males to vote. Some had taxpaying provisions and others had property ownership qualifications for the franchise. By the end of Jackson’s presidency, most such restrictions were a thing of the past. This can only partly be explained by Jackson’s explicit championing of the “common man.” Indeed, the democratization of the U.S. was very much tied up with the concurrent market and communications revolutions of the era.
Capitalism and its cyclical economic “panics”—or recessions—the last of which had occurred in 1819, led more and more Americans to believe that politics directly affected their lives. Furthermore, an increase in media outlets (newspapers) and communications technology garnered more exposure to political tracts. The changing economy, especially early industrialization, also provided new economic opportunities to accumulate wealth. Earlier, vast land ownership and farming were the main paths to prosperity. Now, a man with only moderate amounts of land could earn a fortune through commerce and/or entrepreneurship. These newly rich men chafed under the arcane property qualifications of the day and demanded a fair say in government through the right to vote. In the process, rich and poor alike—at least among white males—would soon gain voting rights.
The increase in voters, especially among commoners, meant that politicians like Jackson now had greater incentive to please, and pander to, the masses. In other words, market and communications advancements constituted a social revolution that forever altered concepts of citizenship. Jackson understood this and seized his opportunity. Men like John Quincy Adams were unprepared for, and uncomfortable with, this seismic change.
There was, however, an irony to all this radical democratization. At the same time as millions of poor whites were gaining the franchise, their newly empowered political class quickly denied those very rights to other men, mostly black men. Before 1820, free blacks could actually vote in many Northern states and a few Southern ones. Unfortunately, some of the first actions of these new poor white voters restricted free-black voting. From 1821 to 1842, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Rhode Island passed laws curtailing black civil rights. And, in new constitutional conventions (common during the 1830s), North Carolina and Tennessee took the vote away from free blacks. Indeed, in 1834, one Tennessee delegate at the convention insisted that “We, the People” meant “we the free white people of the United States and the free white people only.”
The conventions in North Carolina and Tennessee eliminated the last vestiges of free-black political rights in the South before the Civil War. Nonetheless, as we see this was an American, not a Southern, phenomenon. White supremacy was popular among the masses—and they enshrined its callous values the moment they received the vote. We may be poor, they seemed to declare, but at least we’re white. In this sense, America developed a identifiable caste– rather than class-based system of social hierarchy. The results would linger for generations.
‘Man of the People’?: The Character of Andrew Jackson
It was easy, at the time, to see Jackson as something of a throwback to Jeffersonian agrarianism. And, by some measures, he was just that. Nonetheless, Jackson’s popularity had more to do with personality than platform. Jefferson possessed the grandest library in the United States, Jackson the grandest ego. Jefferson was professorial, Jackson a man of action. Though the two men agreed on certain issues of state sovereignty, the aging Jefferson loathed Jackson and couldn’t imagine him as president. Dying on July 4, 1826, Jefferson would just miss seeing what he feared most: Jackson in the White House.
But Jackson was popular, and famous. He was a celebrity: a genuine war hero and hearty frontiersman, and he possessed a charismatic demeanor. He was a violent, coarse man—but he epitomized common notions of 19th-century masculinity. He drank, gambled, fought and never, ever apologized. He fought duels (which were illegal in most states) and bore the scars and bullet wounds to prove it. Indeed, Jackson probably counts as the only president in history to have, as a nongovernmental civilian and in cold blood, personally killed a man. (This occurred in an 1806 duel.) Adams thought these characteristics disqualified Jackson for the office, but the Democrats loved these traits. He’s tough, he tells it like it is … he’s just like us! Sound familiar?
