What Andrew Jackson and his followers of the 1820s and 1830s left us was the “democratic” creed in the American bloodstream. It was populist but principled, as oxymoronic as that may sound.
Jackson had surrounded himself with thinking men—like Martin Van Buren, Francis Preston Blair, Amos Kendall, a few eccentric “Locofocos” (precursors to modern libertarians), and other leading lights of his day—who gave political and policy form to his Jeffersonian instincts.
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Jackson embraced the Jeffersonian notion that the government needed to get out of people’s way, but he abandoned Thomas Jefferson’s more utopian ideas. Jackson once said of Jefferson that he was “the best Republican in theory and the worst in practice.”
While Jackson was not the political theorist and wordsmith that Jefferson was, he did offer a coherent worldview to the American people. And in many ways, he was a far greater leader of men.
The basic outline of the Jacksonian creed was simple, but it had a lasting impact on the course of the nation.
The first plank of Jackson’s political philosophy was that entrenched interests in places of power can become dangerous to the liberties of the American people.
This was something Jackson stressed when he ran for president, and it remained an important theme throughout his two terms in office. In modern times, people think of issues like term limits—which Jackson would have certainly been amenable to—for members of Congress.
But Jackson took it a bit further. As small as the federal bureaucracy was at the time, Jackson believed that civil servants, who tended to see their office as their own private property, had wiggled their way into comfy positions in Washington, D.C., and had become slothful, incompetent, and in many cases corrupt. He intended to drain the swamp.
In his first annual message to Congress, Jackson explained his philosophy: “In a country where offices are created solely for the benefit of the people no one man has any more intrinsic right to official station than another. Offices were not established to give support to particular men at the public expense.”
During Jackson’s presidency, there was actually a law on the books that limited a civil servant’s time in office to four years, after which he had to apply for the position again.
Though many have blamed Jackson for instituting the “spoils system”—by which political parties reward their political friends with jobs and punish their enemies by booting them out—Jackson’s role in perpetuating this problem has been vastly overstated. So has its pernicious effect on our politics. That system had marked advantages over the modern one in which, of the nearly 3 million federal government employees today, virtually none can lose their jobs for any reason, including criminal activity.
And the disadvantages of the “spoils system” pale in comparison to the dangers of “the Deep State”—a massive and powerful unelected bureaucracy whose staff appears to feel justified in interfering in our elections.
Jackson would have been horrified at the total lack of democratic accountability over these bureaucrats, and we should be too.
The second major plank of Jacksonianism was an intense opposition to crony capitalism, the symbiotic relationship between big government and big business, in which the government interferes with the free market to pick winners and losers.
The forgotten men under this system are the average Americans without influence in the halls of power, those who work hard and play by the rules.
Jackson’s solution was not to give away handouts nor to have the government control business—which he would have seen as economic folly and un-American—but instead to sever the corrupt ties between business and government whenever possible.
Jackson gave one of his most eloquent denunciations of crony capitalism in his message to the nation on his veto of the Second Bank of the United States Charter. Though the national bank did provide financial stability for the economy, Jackson worried that it had become too powerful and unaccountable. Indeed, many politicians were on the bank’s payroll.
It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purpose. … When the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions … the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers—who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their government.
The third essential plank of the Jacksonian agenda was an aggressive military and foreign posture in the world—something that differentiated Jackson from earlier members of his Jeffersonian Democrat party.
It’s important not to overstate Jefferson’s rejection of military force as an essential element of American foreign policy. He did launch a major naval attack against North African pirates, after all, and signed legislation creating West Point, America’s premier military school.
But Jackson relied even more heavily on the concept of “peace through strength,” to quote a favorite phrase of Ronald Reagan’s.
Jackson invested heavily in the Navy as a prime weapon for preventing the abuse of American citizens around the globe and called for a major naval buildup in his farewell address, in which he paraphrased an ancient Latin saying that expresses a similar sentiment: “We shall more certainly preserve the peace when it is well understood that we are prepared for war.” His foreign policy maxim was, “Ask nothing but what is right, permit nothing that is wrong.”
Jackson was willing to threaten to unleash American military force, even against superior foes, in order to get diplomatic concessions out of other countries that he felt were treating the United States unfairly.
For example, when France failed to pay America the agreed upon spoliation claims from the undeclared “Quasi War” at the end of the 18th century, Jackson’s brinksmanship ultimately convinced the French to pay up. As powerful as France was compared with the United States of the time, Jackson’s threats and unwillingness to apologize for them had a powerful result.
“The effect of Jackson’s attitude was not lost upon European governments,” wrote early 20th-century political scientist John Fiske. “At home the hurrahs for Old Hickory were louder than ever. The days when foreign powers could safely insult us were evidently gone by.”
Jackson’s militant persona allowed America to punch above its weight in foreign policy and to establish its claims as more than an afterthought in European power struggles.
Jacksonian militancy in demanding respect for the rights of American citizens and asserting America’s national interests abroad was effective in persuading foreign powers not to molest America and to respond favorably to America’s demands in trade and other deals.
Despite Jackson’s belligerence—more likely because of it—the United States was not embroiled in any major wars during Jackson’s presidency, and the country secured more trade agreements than under any previous administration.
The man America’s political establishment had called a reckless incompetent was getting things done, and his supporters cheered him on.
