Forty years ago, I started my first job as a professional historian. Upon finishing my Ph.D., I took a position as assistant editor of the Andrew Jackson Papers, a documentary editing project located at The Hermitage, Jackson’s home near Nashville. I spent more than three years there transcribing and editing the seventh president’s voluminous correspondence, which was published eventually by the University of Tennessee Press.
At that time, scholars rated Jackson in the top tier of chief executives, as a “great” or “near great” president. Like most historians then, I agreed. His rags-to-riches life story was compelling. He was a national military hero and an iconic public figure who left the White House with even more popular approval than when he entered it. He claimed the mantle of championing the common man. As president, he took decisive action in resisting the secession of South Carolina in 1831, thereby perhaps preventing civil war. In many ways, he was bigger than life.
Over the years, however, my perspective, along with those of many other historians, began to change. Almost from the beginning, Jackson’s administration was beset with controversy, most of it of his own doing. Branded by his political enemies as dictatorial and capricious, he maintained that he was the only elected official of all the people and that he should uphold their interests against a sectionalized, incompetent Congress, a body that he confronted frequently.
He was the first president to use the veto for reasons of expediency rather than on constitutional grounds, tipping the balance of power toward the executive branch. For that matter, he issued more vetoes in his term as president than all of his predecessors combined.
Furthermore, he appointed loyal men to his cabinet with whom he rarely consulted, relying instead on an unofficial “kitchen cabinet” that provided him mostly with managed news reported to him by “yes men.”
He attempted to make himself co-equal with the judicial branch in determining the constitutionality of legislation. He defied the Supreme Court on several issues, knowing that it had no real authority to ensure compliance with its rulings. In one case, he was reported to have said about the chief justice of the United States, “Mr. Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”
Two issues in particular stand out as examples of Jackson’s misguided policies. The first involved Indian lands in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. As the commander of an American army in the War of 1812, Jackson waged hard war against the Creek Indians, who had allied themselves with the British.
Upon his election as president, he brought a deep-seated resentment against Indians with him to office. In his 1829 inaugural address, Jackson called for the relocation of all Eastern Indians to beyond the Mississippi River. This was a popular idea among white settlers, particularly when gold was discovered on Indian lands in Georgia. The president’s wish became federal law when he lobbied Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act in 1830.
After several years of legal wrangling, and Jackson’s refusal to respond to pleas from the Indians, he forced the removal of some 14,000 Cherokee from their native lands to the current state of Oklahoma. Escorted by soldiers, the group lacked adequate clothing and food, and was poorly prepared for the deplorable weather they experienced, an estimated 4,000 men, women and children died before reaching their final destination.
Long relegated to brief references in American history textbooks, the Trail of Tears now has been brought to the forefront by scholars as one of the most tragic chapters in the American experience.
Another misguided Jackson policy that would have long-standing consequences centered on the economy. For years, Jackson had a deep distrust of banks in general, but especially the Bank of the United States, which had been the brainchild of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton during George Washington’s presidency. Designed to provide enduring economic stability to the nation, the bank, Jackson argued, was controlled by a few wealthy men who lined their pockets at public expense. When the bank charter came up for renewal in 1836, Jackson refused to sign it, and for all intents and purposes the institution went out of business, with its assets distributed among several state banks.
This action, combined with a shortsighted policy of demanding only gold or silver to pay for the purchase of public lands, led directly to a financial panic in 1837. Had he simply curbed some of the central bank’s practices rather than crush it altogether, he could have saved the nation from weakened finances that brought untold misery to hundreds of thousands of people for many years to come.
Ironically, Jackson made the presidency so strong during his two terms in office that most of his successors were weak leaders who were unable to effectively lead the country through a series of crises that eventually led to civil war.
It is perhaps not surprising that Donald Trump has embraced Jackson as his hero. Soon after his inauguration, the president hung Old Hickory’s portrait in the Oval Office and called him “an amazing figure in American history.”
One can go too far in comparing the two men, as there is as much dissimilarity between them as there is similarity. Nevertheless, even though the times and circumstances are different, for better and for worse, we seem to have a modern-day Old Hickory in the White House now.