Things That Andrew Jackson Ruined

Daguerreotype of Andrew Jackson at age 77 or 7...

Daguerreotype of Andrew Jackson at age 77 or 78 (1844 or 1845). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the first things you realize about Andrew Jackson, who was the seventh president (1829–1837), is that his views on matters unrelated to race are anything but consistent. The second is that he was an irascible (definitely) asshole (probably) who was guided chiefly by the principle that it was his way or the highway. In between the tumult, his term in office was a dreary string of temper tantrums and long naps.

Finance

Mr. Jackson, in a spectacular abuse of executive power, first diminished and then destroyed the Second Bank of the United States, which passed for the central bank at the time. His initial distrust of bankers was probably rooted in his own foolish financial dealings, and his protracted conflict with the director of the bank itself was significantly personal. But Mr. Jackson also saw the bank as a corrupting influence that preyed on the lives of self-starting, hee-hawing go-getters, like he used to be himself. However, because it was an influence he could not control, he resolved to destroy it, no matter how many laws he had to break (there were a few). In the end, his rash and unpredictable behavior consigned the burgeoning American economy to occasional fits of preventable chaos over the next few decades.

The lives of American Indians

Mr. Jackson ordered or encouraged the forced removal of American Indians from their recognized territories across the Southeast, a small part of which was known as the Trail of Tears. He did not invent the idea of dispossessing the indigenous population; neither did he refine or improve upon it. Mr. Jackson wielded it like a terrible, blunt instrument, and made indelible the stain of Indian Removal on the country’s (rarely troubled) conscience. So clumsy and willful was Mr. Jackson, that when his own Supreme Court made rulings in favor of Indians who were grimly trying to hang on in Southern pine forests, he laughed it off: “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!” He made no accommodation in new lands for the peoples he proposed to evict from the Southeast, and is culpable in the deaths of tens of thousands. Today this sort of thing is called ethnic cleansing.

The lives of slaves

It is unfair, probably, to crap on Mr. Jackson for his views on slavery, which were by no means unusual. But he sure as hell didn’t help matters. It is important to note that the slavery question seemed a lot more solvable at the end of the 1700s than it did by the 1820s, when it had fairly congealed on the American dinner plate. Louts like Mr. Jackson refused to clean it off. Southern land barons simply had too much capital tied up in chattel to make any of the so-called solutions to the problem practical. And the more this capital piled up, the more such ideas seemed to them less like solutions and more like personal attacks.

Politics

Mr. Jackson was an early and enthusiastic innovator of the peculiarly American style of patronage, sleazy machine politics that Theodore Roosevelt strained five decades later to stamp out as the commissioner of the federal civil service. The contrast with the nascent meritocracy laid down by Mr. Jackson’s predesceor, the grumpy, knee-stockinged intellectual John Quincy Adams, was stark. Mr. Jackson’s only recommendation in this case is that he had the sand to argue that his system of packing federal offices with toadies, bootlickers and canny political operatives would actually prevent corruption.

National unity

Mr. Jackson gets props for heading off a political controversy in his first term by talking South Carolina out of a tree, but his bluster and compromise solution only hardened the (probably irreversible) sectionalism that would lead to the Civil War. South Carolina, always sweating and seething, was particularly exorcised by the so-called Tariff of Abominations, which (understandably) it said singled out Southern planters — but which had in fact been put in place by Mr. Jackson’s minions in a transparent and vulgar attempt to build an electoral power base and get their boy into the White House. When South Carolina declared the tariff null and void, Mr. Jackson got up on his hind leg in what his supporters would call a heroic feat of executive leadership. The compromise that resulted was enough to satisfy Mr. Jackson’s sense of honor, and it kept the country in one piece. But it did little solve the underlying problem and mollify Southern firebrands, who were still spoiling for a fight. As Mr. Jackson himself wrote to a cousin, “The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question.”

The dignity of the office

O.K., just kidding there.

But it’s worth adding that Mr. Jackson had a long history before becoming president of roughhousing, and he actually killed a man in a duel before earning his hero stripes in the War of 1812. And he was twice attacked as president, including the first honest-to-god assassination attempt. The lack of dignity part I was getting at was that both times he blamed the attacks on his political enemies in Congress — even though the first assailant had an honest grudge, and the would-be assassin was a bona fide loon. Mr. Jackson’s henchmen even hauled in a senator for questioning.