Frontier Injustice

Frontier Injustice

In Andrew Jackson: A Life and Times, the frontier president is cast as a one-man beacon for democracy. But Jackson’s core belief was a fervent defense of land.


Think of Andrew Jackson as your grandfather who spent his life in the military (old style). Many of his attitudes are absolutely abominable, especially when it comes to race. He believes passionately in democracy and freedom, but his views of who is entitled to those blessings appear to leave out the vast majority of humanity. His wartime anecdotes and views about war and other nations make you shudder. Whenever he fiercely disagrees with a person or a country, he threatens to shoot them down like a dog, and since he spent much of his life shooting people and is a leading member of the NRA this doesn’t seem an empty threat. All your educated acquaintances sneer at him. He can’t spell. He talks as if he comes from the backwoods of the Carolinas, which happens to be the truth. You don’t even share his taste in music.

And yet while you detest his service in Vietnam, you are very grateful that he fought against the Germans and the Japanese. You remember his flashes of great kindness and generosity. He is pathologically loyal to his friends. Though he became a famous man, he retained a touching affection for and loyalty to your grandmother, despite her homeliness and country ways, including smoking a pipe at official dinners. Even at your most pacific, you feel a sneaking admiration for a man who has lead poisoning from the fragments of three separate bullets wandering round his body and yet works harder than most people a third of his age. He is, as they say, as tough as hickory. He carved his way upward–almost literally–from an impoverished, orphaned and desperate youth. He committed his murders face to face, not by giving orders to others from the safety of a Washington desk. Above all, as you grow older and wiser, you understand more that he is part of you, flesh of your flesh. If he hadn’t existed, neither would you in any form be recognizable to yourself. You may hate him, but you can’t cut him out of you.

Nobody today can claim Jackson as a grandfather, but some readers of The Nation may perhaps have Southern Scots-Irish grandfathers with the above traits (full disclosure: I’m mostly German-Irish, and my grandmother was Scottish, though her family was in the British service).

Jackson was not only an immense personality and historical force. He was also one of the supreme historical representatives of the Scots-Irish frontier and military tradition in America, with its cult of “toughness, maleness and whiteness,” in the words of Michael Kazin. In this tradition the admirable and the detestable are inextricably mixed, and without it America would not be what it is today, geographically or culturally.

Andrew Jackson was born in the South Carolina Piedmont in 1767, to Protestant Scots-Irish parents who had emigrated from Ulster two years earlier. The family suffered terribly at British hands during the War of Independence, and hatred and distrust of Britain became a leitmotif of Jackson’s life. Orphaned, and a wild youth even by Scots-Irish standards, Jackson moved to Tennessee and rose in local politics thanks in large part to his leadership of militia forces against the Indians. The duels that he fought with rival local figures mostly only enhanced his reputation among his constituency. He became a national hero with his crushing defeat of the British attempt to capture New Orleans in 1815. He also gained enormous popularity for his readiness to defy international law by pursuing Indian enemies into the Spanish territory of Florida and executing two of their British suppliers.

Jackson’s victory over President John Quincy Adams in 1828 is usually taken as representing the triumph of mass democracy over the elites who had dominated American politics since independence. Jackson’s championing of the common man against the East Coast elites has led to his popularity among liberal scholars like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who might have been expected to distrust him.

However, this populist, nationalist anti-elitism has returned to bite the liberals with a vengeance in our own time. As for Jackson’s economic egalitarianism, it should be noted that this was a specifically Western sense of equality of opportunity–including the free opportunity to seize lands from the Indians. It implied a defense of the common man against unfair suppression by the elites, but it certainly did not imply any kind of guaranteed economic status or state support for the population.

Jackson’s victory, and the nature of his support, led to widespread fears that the United States was following France and Mexico into mob rule and military dictatorship. In fact, while Jackson pursued certain anti-elitist policies, most notably in his successful campaign against the Bank of the United States, he generally defended the Constitution. Jackson’s facing down of the threat of South Carolina secession preserved the Union for another generation. Jackson was President until 1837; he died in 1845, after living long enough to see his protégé, Sam Houston, achieve one of his greatest ambitions, the incorporation of Texas into the Union and consequent removal of any potential foreign threat to the United States from the Southwest.

Jackson is of perennial interest as a historical figure, but far more important in today’s historical climate is that we reckon with the impact of the ideology that bears his name, Jacksonianism, confronting in particular the combination of fanatical belief and extreme narrowness with which its exponents understood the concepts of democracy and freedom. We need to do this because Jacksonian ideas, however transformed over time, continue to shape how a great many Americans see their country and the world. A candid reckoning with Jacksonianism’s history raises key questions about the ambiguous nature of democracy itself, and the relationship between democracy and nationalism. It also raises in acute form the point Eric Foner has made so brilliantly about the shifting definition of liberty in American history.

