We are pleased to run this guest post by Dr. Miles Smith IV, assistant professor of history at Regent University and a historian of the South and Atlantic world, specializing in the Nineteenth Century United States. You can follow him on Twitter at @IVMiles.
Certain Evangelical leaders friendly to Donald Trump recently prayed over the president. Photographs of the event emerged, and the image presented a visceral image of the presidency being cloaked in the mantle of certain sectors of Evangelical Christianity friendly to the President’s ideals and image. Dubbed “Court Evangelicals” by Messiah College professor John Fea, these religious leaders argue that Trump is—or is becoming—a Christian man worthy of emulation.
Hanging over the praying ministers was a portrait of the president Trump claims to admire most: Andrew Jackson.
Perhaps unbeknownst to those in the room, Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) had been offered a similar religious blessing by Christian leaders.
Jackson, however, consciously refused to claim God’s protection on his presidency. He believed that it was presumptuous and inappropriate to claim any special favor from God in his presidency, a caution not shared by his successor in 2017.
Similarities between Presidents Jackson and Trump
Historians have noted a few similarities shared by the seventh and forty-fifth presidents. (Professor Thomas Kidd of Baylor University wrote an excellent primer at this blog on how Evangelicals might begin to conceptualize comparisons of Jackson and Trump.)
Jackson saw his election as raising the voice of the common man to its rightful place in politics. President Trump’s constant invocation of representing the forgotten common man played well with working-class white Americans, especially working-class Evangelicals from revivalist traditions. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, believes “Mr. Trump is America’s blue-collar billionaire,” claiming Trump was “down-to-earth. He loves America and the American people. He is a true patriot and a champion of the common man.” Working-class Evangelicals have tended to take Trump’s blue-collar bona fides at face value, even in with demonstrable proof that Trump’s interests in the rural working class extend little beyond rhetoric reaffirming the importance of rural working class whites to American identity. The president’s sincerity may be debated, but it is clear that his public positioning as protector of common people from elites played enormous political dividends.
Jackson also played the part of politician of the common man, even though he was a wealthy Middle Tennessee planter. Historian Mark Cheatham’s scholarly biography of Andrew Jackson argued convincingly that Jackson was never a western commoner but instead a poor South Carolinian who strived to and succeeded in becoming a southern planter. Jackson’s policies certainly aided southern planters, but they also enjoyed very real support among western and southern yeomen–or middle class–farmers.
Differences between Presidents Jackson and Trump
President Trump might be surprised to find that Andrew Jackson’s political views on capitalism conformed more with socialist senator Bernie Sanders than with Trump’s own tendency toward state-assisted corporatism–a corporatism that even President Trump’s right-wing supporters such as former Alaska governor Sarah Palin identified as “crony capitalism.”
Jackson actively worked to destroy the federal government’s associations with capitalists. Governmental “mischief,” wrote Jackson, “springs from the power which the moneyed interest derives from a paper currency which they are able to control, from the multitude of corporations with exclusive privileges which they have succeeded in obtaining in the different States.” Government sponsorship of banks and financial interests were “employed altogether” for the benefit of wealthy urban businessmen against the common American. Unless the states became “more watchful” and checked “this spirit of monopoly and thirst for exclusive privileges you will in the end find that the most important powers of Government have been given or bartered away, and the control over your dearest interests has passed into the hands of these corporations.”
The machismo invoked by Donald Trump and the historical record’s narrative of Andrew Jackson’s seemingly manly accolades might provide another comparison. But upon closer reflection Andrew Jackson’s understanding of his role as a husband and man was radically different than the conception of manhood adopted by the 45th President.
President Trump’s marital behavior and treatment of women are public record and need no recounting.