To demonstrate his “common touch,” Jackson opened the White House to the public for his inaugural celebration. The crowd tore the furniture out and nearly rioted. The “man of people” was nearly trampled by his people. Still, Jackson was undeterred. Throughout his presidency he continued to equate (in what can be a dangerous construct) his own will with the “will of the people.” But it worked for him and earned him two terms as president. The “people” could not have cared less that Jackson owned a stately mansion (The Hermitage) in Tennessee, replete with Greek columns and French wallpaper. Jackson successfully cultivated a specific anti-elitist and anti-intellectual public persona, and millions loved it. He was also paranoid; he saw conspiracies around every corner and was certain that what we now call the “deep state” was out to destroy him.That never happened, and Jackson’s people remained ever loyal. They barely flinched at the contradictions in his presidency—such as how he doubled spending for internal improvements while in office, despite running against such projects. But if Jackson was president for the “common man,” he was certainly only thus for the white common man. Jackson was a bigot and brutal slave owner. In one advertisement for a runaway slave, he promised “ten dollars extra” for “every hundred lashes” the captor inflicted on the fugitive black in question. Jackson undoubtedly played on the fears and prejudices of poor whites to win their support. These people hated Indians, they hated slaves and they hated “uppity” free blacks. Jackson knew that, implicitly, and pursued policies amenable to this sizable part of the electorate throughout his administration. His “democratization” may have been real, but it was for whites only.
To the Victor Go the Spoils: Jackson the Chief Executive
Like nearly ever modern presidential candidate, Jackson ran on a “reform” platform. Only he could, or would, drain the proverbial swamp in D.C. Yet, in another bit of paradoxical irony, Jackson would make famous a tradition—his “spoils system”—that would lead to an outsized increase in corruption. We have Jackson to thank for the platitude “to the victor belong the spoils.” But despite the shock feigned by those who opposed his new policy of appointing friends and allies to nearly every federal position, no one should have been surprised. He had told Americans exactly what he planned to do! During the campaign itself, the editor of the Jacksonian United States Telegraph announced boldly that Jackson would “REWARD HIS FRIENDS AND PUNISH HIS ENEMIES.” He did indeed, and used patronage to do so.
Until 1828, most presidents—including John Quincy Adams—ran the federal bureaucracy as a fairly meritocratic organization. The custom was to leave most mid- and low-level employees in place when administrations switched. The idea was to maintain expertise and professionalism in the various federal departments. Jackson turned that system on its head and produced our modern system of political turnover in Washington. Jackson replaced 919 officials in his first year—more than all presidents combined in the previous 40 years.
The result: Rapid turnover meant less experience in the federal agencies, which equated with diminished competence in and decreased prestige of the federal civil service. Corruption actually increased among these favored political appointees. And, in a final bit of irony, the diminished competence of the federal agencies only bolstered the very Jacksonian argument that the government was inefficient and should be weakened! That strategy, employed with great skill to this day, has proved a winning combination for two centuries. The losers: the customers—the American people.
King Andrew I: Jackson’s Battles for Supremacy
Most of the controversies of Jackson’s presidency revolved around issues of presidential authority. Indeed, many of Jackson’s opponents took to calling the president King Andrew I and in the 1830s renamed their political party the Whigs, a title taken from an earlier British party that had opposed royal rule. While not actual royalty, Jackson did display some authoritarian tendencies. He believed strongly in the power of the presidency and reshaped the executive branch forever. For example, while in office he vetoed more congressional bills (12) than all his predecessors combined (10). By way of contrast, in four years John Quincy Adams didn’t veto a single bill. Jackson, on the contrary, never shied away from a challenge and never doubted the importance and pre-eminence of his office.
Jackson reacted boldly to two of the major crises of his administration: the Bank War and the “nullification crisis.” It is ironic that Andrew Jackson has long graced the $20 bill (soon to be replaced in the present day, controversially, by an image of Harriet Tubman) since he hardly understood economics and single-handedly destroyed the national banking system of his time. Jackson thought the Bank of the United States (BUS)—something analogous to our Federal Reserve—was both a challenge to his authority and an unconstitutional, elitist curtailment of states’ banking rights. So, in 1832, in what has been called “the most important veto in U.S. history,” Jackson followed through on his promise and killed the bank.
The president had once again demonstrated his authority and smitten the “elites,” but he simply didn’t understand finance or the ramifications of his decision. The bank—and its unelected head, Nicholas Biddle—may well have had too much influence over the national economy, but at least the BUS regulated the system and avoided major financial panics. In its place, Jackson injected chaos and corruption. He withdrew federal money from the BUS and invested it in numerous partisan (Democratic-controlled) “pet banks,” led by his own political allies. For the most part these banks were less stable, less regulated and more prone to irresponsible lending. The economy would suffer, and this instability contributed to the Panic of 1837, the worst recession to occur between the Founding and the Civil War. Of course, by then Jackson was safely out of office. Jackson never apologized and believed to the end that he had done the right thing.
