Victor Nuovo: The age of Andrew Jackson

Editor’s note: This is the 28th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) was President of the United States for two terms, from 1829 until 1837. He also ran for the office in 1824 and received the most votes, but he didn’t receive a sufficient majority in the electoral college to elect him outright. It remained for the House of Representatives to decide the winner, and they chose John Quincy Adams, who had run second. Henry Clay was then Speaker of the House, and it was rumored that he and Adams had made a deal. Shortly after he took office, President Adams appointed Clay Secretary of State and the rumor was confirmed, at least in the minds of Jackson supporters. They cried foul and loudly condemned what they perceived to be a “corrupt compromise.” Thus the campaign was launched that would elect Jackson president in 1828. In the meantime, his supporters employed every political means to sabotage the administration of John Quincy Adams. It was the beginning of partisan politics as we know it.
Jackson’s presidency is regarded by some leading historians as a transformative moment in the history of the nation. He was the first president who did not belong to the eastern elite. His victory marked the demise of the New England based Federalist Party and the triumph of the Democratic Party, the party of Jefferson. But Democrats had abandoned Jefferson’s vision. He envisioned a nation of small farms, an agrarian society, self-sufficient, whose primary government consisted of local councils, a participatory democracy, a counterweight to, if not a substitute for, the growing central government. The vision was no longer practical, even Jefferson had abandoned it. Democrats recast themselves as the party of ordinary people, farmers and workers, who were the real economic base of American society, although they possessed little of its wealth, and whose voice was not heard. Jackson became their president. His administration brought many major changes: social, economic, and cultural, which together caused a fundamental change in the character of the nation. Commerce became the national vocation and by it the nation greatly increased its wealth and power and standing among the nations.
The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. credited Jackson with this achievement and named his history of the period “The Age of Jackson.” He depicted him as the first “populist president.” But this judgment has not gone unchallenged. For one thing, the label does not seem to fit the man, who was more of an aristocrat than an ordinary citizen, as the historian Richard Hofstadter has noted, he was a member of the Southwestern aristocracy, whose way of life combined characteristics of “frontier roughnecks” and “landed gentry,” interested primarily in gambling, horse-racing, and hard drinking, whose behavior was “lawless, individualistic, quick-tempered, and brawling,” but also “courtly, sentimental, unreflective, and touchy.” He greatly valued his honor and fought a duel to defend it; he was wounded in the faceoff, a bullet lodged close to his heart and could never be removed — though grievously wounded, he remained steady, took careful aim, and killed his opponent. He migrated west to Tennessee, where he practiced law, became moderately wealthy, purchased land, acquired slaves, and became politically well-connected. He headed the local militia; subsequently he became a national hero at the decisive battle of New Orleans, all of which opened a pathway to the presidency.
But, the question remains, just what did Jackson do that warrants calling him “the People’s President” and naming an era of American history after him. Unlike, John and John Quincy Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, Jackson, does not seem to have had a well-worked out political vision. He was not reflective, not a man of ideas, which seems to have become the norm for American presidents. There is nothing in his papers that would suggest otherwise. His inaugural addresses are prosaic and uninspired; they are balanced policy statements. If he was motivated by a passion, it is evident only in his actions. As a soldier, he had distinguished himself by his courage, daring, and savagery, and no doubt these characteristics carried over in his presidency.
One episode during his presidency supports these contentions — the so-called Bank War. It concerned the Second Bank of the United States, which was chartered by Congress in 1816, the charter expired in 1836. In 1829, Jackson expressed doubts about its constitutionality. The Bank was not a government agency, but a private corporation that nevertheless operated much like a national institution with unrestricted powers. Its purpose was to facilitate industrial and commercial growth, to provide credit and to regulate currency. The United States government provided 20 percent of its assets. Its original design was conceived by Alexander Hamilton. As a congressionally chartered national institution, it was not subject to state laws or regulation; it could not be taxed by them. In opposing the Bank, Jackson went to war against the eastern moneyed establishments, the power elites, who were its principal beneficiaries, and he won. In 1832 Congress passed legislation to renew the charter of the Bank for another twenty years. In a conciliatory gesture, they proposed a few reforms. Jackson vetoed the bill, because he believed it to be “subversive of the rights of the States, and dangerous to the liberties of the people” by giving too much power to the rich. His veto was sustained, and no subsequent legislative effort was made to renew it. Its charter expired in 1836.
Jackson was also victorious against the efforts of John C. Calhoun to promote states rights over the interests of the national government. Calhoun, who was then vice-president, defended the right of states to nullify federal laws when the laws required them to act against their own self-interest. Jackson’s response was swift and decisive, and constitutionally astute. He noted that the Constitution did not form a league of states, but a government of the people, that is, of all the people individually and not as members of states, a single nation that cannot be divided. One is reminded of Lincoln’s speech the launched the Lincoln/Douglas debates: “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
One last outcome of Jackson’s administration must be mentioned. This was the Indian Removal Act, which caused the relocation of Indian peoples from their ancestral lands east of the Mississippi to territories farther west. He described the policy as benevolent, a happy consummation. He concluded his message to Congress with these remarks, justifying the act of removal:
“And is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian? Is it more afflicting to him to leave the graves of his fathers than it is to our brothers and children? Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. He is unwilling to submit to the laws of the States and mingle with their population. To save him from this alternative, or perhaps utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement.”
In fairness to Jackson, the great genocidal wrong of this policy was not his alone, but the nation’s. It is still ours.

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