The hero worship that Donald J. Trump (R-New York) and many of his followers have for Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee) is terribly misplaced. Despite his larger than life image; Jackson was a failure as president, and the political movement he founded nearly destroyed the country.
There are some interesting similarities between Trump and the seventh president. Both can be described as larger than life and controversial celebrities; with strong appeal to working-class whites and personality cults among some segments of the population. Like Trump, Jackson was hated by some segments of the population; especially intellectuals, and viewed as a tyrant by many.
Jackson vs. Trump
Some other striking similarities between the two include a reputation for racism and the contrast between their lifestyles and popular images.
Like Trump, Jackson was a plutocrat; a wealthy slave and plantation owner and land speculator, who portrayed himself as a populist and man of the people. Another interesting similarity was that both are second-generation Americans; Jackson’s parents were born in Ireland, Trump’s mom was born in Scotland.
Differences between the two abound, Jackson was a self-made man who pulled himself up from poverty by his own talent. Trump; a third-generation millionaire, inherited a fortune from his dad and squandered much of it. Jackson was a lifelong soldier and fighting general who won one of the greatest victories in American history. Trump was a draft dodger who has a reputation as a physical coward.
Jackson was happily married to the same woman for decades; Trump has been married three times. Trump seems to love the media spotlight; Jackson was something of a loner who often shunned publicity. Jackson was very much a country boy who preferred Tennessee to Washington; Trump is a lifelong city slicker and died in the wool New Yorker who loves Manhattan.
Trump is a political neophyte who has only held one political office. Jackson had a vast amount of political experience he had served as a Congressman, a judge, and a U.S. Senator before reaching the White House.
A final and perhaps critical difference is that Jackson had something like popular support. Old Hickory; his popular nickname, won around 56% of the popular vote in 1828, Trump only received 46% of the popular vote in 2016, 2% less than his opponent Hillary Clinton (D-New York).
Jackson’s Failed Presidency
Something that Trump; and his court jester Steve Bannon, forget is that Andy Jackson’s presidency was very much a failure.
Jackson failed to achieve one of his main goals; the annexation of Texas as a slave state, or several slave states. His protégé James Polk (D-Tennessee) later achieved that and far more at a terrible price.
Nor did Jackson or any of his successors, achieve another goal of the Southern aristocracy – the extension of slavery to the West Coast. Instead, California and Oregon entered the union as “free states” – which helped trigger the Civil War. That also gave the North a critical economic edge in the conflict, because it provided the Union with large supplies of gold and silver to finance its war effort.
The biggest failure of Jackson’s presidency was his failure to address the greatest crisis facing 19th Century America: slavery. Like almost every other politician of his day, Jackson simply ignored the issue and failed to talk about it in hopes the problem would go away. It did not, instead, slavery became a festering wound that eventually exploded into civil war.
The only effort Jackson’s government made to address slavery was to try and bar publishers of antislavery propaganda from using the mails. That helped radicalize the abolitionist movement and turned many Northerners against slavery. Tellingly, the abolitionist movement grew during Jackson’s presidency and became increasingly radical.
How Jackson Destroyed the Economy and Conducted Ethnic Cleansing
Almost as destructive was Jackson’s signature policy as President – killing the Bank of the United States. Jackson spent much of his presidency trying to destroy America’s central bank, the Bank of the United States. He eventually succeeded in a controversy popularly known as the Bank War.
The results were predictable the Bank of the United States; America’s largest financial institution eventually collapsed without federal support and triggered the Panic of 1837. That led to one of the worst depressions in American history; with 25% unemployment, and destroyed the political career of Jackson’s successor Martin Van Buren (D-New York). Fortunately for Jackson, the catastrophe occurred after he was safely retired from office.
The only policy of Jackson’s that was sort of “successful” is the one for which he is best remembered today: Indian Removal. In a form of ethnic cleansing, Jackson used the army to illegally force large numbers of Native Americans from their ancestral lands in the South to reservations in Oklahoma.
The removal like most of Jackson’s policies was a fiasco, leading to the deaths of over 15,000 people in the Trail of Tears; in which members of several tribes were force-marched across the country in terrible conditions. More tellingly, many Native Americans were able to evade relocation and their descendants still live in the areas Jackson reserved for “whites only.”