H.W. Brands’s biography of Jackson fails completely in its approach to these questions. As an account of Jackson’s upbringing, character and life, it is solid and well written. It does not add much of real importance to the 1984 biography by Robert V. Remini (now abridged into one volume), whose judgments it generally echoes. Brands’s work also suffers from Remini’s greatest failing, an identification with its subject sometimes tending toward hagiography, as in the statement that “Jackson’s support indeed was the people” (despite his getting a minority of the popular vote). Still, Jackson’s life and character were so amazing that it is always worth reading a new book about him on a plane or in bed–if you don’t suffer from airsickness, nightmares or any lingering affection for Britain.

But Brands does not really deal with the deeper issues of Jacksonianism. It is striking that his bibliography contains no mention either of Michael Kazin’s critical work The Populist Persuasion, which accords Jacksonianism a leading place, or of Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence, which contains an exceptionally intelligent analysis of the Jacksonian tradition. Nor is there a place for Richard Slotkin’s great if problematic trilogy on the role of the frontier and its myths in American culture. As a study of how Jackson’s ideas have affected later generations of Americans, Brands’s book does not match Andrew Burstein’s work of 2003, The Passions of Andrew Jackson.

Indeed, nowhere does Brands seriously analyze the word “democracy.” In his version, whatever sins marred Jacksonian democracy, they were a product of his time and have since been redeemed by the forward march of democracy that Jackson helped to further, even to father. Jacksonianism’s contribution to democracy is therefore seen as unimpeachably good: “Jackson’s devotion to democracy was unsurprising in one born of the people and bred in the school of hard experience…. the Clan of Old Hickory, the tribe of Sharp Knife, was the American people.” The book ends with the statement that “Andrew Jackson…devoted his life to making democracy possible.”

On this point, unfortunately, Brands’s book also reflects the dominant currents in the popular history of this country, as well as the way many Americans view the past, especially their own. To the extent that this sentimental, populist ethos reflects the democratic values of American civic nationalism, it is in principle positive. The problem is that it also encourages an instinctive, uncritical deference to words like “freedom” and “democracy” that can easily lead not only to great political naïveté but also ruthless political exploitation to suppress debate and dissent–as at present by the Bush Administration.

The most bitter and enduring issues that Jackson’s memory raises about democracy and the American tradition concern the Cherokee question: Jackson’s refusal as President to implement the decision of the Supreme Court under John Marshall in 1831 giving protection to the Cherokee against new measures passed by the State of Georgia making them subject to its law. This, as Jackson was well aware, laid the basis for the Indians’ expulsion beyond the Mississippi to make way for white settlers. “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it,” he is reported to have said. Whether he uttered them or not, these words faithfully reflected the spirit in which he acted. The US government refused to defend the Cherokee against Georgia, Jackson warned them that they had no choice but to leave and within a few years (though after Jackson himself had left office) they were driven from their ancestral homeland to Oklahoma on the “Trail of Tears,” on which a large number died of disease and malnutrition.

Brands tackles this issue head on–in marked contrast to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who in The Age of Jackson (1945) amazingly evaded the issue altogether, even in a chapter titled “Jacksonian Democracy and the Law.” Brands takes the line of Remini and other recent defenders of Jackson in arguing–as indeed Jackson did–that the “attitudes” of Southern white society made it impossible for the Cherokee to remain. As Brands writes:

The Indians must either adopt the ways of the Whites, including the laws of the states in which they lived, or move. To stay where they were, under their old customs, was not an option. Jackson knew the Indians’ neighbors [i.e., Southern whites] having lived among such people for most of his life. They wouldn’t leave the Indians alone, nor let them keep large tracts of land lightly occupied. The status quo was untenable; for the Indians it risked “utter annihilation.”

Realistically, therefore, their only choice was deportation or extermination. Indeed, it was only their removal west of the Mississippi that allowed even a remnant of the Cherokee to survive as a people, rather than following the other eastern tribes into oblivion.

There is a good deal of truth to this argument, but what Brands and others fail to realize is that it is less a defense of Jackson than an indictment of his society. The reason the case of the Cherokee has caused such disquiet throughout the generations is that they were not “wild Indians” like the Comanche or the Kiowa. Given the nomadic and raiding life of the latter, including truly bestial treatment of prisoners, it is hard to imagine how they could have coexisted in peace not only with white Americans but with any settled society. The Cherokee, by contrast, were a settled people who became literate and Christian, and who tried to play by American rules–including the appeal to the Supreme Court. They had also been America’s, and Jackson’s, allies against other tribes and against the British. Most of the empires of the time, including the French and Spanish, would have protected them as trusted allies.

It is instructive in this regard to contrast their treatment with that of the Maori of New Zealand by the British Crown at around the same time. The British conquered the Maori and seized much of their land. But when they made a treaty with the Maori, they stuck to it. They protected the Maori from the white settlers in New Zealand and guaranteed their possession of enough land to live on–with the result that today, the Maori are a powerful, growing (and perhaps in the future, dominant) section of New Zealand society.