In removing federal money from a solvent bank and transferring these public funds to “pet banks,” Jackson had violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. As a result, he became the first and only president officially censured by the U.S. Senate. It hardly mattered. Jackson may not have known economics, but he did know people. He capitalized on populist resentment of what was perceived as a corrupt and overly powerful federal bank. This played well with his base and the strong strand of anti-elitism (which still exists) in American culture. Sure, he ultimately would crash the economy, but despite his behavior and policies he remained popular and won a second term.
The disestablishment of the BUS empowered New York City’s Wall Street and forever moved the financial capital of the U.S. from Philadelphia to Manhattan. In the end, the people generally lost—even if they didn’t blame their hero, Jackson. Without federal controls and regulation, there was no way to mitigate the cycles of capitalism, and Americans would suffer fairly regular “panics,” or recessions, for generations to come.
The other major supremacy controversy arose over the federal tariff and its unpopularity in South Carolina. Before the Second World War, the vast majority of federal income came from land sales and the tariff. The tariff on foreign imports was rather high in the 1830s (ranging from 25 to 45 percent) and a key part of Henry Clay’s “American System.” The tariff protected the nascent Northern manufacturing industry and helped pay for the promised federal internal improvements. But the tariff was hated in the cotton-growing South. Reliant on the sale of cotton overseas and the import of foreign goods to fuel the Southern economy, South Carolina, in particular, feared (correctly) that Britain would retaliate with tariffs of their own—notably on Southern cotton. After a particularly high import tax rate passed Congress (the “Tariff of Abominations,” as it was labeled), South Carolinians dusted off an old states’ rights concept: nullification.
Vaguely resembling Jefferson and James Madison’s Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of the 1790s, nullification represented South Carolina’s belief that an individual state could declare a federal law unconstitutional and thereby “nullify” it. This was about more than tariffs, however. Slavery, as always, was the elephant in the room. If the feds could force a tariff on Southern states, could it not also someday abolish slavery and upend the entire Southern social and economic structure? Ironically, one leading South Carolina spokesperson for the theory of nullification was Jackson’s own vice president, John C. Calhoun. Talk about divided government. South Carolina went so far as to call a convention to debate and implement nullification of the tariff, and the stage was set for an epic power struggle—the sort of fight a man like Jackson never backed down from.
Jackson may have supported states’ rights on issues as dark as slavery and Indian removal, but he ultimately loved the union he had fought and bled for and would not countenance secession or any challenge to his own supremacy. Whatever his motivations, Jackson’s response to the nullification crisis must stand as his finest hour. Jackson mobilized the Army and threatened to don a uniform and personally lead an invasion of South Carolina. When a man like Jackson—who had killed before—threatened violence, he was seen as deadly serious.
He even told a departing South Carolina congressman to take a message to the convention in that state: Tell them, he said, that “if one drop of blood is shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man of them I can get my hands on to the first tree I find!” South Carolina would ultimately back down, and Jackson the savvy politician helped broker a tariff reduction so the state could save face. Through strength of purpose, Jackson had preserved the sanctity of the union and averted civil war. Later historians have even wondered whether, if Jackson were still president in 1860, he could have averted the Civil War of 1861-65.
Abuse of Power: Jackson’s Indian Removal Policy—an American Tragedy
“… No man entertains kinder feelings towards Indians than Andrew Jackson” —Democratic Congressman Wilson Lumpkin of Georgia
“Build a fire under them [the Cherokee]. When it gets hot enough, they’ll move.”—Andrew Jackson, in conversation with a congressman from Georgia
On other matters, Jackson showed far less political courage and succumbed to his own bigotry and the supposed states’ rights of the South. If nullification was his shining moment, Indian removal must stand as Jackson’s darkest. White settlers in the Ohio Country and, especially, in the old Southwest of Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi had long resented the presence of Native Americans and the federal treaties that granted the tribes land that they have lived on for centuries. Down south this was prime cotton country seen as wasted on “savages.” Some gold was even found on some native lands. Worse still, other tribes traded with free blacks and occasionally harbored runaway slaves. The truth, of course, is that the tribes of what was then the Southwest–the five “civilized” peoples, as they were known (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole)—were increasingly assimilated and lived mostly as farmers in the vein of white society. Some even owned slaves.
