Presidential Review: Andrew Jackson

7 Apr

Well, well, well, Old Hickory.  Andrew Jackson is one of those presidents that everyone knows but cannot tell you a thing he did.  This is unfortunate, because Jackson represents a great change in how American Democracy developed.  In some ways these changes were extremely progressive, and in others not so much.   The thing is that Jackson could be called the first outsider president.  He was not a part of the elite that had ruled things up until this time–he was only involved in politics as a part of his military career.    He’s also the first president that had a lot of personality (ok, the Adams family were a group of grumps but that’s not what I’d call “personality.”)  Jackson was fiery, and extraordinarily popular in his own time.  So lets see how it all adds up.

First we have a move towards Jacksonian Democracy.  Most of the founding fathers had no intention of having EVERYONE vote (which is why the electoral college is in effect).  They felt like voting should have all sorts of limitations–from owning land, to being a member of a (protestant) church, the specific rules in each state varied, but the idea was that an educated elite would be the primary voting group–those (in their minds) who had the experience, intelligence, and reason to vote on the best behalf of everybody.  They were terrified of “King Mob” particularly in the wake of the French Revolution which quickly devolved into a bloodbath.  In a way I can see their point–sometimes groups of people make the worst decisions (and if you doubt that look at the top movie of the country in most weeks).  However, Jackson did not believe in that–he wanted to make the voting laws uniform in every state so that every citizen had a right to vote…

…well every citizen outside of women, Native Americans, black people, and anybody else that couldn’t be considered white and male.  This is where Jacksonian democracy gets a little twisted, because while all white males had equal rights to vote (and Jackson would have gone one further by ending the electoral college), women and minorities ended up getting treated worse than ever.  The thing with the founding fathers is that though they could be incredibly patronizing, and they certainly were elitist, they were incredibly patronizing to everybody, and while their answers to social issues could be laughable, for the most part, they really felt responsible for making everybody’s life more fair than not.    Jackson did not feel this way–and so while making the entitled voter group a little wider, he just ended up making another elite group that ended up disenfranchising millions for more than a hundred years.

One example was the Trail of Tears, where Native Americans were forced to walk over 1000 miles from the southeast to what is now Oklahoma.  The story is one of the nastiest in American history, with treaties signed by people who did not have the authority to represent all the tribes, walking barefoot through ice and snow, mass death, and only the most limited of supplies offered.    The group was not even allowed to pass through towns or villages, having to travel as far away from settled areas as possible.   Keep in mind this wasn’t just one removal, this was a series of removals that lasted about a decade.  Though the total count is unknown, thousands died from an American policy of hostile neglect during these marches.  As such these forced emigrations might be the biggest act of genocide ever seen within American borders.

So this is why Jacksonian Democracy doesn’t exactly ring true to me, yes there were many more voters, but it’s almost like they needed to find an outsider group to persecute to make voters entitled.    (And don’t even get me started on Jacksonian views on slavery.)

Ok, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system.  What else did Jackson accomplish?   He was the only president to pay off the entire national debt (keep this in mind kids whenever they bring up how much our country owes–our country has always owed.  It’s not new.)     However it didn’t last long, as soon as we had another recession/depression, America fell into the red again.   By the way, Jackson caused this depression through his involvement with the Bank of the United States.

Jackson felt like the Bank of the United States was unconstitutional  because it took all of the United States’s resources and put them in one central bank where wealthy members of the elite could benefit from it.    So he ended this bank and reinvested the money from 1 central bank to banks all over the country.  This actually was a terrific setup at first, because suddenly all over America local banks had extra capital to invest locally.  However, Jackson then passed the “species circular” because of concern over land speculation in the newly available formerly Indian lands, requiring that all land would have to be paid for in gold or circle, bank notes were not allowed.  Unfortunately there was not enough gold and silver for people to use and the whole economy crashed.  Jackson, however did not get punished for this, Martin Van Buren, his successor did.

The most interesting thing in Jackson’s presidency was the nullification crisis.    Essentially this was over tariffs, which until the national income tax started was the primary income of the national government.  The south, which made most of its money through farming and plantations generally did not  like tariffs, because they wanted the cheapest goods wherever they came from.  The north which centered its commerce on manufacture and trade liked tariffs because it encouraged a greater market for American made goods.  So the national government made a set of tariffs in 1828 which South Carolina nullified within its borders.  Jackson reduced the tariff, but South Carolina would not budge and was now talking secession.  Jackson then had a third compromise bill made as well as a force bill allowing for military occupation of South Carolina if they did not concede.  They conceded, and the Civil War was delayed three decades.

What’s interesting about this is Jackson’s unremitting dedication to the idea of the United States being one whole unit rather than a collection of states.    Before this the relationship between the  national government and state governments was inconsistent and a good deal of the founding fathers uncertainties sat in what this relationship should be.  I suppose it must be coming from a military background, but for Jackson it was not questionable, the national government was not only necessarily the top ruling unit, but he expected states to fall in line with national laws without question, even those that were not to their liking.  This national centristic ideal was more revolutionary than the Federalists could have ever dreamed, with a pure top-down government.  In Jackson’s mind, extending rights to a larger group removed the necessity for state and local governments to be equal to the national government.    The most interesting part of this whole conflict was that Jackson thought that the tariff argument was just an excuse for South Carolina to try to leave the union, that sooner or later slavery would become the next excuse.

In the end, I have a hard time swallowing Jackson’s presidency.  While Jackson as an individual  represented a wider voice in American politics, his policies hurt many American groups.  While Jeffersonian Democracy might have been too idealistic, Jacksonian Democracy just stems from whatever the heck Jackson wanted to do at the time.   That added with a certain tendency to make military solutions to social problems (ok, I support him on the nullification issue, but otherwise) makes him one of my least favorite famous presidents.   He had a lot of character though, gotta give him that.

Next we’ve got Van Buren, who won’t be on anybody’s list of famous American Presidents.  Also, finally, a one term president who isn’t an Adams!

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2 Responses to “Presidential Review: Andrew Jackson”

  1. lexborgia April 10, 2013 at 12:43 am #

    He was a wicked man who did many wicked things, specially to the Native Indian – Accepting the truths about the your country’s past doesn’t equal hatred for your country. Jackson would surely have landed in the Hague – then again, he wouldn’t, because he was an American President doing God’s work.

    • pewterbreath April 11, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

      I have to admit Jackson is the hardest president for me to stomach through this point in history. Even later, there’s no other presidents who are quite so famous who had such a harsh legacy.

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