This spring, a mere 172 years after his death, Andrew Jackson was back in the news. In March, Donald Trump made a quick visit to the Hermitage, the once-sprawling plantation that our seventh president had outside of Nashville. Jackson, Trump declared, was “the People’s President,” a man who “shook the establishment like an earthquake.” Several weeks later, Trump gave an interview in which he made the bizarre claim that Jackson “was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War,” and went on to tweet that Jackson “would never have let it happen” if he’d still been sitting in the White House.
Notwithstanding Trump’s ignorance of a historical time line that he should have learned in middle school, his choice of a favorite predecessor is rather fitting. Like Trump, Jackson stirred a fury of populist discontent directed at the country’s financial and political elites and sought to refashion America’s political geography—transforming a so-called “era of good feelings” into a period of heightened partisan and regional conflict. Like Trump, Jackson viewed himself as the direct representative of “forgotten” Americans and tended to scorn the other two branches of government as potential usurpers of popular sovereignty. And one would not dispute the historian Richard Hofstadter’s description of Jackson if it were made of our sitting president: “He was a simple, emotional, and unreflective man with a strong sense of loyalty to personal friends and political supporters.” While Trump, the born-again Republican, lauds Jackson and hangs his portrait in the Oval Office, Democrats shun the memory of the man who was long an icon of their party. Treasury Secretary Seth Mnuchin shows no sign that he’ll reverse the Obama administration’s decision to replace Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, but there’s little doubt what his boss would have him do.
For contemporary historians, Jackson poses—or at least ought to pose—an interpretive dilemma. Beginning in his lifetime and stretching into the middle of the last century, prominent historians like Francis Parkman, Charles Beard, Vernon Louis Parrington, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. heralded Jackson as a virtual avatar of American democracy: someone who, in Schlesinger’s words, “came, like the great folk heroes, to lead [the people] out of captivity and bondage” to the greedy bankers and haughty neo-Federalists. Yet today, hardly any member of our clan would echo their view of Jackson as a fearless champion of ordinary Americans. Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson, a best seller that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946, failed to mention that his hero actively supported “bondage” of the most literal kind: Jackson owned more than 100 slaves and favored expanding the “peculiar institution” into Texas and beyond. While arguing that Jackson was a proto–Franklin Roosevelt fighting “to restrain the power of the business community,” the great liberal historian also entirely neglected Jackson’s policy of forcefully removing the Cherokees from their ancestral lands in Georgia, coveted by whites, to the mostly uninhabited plains of what would become Oklahoma. Thus, in the wake of a more sober, post-1960s understanding of the centrality of race and empire in the antebellum era, historians have come to seriously reconsider the image of Jackson as a fearless champion of ordinary Americans.
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But to view “Jacksonian democracy” as nothing but a dangerous myth or the facade for a violent racist order is equally myopic and misses the ways in which Jacksonian Democrats helped transform American politics. Jackson’s election in 1828 did indeed come, as Trump noted at the Hermitage, “when the vote was finally being extended to those who did not own property.” Of course, that didn’t include women, African Americans, or Native Americans, and it fell so far short of the democratic ideal.
Jackson’s rise also marked the onset of a political system in America based on mass parties. The shrewd creators of “the Jackson Party,” soon renamed “the Democracy,” assembled a broad coalition that stretched from Walt Whitman and white radical artisans in the urban North to Jefferson Davis and his fellow defenders of slavery in the agrarian South. With majorities among small farmers and European immigrants, the Jacksonian Democrats controlled US politics for most of the next three decades, building disciplined party machines in many cities and states; only the coming of civil war exposed the folly of believing that the nation could, as the Whig turned Republican Abraham Lincoln put it, “endure, permanently half slave, half free.”
In his new book, Avenging the People, J.M. Opal doesn’t strike a balance between these two Jacksons, though he does capture the first one well. Concentrating on his subject’s relentlessly ambitious, often violent life before he moved into the White House at the age of 61, Opal presents us with a Jackson who has very little in common with Schlesinger’s: not a champion of ordinary Americans, but rather the ruthless exponent of policies that expanded slavery and pushed Native Americans out of their homelands. For Opal, the key to understanding Jackson and his influence lies in the relentless ambition of a self-made man bent on conquest—of land, fame, and political power.