Still, so far as Southerners and Westerners were concerned, the Indians had to go. Georgia and Alabama, in particular, had long lobbied for the removal of the Cherokee and Creeks, respectively, but President Adams blocked these desires. Andrew Jackson was another matter. To Jackson, this was a states’ rights and sovereignty issue. Besides, he had fought Indians all his life and held rather paternalistic views of the “savages.” Heck, he sympathized with the Georgians and other Southerners. Georgians, for their part, wanted the Cherokee gone despite past federal guarantees, even though the Constitution clearly granted the right to deal with Indians to the national government. Indeed, a popular song of the day was illustrative of Southern views:
All I want in this creation
Is a pretty little wife and a big plantation
Away up yonder in the Cherokee nation.
In 1830, in another highly sectional vote (the Northeast tended to sympathize with the natives), the Congress barely passed (102-97) the Indian Removal Act. Indeed, without the Three-Fifths Compromise granting extra representation to Southern states in the House of Representatives, the bill would never have passed. Many historians have held the simplistic view that the act authorized Jackson and the federal government to forcibly remove the tribes. That’s not exactly true. The Indian Removal Act provided funds for voluntary (if highly encouraged) migration to Oklahoma but clearly stated the rights of Native Americans to stay on their land if they so chose. Seen this way, Jackson’s later actions in the Indian removal process constituted an extreme abuse of power.
Georgia responded to the protections granted by the Indian Removal Act by stating that, yes, natives could stay if they so insisted, but that they would then have to submit to state laws. Of course, under existing Georgia racial statutes, this would have meant Cherokees couldn’t vote, sue or own property. Essentially, they would be relegated to slavery. And so, in one last desperate attempt, the Cherokee took their grievance to the courts. In Worcester v. Georgia, a rather complicated case, the Supreme Court in a decision led by Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokee must be protected on lands granted to them by federal treaty. Once again, Jackson saw a challenge, a conspiracy even, against his presidential authority.
Jackson flouted the ruling. He claimed the federal government didn’t have the “power” (ironically) to protect the five tribes. It was a state issue, he said. Furthermore, he removed sympathetic Indian agents from the territories and refused to use force to prevent mobs from attacking the natives. When the Cherokee pleaded with Jackson he displayed little sympathy, stating “you cannot remain where you now are. Circumstances that cannot be controlled, and which are beyond the reach of human laws, render it impossible that you can flourish in the midst of a civilized community. …” That, of course, was patently false. In the Bank War and the nullification crisis, Jackson demonstrated his total willingness to take a stand and use the levers of government to enforce his mandates. Had Jackson chosen to, he could have protected the tribes and enforced the existing statutes.
Instead, Jackson simply defied the law and snubbed the Supreme Court. Scoffing at Justice Marshall’s ruling in Worcester v. Georgia, Jackson supposedly retorted that “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” This shocking statement constituted a veritable challenge to the very notion of separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution.
The results for the five tribes were tragic. By 1838, the last Cherokee holdouts were evicted by federal troops and marched in harsh weather along the “Trail of Tears” to Oklahoma. It is estimated that 4,000 out of 12,000 Cherokee died en route. As for the less well known case of the Creeks, perhaps 50 percent died during their deportation. Many of the Seminoles of Florida refused to leave and escaped to the Everglades. The U.S. Army would spend decades at war with this hardy tribe, lose thousands of men and spend 10 times more money fighting the Seminoles than it had spent deporting the other four tribes combined.
Indian removal was a bleak chapter in American history. It constituted what we would today call “ethnic cleansing.” Still, apologists remain who claim that we today cannot judge the people of the 19th century because “they didn’t know better,” or “that was the culture back then.” This is easily refuted by pointing out the millions of Americans who opposed the evictions even then. Consider the contemporaneous words of just two of their spokespersons. Henry Clay stated that the Indian Removal Act “threatens to bring a foul and lasting stain upon the good faith, humanity, and character of the nation.” Former President and then Congressman John Quincy Adams went further, declaring that Jackson’s program was “among the heinous sins of this nation, for which God will one day bring [those responsible] to judgment.”
