If there is any president of the United States that I have both disgust and intrigue for, it is Andrew Jackson, the southern president who completely changed the face of the presidency from upper class elite to “man of the people.” A president who approved and carried out the first of many Native American relocations (an early government-approved genocide). What was his presidency actually like? Who was he, as a man? How did he rise to the presidency, and what are the modern-day implications of his policies?
In American Lion by Jon Meecham, Andrew Jackson’s presidency is described for the curious, and the biography of the widower is shared for modern understanding. Jackson was unique in his approach to the presidency, and his new approach did change politics in the USA forever. Since I feel last night’s election is likewise ushering in a new type of president, it seems appropriate to finally write my thoughts about Meecham’s biography of Jackson, which I read half a year ago.
First, I’ll start with the ways that Andrew Jackson is different from the president-elect. Unlike Mr. Donald Trump, Andrew Jackson had experience in politics. He was first a lawyer, and then served as a Representative and Senator twice. He was from a poor family far from the Washington circle of founding fathers.
But the strength of Andrew Jackson, and his popularity, terrified and worried the leaders in Washington. The first six presidents of the United States were wealthy gentlemen. They were educated. These were people who studied Latin and read political theory for fun. This was a group of people that together wrote the constitution. John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, was the son of one of these founding fathers. This was a tight-knit group of gentlemen.
Further, during previous elections, those who were candidates would remain on their estate. They did not go out and visit with the people of the country. That would tacky! To campaign for one’s self! Self-centered. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Monroe: these were not men that entered into the frontier lands to visit with the uneducated rabble. That would be unthinkable.
This changed in the man Andrew Jackson. He was, as I mentioned, a frontiers boy of modest means. He married a woman who was (disputably), already married or recently divorced. He fought in a war, as a general, much as Washington did. But he returned to his more modest ways after fame followed him. Further, when he wanted to win, he campaigned. He went to many of the frontier western communities. He talked with everyone he could meet. He truly became a man of the people.
The Washington elite was shocked when he won in a clear landslide. Here was a man of questionable morals and sketchy past (Jackson had killed a man in a duel) that would now be the Executive of the land. Was this even appropriate?
The shift continued once Jackson (newly widowed) was inaugurated into office. Unlike his predecessors, Jackson did whatever he pleased, not taking into account the careful guidance and suggestions of most of those elites around him. He was a man of the people, and he knew (supposedly) what his people wanted. He insisted that the Indians be driven from their lands. Although the Courts of the land were arguing against the legality of this, Jackson, being the president, took charge of his troops and got in motion what he wanted to happen. The Trail of Tears of the Cherokee people was the direct result.
The offenses built up in Washington. He accepted morally questionable people into his social and entertaining circles. He dismissed thousands of government employees with whom he disagreed. He appointed those who he thought better represented the people.
It’s been half a year since I read Meecham’s biography. I cannot remember all the details of Jackson’s presidencies that made him such a strikingly different type of president. But I do remember that the presidency never was the same again. It was, in a way, the beginning of modern politics.
Donald Trump has just been elected. I find him coarse and offensive for many reasons. I pray to God that his presidency will not end in a cultural expulsion as horrific as the Trail of Tears. I pray that society as a whole will not blindly accept his coarseness as acceptable and follow his leadership without question. I hope the system of checks and balances will reign in his power.
And yet, if history teaches us anything, it is that tradition may change radically in one presidency. It also suggests that, despite those changes, the Constitution and the United States of America survive those radical changes. I pray that is the case in the next few years.