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Jackson’s presidency was among the most important issues for the future of the United States: the delicate balance between state power and federal union, which was in jeopardy from Jackson’s time until after the Civil War.
Jackson was a nationalist, but he was also a federalist: he thought that most policies should be left to the states and individuals but that the union itself was necessary and indivisible. For America to be strong, the federal government had to be circumscribed to important but limited functions such as foreign policy and projects of truly national scope.
Jackson vetoed state-level infrastructure projects as a waste of federal dollars—and more properly the responsibility of the states. He loathed the idea of federal funds being used as a slush fund for local interests and politicians. Jackson issued what was at the time a record number of vetoes, many of which were used to stop these sort of schemes.
The Jacksonian creed was, as emblazoned on the letterhead of a popular newspaper, “The World is governed too much.” This cussed independence has been a part of the American soul since the beginning, but it was solidified in the Age of Jackson, the age of the self-made man.
And from time to time, it surges back to life in a wave of populist, anti-elite discontent. In the 1820s, it brought Jackson to power; in 1980, it put Reagan in the White House; in the 2010s, it fueled the tea party movement, which took to the streets motivated by the notion that the American taxpayer should not bail out major banks that had acted irresponsibly in the financial crisis, nor should they have to pay for their neighbor’s house.
Like the Jacksonians of earlier times, the tea party feared that the government was working against the average American who had acted responsibly—and was now being punished for it.
In a campaign promise that would have undoubtedly thrilled tea party supporters, Jackson promised to pay off the national debt, which he thought was a “national curse.” Remarkably, his administration did just that in 1835—the only time in history that an advanced modern nation has pulled off such a feat.
Men like Jackson and Daniel Webster, his occasional political opponent, united in the 1830s to save the nation from immolation. Eventually, Congress hashed out a compromise on the tariff and the controversy subsided. But the deep divisions between the North and South survived to fracture the Union a mere three decades later.
While Jackson was dead by the time the Civil War broke out, its successful conclusion and the salvation of the Union can fairly be said to be in part his legacy.
Though Abraham Lincoln had been a Whig for most of his life and had often opposed Jackson’s party on domestic matters, he embraced Jackson’s defense of the Union in the run-up to the Civil War, citing Jackson’s nullification proclamation in his arguments against secession.
Lincoln rallied many Jacksonians to the banner of his new Republican Party, including some of Jackson’s closest advisers. Jackson adviser Francis Preston Blair, for example, one of the founders of the Democratic Party, ended up also being among the founders of the Republican Party decades later.
Lincoln, like President Donald Trump today, kept a portrait of Jackson at his office in the White House, a fitting homage from one great American president to another.
But Lincoln’s view is no longer good enough for Jackson’s modern detractors, who think his faults outweigh his contributions and wish to see him stripped from our currency, his statues brought down, and his name cursed and maligned in our classrooms. This is an insult to a man who helped America get to its feet in a savage world.
The Founders created the American Republic. But the second generation of Americans left a powerful impression of its own, an indelible cultural mark on the country for the generations that followed.
“Populism” is a bit of a loaded term. It conjures up images of an unthinking rabble egged on by self-interested demagogues, or worse, of French Revolution-style mobs murdering innocents.
Undoubtedly, going back to ancient times, many populist revolutions have ended badly. The Founders understood this, which is why they placed brakes on pure democracy when they created our constitutional system of government. Yet they also opened the door for genuine democracy to play a serious role in our system.
The Jacksonians of the early 19th century represented a distinct kind of American populism. At its best, Jacksonian democracy was a genuine and principled restoration movement that drew upon the best influences of the founding to rein in a corrupt ruling class. Both Jackson and the movement he represented were ultimately more conservative than radical.
America has never since matched the elite talent of the founding generation, never again produced men like Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and so many other great leaders, thinkers, and statesman at once.
But fortunately, America’s greatness does not stem only from its great men; it also comes from the timeless greatness of the system they created.
That system of self-governance relies on the often unheralded “middling men,” the generally unknown common folk of America, who may not be as learned as the great elite that once guided the country in its infancy but who nevertheless maintained and improved the Republic created by those who came before. Jackson always believed unwaveringly in such men, and that faith is the key to his enduring legacy, which resonates through the generations.
Jacksonian populism did not destroy America; it reinvigorated it. While Jackson had his contemporary detractors, the country was stronger when he left the presidency than it had been before his ascent to the office. It had achieved enormous successes. And perhaps just as important, he staved off worrying trends that endangered the Republic.
Jackson was no crooked gangster masquerading as president, gleefully committing genocide against vulnerable people. He was an honest, dedicated son of the founding who used his presidency to restore what he saw as the original republican vision for the country, while acting as the great protector from both internal and external threats to the Union.
The Jacksonian creed, which resides in the American political bloodstream still, serves as a vital counterweight to the long progressive trend of the last century, whereby America’s sovereign power has been transferred from We the People to unaccountable “experts” in Washington, D.C. It is the often unacknowledged and generally maligned Jacksonian instinct that still stands in direct opposition to the centralization of power in the hands of unelected elites.
In an age when a bloated government, an unbridled administrative state staffed by an arrogant bureaucracy, and a corrupt—and increasingly anti-American—elite hold enormous power, the lessons of the Jacksonian era are more relevant than ever. We have every reason to want another Jackson, or series of Jacksons, to step in, drain the swamp, and restore the Republic.