Jacksonian Democracy was also a Failure
The political movement Jackson launched: Jacksonian Democracy was also a failure. Jackson’s party, the Democrats, was quickly taken over by slave-owning plutocrats that turned it into a vehicle for the expansion of slavery at the expense of working-class whites.
Jackson himself did little to empower the common man instead, he used the Oval Office to expand and empower the slave-based plutocracy that ran the South. He stuffed his cabinet with slave-owning plutocrats, and actively courted the support of corrupt machine politicians and Irish gangsters in Northern Cities.
Jackson’s first vice president was John C. Calhoun (D-South Carolina); the intellectual father of the Confederacy. Old Hickory’s second vice president was the corrupt New York machine politician Martin Van Buren (D).
Jackson’s approach to government the “spoils system;” in which offices were rewarded to political supporters, created a culture of corruption that undermined democracy. The results of that were to radicalize the opposition and turn government into a brutal contest for wealth and power.
How Jackson helped Cause the Civil War
An inevitable result of this was that many Northerners began to view slavery, the Democratic Party, the federal government, and the South in general as threats to their freedom.
By the 1850s, a lot of Northerners viewed the Slave Power (the popular term for the Southern Leadership), White Southerners, and Democrats; as their descendants would view Communism a century later, a dangerous brand of tyranny that had to be contained at all costs. They also began viewing Democrats and supporters of slavery as un-American and unpatriotic traitors that had to be purged from the government for the nation’s good.
Many of them began founding new radical political parties dedicated to destroying the Southern menace, or the Slave Power. These groups eventually coalesced in the Republican Party; its’ victory in 1860 triggered the Civil War.
The Northern fears were strongly justified by the reality of the times. A little over 20 years after Jackson left the White House two Democratic presidents; Pierce and Buchanan were actively trying to strip working class whites of political power. The two used a combination of chicanery, armed thugs, and vote fraud to foist a proslavery Democratic regime on the free white voters of Kansas.
The result was “Bleeding Kansas” a vicious local civil war in the late 1850s that preceded the main event. A major participant in Bleeding Kansas was John Brown, the white antislavery zealot who later attempted to launch a guerrilla war against the Slave Power.
Jacksonian Democracy succeeded in destroying the very thing it was intended to protect and preserve: slavery. The Jacksonian effort to empower the common white man created a destructive oligarchy that spilt the nation along class, regional, ideological, and racial lines.
Trump is Jacksonian and that is Very Bad
Disturbingly Trump is successfully imitating some of Jackson’s worst actions as president.
Like Jackson, Trump rode into office on a wave of populist anti-establishment sentiment but quickly started stuffing his administration with wealthy plutocrats, party hacks, and conservative ideologues. Just Google the phrase “Government by Goldman;” as in Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS), to gauge popular reaction to such choices. Cynics can justifiably describe Trump’s approach to filling offices as Spoils System 2.0.
Modern political and constitutional realities make ethnic cleansing impossible in 21st Century America, but Trump has certainly empowered White Nationalism and poisoned race relations. Like Jackson, he’s also radicalized his opponents, and made a lot of Americans afraid or at least suspicious of both the Republican Party and business leaders.
Many pundits blame the increasingly radicalized and noisy progressive movement that is close to seizing control of the Democratic Party on Trump. Like Jackson, Trump has succeeded in stirring up, radicalizing, uniting, and empowering his enemies.
We Need another Teddy not Another Jackson
The final and perhaps destructive Jacksonian behavior Trump is exhibiting is his failure to address modern America’s most pressing problem: Income Inequality.
Even though the Donald capitalized on its’ effects in last year’s elections, as President he has been noticeably silent about Income Inequality and its effects. This too is Jacksonian; much of Old Hickory’s political base was composed of poor white Southerners, who were being dispossessed of land and rights by the Slave Power.
Jackson’s failure to deal with slavery’s toxic effects only made the problem worse. Trump’s refusal even to use the words Income Inequality will only make that problem; and the class conflict it breeds, worse.
Hopefully, history will not repeat itself, and Trump’s Jacksonian Democracy will not be as destructive as the original. There is no way America can survive a second “Age of Jackson.”
Donald should find another president to emulate. A good one would be his fellow New Yorker Theodore Roosevelt (R) who spent his career criticizing and fighting Income Inequality.
For a good overview of Jacksonian America see Daniel Howe’s excellent What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States). There are several excellent biographies of Andy Jackson, Stephen Floyd provides a good rundown of them at his Best Presidential Bios blog.