Where Have You Gone, Andrew Jackson?
A nation turns its blackened eyes to you.
The 7th president as a proud fourteen year-old boy refused to clean a British soldier's boots. The 43rd had shoes thrown at him at age 62 and he laughed it off, unaware of the grave insult that is in the Arab world.
Depending on your political stripe and even your racial heritage, Andrew Jackson was either a saint or a sinner. As with the current squatter in the White House, Jackson alienated and even infuriated not only the opposition party but also his own. However, not much beyond there the resemblance ends.
For those of you who have cared to study his life and career, Jackson was simultaneously a man of his time, of the bygone age of the Revolution yet one ahead of his own time. An unfathomably complicated individual, he was a man of countless contradictions and his immovable absolutism made him a huge target for irony. For instance, the president who couldn't stand the mere concept of paper money partly because of its susceptibility to inflation wound up on the twenty dollar bill.
He was also a president of firsts: He was the first chief executive associated with the frontier (as Tennessee was not a state but a territory), was the first to be assaulted, the first to suffer an assassination attempt, the first not to have a First Lady (his wife Rachel passed away immediately after his election) and the first and only president to be censured by the United States Senate. More impressively, he is still the only President to completely wipe out the national debt (partly a benefit of dissolving the 2nd Bank of the United States by vetoing its charter and moving its gold and silver deposits to individual states. This spurred federal land sales, which is exactly how Jackson obliterated our debt).
The stark differences between the 7th and 43rd presidents, while perhaps an unfair one due to the cultural and political gulf and divergence between epochs, nonetheless offers a fascinating if not irresistible study in contrast (and in one or two notorious parallels but more on that later) in their fundamental understanding (or lack thereof) and interpretation of our Constitution. It also delineates a yawning chasm between both men regarding the view of each of the very function of democracy itself and the role played by We, the People.
If Jackson was still alive and had run for president this year, he would've been immediately dismissed as a bug-eyed liberal anarchist, one who wouldn't have survived the primaries and caucuses, a more bellicose version of Mike Gravel. In fact, perhaps it's best that Jackson not be around because in the astronomically unlikely event he was ever elected President in modern times, his entire administration would've been consumed in fighting one duel after another. Between lobbyists dictating what legislation reaches and gets out of committee if not controlling what bills are passed, stupendously corrupt Republicans and Democrats and the Federal Reserve and its endless, even secretive, loans and bailouts, Jackson would've been impeached and jailed as a mass murderer.
Jackson unsuccessfully ran for President against John Quincy Adams in 1824, the first election that included counted ballots by rank and file American voters, when he saw the vast corruption gripping Washington, DC. One of the fiercest and most dedicated reformers who ever occupied the Oval Office, Jackson was incensed by what he saw as corruption when his rival, Henry Work Clay, rewarded a campaign supporter with political patronage. Today that would hardly be worth raising an eyebrow over. 160 years ago, it was intolerable corruption to Jackson.
Jackson, the only president to ever have a brand of democracy named after him, would've been unimaginably horrified to see individual candidates spending over $100,000,000 on a single election, cozying up to lobbyists and major corporations and outfits such as the Bilderberg Group while not even proposing for purely populist purposes significant, biting reforms that could transform the way business is done in the seat of our federal government.
Jackson, a major figure in the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans, would've been positively mortified had he heard of a man who shirked state militia duty during wartime then ran on a military hero platform thirty years later, a man who would recklessly send into harm's way hundreds of thousands of troops based on a pack of lies at the same time he was shortchanging them on benefits, proposed cutting their pay then refusing to accept any blame for such recklessness to the point of blaming others. It would've especially mortified him to see Bush's casual disregard for those in the same city in which Jackson and his amazingly variegated 4000 militiamen had risked life and limb defending against the British.
By contrast, Jackson, while a commanding officer in the Tennessee militia, was ordered by President James Madison to cut his forces loose because the War Department didn't want to pay the men. The George Patton or Douglas MacArthur of his day, Jackson disobeyed a presidential directive for not the last time by marching back with his men, literally as he'd loaned out his horse to those too weak or sick to march. Suffering from dysentery, Jackson marched shoulder to shoulder with his troops then paid them out of his own pocket.
Jackson was a notoriously poor shot but he would've been a marksman the day George W. Bush staggered into his crosshairs. And Bush certainly would've been the first to catch his baleful gaze.
The 2000 election alone, which subverted the will of countless tens of thousands of American voters, would've been a excuse for Jackson to throw down the gauntlet at Bush's feet. Jackson was, to say the least, an ardent proponent of the will of the people being heard and of the true power in government resting with the people. He would've been depressed to see 35-40% voter turnouts. He would've been enraged to find out tens of thousands were denied their constitutional right to vote (taking place in Florida, the state for which he'd served as the first military governor) because political poseurs such as Bush chose their voters instead of vice versa.
The only significant parallel between Bush and Jackson was in how they'd handled indigenous people. Jackson, of course, signed into law the Indian Removal Act, which was rightly seen as a betrayal of the Native American tribes who had helped Jackson win the Battle of New Orleans. This resulted in the removal of at least 40,000 Native Americans in what is now regarded as the Trail of Tears, surely one of the blackest and most barbaric chapters in our nation's history.
Still, while it would be easy to completely blame Jackson for this, the fact is that Indian removal to west of the Mississippi was advocated by four previous presidents, including Quincy Adams, Madison and Monroe and continued under his successor Martin Van Buren. Subjugation to American will and taxation and obeyance of American law would've permitted staying on US soil which, while unpalatable to Native Americans sick and tired of white men breaking literally 99% of the treaties they'd signed with them, were at least options. To help ease the transition, the government simultaneously purchased Indian land and large swaths of land west of the Mississippi.
George W. Bush's cavalier attitude toward Iraqi death and displacement is no less barbaric but perhaps it is moreso because the Iraqi people who have fled their native country have hardly seen American soil. As recently as a year ago, our own State Department had admitted so few people into our country that they wouldn't have had enough for a football team. As with the Cherokees and Creeks who had formed much of Jackson's militia during the Battle of New Orleans, Iraqi interpreters who'd made the mistake of trusting the American military found themselves and their families targeted by terrorists then cut adrift by the same American government for whom they'd performed invaluable services.
The United States is, if anything, moreso than the 1820s in desperate need of Jacksonian democracy that, by our latter-day standards, would amount to irresponsible anarchy. Sadly, we've reached such a cynical point in our expectations for our elected officials that we think people like Barack Obama are crusading liberals and that actually making sure every vote counts, that banks don't get too centralized or too powerful or too corrupt and that politicians shouldn't allow themselves to be bought and hand out political jobs like little brass rings is simply an unrealistic objective.
It's the mother of all Overtonian windows, when adherence to the democracy that Jackson had helped bring about in the beginning then had to wrench back to its true north a half a century later would become passé, out of style and a quaint, fantastical concept.