Few Americans in the country’s history have received the polarized interpretations that President Andrew Jackson has. Once revered as the quintessential frontier hero, a statesman who saved rugged individualism from the corrupt forces of corporatists and government centralizers, Jackson has more recently been maligned as a brutal white supremacist who epitomized white, capitalist, and Southern bigotry in the 19th century.
On this point, there is an unlikely alliance between some conservatives and Marxists. Dinesh D’Souza attacks Jackson as an early “progressive Democrat” who ushered in the Democratic Party’s legacy of genocide. The neo-Marxist Howard Zinn, similarly, scorns him as a “slave owner,” a “killer of Indians,” and “the architect of the Trail of Tears.” Adding to the confusion, Jackson has been appropriated by rather unlikely allies, such as the government centralizers of the New Deal era, who argued that Jackson anticipated the New Deal’s concentration of power in the hands of the presidency for the purpose of fulfilling the will of the majority.
Against the facile misinterpretations and half-truths touted both by friends and foes of President Jackson, Bradley Birzer’s In Defense of Andrew Jackson offers a thoughtful, refreshing, and timely analysis of our hopelessly misunderstood seventh president. Birzer, a historian at Hillsdale College, paints a vivid portrait of Jackson as both a man and as a statesman.
He should be perceived, Birzer demonstrates, not as the ancestor of majoritarian New Deal democracy but as a principled defender of traditional American republicanism. Eloquently written and amply supported by historical evidence, In Defense of Andrew Jackson serves as a sorely needed reminder of the republican principles that inspired so many Americans in the 19th century—principles that Americans need desperately.
Andrew Jackson’s America
Birzer begins his account of Jackson’s life and legacy with a brief exposition of his first inauguration and how it contrasted with presidential precedent. Until the Age of Jackson, every president had been a member of the aristocratic social elite. The “Virginia Dynasty” of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe had been interrupted only by the Adams political dynasty from Massachusetts. Additionally, each of these presidents was influenced by classical education.
Jackson — modestly educated, reared on the frontier, and orphaned as a youth — demonstrated to a new generation that the republic belonged to ordinary citizens. “In some ways,” Birzer notes, Jackson “was the first truly American president—not shaped by British manners and mores but something unique to this continent.” Jackson’s rugged character garnered him unprecedented enthusiasm from the lowliest parts of society, generally from the West and the South, but it also made him the scorn of the establishment. In his inaugural address, he promised to uphold the Constitution, reign in federal spending, extinguish debt, and clean up corruption.
After the speech, Birzer recounts that his supporters were enthused, and rushed to the new president to shake his hand and show their support for his agenda. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, in language anticipating recent pompous attacks on “bitter clingers” and “deplorables,” expressed his indignation: “He [Jackson] was visited by immense crowds of all sorts of people, from the highest and most polished down to the most vulgar and gross in the nation. I never saw such a mixture. The reign of ‘King Mob’ seemed triumphant.”
Jackson did not perceive the intellectuals any more positively. He regarded them as too prone to “waxing poetic and philosophic” while ordinary Americans struggled with practical political problems.
Andrew Jackson the Man
Some of Birzer’s most surprising tales deal not with Jackson’s presidency or his political principles, but his neglected personal life. Jackson’s parents immigrated to America during a wave of Scotch-Irish immigration in the 1760s, and they brought to their new home a fervent devotion to the Presbyterian religion, personal honor, and antipathy towards the British.
Elizabeth Jackson raised him in a “rigid Presbyterian” household and even attempted to spur him in the direction of the ministry. The unruly Jackson did not reciprocate, lacking the eloquence, literacy, and passion necessary to serve as a reverend. Nonetheless, he had a soft spot for evangelicals and referred to the Bible often in his public addresses. Birzer notes that, as he aged, Jackson’s piety greatly improved, and he became an unwavering believer in the Christian gospel.
Birzer suggests that the future president exemplified Scotch-Irish moral principles: “He was honest. He was brave. He admired sexual purity. He revered women as morally superior to men. He was utterly devoted to his mother, and, later, to his wife Rachel. He regarded them as virtual saints, and their advice as near holy writ.” Both of the central women in his life deeply affected him, and their early deaths shattered his spirit.
