Today marks the 250th anniversary of President Andrew Jackson’s birth. Jackson, elected to the first of two terms in 1828, has long been known as one of the most powerful presidents in American history. But Jackson’s legacy may have never been so often discussed as in the past several months, as many have compared him to President Trump.
Why the comparison? Consider Daniel Walker Howe’s introduction of Jackson as a contender in the 1824 presidential campaign, from his book What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Aside from Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and the eventual winner John Quincy Adams,
“The one candidate running as an outsider was General Andrew Jackson, famous from [the battles of] Horseshoe Bend, New Orleans, and Pensacola, and since 1823 senator from Tennessee. Jackson possessed an appeal not based on issues; it derived from his image as a victor in battle, a frontiersman who had made it big, a man of decision who forged his own rules. Anyone with a classical education knew to regard such men as potential demagogues and tyrants; the word for the danger was “caesarism.” Jefferson delivered a straightforward opinion of Jackson’s presidential aspirations: “He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place.” In fact, no one liked Jackson for president except the voting public. Many of the latter, however, found in him a celebrity hero.” [italics added]
Howe wrote that in 2007.
In the closely contested election of 1824, Jackson received a plurality but not the majority of the electoral votes. Thus, the choice for president was cast into the House of Representatives. In what Jackson called the “Corrupt Bargain,” Adams and Clay’s supporters conspired to elect Adams president, and Adams named Clay his Secretary of State, a common stepping stone to the presidency. Jackson vowed to get vengeance, and he trounced Adams in the 1828 election, arguably the nastiest presidential election in American history.
Jackson did indeed display demagogic, “caesarist” tendencies as president. Contemptuous of constitutional restraints on his power, he vanquished one foe after another in scorched-earth campaigns against institutions and groups as varied as the Cherokee Indians, the Bank of the United States, and the cotton planters of South Carolina (his native state). He would set the stage for the forced removal of the Cherokees, and he destroyed the Bank in such a reckless fashion that the Senate censured him over it. Upon threat of invasion, he forced South Carolina to back down in the Nullification Crisis of 1832, a dispute over tariff policy and the global economy.
Whether or not the Trump presidency will feature such aggressive use of executive authority remains to be seen.
One clear difference between Trump and Jackson: Jackson did not enjoy strong evangelical support. Although some conservative Christians backed Jackson, the majority of American evangelicals probably preferred other candidates like John Quincy Adams or Henry Clay. Some evangelicals regarded Jackson as insufficiently supportive of moral reform movements like Sabbath laws or temperance (anti-alcohol) initiatives. Other evangelicals were bothered about the attempt to remove Native Americans, as evangelical missionaries were often on the front lines of defending the Cherokees’ and other Indian groups’ right to remain.