Born to poor Scotch-Irish immigrants and orphaned at the age of 14, Jackson began his climb in a frontier region that was almost constantly at war. The teenager enlisted in the patriot forces during the Revolution and was captured by British troops. In the first of many battles with authorities he considered illegitimate, Jackson earned a scar on his forehead when he angrily refused to clean the boots of a red-coated officer of the crown. No one else in his immediate family lived to see the end of the war.
In 1787, the year the Constitution was written in Philadelphia, Jackson finished “reading law” and was admitted to the North Carolina bar. The next year, he moved to Tennessee, much of which was then a terrain of brutal, if intermittent, combat between white and Native Americans. Opal vividly describes how, in the 1790s, Jackson, acting both as a judge and militia leader, participated in the slaughter of Native men, women, and children.
Jackson’s image as a man “who had served well during the most trying times” helped him launch a political career. It didn’t hurt that he was also a protégé of the territory’s governor. Jackson got himself elected to the House of Representatives and then to the Senate before returning to Tennessee with hopes of getting rich. He speculated on plots of land, selling some at a healthy profit and growing cotton on the rest. Naturally, Jackson purchased black men and women to do the actual labor; he never seemed to regard them as anything other than useful and hard-working commodities. In 1804, Opal writes, one of his business partners “made at least one trip to the downriver slave markets, looking to ‘carry on negroes in exchange for groceries,’ as Jackson put it.”
All this occurred before Jackson vaulted to national renown in 1815 as the commander of a volunteer army that defeated British soldiers at the Battle of New Orleans, the final confrontation in the War of 1812. He had earned a reputation for tenacity and decisiveness as a major general in the Tennessee state militia—for which his troops fondly dubbed him “Old Hickory.” But the 1815 battle at the mouth of the Mississippi, while epic, was also unnecessary: The combatants were unaware that a peace treaty had already been signed in far-off Ghent. Yet millions of Americans longed for a military hero, and after New Orleans, Jackson fit the bill.
For all its richness, Opal’s narrative adds little to the scholarship produced by the regiment of Jackson biographers and historians who preceded him. But he certainly has an eye for the telling anecdote and a knack for capturing in a few words the essence of Jackson’s vengeful character: “He imagined the worst about his enemies, and then let the excruciating images spin around his mind, tormenting him until either he or they had to die.”
Opal also offers a big idea to frame his lively prose. Jackson, he argues, was hardly the thoughtless figure Hofstadter described, who believed that might always made him right. Instead, Old Hickory had a more sophisticated view of power: He legitimated his aggression in politics and war by invoking the concept of the rights of sovereign nations, which Opal claims Jackson derived from prominent 18th-century works by the English jurist William Blackstone and the Swiss philosopher-diplomat Emer de Vattel. Both drew a bright line between “civilized” societies and “savage” ones. Blackstone thought it was the duty of the former to “force” the latter “to respect the laws of humanity.” If, as on the Tennessee frontier, the state couldn’t do the enforcing, then, Opal writes, “lawful people in lawless places”—figures like Jackson—should “do what had to be done, becoming in effect their own sovereigns.”
That Jackson leaned on such prominent thinkers as Blackstone and de Vattel does help make his own popularity among some of the leading intellectuals of his day, including the historian and statesman George Bancroft, more understandable: After all, the fiery general who defeated a British army and exterminated thousands of indigenous people had also been a successful attorney and judge. But Opal fails to adequately demonstrate how the “law of nations” consistently animated Jackson’s behavior; nor does he explain why a good many other Americans who read Blackstone and de Vattel belonged to opposition parties and protested the policy that led to the Trail of Tears.
Perhaps one reason why Opal doesn’t develop this theme is that his narrative arrives at Jackson’s presidency only at its conclusion. As a result, his book scants the major decisions—Jackson’s veto of the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States, in particular—that once led generations of Democrats to hold dinners in his honor and helped land him on the $20 bill in the first place. In his time, Jackson was hardly a scourge of “the business community,” which included many Southern planters and men of commerce in the North who shared his zest for trade and acquiring land. But he did have an abiding antipathy toward the captains of high finance and toward powerful men who, unlike him, were born to wealth and had attended college.
During the 1830s, Jackson turned his refusal to recharter the Bank of the United States into a grand populist drama, the language of which now sounds remarkably familiar in the wake of the Great Recession. “It is to be regretted,” he thundered in 1832, when vetoing the bank’s recharter, “that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” Unlike the Wall Street moguls whose risky investment schemes crashed the economy in 2008, the Bank of the United States did spur needed development and was intelligently run. But Jackson argued successfully that it was unjust for a publicly created institution to grant loans and invest capital wherever its well-to-do directors decided to do so. Among antebellum Democrats, the suspicion of financial institutions ran so deep that many even opposed the issuing of paper money, then the province of banks, instead of relying on specie—coins made of silver, gold, and other metals.