His mother died shortly before the American Revolution ended, orphaning him. Later in his life, shortly before winning the presidency, his wife Rachel—a devoted evangelical Christian—came across an anti-Jackson tract put out by the John Quincy Adams campaign describing her “whorishness.” Shocked, Jackson’s wife experienced a heart attack and passed away unexpectedly. Devastated, Jackson always blamed his political enemies for taking his beloved wife from him.
It is unsurprising that when Jackson looked for great historical role models, he chose the great Scotsman William Wallace, a man whom Jackson said it was “necessary for every virtuous high-minded youth to be acquainted with.” Like Wallace, Jackson had no love of Britain. He and his family were vehement patriots during the American Revolution, and Jackson even contributed to the war effort when he was only 14 years old.
A British officer famously captured the young Jackson and demanded that he shine his boots. When Jackson refused, the officer struck him savagely with a sword, and Andrew was left with a scar marking the occasion for the rest of his life. This instance would serve as an early illustration of Jackson’s conviction that the strength of American republicanism rested in the capacity of the country’s citizens to stand up for their rights, even at the risk of death.
Andrew Jackson the Republican
Although Jackson is sometimes regarded as a radical democrat who destroyed the Founders’ vision of a virtuous republic, Birzer reveals that the Jacksonian movement is better understood as a conservative effort to defend republicanism. Readers are given the impression that Jackson belonged to an America very different than our own, one highly protective of constitutional liberty, fearful of erosions of civic virtue, and committed to the noblest kind of republicanism. Jackson’s most lucid observations about American republicanism have long since been jettisoned, such as his skepticism of standing armies and his conception of republican service.
Like Jefferson, he despised standing armies on republican grounds, regarding them as subservient to the will of a distant and unaccountable executive branch. Standing armies, for Jackson, were nothing less than the “arm of despotism.” He preferred local and state militias, due to their closeness to the people.
Birzer notes that Jackson was a “conservative, if not a reactionary, on this issue” when you consider that the liberals of his day favored a “modernized” military ruled by the central government and able to compete with the imperial powers of Europe. Jackson preferred the volunteer citizen-soldier of the local militia to the conscripted, drafted youth with fealty to the national government. For Jackson, if the republic needs to draft citizens to fight for liberty, then it has lost the war already.
As his understanding of the standing army suggests, Jackson regarded citizenship as inextricably linked to service. His sense of republican duty was impeccable. When someone suggested that he ask President Jefferson for a political appointment, he rejected the notion on republican grounds: “Of all characters on earth, my feelings despise a man capable of cringing to power for a benefit of an office.” “Merit alone,” Jackson said, “ought to be the road to preferment.”
Late in his life, supporters of Jackson asked him if they could build a mausoleum honoring him upon his death. Jackson strongly declined, saying that this would be anti-republican. “True virtue cannot exist where pomp and parade are the governing passions; it can only dwell with the people, the great laboring and producing classes, that form the bone and sinew of our Confederacy.” As Birzer observes, this view has sadly been decisively rejected in a country that has extravagant funerals for lifelong politicians, builds temples to political leaders, and honors them as secular gods.
Jackson’s republicanism was not lost on the electorate or his supporters. In fact, Birzer reveals that the movement for Jackson was saturated in republicanism. Birzer details a particularly interesting set of leaflets by Sen. John Easton of Tennessee, penned anonymously as the “Letters of Wyoming.” Jackson is depicted as a patriotic, ordinary American who could roll back the materialistic pomp, extravagance, and aristocracy promoted by the federal bureaucracy.
Eaton warned that “our country has been gradually receding from first principles” and is consumed by “intrigue, management, and corruption.” Birzer demonstrates that a central part of Jackson’s appeal “was a feeling that the country needed a revival of its old republican spirit” in the face of a serious decline in “the religion, morals, and patriotism necessary to sustain true republicanism.”
Andrew Jackson the President
Birzer reveals that Jackson’s presidential aspirations, like the man himself, are subject to great misunderstandings. Although he is seen as a central figure in the rise of American mass democracy, Jackson actually refused to campaign for office during the election of 1824. “He gave no speeches; he made no vote-gathering tours,” Birzer claims, because it would violate the republican principle that leaders need to be called by the citizens and would turn politicians into demagogues who promise things to the citizens in return for their votes.
His loss in 1824 was appalling to Jackson not because it denied the will of the people, but because John Quincy Adams effectively bought his presidency from House Speaker Henry Clay in a “corrupt bargain.” Adams’ agenda proved unpopular, and Jackson ultimately routed him in their rematch four years later.
