Politics & Policy

Andrew Jackson May Have Been a Scoundrel, but He Saved the Nation

From the September 21, 2015, issue of NR

In his long life (1767–1845), Andrew Jackson fought one duel (in which he took a bullet), one armed brawl (in which he took two), and several pitched battles. But now he is in the fight of his afterlife. Several states’ Democratic parties have stopped calling their annual get-togethers Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners.

In his own day Jackson was a war hero and a two-term president (1829–37), known by a vivid nickname: Old Hickory (hickory wood is hard and dense, good for wheel spokes and hunting bows). He was canonized for modern times by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., whose Age of Jackson (published 1945) argued that he led a movement of urban workers and intellectuals, like the New Deal.

Jackson is in trouble now because of his sins against modern racial sensibilities. “We can’t be anchored to a history that diminished any of our fellow citizens,” said Democratic state representative Stacey Abrams of Georgia, one of the states to kick him and Jefferson off their dinner. Jackson owned black men and killed red men, and that makes him an unworthy dead white man.

If we look at Jackson critically but fairly, what do we find?

Jackson died owning 150 slaves (his Tennessee plantation grew cotton). Slavery existed in much of the world throughout his life. But so did an anti-slavery movement. States began abolishing slavery in Jackson’s youth, and the slave trade was ended when he was 41. If he had had any second thoughts about slavery, he could have found many who shared them. Instead he belonged to the great mass of slave owners who maintained the institution without criticizing it.

Jackson fought two Indian wars, against the Creeks in modern-day Alabama during the War of 1812 and the Seminoles of Florida shortly thereafter. But he is best- (and worst-) known today for his peacetime treatment of the Cherokees, his allies in the Creek War. By the 1820s they had adopted white ways, farming, publishing a newspaper, and owning slaves. But when gold was discovered on their land, the state of Georgia wanted them relocated beyond the Mississippi. President Jackson negotiated the necessary treaties; the forced march west (the “Trail of Tears”) happened in 1838. This act of ethnic cleansing went beyond manifest destiny; it was treachery.

Jackson was an economic naïf who dedicated his administration to destroying the Second Bank of the United States. Stories of his ignorance are incredible: He told Alexander Hamilton’s son James, “Your father was not in favor of the Bank of the United States.” (That was like telling Benjamin Franklin’s son that his father was not in favor of electricity.) Jackson hated the Bank as a tool of economic oligarchs. Yet his allies in the bank fight — men such as Martin Van Buren and Francis Blair — were aspirant oligarchs, supporting or in some cases running state banks that hoped to profit by the downfall of the national institution. Jackson won his fight — and the economy collapsed on the head of his ally and successor, Van Buren.

There remains Jackson’s temperament. He was as self-righteous as he was wrathful; one contemporary wrote that he “consider[ed] the law and his own notions of justice as synonymous.” He bore bitter grudges. At the end of his second term, a would-be assassin fired at him on the Capitol steps. The shooter was a lunatic, who thought Jackson was keeping him from the English throne. But the president told anyone who would listen that the attack had been plotted by a senator with whom he was at loggerheads. “The president’s misconduct,” wrote an English visitor, “was the most virulent and protracted.”

Jackson’s temperament was the worst possible for a leader — except when it wasn’t. The virtues of his vices were decisiveness and firmness — qualities that saved the country in two crises.

The protectionist Tariff of 1828 — passed in the year when Jackson would first be elected president — provoked outrage in South Carolina, a plantation state that derived no benefit from it. In December 1828 John Calhoun (the incumbent vice president under John Quincy Adams, as well as Jackson’s vice president–elect) wrote on the state’s behalf a warning that the tariff would not be collected there unless it was reduced. Four years later, after a steep tariff was renewed, Jackson was reelected, Calhoun resigned as his veep, and South Carolina nullified the tariff.

Jackson’s response was blunt. In private he called nullification “rebellion and war against the Union” and “absolute treason.” Publicly, he issued a proclamation, written by his secretary of state but embodying Jackson’s spirit. In it he told South Carolina that its presumed power to annul a law was “incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit,” and “inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded.” The “It” in that last phrase referred to the Union; as Oscar Wilde might have said, Jackson spelled Union with a capital I. He asked Congress to pass a bill allowing him to collect the tariff by force.

Congress eventually made an offer to reduce the tariff, which South Carolina accepted, and the crisis passed. But Jackson’s firmness had set the parameters, then and for the future. In 1861, after South Carolina troops fired on Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln, no fan of Old Hickory, nevertheless rebuked a delegation of compromisers by saying there was “no Jackson” in what they proposed — “no manhood nor honor in that.”

Jackson’s greatest, and single-handed, achievement came years earlier, on the battlefield. In December 1814, the British tried their last throw of the War of 1812, landing an army on the Louisiana coast, headed for New Orleans.

Jackson’s temperament was the worst possible for a leader — except when it wasn’t. The virtues of his vices were decisiveness and firmness — qualities that saved the country in two crises.

Jackson, in charge of defending the entire Gulf coast, was unprepared: He had expected the British to attack Mobile, and his troops were scattered. But danger galvanized him. He concentrated his forces, made a deal with local pirates, enlisted even black soldiers, and harassed the British as they moved up the Mississippi. By the climactic battle on January 8, the attackers were wary and weary; the Americans were dug in, bristling with artillery. The British lost over 2,000 men, killed, wounded, or captured, the Americans only 70.

The historian Henry Adams compared Britain’s attack on New Orleans with her attack on Washington, D.C., four months earlier (the capital’s defenders were led by General William Winder, with input from President Madison and his cabinet). In both cases an enemy armada landed an invading army at some distance from its object; the period for the Americans to react was about the same. But Winder et al. dithered, with the result that the Capitol and the White House were burned. “The principal difference” in New Orleans, Adams wrote, “was that Jackson commanded.”

No victory in the war was more opportune. The combatants had already signed the Treaty of Ghent (essentially a draw), but antiwar passions in the United States still raged. New England Federalists were threatening secession; their leader, Timothy Pickering, wrote that if New Orleans fell, he would “consider the Union as severed.” New Orleans was the spigot of the Mississippi River system; frontiersmen needed passage through it to sell their crops. No Old Hickory, no Chocolate City — or at least, not one under the American flag.

Sometimes a country needs a tough guy. I wouldn’t name a dinner for Andrew Jackson, but I’d make him a toast.

— Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and the author, most recently, of Founder’s Son. This article originally appeared in the September 21, 2015, issue of National Review.

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Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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