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.