Who was the real Andrew Jackson, and what can we learn from him today?
A. J. Illingworth is the author of Political Justice: A Traditional Conservative Case for an Alternative Society.
Andrew Jackson (1769–1845) could at one time claim his place among the United States’ pantheon of most distinguished heroes. He held the American presidency from 1829 to 1837, following George Washington’s precedent by declining to run for more than two terms of office (despite such practice being perfectly legal at the time). One musical chorus of the 1955 classic Disney film, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, described him as ‘old Andrew Jackson, who everybody knows’ – yet, in the space of some sixty years that man whom everybody knew has fallen from the status of American folk hero to one of relative obscurity, and when he is mentioned, he is mentioned with scorn. Media representation in the past decade has depicted Jackson as a reckless youth who frequented brothels, stole the wife of another man,1 as well as ‘a slaver, an ethnic cleanser, and a tyrant.’2
The truth is that smearing Andrew Jackson is nothing new – it has been going on since the 1820s when he first entered politics, and many of his critics have twisted the vestiges of truth in their statements into exaggerated and out-of-place criticisms, if not bitter lies. So who was the real Andrew Jackson, and what can we learn from him today?
Born in the British colony of the Carolinas in 1767, Jackson first served as a courier for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, at the age of only thirteen. It was during this service that he received his first wound – slashed by a British officer across the left hand and face, he was left with the scars for his whole life. He tried various careers as a young man, working as a manufacturer of saddles before being admitted to the bar. He practised initially on the frontier settling land disputes between American citizens and the local Indian tribes. In 1791 he became Tennessee’s Attorney General, and in 1796 he was elected to the House of Representatives for the state, joining Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party (an agrarian, states’ rights party opposed to the Federalists, who favoured a centralized system). In 1797 he was promoted to senator, but was dissatisfied with the role and resigned to take a position in Tennessee’s Supreme Court. In 1802 he was elected Governor, a position which he held until 1809. Initially leading volunteers from his home state, he fought several campaigns against the Creek Indians in 1812, and repulsed the British invasion of New Orleans in the same year. When the wars had died down, and Jackson himself had recovered from a plethora of wounds, his attention turned to national affairs in 1822, and he set his sights on the presidency.
At this early stage in the development of the American republic, the political dichotomy between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ or ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ parties had not yet been established. Following the defeat of the Federalists, the Democratic-Republican Party remained the dominant force in politics. Alexander Hamilton had, in 1795, proposed and established the first US National Bank (central bank), but its charter had expired in 1811. President James Monroe had authorized a second National Bank, the charter for which began in 1817. The US faced its first peacetime financial crisis two years later in 1819, and Jackson blamed the bank, and the widespread government corruption surrounding it, for contracting credit. Indeed, after only one year of operation, in July 1818 the Bank of the United States had demand liabilities (i.e. deposits of its customers payable on demand) in excess of $22 million, whereas its specie fund (i.e. its on-site stock of real money) stood only at $2 million – a ratio of 10:1, double that of the 5:1 which had hitherto been considered the maximum sustainable difference. As Jackson criticized the Bank with a ferocious vigour, two new factions grew out of the Democratic-Republican Party: the ‘Democrats’ who rallied around Jackson, and the ‘National Republicans’ or later, ‘Whigs’ who supported what became known as the ‘American system’.
The ideology that was to become known as Jacksonian democracy in many ways represented the heritage of the Jeffersonian philosophy. Jackson advocated for the extension of suffrage to all white men, removing the wealth and taxation qualifications previously required. He also supported the establishment of new farms in the West, particularly amongst poor whites, in a move which de-populated overcrowded cities on the eastern seaboard and gave new opportunities to working-class families outside of the industrial heartland of America, although it did bring whites into conflict with the native Indians who lived there. He favoured a sensible balance between states’ rights and central governance; on the one hand, many states supported the existence of the US National Bank, but Jackson made the abolition of the Bank the forefront of his campaign for a second term in office – his first term having given him ample time to install loyal ministers in government positions. Jackson was also a passionate advocate for free trade and laissez-faire. His virulent opposition to corruption, support for popular democracy, stark honesty and hatred for bankers became the defining tenets of his philosophy. In this sense he embodied the conservative principles of the old American republic, as well as being the forefather of a kind of right-wing populism not unlike that seen in contemporary Europe. A lifelong Christian, he is quoted as having described the Bible as ‘the rock upon which our republic rests’, as well as describing banking as ‘the Devil’s enterprise’.3
Jackson’s opponents, proponents of the ‘American system’ were pro-Bank, pro-finance, pro-protectionism, supporting the industrial development of the eastern cities and the status quo on the suffrage question. The Whigs were generally more interested in the powers of federal government in offering subsidies to corporations which would build up the railways and other major industrial infrastructures. It was Jackson’s fear that, should these businessmen be given government money, they would not only ride the back of their subsidies into monopolizing American infrastructure, but monopolizing the states’ resources as well. He feared that the National Bank was being used as a resource for credit without responsibility, and indeed, powerful business interests had been using the Bank for just such a purpose under previous administrations.