As president, Jackson acted on his conviction that “the world is governed too much.” He aggressively pursued limited government by vetoing laws that would have empowered the federal government at the expense of the states. Jackson vetoed the Maysville Road Bill, an attempt to use federal funding for local improvements in the state of Maryland, because he believed that it was both unconstitutional and would allow federal bureaucrats to solve problems that belonged to local citizens.
More famously and controversially, Jackson vetoed the National Bank, which in the name of economic efficiency entrenched experts who managed the economy to benefit the politically well-connected. His war against federal spending and government expansionism made him the only president in history to pay off the national debt. Although some conservative critics have averred that Jackson dangerously expanded the power of the presidency, readers will be left with the impression that it was in fact the Congress that had amassed unconstitutional powers, powers Jackson hoped to combat using the constitutional tools of the presidency.
Although Birzer recounts Jackson’s presidential accomplishments, he does not shy away from critiquing his highly divisive Indian policy. Birzer does, however, place it into the context of 19th-century political debates, which are often ignored. Jackson had no malice against the Indians as a race, whom Birzer notes that the president regarded as “natural republicans” in possession of the same rights as whites.
Jackson, in fact, adopted a Native American as his son and loved him deeply. Probably misguidedly, he believed that Indian relocation would free Indians from assaults by angry white settlers and allow them to live peacefully with land to themselves. He also believed that a sovereign Indian nation residing within the sovereign state of Georgia was unconstitutional, with the federal government having the exclusive ability to recognize independent nations.
Amazingly, Birzer demonstrates that many of Jackson’s political enemies portrayed him as being too pro-Indian or too moderate on the issue. Ultimately, the relocation bill he spearheaded and the Trail of Tears under his successor, Martin Van Buren, would greatly mar the president’s image in the eyes of modern Americans.
Andrew Jackson and the Union
One of the most dramatic instances of his presidency involved the Nullification Crisis. South Carolina, appalled with the Tariff of Abominations, attempted to nullify federal law. Jackson, an adamant state’s rights Southerner, was sympathetic to their plight and carried no brief for the tariff.
He did, however, perceive nullification as a great threat to the Union and a step in the direction of lawlessness. Rejecting Calhoun’s argument that nullification is vital to empower minority interests against rash majority rule, Jackson claimed that unjust laws need to be repealed, not simply ignored.
Birzer shows, however, that Jackson was not exactly a nationalist of the Daniel Webster or Abraham Lincoln mold. He may have had high regard for the “sacred Union,” but he also believed in “state pride and local attachments” and suggested that the Union rested on “the affections of the people,” not simply the “coercive powers… of the General Government.” From Birzer’s book, one gets a sense that Jackson was not wholly consistent on the nature of the Union, but he was admirably devoted to a strict reading of the Constitution, a reading which he believed precluded nullification.
A Republican for Today
“If Jackson has become unfashionable,” concludes Birzer, “it is not because we have outgrown his virtues, but because we have need of them.” By the end of this brief but thoughtful book, the author has demonstrated the truth of his claim. Jackson was not a perfect man or a perfect president. He would likely attack such an idea. If he had any accomplishments to his name, Jackson was clear that it was only because the American people invested him with the opportunity to serve them.
Birzer’s account evinces the value of the ordinary citizen both to this president and his age. We would do well to revisit Jackson’s republican convictions in our modern political context. Birzer offers the perfect place to start by including Jackson’s 1837 Farewell Address in the book, a forgotten text that should be included in the canon of any conservative devoted to the republic. “No free government,” Jackson accurately warned, “can stand without virtue in the people and a lofty spirit of patriotism.”
For those who perceive American exceptionalism as a story of elite, philosophic statesmen who transform the nation in accordance with their universal principles, Jackson will certainly hold little appeal. He was no philosopher, and made no pretension of being one. Jackson was content to look at the Constitution, the Bible, and the experience of history to make his political decisions.
For those Americans, however, who see American exceptionalism as an organic creation of the American people, people jealous of their republican liberty against government centralization and bureaucratic corruption, Jackson will resonate. He understood that republicanism depends upon the heart of the citizens and each of his defenses of limited government were made with this in mind. As we search for what Sen. Eaton called the “first principles” needed to restore the republic, we could do no better than taking into account the republican convictions of Andrew Jackson, so thoughtfully delineated in Birzer’s newest book.