Cues From Above: The Mob in the Age of Jackson
“The President is the direct representative of the American people. He was elected by the people and is responsible to them.” —Andrew Jackson
President Jackson regularly violated American law, violated basic civil liberties and unleashed a storm of public turmoil. He empowered his coarse supporters and (one hopes inadvertently) stoked domestic violence on a massive scale. Jackson was pro-slavery and usually pro-states’ rights, and abhorred the then-small abolitionist movement. He called anti-slavery abolitionists “monsters” who stirred up “the horrors of a servile war” and deserved to “atone for this wicked attempt with their lives.” He asked a session of Congress to authorize federal censorship of abolitionist mail and even went so far as to order the federal postal service to leave southbound abolitionist mail undelivered. Historian David Walker Howe has referred to this as “the largest peacetime violation of civil liberty in U.S. history.”
Jackson’s policies empowered anti-abolitionists (North and South) and helped unleash a storm of mob violence against these activists and, indeed, all anti-Jackson political groups. In 1834, a Jacksonian New York mob drove Whig Party observers away from a polling place. The next day a Whig parade was physically attacked. These events augured three years of such mob violence. Ethnic, racial and religious animosities influenced these attacks, but free blacks and abolitionists were the most common targets. William Lloyd Garrison, a famous abolitionist, was nearly lynched and was saved only when the authorities held him in jail for his own protection. In New York City there was a three-day riot in response to an African-American celebration commemorating the date of slavery’s abolition in the state. The mob violence was so pervasive that urban centers responded by forming the first modern police forces. (These men initially lacked uniforms and were identifiable only by a copper badge—hence the nickname of “cops.”) This is a vital point. Most American police forces were formed not in response to a crime wave, but rather on the heels of white urban riots!
These mobs were made up of Irish and German Catholic immigrants. The members of these groups tended to be staunch Democrats and were registered to vote by Democratic operatives as soon as they debarked their ships. Though poor and stigmatized, these immigrants learned to be white—were informed of their “whiteness”—and passionately enforced the system of racial caste in America. They may be poor, they may be Catholic, but at least they were white; it was not the first time a sentiment of this kind had been held in America.
The riots were deadly, especially in the South. For example, in 1835, 79 Southern mobs killed 63 people; 68 Northern mobs killed 8. Thousands more were injured and millions of dollars in property damage inflicted. President Jackson didn’t personally order this violence, of course, but the perpetrators were nearly always Jacksonians. He had whipped his supporters into such a fervor through his rough, often violent rhetoric that he must bear some responsibility for what followed. He also did little to squelch the violence. During the 1835 Washington, D.C., race riot, for example, he called out federal troops but did not instruct them to protect free blacks, who were the main victims of the attacks. Jacksonian mobs reflected their leader and the era. All this represented the democratic tyranny of a white, male majority over weaker minorities and their social activist allies.
Forever Altered: The Second Party System and the Rise of Modern American Democracy
“Give the people the power, and they are all tyrants as much as kings.” —Federalist Noah Webster, a critic of Jacksonian democratization
By 1834, Jefferson’s Republican Party was permanently shattered. Jackson’s Democratic Republicans took to calling themselves Democrats, while Clay and Adams’ National Republicans chose to take the title of Whigs, which, as noted earlier, is a reference to a British anti-monarchical party (after all, his opponents had hung the label “King Andrew” on Jackson!). The so-called Second Party System had formed, the first system having been the split between Federalists and Republicans in the 1790s. It would last until the Civil War. The Whigs were an interesting lot, truly a coalition of many factions. What really held the Whigs together, though, was their abiding hatred of Jackson.
It was during this Second Party System that modern notions of political partisanship developed. The two sides loathed one another, and Americans were just about evenly split in their loyalties. Both the Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats had long-term effects on the United States’ political culture. Jackson’s legacy was his party’s public electioneering and the five Supreme Court justices he appointed. These Democratic judges—including Chief Justice Roger Taney (who would later author the infamous Dred Scott decision)—would move the court in a pro-slavery, states’ rights direction for a full generation.