Jackson’s war against the Bank won him many enemies. The early traces of the shady world of what is now called ‘international money-power’ conspired against him. Even in his early years in politics, Jackson’s enemies had accused him of the same slanders that are seen in modern media (see above). ‘The Bank is trying to kill me’, he told his Vice-President Martin Van Buren, ‘but I will kill it first.’ Indeed, perhaps the Bank did try to kill him: one year after Jackson had defeated the Bank Robert Randolph, an official dismissed by Jackson for embezzlement, physically attacked Jackson, but failed to do him much harm. Then, in January 1835 a suspiciously compromised, unemployed English immigrant, Richard Lawrence, shot twice at Jackson, but both pistols misfired. In his trial, Lawrence (who was clearly mentally unstable) claimed that he had been told that ‘money would be aplenty’ if Jackson was dead, and that ‘we can only rise when the President falls’ in a clear reference to Jackson’s struggle with the Bank.
Jackson is firstly accused of having been a bigamist, and having stolen another man’s wife. In fact this is not quite the true case: Jackson’s wife Rachel had indeed been married before, unhappily, and in 1791 she married Jackson under assurances from her first husband that he was in the process of securing a divorce. It was only made clear later that he had not done so, and the couple remarried in 1794 when Rachel’s first husband presented the correct papers. Jackson was frequently charged even in his own time of being a bigamist and Rachel’s honour was also criticized – something that greatly upset Jackson, being a man known for honesty, and he frequently fought duels with men who falsely accused him of wrongdoing. Indeed, there is no hard evidence for rumours spread that Jackson was sexually dissolute as a youth, and that he had an affair with one of his black slaves: indeed, this stands totally inconsistent with his devoted expressions of love for Rachel, with whom he enjoyed a close relationship until her death from a heart attack. Rachel died only a few weeks before Jackson took office as President, killed by the emotional distress caused by Jackson’s enemies who accused her of impropriety. Jackson is known to have remarked at her funeral ‘May God Almighty forgive her murderers, for I never can.’4
Now to turn to the accusations of ‘slavery, ethnic cleansing, and tyranny’; Jackson certainly did own slaves, as many did in his time, and at least unlike Jefferson (who expressed abolitionist sympathies but did not release any of his slaves – and is known to have had illicit sexual relations with at least one of them) he expressed honesty in his belief that this was the a states’ issue, not to be encroached upon by central government. He is certainly not known to have been cruel to any of his slaves. The accusation of ethnic cleansing comes from Jackson’s first presidency, given his role in passing the Indian Removal Act. Bradley Birzer has pointed out that whilst there certainly was a death toll during relocation, and it might be considered politically immoral by our standards, this measure was in fact acting upon an idea which had been floated in the American political landscape for years beforehand.5 Many of Jackson’s Whig opponents accused him of racialism against Indians even in the late 1820s, but in fact, whilst there certainly were Indian sympathizers amongst the Whigs (Davy Crockett turned on Jackson over the issue, for example) many of Jackson’s opponents had very little affection for Indians, and would have enacted just as punitive measures upon them had they been in power; they used these events purely as an opportunity to attack Jackson. It is certainly untrue that Jackson engaged in any kind of ethnic cleansing – all of the Indian tribes affected by the Indian Removal Act still exist to this day, so if his desire was to ethnically cleanse the tribes, he did a very poor job of it.
Since the 20th century, Jackson has been accused of being a murderer on account of a man he killed during a duel, and furthermore, of having broken the rules of duelling by firing twice.6 This could not be further from the truth. Charles Dickinson was a political enemy of Jackson’s, and had accused Rachel Jackson of being a bigamist. Jackson, as he was wont, challenged him to a duel. Dickinson was known to be a good shot, and shooting first he wounded Jackson, the bullet lodging just inches from his heart, something which later caused the President no end of health problems. Perceiving that Dickinson had shot to kill, Jackson bided his time, and took careful aim. Jackson’s pistol did not fire on the first attempt (a common problem with flintlock pistols), and according to the strict rules of duelling, not only was Jackson permitted to re-cock the weapon and attempt a second shot, but Dickinson was obliged to stand still. He did so and Jackson shot him dead. It seemed barbaric to many at the time, and may well to us today, but to enter into a duel in the late 18th and early 19th century was to fully accept the possibility of death, particularly if one was known to be a duellist who shot to kill. Amongst duellists themselves, this was nothing less than the continuation of an ancient code of settling disputes among men, one that entailed accepting the consequences.
