In today’s post, former SHEAR president Harry L. Watson, who is the Atlanta Alumni Distinguished Professor of Southern Culture at the University of North Carolina, reflects on the recent presidential election and its connection to the Early Republic.
In the aftermath of the recent presidential election, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani quickly scrambled for historical high ground. “This is like Andrew Jackson’s victory [in 1828],” he told Chris Matthews of MSNBC. “This is the people beating the establishment.” What’s more, according to Giuliani, Donald Trump had planned it that way all along. “The people are rising up against a government they find to be dysfunctional,” Giuliani boasted, just as Trump had intended.
Well, maybe. Certainly there are obvious parallels between the two events. Like Trump, Jackson had begun his presidential quest as an outsider, and supporters loved him for it. Jackson had been one of four major candidates in 1824, but the only one without long civilian experience in the national government. He had the poorest education of the others (Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of War William Crawford, and House Speaker Henry Clay) and came from the humblest background. What he did have was a brief but brilliant military record, a carefully-tended reputation for republican virtue, and deep suspicion of entrenched privilege. Admirers typically lauded Jackson’s support among the “multitude” but dismissed his opponents as “the antient and notorious wire workers…, the Office holders and office hunters.” This kind of support was not enough in 1824. Jackson won a plurality of the popular and electoral votes but not a majority, and the House of Representatives chose second-place finisher John Quincy Adams in process that Jackson always condemned as “rigged”—or in his words, a “corrupt bargain.”
Returning to the fray in 1828, Jackson did not brand the Adams government as “dysfunctional,” despite Mayor Giuliani’s giddy pronouncement. Fairly or not, his followers complained instead that the Adams administration was too functional—it did too much, not too little, and mostly served its own friends. Swearing instead that “the world is governed too much,” they ignored policy proposals, and promised to save the republic by placing the “will of the people” ahead of elite connivance. Adams’ friends fought back by calling Jackson a barbarian, a bigamist, and even a mulatto, all to no avail. On taking office, Jackson burnished his outsider’s reputation by sweeping out experienced federal officers who had backed his opponent, arguing that government duties were simple enough for any “men of intelligence,” so the dangers of corruption outweighed the benefits of experience.
Trump-Jackson parallels don’t stop with anti-elitism. Jackson was a “white nationalist” par excellence, and Trump has courted the same label. Expelling Indians from eastern America was as much a part of Jackson’s appeal as deporting illegal immigrants has been to Donald Trump’s. Jackson was a large slaveholder who bought and sold human chattel without compunction, and Trump delights in attacking racial and religious minorities. Both men seem(ed) to relish anger and violence, but both are (or were) said to be calm and courtly in private. Exaggerated masculinity has been central to both men’s mystique, though Jackson boasted of protecting women rather than abusing them and never tried to prove himself by the size of his body parts.
Above all, Jackson, like Trump, was a man of great wealth who promised to defend the “common” white man. Contrary to a widespread belief, Jackson’s voters were not newly enfranchised by falling property requirements for the right to vote, for most adult white men had enjoyed voting rights since the 1790s. Voter turnout surpassed 50 percent in 1828 and 1832, but rose much higher—often past 80 percent—after Jackson left office and well-organized political parties mastered the art of mass campaigning. Nevertheless, Jackson based his 1828 victory on the “will of the people,” and sealed his populist reputation in office by attacking and destroying the Bank of the United States. Without knuckling under to John C. Calhoun, moreover, he opposed high tariffs as corrupt favors for business interests. Trump offers just the opposite, and promises that protectionism and high-end tax cuts will bring back jobs to America’s industrial heartland.
Aggrieved “common men” of Jackson’s day faced very different circumstances from those of our own. Few of them held or wanted wage-earning jobs; most were small farmers who tilled their own land (or hoped to), aided by their families. They grew small surpluses to sell but consumed most of their harvests themselves. More than job opportunities, they wanted cheap land—probably taken from Indians. Others were small craftsmen and shop owners who used their own hands, tools, and skills to produce for local customers. Farmers and craftsmen both longed for secure personal independence, especially from employers or landlords.
To an extent that is hard grasp today, many of these Americans feared that paper money was the biggest threat to their cherished independence. Private banks—not the government—created the nation’s ordinary currency by lending their own paper notes to borrowers who spent them and put them in circulation. Only the banks’ promises to redeem these bills in gold gave them value, but fluctuating business conditions could make this impossible. When that happened, the farmer’s or mechanic’s hard-earned gains turned into worthless rags and pauperized dependency replaced their precious liberty overnight. With mixed public and private ownership, the Bank of the United States either disciplined this informal system and kept it more reliable, or (depending on your perspective) made it even more reckless and discouraged a more dependable currency based on gold and silver alone.
Jackson clearly believed the latter. In his view, the Bank had often put its own interests ahead of the public’s and faced no democratic curbs on its enormous powers over the currency. Believing he acted on behalf of the Bank’s suffering victims, he vowed to crush it and finally did so. He could not preserve an economy based on small producers, however. A wage-based economy eventually swallowed them, leading to the situation of Trump’s voters, who demand good jobs instead of independent farms and workshops.
Economic historians continue to debate the significance of Jackson’s actions. Though the Bank might have managed the economy constructively like a modern central bank, it did not always do so. After it died, the nation managed to get by without such a thing until the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913. What can’t be disputed is that Jackson insisted on the supremacy of public interests and public power over the Bank’s private business, and made his priorities stick. Though critics still denounce the powers of today’s Federal Reserve System, presidential appointment of its directors and other democratic curbs clearly keep the Fed much more attentive to the public interest than the Bank of the United States in its prime. For all his faults and failures, in other words, Andrew Jackson still has a legitimate claim to his reputation for defending the principle that public institutions must put the interests of ordinary Americans first. Though the principle has often been violated, it is not clear how democratic modern America could be—including for minorities—if it did not exist at all.
And what of Donald Trump’s claims to defend the “common man?” The answer depends on future history, of course. It is hard to find well-informed experts today, however, who truly believe that protectionism and tax cuts will bring back jobs to Middle America. Most argue that more jobs have moved to microchips than to Mexico, and deny that previous tax cuts brought much job growth. If Trump and Jackson both claim to speak for the white “common man,” only one so far can plausibly claim to have acted for him. Nonwhites and women have not gotten much yet from either one.
All this may change. For now, only one thing about President Trump is virtually certain. As Senator Daniel Webster dryly noted of Andrew Jackson, “when he comes he will bring a breeze with him.”