The president’s legacy is not pretty, but neither is the story
Editor’s Note: HW Brands is the author of “Andrew Jackson” and other books on American history. He is a professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin and a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. He wrote this essay on Jackson’s legacy for the USA TODAY NETWORK.
Andrew Jackson was born 250 years ago on March 15. For much of that quarter of a millennium, he has been one of the most admired figures in American life. Parents baptized their sons after him; towns, counties, lakes, mountains, and schools bearing Jackson’s name appeared in every state. The famous image of Jackson having one of the best hairdressing days in American history was engraved on the $ 20 bill.
But Jackson began to fall out of favor a few generations ago. He was a tough sell in the midst of the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s, when his unrepentant ownership of slaves marked him as a man to blame rather than praise. Jackson owned fewer slaves than other icons such as Thomas Jefferson, but Jefferson had the good grace to feel guilty about benefiting from other people’s bondage, and therefore was easier on liberal sensibilities. Jackson, who never admitted feeling guilty about anything, appeared to be asking for his removal from the pantheon.
More damning, in the minds of many, was Jackson’s attitude towards Indians. Jackson first made a name for himself as an Indian fighter; while president, he endorsed the Indian relocation policy that resulted in the forced displacement of the Cherokees to the trans-Mississippi west. At the turn of the present century, it was hardly an exaggeration to say that the only thing American schoolchildren were learning about Jackson was that he was the author of the Trail of Tears.
Historical reputations rise and fall; Jackson is not unique in this regard. But his case is particular by the scale of the fall and by what he says about historical memory. Oddly enough, Jackson’s reputation fell victim to his success. Her sins were remembered because her accomplishments were so deep.
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Jackson’s main achievement has been to secure the triumph of democracy as a touchstone of American politics. Jackson was born a subject of the British Empire; he grew up to adulthood in a republic ruled by elites who expected and received the deference of the mass of the American people. In most states, the right to vote was restricted to white males who owned property and had resided for a long time; even among white men, voters were often a small minority.
Things changed during Jackson’s middle years. Western states like Tennessee sought to attract settlers by offering them the right to vote; Eastern states eventually followed suit to avoid losing residents. Meanwhile, states have moved from having their legislatures choose voters who in turn elect the president, to letting voters choose voters. The consequence was that, by the time Jackson ran for president in 1824, almost any adult white males could vote, and their votes determined the outcome of the presidential elections.
At least that’s how new voters thought the system was supposed to work. He did not do so in 1824, when Jackson received the most popular and the most electoral votes but, in a four-man race, not a majority of the two. The contest went to the House of Representatives, where John Quincy Adams emerged the winner, with the help of Henry Clay, the fourth.
For supporters of Jackson – a son of the border, the first ordinary man to come so close to the White House – it was an outrage against democracy. For Adams supporters – the son of former President John Adams, and the latest in a series of wealthy and educated men who had monopolized the Presidency since its inception – it was a valiant defense of the line against the scum.
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But the line couldn’t hold out any longer. In their revenge of 1828, Jackson defeated Adams in both popular and electoral votes.
The effect of Jackson’s victory was enormous. He was hailed as the first “president of the people”. Mothers and fathers who never dreamed that their sons could one day become president suddenly did. A boy could not become George Washington if he was not born into the gentry, but a boy of the most humble origins could become Andy Jackson, because that is what Jackson had done.
The triumph of democracy was the dominant theme of American life in the first half of the 19th century. Jacksonian democracy was far from perfect: most women and African Americans could not vote. But the principle that political power in America belonged to ordinary people became firmly entrenched.
Ultimately, this principle would require the extension of the vote to women and blacks. But by then, the revolutionary nature of Jacksonian achievement would have been largely forgotten. Democracy was taken for granted; it was considered historically inevitable. Nothing special was owed to Jackson in this matter.
Jackson’s fame faded for another reason. Before being President of the People, he was the American military hero. His victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans was considered the greatest triumph for American arms since the War of Independence. Jackson has been hailed as the second General Washington. Where Washington had won American independence from Britain at Yorktown, Jackson confirmed independence in New Orleans.
But over time, the significance of Jackson’s feat began to fade. By the mid-20th century, when the United States had become the greatest military power in history, it was easy to assume that America was destined for this role from the start. Again, the feeling of having inevitably clouded Jackson’s accomplishment.
If recent generations have forgotten Jackson’s contributions to the things we love about America, they too well remember his participation in the things we dislike. Jackson’s slavery isn’t admirable, but it wasn’t unusual either. In fact, it was necessary for his other achievements, in that it was a prerequisite for the contemporary esteem that made his achievements possible. Jackson lived in the Slave South, and in the Slave South, successful men owned slaves. If Jackson had not owned slaves – if he had failed as a planter, say – he would not have earned the trust of those around him. If he had opposed slavery on moral grounds, he might have been a better man, but he would never have been president. Of the first 12 presidents (Jackson was the seventh), only two never owned slaves. Every president in the South before the Emancipation Proclamation owned slaves.
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Jackson’s Indian policy was also consistent with that of other presidents. From George Washington to Ulysses Grant, American policy was to keep Indians out of white colonization. Jackson was more outspoken about politics than others, as he was more outspoken about many things. But his policy was not materially different from that of the presidents who preceded and followed him.
None of this is intended to whitewash Jackson’s reputation. Nor is it about making Jackson a hero for today’s generation. Each generation chooses which heroes they feel comfortable with. But the Jackson case should serve as a reminder that the story is complicated. America did not become the country it is today without significant contributions from people once considered heroic but now seen as embarrassing or worse. The problem, if there is one, is not with Jackson; the problem is with American history. This story contains chapters that we are not proud of and should not be.
But while it would be a mistake to celebrate these chapters, it would be a more serious mistake to tear them from the history books. They are part of who we are today. And they suggest that we are not innocent ourselves: almost certainly, we are doing things that will baffle and mortify our grandchildren.
Andrew Jackson was not a humble man. Yet if, on the occasion of his 250th birthday, he can remind us of the need for humility, he will have done another good service to his country.
HW Brands is the author of “Andrew Jackson” and other books on American history.