It was during the Revolution that Jackson first confronted and defied an arrogant elite. Does that sound familiar to you? I wonder why they keep talking about Trump and Jackson, Jackson and Trump. Oh, I know the feeling, Andrew!
—Donald Trump, March 15, 2017
I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person but he had a big heart. He was really angry with what he saw with regard to the Civil War, he said ‘There’s no reason for this.’ People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?
—Donald Trump, May 1, 2017
There are worse sins than admiring Andrew Jackson. For instance, firing the FBI director who’s investigating you. Or the Trail of Tears. Trump, however, escalated quickly from a tame Jackson fetish to the outré claim that the Civil War should have been “worked out” as if it were a late credit card payment.
It’s no surprise that Trump has taken a shine to Jackson. He was an extremely bad hombre. He once shot a man dead in a duel and referred to the murder as “satisfaction for insults offered.” As a boy fighting Mel Gibson-style in the South Carolina woods during the American Revolution, he was captured by the British and ordered to polish their boots. He refused, was slashed across his forehead, and bore a deep scar for the rest of his life. As the commanding general at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, he inflicted 2,600 casualties on the British in less than a half hour and lost just 13 of his men. They called him “Old Hickory” because he was a hard man.
But Jackson’s appeal for Trump is not limited to his ferocity. Jackson was a populist, as Trump styles himself to be. It was right around his election that most states dropped property qualifications for voting, and Jackson, born poor, approved of the changes. Finally, the only things a person needed to be worthy of full citizenship were a certain number of years, white skin, and a penis. Jackson, then, was the first president to think of himself as the representative of all old white men.
But, like Trump, Jackson also had an autocratic temperament, so much so that his enemies mocked him as “King Andrew.” When he wasn’t being president or a general, he was master of a plantation in Tennessee with almost 200 slaves. So he was used to other people’s submission. He was a populist who wanted to bring power to the people, but he wanted to do so by arrogating as much power as possible to himself. In Jackson’s mind, any limits placed on his authority amounted to a snobbish attack on democracy itself.
Obviously, this is Trump’s kind of president. Still, what did he think he was talking about when he said Jackson would have worked out the Civil War? The only answer that makes any sense (admittedly not a requirement in this case) is that he was extrapolating from the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833, which he would have learned about from any biography Steve Bannon put in front of him.
Jackson’s handling of the Nullification Crisis is considered one of his major triumphs, but even in this great success there was the kernel of a failure. No matter what Trump says, Jackson had no idea how to prevent the Civil War, and Nullification proves it.
As I summarize what this crisis entailed, I need to write a couple of paragraphs about the tariff, but don’t despair. The tariff would have been the third rail of Jacksonian Era politics if they’d had metaphors related to electrified trains back then.
Northerners loved tariffs. Say you’re a cloak-maker in Massachusetts. Your British competitors could make cloaks better and cheaper, so the only way to survive was a policy that artificially raised the price of British cloaks. Extend that to all goods manufactured in the North’s fledgling factories (carriages, paint, pocket watches, silverware, whatever) and that’s a protective tariff.
An unchecked majority is despotism—and government is free ... in proportion to the number, complexity and efficiency of the checks by which its powers are controlled. John C. Calhoun
Now, let’s say you’re a cotton planter in South Carolina. You have to buy your cloaks at a mark-up. Meanwhile, your cotton (that’s being turned into the marked-up cloak!) is sold into unprotected European markets for dirt cheap.
Understandably, perhaps, southerners opposed the tariff. But the most reactionary among them—those with the most pathological relationship to the institution of slavery—took it 10,000 steps further. They argued that the U.S. Government was using the tariff as a weapon to destroy the cotton economy and ultimately their plantation way of life. Their distorted minds conjured a chain reaction that started with a protective tariff and ended with their slaves hacking them to tiny pieces and drinking the blood.
Led by Jackson’s vice president-cum-nemesis, John C. Calhoun, South Carolina’s leaders had articulated a theory by which state legislatures could nullify a federal law—that is, decide it doesn’t apply to them. When Congress passed a high(ish) tariff in 1832 (it was actually lower than the tariff of 1828, but not lower enough), they put theory into practice. Beginning on February 1, 1833, they announced, the U.S. tariff would no longer be collected in the sovereign state of South Carolina. If Jackson tried to force the issue, they would deem it “inconsistent with the longer continuance of South Carolina in the Union.” In other words, they’d secede.
Jackson lost his prodigious temper. He claimed the nullifiers’ “wickedness, madness, and folly” had no “parallel in the history of the world,” and he promised to “crush the monster in its cradle.” He didn’t care one way or the other about the tariff, but he couldn’t abide the defiance. His personal enemy (Calhoun), representing a special interest (South Carolina’s planters), was trying to “destroy this Union, and the liberty of our country with it.”
The situation got tense. South Carolina organized a 25,000-man military force and started drilling it. Jackson got Congress to authorize him to send troops if necessary. But he also let it be known that he was willing to support a reduced tariff if it would help South Carolina crawl back from the limb they were on. And that’s what ended up happening. Congress lowered the tariff and South Carolina un-nullified it (though, to prove a point, they nullified the law that authorized Jackson to enforce the old tariff). Jackson’s blend of bellicosity and shrewdness saved the day!
Thus Trump’s remarkable question, “You know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?” In 1832, South Carolinians were threatening secession, and Jackson “got really angry” and shut them up good. Why wouldn’t he have been able to do the same thing in 1861, when the war started?
The short answer is, Jackson didn’t actually solve any problems in 1832. He just put off the reckoning, like a child who shoves his clothes and toys into the closet instead of cleaning his room. In fact, the very things that Trump admires about Jackson prevented him from understanding that Nullification was really a warning that the country couldn’t endure permanently half slave and half free. Jackson thought it was merely a challenge to his authority. That narrow challenge being met and his enemies destroyed, he declared victory and departed the field. Harder questions about whether a house divided against itself could stand were left for another day and another man.
There are many positive qualities in Jackson—his command, his courage, the fixity of his principles. Trump shares none of these. But even Jackson at his best couldn’t confront issues that weren’t binary and brooked no compromise. It took Abraham Lincoln, a depressed ruminator whom Trump would have called a loser, to do that.
There must be something wrong with me, but I can’t get too interested in Andrew Jackson. Jon Meacham won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography, American Lion, and I just didn’t care. H.W. Brands has a great reputation, but his biography was also a struggle. Don’t get me started on Robert V. Remini, who has written: a three-volume biography, a full-length one-volume biography, and a short biography. Sean Wilentz’s entry in the American Presidents series is an exception. He’s a great historian, and since he didn’t have the space to pretend to be Garrison Keilor, there’s less mediocre storytelling to contend with. Wilentz also takes great pains to argue that it’s wrong to wrench Jackson out of history to make specific claims about contemporary politics, which seems wise even if I just failed to heed the warning. Wilentz has also written the definitive study of 1800-1860, The Rise of American Democracy. In graduate school, we read Liberty and Power by Harry L. Watson, which is shorter and should still do the trick if you’re looking for a framework for how to understand the Jacksonian Era, if not every single fact. Finally, there’s a brand new book out called Avenging the People by J.M. Opal. Opal says it’s not about Jackson but rather uses Jackson as a main character to explore other issues. Those issues won’t be of interest to anyone who doesn’t refer to themselves as an “early Americanist.” Finally, if you want to learn about the Nullification Crisis, William W. Freehling’s Prelude to Civil War is still the go-to. By the way, I didn’t mention Indian Removal or the Trail of Tears (just wait for William Henry Harrison!), but it looks like the definitive study there is by John Ehle in case you’re looking.