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22 may 2008
"All efforts to judge Andrew Jackson by political standards other than his own, and those of his time," writes Sean Wilentz, "are doomed from the start" (6). In his contribution to the Times Books American Presidents series, Wilentz follows his own principles. Jackson was a slaveholder, had a lethally paternalistic view of American Indians, and took for granted a political world in which women were ciphers. At the same time, he inspired a broad-based democratic movement that would, in time, reach beyond the white males who were enfranchised in the Jacksonian era to include blacks, Indians, and women. Jackson climbed a rung of American political history toward a more representative system – even if he might look back from our perspective and see the advance as the start of a slippery slope.
In making this argument, Wilentz follows on suggestions made by Joyce Appleby in her Times Books entry on Thomas Jefferson, which frets at length about Jefferson's antediluvian treatment of blacks and women. Both Jefferson and Jackson were, from our perspective, fairly Neanderthal in their sense of universal human rights – and maybe that's an insult to Neanderthals. But the former wrote "all men are created equal," and the latter wrote "the majority is to govern." Certainly Jackson did not mean that the African-American majority in South Carolina should govern that state. But paradoxically, 180 years later we owe the near-certain nomination of an African-American for the presidential candidacy of Jackson's party in some measure to Jackson's fanatical insistence that the American government be answerable to the broadest-based suffrage he could, by his limited lights, imagine.
Andrew Jackson was the first President to come from social obscurity. He was the second to have no college education (after Washington, a gentleman of the planter class) and the second to have working-class ancestry (after the first Adams, whose parents were of the doughty New England yeomanry, ambitious for their son's education and career). Jackson is still the only President whose parents were both immigrants to America. (Buchanan's and Arthur's fathers were Irish, their mothers American; Wilson's mother was [Scottish, Hoover's mother born in Canada]; but both Jackson's parents emigrated from the north of Ireland, shortly before Jackson was born.) Posthumous, orphaned by the Revolution, friendless, gauche, and unconnected, the young Jackson made a career as a frontier lawyer out of a willingness to fight anybody who looked cross-eyed at him. He then became a self-made planter in Nashville and, after a brief spin in Congress from the new state of Tennessee, took up militia officering as a third or fourth career. The War of 1812 made Jackson deservedly a national hero, and he eventually tracked down the White House 16 years later.
As Herman Melville puts it in a passage that Wilentz quotes as epigraph, God picked up Andrew Jackson "from the pebbles." Before 1828, you could not say to your son "Any American can become President." After that, anything went.
American politics during Jackson's term was dominated by a struggle between federal nationalists and states-rights advocates. It had been ever thus, but increasingly in the 1830s the structural conflict between federal and state authority became an alignment of pro-slavery forces on the states' side and forces that, if not abolitionist yet, were certainly concerned to limit the power of slavery on the federal side.
In this debate, President Jackson, a southern slaveholder, was solidly on the side of the Federal government. Wilentz argues that this makes perfect sense. Jackson was no stalking horse for the slave interest. He had been elected, he figured, by all the people. By his second term, the only state that no longer chose Presidential electors by popular vote was the crucible of "nullification," South Carolina, the great thorn in Jackson's side. In terms of domestic politics and economics, the planter Jackson had everthing in common with the South Carolina planter class (though he despised their social pretensions). But he had been elected President largely thanks to huge majorities in states like Pennsylvania, which had moved decisively away from slavery toward a kind of socially-conscious working-class politics that still characterizes the Commonwealth today. And by God, he was going to see to it that Pennsylvania and South Carolina got along.
Of all the later Presidents, Jackson reminds me most of Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, Jackson was willfully ignorant on many subjects. His off-the-cuff remarks often ramble. He was a celebrity before he was a politician. He shared Reagan's tenacity, with a blinkered concentration on a few great causes (for Jackson, federal authority, democracy and the destruction of the Bank of the United States; for Reagan, lower taxes, a neo-states'-rights "new federalism," and a fanatical anti-communism). Like Reagan, Jackson was fond of saber-rattling but left office with remarkably little international military adventure to show for his pugnacious rhetoric. And like Reagan, Jackson encouraged a formidable political organization that delivered the Presidency to his Vice President.
The parallels don't extend to all aspects of the two Presidents, though. Reagan chuckled about everything and often seemed out of touch. Jackson bristled about everything, sharing with Washington and Monroe among his predecessors a touchy, ever-vigilant sense of personal honor. There was often some doubt during the terms of the first six Presidents over whether the President had much power or influence in the government he nominally headed. Andrew Jackson left nobody in doubt for a moment.
Wilentz, Sean. Andrew Jackson. New York: Times Books, 2005.