Richard Nisley

Andrew Jackson, populist
History - American Released - Jun 11, 2017

Andrew Jackson was going to fix the mess in Washington. Sound familiar? In 1829, as newly elected president, Jackson arrived in the nation’s capital with a laundry list of reforms that for the most part he accomplished. It’s an amazing record. Never has a president achieved everything he set out to do, yet Jackson did. Jackson paid off the national debt (the only president to do so), shut down the national bank, curbed government abuse by inaugurating rotation in office (a.k.a. the “spoils system”), held the nation together through the daunting nullification crisis, and made the federal government more responsive to the people and therefore more democratic. Jackson was strong-willed, feisty, and, in this account of his presidency, not as sure-footed as previous historians would have us believe. Jackson was vulnerable, wounded by the passing of his beloved wife, never in great health, loyal to his friends, hell on his enemies, and all too human. I’m no Jacksonian, but having read “The Presidency of Andrew Jackson” by Donald B. Cole, I now have a better understanding of our nation's seventh president and his motivations.

Like Thomas Jefferson before him, and all reformers after him, Jackson raged at the federal government as too large, too obtrusive, too free with public funds, and corrupt. Like all reformers, Jackson wanted to turn back the clock to a simpler time, when issues were less complicated and men more virtuous, of small towns and yeoman farmers, of metal money and no banks. But once in office, reformers are often swept up in the tide of events and, in a sense, become a part of the problem they meant to reform. Not with Jackson: he managed to enact real change in Washington, and so dominated his time, since called “The Age of Jackson.” Cole, however, brings more to the story. While Jackson enacted change in Washington, he could not stop the federal government from becoming larger still, and he could not stop the national shift from agriculture and small towns to industry and large cities. In short, Jackson could not stop progress and modernity from overtaking the nation.

Jackson favored the farmer who worked his own land but opposed the demands for higher wages and better working conditions by factory labor. He could shut down the Second National Bank, but he could not stop the proliferation of state banks, nor prevent speculation in stocks or in land. He wanted to put an end to paper money in all its forms and revert back to “hard money” (gold and silver coins) while the nation’s economy refused to be held back by such handicaps. He went to Washington intent on stopping the national improvement programs of John Q. Adams and Henry Clay—of bridges and roads and canals—when it fact the nation was crying out for these improvements. Yes, Jackson killed the national bank, but in doing so he removed the nation’s lender of last resort, which meant his hand-picked successor Martin Van Buren could do nothing to prevent or even limit the economic recession that set in immediately after Jackson left office. It would be the longest depression in American history (recovery did not begin for six years), and not only meant the loss of 100,000 jobs and countless suffering but destroyed Van Buren’s chance of being reelected.

Jackson towered over the three greatest political leaders of his time—John Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster. His greatest legacy was in preserving the Union during the nullification crises (Abraham Lincoln would later draw upon Jackson’s national doctrine) and, while in office, seeing American democracy come into its own. In Jackson’s time, nearly all property tests for voting were dispensed with, while the new states of the frontier West achieved nearly equal footing with the old states of the eastern seaboard.

There is a darker side to Jackson–he was a committed slave holder, and he led the movement to have Native American tribes moved from the American Southeast to lands west of the Mississippi. It's a shameful and tragic story that some historians have attempted to explain away as not as bad as it seems. Cole does not share this point of view. As president, Jackson was the first populist to occupy the White House, the first Westerner to be elected president, and the first not born into wealth and privilege. After Old Hickory (or the Old Hero as he was also known), every candidate for president has claimed common roots, promised reform, and pledged to put the interests of common folk above all else. Jackson was the real deal, a poor boy raised in the South Carolina backwoods who rose to prominence and succeeded as president as few ever have.

Like most books in the American Presidency Series, the author begins by describing the state of the nation: the economy, means of transportation, infrastructure, towns and cities, the state of politics, and the mood of the nation. The author is very good at describing the movers and shakers in Jackson’s Washington. Some are admirable and some are not. Some are visionary and some merely reactionary. Some are deceptive, some are toadies, and some are brilliant, but none compare with the stature of Andrew Jackson. Admire him or not, he was a giant of his time.

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