Andrew Jackson was not devout nor a practicing churchman until he met his wife, Rachel Donelson. The Jackson’s marriage was irregular, but Mrs. Jackson’s church understood she had been abandoned, which in the Old School Presbyterian tradition and in the laws of the state of Tennessee constituted abandonment. The Jacksons never knowingly flaunted Christian marital norms, although it should be noted that they were legally bigamists for a few months, a charge that would later haunt Rachel Jackson in the 1828 presidential election. Andrew Jackson throughout his life put a premium on treating women honorably, what he called in the language of the era protecting women’s virtue. As such he prized the company of women and was famously devoted to his wife. After she died in 1828, he never remarried.
The marriage of Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel was famous even in its own time as a model of devotion and love. Jackson prioritized his wife and marriage even more than his political ambitions. He willingly defended her honor. Before he became a Christian, he willingly fought duels to protect the name if his wife. He was a model of fidelity and devotion, and the Jacksons’s marriage lasted until the death of Rachel in Christmas of 1828. Jackson’s loyalty to Rachel lasted until his own death in 1845: when friends suggested he remarry, he refused to even entertain the idea of loyalty to his wife.
President Trump’s churchgoing is ephemeral, and not well documented, but he loudly positioned himself as vocal defender of the Christian right, despite sharing none of their actual policy concerns.
Rachel Jackson made her husband a faithful churchgoer, although Jackson famously disliked mixing religion and politics. He refused public support of church ministers, and famously rebuked Presbyterian minister Ezra Stiles Ely for trying to create a Christian party in politics.
In fact, it is in religion that Jackson and Trump seem not only different, but living and understanding an entirely different conception of religiosity. President Trump seems to avoid any specific doctrinal commitments and conceptions of orthopraxy in favor of largely politicized religion in order to mobilize Christian voters. Photo-ops with Christian leaders and on occasional Christian platitude thrown at the so-called Religious Right seem sufficient to convince many Evangelicals that Trump was one of them, or at least a worthwhile champion. That he might be actively harming Christian witness seemed a secondary concern.
Conversely Andrew Jackson refused to talk about politics in public office precisely because he didn’t want to seem a hypocrite. When asked about why he waited to publicly join a church, his answer centered on the well-known Evangelical desire for authenticity.
I would long since have made this solemn public dedication to Almighty God, but knowing the wretchedness of this world, and how prone many are to evil, that the scoffer of religion would have cried out—”hypocrisy! he has joined the church for political effect,” I thought it best to postpone this public act until my retirement to the shades of private life, when no false imputation could be made that might be injurious to religion.
After hearing a series of sermons by Dr. Edgar, pastor of the Presbyterian church near the Hermitage, Jackson invited the minister to his home. Edgar came and examined Jackson, who gave excellent answers to doctrinal questions. But when Edgar asked if Jackson forgave his enemies, the President answered that he only forgave his political enemies. His personal enemies he would not forgive. Edgar rebuked the president, and said that if he did not show Christian forgiveness, he would not be received into the church. After several hours Jackson called the minister and tearfully confessed his sins and forgave his enemies. It would be the first of many instances where Jackson publicly wept in church. Parton records that General Jackson
rose to make the required public declaration of his concurrence with the doctrines, and his resolve to obey the precepts, of the church. He leaned heavily upon his stick with both hands; tears rolled down his cheeks. . . . Amid a silence the most profound, the General answered the questions proposed to him.
Biographers have remarked on Jackson’s subsequent religiosity. During his final illness he privately told a friend that he was in the hands of a merciful God.
I have full confidence in his goodness and mercy. . . . The Bible is true. . . . Upon that sacred volume I rest my hope for eternal salvation, through the merits and blood of our blessed Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
President Trump’s biography remains to be written. Jackson’s biographers understandably excoriated him for buying and selling human beings (and separating families), dueling, and for infamous treatment of Native Americans. But few deem his religious conversion insincere or driven by political calculations. It was the simple public affirmation of devout Christian practice by a seventy-eight-year-old widower.
President Trump and Andrew Jackson, despite the loud public debate, are dissimilar and don’t bear comparison. But at least in personal devotion, Trump might consider following more closely in Jackson’s footsteps.