Andrew Jackson was no angel perhaps, but the epithet of ‘angel’ rarely accompanies that of ‘politician’. His enemies also accused him of what became known as the spoils scheme – appointing friends and allies to top positions, but frankly the game of politics affords such results. It would be incomprehensible for a modern president to not appoint allies to political positions – imagine if Trump were to refrain from doing so today – and it remains the empty criticism of bitter political losers. What is most remarkable about Andrew Jackson was the resoluteness with which he moved past the personal attacks of his enemies and, miraculously, beat the Bank. He vetoed Congress’ attempt to re-charter the Bank of the United States in 1832, and in the presidential election of that year he won 54% of the popular vote. A year later he began removing federal deposits from the Bank, and firing officials who refused to do their part. The Bank’s executive, Nicholas Biddle, responded by stockpiling the Bank’s reserves and contracting credit once again, thereby precipitating another financial crisis; Jackson, in a move of political genius, referred all monetary complaints to Biddle, noting that it was he, not the President, who controlled the money. The result was a sharp rise in anti-Bank sentiment, as Biddle’s manoeuvres backfired and the Bank, not Jackson, was blamed for the crisis. Congress voted not to re-charter the Bank and its deposits were not renewed. The result was an economic boom, and on the first day of 1835, Jackson paid off the entirety of the US national debt, a feat which has not been repeated since. In 1836, he issued the Specie Circular, which mandated that all payments for government land had to be made in gold and silver, and formally discouraged the general use of bank notes.
The modern media’s disapproval of Andrew Jackson appears to stem from two sources: either from ignorance of the context of Jackson’s life, or from the grip of international money-power which would rather not see a Jacksonian figure claim victory in yet another Bank War. The truth is that, yes, whilst a modern Jackson would of course not be a slaver, or relocate Indians, a modern Jackson is intensely needed. A modern Jackson who recognizes that the true freedom of the ‘American Dream’ comes in freedom from the talons of international money-power, from the central banks; who recognizes that a truly democratic America owes more to the Roman Republic of the Cincinnati and Gracchi than to the liberal democracy of the Obamas and the Clintons; and whose honest moral values appeal to a people seeking to plug the moral vale of tears of their own time. The Jacksonian mix of economic liberty (that is to say – freedom from the exploitation of money-power, not post-Thatcherite ‘economic liberalism’), a sensible conservatism which focuses on the unifying power of classical republican values, and a populist attempt to distribute opportunity equally in the cities and in the countryside is a political theory which has been forgotten for far too long.
What is perhaps the greatest insult of all is this: the Vox article cited at the beginning of this article declared that ‘[Andrew Jackson] deserves no place on our money’. And indeed he does not. Jackson would have shuddered to see his face printed so nonchalantly on a twenty-dollar bill – a bank note valued and printed by the Federal Reserve, a National Bank of the United States and victory of the same money-power which he successfully opposed. Jackson’s policies defined a generation and protected the New Roman Republic on the Potomac from the influence of Babylonic corruption for nearly a century; Jackson recognized the fundamental truth: that if the power to create money, contract credit, and store up wealth at the public expense is transferred to a corporation, then there has been a transfer of sovereignty away from the nation, and away from the people. So at the next available opportunity, Americans should seize the chance to throw their worthless paper bills, and the Bank of Slavery which prints them, onto the fire.
Below is included a selection of Jackson’s finest criticisms of the Bank of the United States, which one hopes may serve as a popular message against corruption and financial slavery in politics for those seeking political office, now and in the future.
Congress have established a mint to coin money and passed laws to regulate the value thereof…but if they have other power to regulate the currency, it was conferred to be exercised by themselves, and not to be transferred to a corporation. If the bank be established for that purpose, with a charter unalterable without its consent, Congress have parted with their power. …
It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions … but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions … to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society … have a right to complain of the injustice of their government.— Message regarding his veto of the Bank of the United States
I have had men watching you for a long time, and am convinced that you have used the funds of the bank to speculate in the breadstuffs of the country. When you won, you divided the profits amongst you, and when you lost, you charged it to the bank. You tell me that if I take the deposits from the bank and annul its charter I shall ruin ten thousand families. That may be true, gentlemen, but that is your sin! Should I let you go on, you will ruin fifty thousand families, and that would be my sin! You are a den of vipers and thieves. I have determined to rout you out, and by the Eternal, I will rout you out!— Minutes of the Philadelphia Committee which met with Jackson concerning the Bank
3 Attributed to Jackson on his deathbed. The latter is likely an apocryphal invention based on his earlier criticisms of the US National Bank.
4 As quoted in P. Boller, Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush (OUP, 2004), p. 46.