In the case of the US frontier, the alternatives always seemed to be either assimilation, deportation or extermination. Coexistence with indigenous groups has always been especially difficult for the United States, at least as long as those groups retained any autonomous power. The drive either to Americanize or destroy such communities is the flip side of the often admirable American desire to spread democracy and freedom. Or in Andrew Burstein’s words, Jackson “expected Indians to be either diabolical or pliant.”

The fate of the Southern Indians, however, also illustrates some wider and uncomfortable truths about democracy and “freedom,” which Americans would do well to consider before they plunge into any more attempts to democratize countries in the Muslim world. The first is that through most of history and in most societies, from ancient Athens on, ideas of “freedom” have been closely allied to ideas of personal or group “privilege”–just as the whites of the South and of the frontier interpreted their freedom vis-à-vis the Indians and the blacks.

Another point is that people have always been willing to make trade-offs between democracy and the rule of law on the one side and security on the other. In the case of the Cherokee, Jackson and his followers were willing to ignore US law not only because they were greedy for land but also because of the horrible frontier experiences of the previous century, including in many cases personal experience of Indian raids. They saw the Cherokee as a real threat and potential fifth column, if backed by a European power like Britain or France.

The long determination to maintain ruthless suppression of the blacks, by slavery or terror, also owed much to fear–paranoid and hysterical no doubt, but nonetheless real for that. And it is sad but true that while the diminution of this fear in the white South in the twentieth century owed something to the spread of new ideas, it also owed something to the fact that, thanks to massive migration to the Northern cities–driven in part by white Southern terrorism–blacks formed a much smaller proportion of the Southern population in the 1960s than they had in the 1860s.

Above all, Americans should remember that for by far the greater part of American history, if Americans had been told by an outside dominant power that “democracy” meant acknowledging black equality and respecting Indian land, a majority would have unhesitatingly rejected democracy and opted instead for some kind of populist, racially based authoritarianism–something so unthinkable to Brands that he does not even consider it. During Jackson’s presidency his enemies, John Quincy Adams among them, accused him of seeking to set up a “military monarchy” along Latin American lines, governing dictatorially though with occasional plebiscitary support from the masses.

This didn’t happen, of course, and so the United States today is not Mexico or Brazil. The Yankee, or New England, element in the American tradition, with its historical commitment to the rule of law and to civil society, is not the only reason the Latin American solution did not come to pass. Jackson and his descendants have always been genuinely attached to democracy and the law, though in their own specific understanding of these terms. For most of American history, tendencies toward authoritarianism have taken a communal form, and as with Jackson they have been phrased and even thought of in terms of a defense of the American democratic system, not a revolt against it. However, this adherence to democracy has also involved a conviction that being American means adhering to a national cultural community, one defined by its values, and in the past by race, ethnicity and religion.

Like Jackson, the numerous descendants of this tradition have had a strong sense that this community is threatened by alien and savage “others.” They have also had a sense that they constitute in some way the authentic American people, or folk; the backbone of the nation, possessing a form of what German nationalists called the gesunder Volkssinn (“healthy sense of belonging to the people”), embracing correct national forms of religion, social behavior and patriotism. With time, they have come to accept people first of different ethnicities, then of different races, as members of the American community–but only so long as they conform to American norms and become “part of the team.”

The freedom of aliens and deviants, who do not share the folk culture, can therefore legitimately be circumscribed by authoritarian and even savage means, as long as this is to defend the community and reflects the will of the sound members of the community. In the words of Walter Russell Mead, which have deep implications for American nationalism abroad as well as at home: “Jacksonian realism is based on the very sharp distinction in popular feeling between the inside of the folk community and the dark world without.”

This is the tradition that produced figures like John Ashcroft. Like Jackson’s, Ashcroft’s adherence to the rule of law is not hypocritical. It is merely qualified by two very large conditions: that in a crisis, written laws can be suspended for the sake of the defense of the community; and that the law in any case applies only to a limited extent to aliens, particularly those who are suspected of being enemies and of having behaved in a “barbaric” manner.

Tragically, the indiscriminate savagery of the attacks on 9/11 was all but destined to reawaken this aspect of the Jacksonian tradition in the United States. Systematically fanned by the Bush Administration, the atrocities have produced a widespread attitude toward the outside world in general and the Muslim world in particular that closely replicates that of Jackson toward the “savage” Indians and their international backers. Leaving aside issues of morality and justice, however, there are some critical differences between the two cases. Say what you like about Jackson and his Scots-Irish frontiersmen, they were superbly effective fighters. They knew their enemies. They knew the land. The contrast with their hapless descendants blundering around Iraq could hardly be more stark. Jackson would doubtless have approved of the spirit behind the Bush Administration’s “war on terror.” I doubt very much that he would have approved of its execution.

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