It’s hard to judge these two parties by modern standards, and their positions were rather paradoxical. The Jacksonians did favor more white, male democratization but were completely illiberal on race and gender. The Whigs distrusted the will of the people and probably preferred the exclusion of some men from the political process; yet they were more tolerant in other ways and willing to protect the political rights of free blacks. Which was the better position? It’s hard to know. Perhaps the Whig tendency toward the exclusion of poor whites was inexcusable; then again, given the outcomes, perhaps they were right to fear the masses.
What’s certain is this: In the end, the Jacksonian method of politics and campaigning had won out. Desperate to win the presidency, by 1840 the Whigs had begun trying to “out-Jackson” the Jacksonians. They held party conventions, publicly campaigned, and even sought to appeal to the “common man.” Indeed, in 1840 the Whigs tried—and succeeded—in running a Jackson of their own. The victorious Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison, was himself a war hero (a veteran of the Battle of Tippecanoe, a successful engagement with Indians in the old Northwest). He even had a catchy slogan: “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!”—a reference to John Tyler, the Whigs’ vice presidential candidate. Furthermore, Whig cartoons labeled Harrison the “hard cider” (a popular alcoholic beverage) candidate and pictured him in front of humble, rustic log cabins. Here was the Whigs’ own “self-made man.” It was a deception, of course. Harrison came from a wealthy planter family in Virginia and lived in a mansion. No matter, it worked and the Whigs won their first election.
* * *
Looking back from 2018, it is scary that the contemporary system of two major parties so closely resembles the fierce partisan divides of the Jacksonian era. After all, the division of American loyalties and inability of the two parties to work together led, within three decades, to a horrendous civil war. Jackson, as Donald Trump is now, was a remarkably divisive figure. He remains divisive among historians who still debate his legacy.
Though Jackson was a compelling and popular figure, and counted numerous achievements (he was the first and only president to ever pay off the entire federal debt), his flaws were many. Try as apologist historians may, one cannot disentangle Jackson’s white democratization from his legacy of Indian removal, slavery, racism and mob violence. Indeed, white supremacy stood at the very center of Jacksonian democracy; by design, the “many” wore their skin color as a badge of honor and mark of superiority over the “few,” the lesser souls of America. In that way, ironically, Jackson and his acolytes achieved the dream that wealthy Southern elites had dreamed since the founding of Jamestown: to tie the loyalties of poor whites with the prosperity and fortunes of their social betters. Most whites were now united behind a new identity of whiteness-as-Americanism, and excluded women, blacks and natives from the collective community.
In the 21st century, as the U.S. body politic continues to grapple with issues of race, immigration, gender and sexual orientation, and as this country is being led by a man with a character remarkably similar to Andrew Jackson’s, perhaps the time is right to assess the triumphs and ills of our great democratic experiment. But here’s a word of warning: Be careful in reassessing the American past. What you find may be disturbing.
Andrew Jackson famously claimed that we should “never believe that the great body of the citizens can deliberately intend to do wrong.” Observing the reality of his time, and of our own, I’m not so sure. This much, however, is true: Jackson was many things, but this is sure—he was dangerous. So, potentially, are all powerful presidents … even, maybe especially, the popular ones.
* * *
To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:
• Alfred A. Cave, “Abuse of Power: Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act of 1830,” The Historian 65, No. 6 (Winter 2003).
• James West Davidson, Brian DeLay, Christine Leigh Heyrman, Mark H. Lytle and Michael B. Stoff, “Experience History: Interpreting America’s Past,” Chapter 10: “The Opening of America, 1815-1850” (2011).
• Lacy K. Ford, Jr., “Making the ‘White Man’s Country’ White: Race, Slavery, and State-Building in the Jacksonian South,” Journal of the Early Republic 19, No. 4 (Winter 1999).
•Daniel Walker Howe, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848” (2007).
• Jill Lepore, “People Power: Revisiting the Origins of American Democracy,” New Yorker (October 2005).
• Seth Rockman, “Jacksonian America,” in “American History Now” (2011), Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, ed.
Maj. Danny Sjursen, a regular contributor to Truthdig, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kan. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast, “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.