The economic logic of their position was shaky at best. It assumed the superior virtues of a preindustrial nation of small farmers that was rapidly receding into memory and myth. “Here, the democrat is the conservative,” the novelist James Fenimore Cooper reflected in the 1830s. It also enraged urban businessmen, who relied on easy credit, and emboldened anti-Jackson politicians to organize the new Whig Party to oppose what they considered the tyranny of “King Andrew the First.” But the class-conscious sentiments behind Jackson’s “Bank War” also became one of his most significant legacies, helping to fuel the progressive campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, Robert La Follette, and Franklin Roosevelt, as well as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Bashing Wall Street and its government cronies in the name of the hardworking majority also did much to build popular
support for a progressive income-tax amendment and the Wagner Act; it was this part of Jackson’s legacy that earned the Democrats the title of “the party of the people.” The party’s founders in the 1830s believed that the federal government needed to stay out of most economic matters; but unlike conservative Republicans today, they did so because they thought that an interventionist government benefited the rich and the well-connected. What Opal calls “the glorious absence of a powerful state” also appealed to many of Jackson’s constituents, including Irish and German immigrants who had fled monarchies that imposed onerous taxes on the poor, and crushed them when they protested. In keeping with this tradition, the Democrats have pursued policies (more often than not) that sought to protect the interests of working Americans, even if it has meant reversing the view of the federal government held by Jackson and his disciples.
To fully understand Jackson’s legacy, we cannot neglect the parts that might still please us in order to emphasize the parts that we abhor. In the service of pursuing Jefferson’s vision of the United States as an “empire of liberty,” Jackson conquered lands occupied by people of another race and built the world’s first mass political party on a coalition that preserved chattel slavery. Yet as a self-made man who railed against the well-born elite, he also persuaded many white farmers and wage earners—both immigrants and the native-born—that a lack of privilege should not prevent them from thriving.
Instead of splitting the two Jacksons, we should be figuring out how to understand them together—as they were in reality. Jackson’s “democracy” was clearly liberating for some and repressive for others. It was also popular: A majority of Americans supported slavery and shared his choice of adversaries and friends. In 1819, Congress held a long debate about whether to censure Jackson for his rogue invasion of what was then Spanish Florida. Here’s why, according to Opal, the lawmakers in Washington decided to back off: “Rooted in the extreme devotion of white households from enemy [Native American] country and the proliferating institution of slavery, [Jackson’s support] reached into the raucous seaports of the east coast, the camp meetings of frontier towns, and the officer corps of the U.S. Army and Navy. It included women as well as men, children as well as parents. It was…largely southern and western but also urban. It was, in a word, Jacksonian.”
One cannot appreciate Jackson, the tough-talking populist and partisan, without understanding that his popular appeal was as much due to his defense of slavery, his years of killing Native Americans, and his simplistic grasp of economics as it was to his rhetorical defense of white workers and small farmers. In truth, much of American history has epitomized this dilemma: freedom built on the backs of the enslaved and exploited, justice and injustice bound together in the hearts of the same people and institutions. Trump will never truly understand the nature of this bedeviling paradox, even as he embodies it.
The same might be said about a onetime hero of anti-plutocratic populism who was fond of invoking Jackson’s vision of mass democracy. In 1892, Thomas Watson—the white Georgian who was one of the leaders of the Populist Party, which campaigned on freeing the US economy from the grip of the “money power”—lamented that American politics would have been different if Old Hickory were still around: “Oh, for an hour of that stern old warrior before whose Militia Rifles the veterans of Waterloo melted away, and before whose fiery wrath the combined money-kings bit the dust!”
In his admiring reference to the Battle of New Orleans, Watson got his chronology wrong: The confrontation at Waterloo, Napoleon’s final defeat, occurred six months after Jackson’s victory at the mouth of the Mississippi. But in the years to come, Watson would accurately represent the dual nature of Jackson’s appeal. Still railing against big business as a member of the Democratic Party, he had also become, by the early 20th century, one of the country’s most notorious haters of Catholics, African Americans, and Jews.