The most contrary, opinionated and “devil-may-care” president the United States has ever had (at least until this year) won the 1828 election. He was voted in by the countrified folk on the frontier and the small farmers east of Appalachia.
In 1815, Gen. Andrew Jackson called on the Kentucky militia to help defend New Orleans against the British. Two thousand, three hundred Kentucky boys sailed down the Mississippi on flatboats. Before they arrived, Jackson discovered that only a minority were armed. In his characteristic, outspoken way, the general remarked, “I don’t believe it. I have never in my life seen a Kentuckian without a gun, a pack of cards, and a jug of whiskey.”
The 700 actually carrying their Kentucky rifles were placed on the front line, on the breastworks from which Jackson’s troops decimated the British charge. My great-great-great John Landis Young was one of the 58 Americans wounded that day, in a shot through the leg.
Since that day the mostly rural Youngs of Kentucky, then later Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, and other points west, have held an almost mystical reverence for this Indian fighter, New Orleans hero, and later outsider president who put the Democratic Party on the map as the “people’s” party and bulwark against Washington DC corruption. The name Andrew Jackson Young shows up on all the different branches of the Young family tree.
Now for “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say: Kentuckian John Landis Young’s last child, born in 1846 in “Jackson” County, Indiana, was named Andrew Jackson Young. And he was first cousin to President Harry Truman’s mother, Martha Ellen Young Truman. Uncle Harry was a country boy and outspoken Democrat who actually did root out some of Washington DC’s corruption. “Jack” Young’s wife, Rachel, smoked a corn cob pipe, and their eldest surviving daughter, Hulda, wrote to her granddaughter in 1948 urging her to vote for “cousin Harry” in the presidential election.
While being quite uncomfortable with Jackson’s slave-holding, Indian-hating ways, I can understand this bully in his historical setting and mostly give my ancestors a free pass on their political views. At the same time, I am highly amused at the proliferation of articles comparing Donald Trump to Jackson, by and large prophesying gloom and doom for the United States. It is a historical accident that most of the Jackson-Trump warnings are written by modern Democrats and others on the “people’s” Left.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani touts Trump’s victory in this election as a throwback to “the populism of Andrew Jackson, a cantankerous leader whose distrust of the establishment is legendary,” and the Huffington Post calls Jackson and Trump “Tyranny’s Twins.”
Interpreting history is a difficult task for even the well-informed professional. But it is much more complex and tricky to get historical comparisons even partially right. When people compare different actors on the historical stage and express themselves from a determined political viewpoint, we can expect the exercise to end in the realm of the absurd or the downright ridiculous. The devil is truly in the details.
They Do Share Some Similarities
Old Hickory had other eyebrow-raising links to the modern character known as The Donald: he lived with a separated, but still married, woman in Nashville. It was an affront to more eastern social sensibilities, but didn’t raise ruffles on the frontier.
Jackson also had very strong views about terrorism. A forgotten ingredient of the Indian “troubles” on the U.S. frontier in the first decades of the nineteenth century was the fact that British agents put up young braves (not whole tribes) to attacks on homesteading families, often taking out women and children. Jackson believed in fighting fire with fire, something that historians lament but frontier Americans backed wholeheartedly.
Jackson’s one-sided treaties with the Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees that turned over millions of acres of Indian lands set the stage for the “Trail of Tears” and can only be understood in the context of how most frontier folk saw their relationship with the mostly peaceful but sometimes belligerent tribes.
While Jackson also had a penchant for dueling and street brawls, we have to remember it is Vice President Joe Biden who publicly stated that he would like to take Trump behind the boiler room and teach him some manners concerning his language about women. Trump merely tweeted in response. An actual duel of fists is hard to imagine in the twenty-first century.
Removing Indians Wasn’t A Personal Land Grab
Sherman Yellen admits that his Huffington Post article is a “very rough exercise in history,” then goes on to prove his point by enumerating a list of sins of which neither Jackson or Trump is guilty. He calls Jackson’s treaties with the Indians “the art of the steal” from which Jackson personally profited, “an early form of real estate dealing.” Jackson’s treatment of the Indians was no doubt shameful and unjust, especially from our modern perspective, but it takes a deliberate suspension of logic to compare Jackson’s non-existent “personal” land grab with Trump’s business dealings.
It ignores that Jackson literally saw himself as the champion of the common man, the settler on the frontier, and that the real land grab was for the benefit of the folk moving west. While his treatment of the Indian tribes was reprehensible and the 1830 Indian Removal Act a blight on America’s history, there is no historical record of Jackson taking those actions to increase his personal wealth.
Several articles, like this one by Yellen, seek to prove that Jackson increased his land holdings at Indians’ expense. The historical record shows that in 1804 he personally purchased the 450 acres that became the basis of his Hermitage estate. That was exactly 26 years before the Indian Removal act.
Comparing Trump’s business dealings with Jackson’s treatment of the Indian tribes stretches logic even further. Nowhere in Trump’s checkered past of financial and property dealings can one find a deliberate act by The Donald that disenfranchised a whole Indian tribe.
Some do see in Trump’s future the possibility that he will treat immigrants with the same wanton cruelty Jackson displayed with the Indians. But that is not the point made in these comparison articles. For these authors it is already evident that the new political villain is and has been guilty of racism and hatred on a “Jacksonian” level.
A 2016 article by Gina Yannitell Reinhardt, a lecturer at the University of Essex, confuses even further this politically incorrect historical analogy saying the following about Trump’s “special kind of racism:”
He doesn’t exactly hate African-Americans, Latinos, or other non-whites; like Jackson, he simply doesn’t respect their rights. Minorities can live their lives as long as they don’t threaten the security of the white majority.
There may be no president in history that represents this notion better than Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act and announced with ‘pleasure’ the ‘benevolent policy of the government’ to resettle ‘Indians’ far from white settlements.
She details no actions by Trump to support this “special racism.” It suffices to paint Trump with the Jacksonian brush, which magically turns him into a racist of epic proportions.
Were Trump Voters Like Jackson Voters?
Giuliani has made the Trump-Jackson comparison positively. As the presidential race began to look like it would turn to Trump, Giuliani said: “If it does happen, as it looks that it will, this is a real victory for the people… this is like Andrew Jackson’s victory. This is the people beating the establishment. That’s how we posited it right from the beginning — the people are rising up against a government they find to be dysfunctional.”
The Left responded with an ethos of “Can you believe it — Giuliani comparing Donald Trump to the historical monster guilty of “ethnic cleansing?” We don’t have time to show how the ethnic cleansing charge against Jackson is not entirely accurate. But Giuliani has his own difficulties with historical comparisons. It can be argued, like he said, that this year’s election was a “rising up” of the common folk against dysfunction in Washington, but was that also the motive behind Jackson’s electoral putsch against the Eastern elite? Probably not.
While Jackson decried corruption in the central government, and appears to have rooted out some of it once he got in power, it was politics pure and simple that drove him to the White House. He wanted the central government to be more powerful to benefit the common man, and the common folk got the political change that Jackson promised.
Was Washington “dysfunctional” in the early nineteenth century? No, again. Thomas Jefferson and a host of Founding Fathers will tell you another story about the nation’s capital at that time. Jefferson also felt, like most of the political establishment today of Trump, that Jackson was a wild and dangerous person to put into the top job in the United States. That opinion did not sway the voters.