Term in Office: Sixth president, 1829-1837
Home State: Tennessee
It has been a very long journey to the bottom of our presidential rankings countdown. Although my “next lowest, then the next highest” system meant I would have tackled #2 before I addressed the bottom rung, I’ve chosen to go a tiny bit out of order to write on the president who holds down the lowest, most ignoble, most disgraceful spot on our rankings. We’ve covered all kinds of characteristics attendant to bad presidents in our bottom 10 or 12: Andrew Johnson’s humorlessness and rigidity, Calvin Coolidge’s sociopathy, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan putting partisan success over national unity, Warren Harding’s petty corruption, Polk and Bush 43’s unjust war-making, and Nixon’s suspicion and paranoia.
Back in the spring of 2006 (geez…that’s almost a decade!), I did an independent study of the antebellum presidency with Richard E. Ellis at UB. Ellis was one of the great historians of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian era of U.S. politics, and I was lucky to work with someone of his caliber. Yet by the same token, he was also fiercely resistant to addressing American history from subaltern perspectives of women, blacks, Native Americans, young people, immigrants, or any other disempowered group (he once dismissed Anne Hutchinson as a “menopausal maniac” during one lecture on the Puritans.) He never stopped believing that these were politically motivated distractions from what was really important. Ellis was the last of his kind; I doubt very much a man like him who exclusively did “dead white president” history could get hired today outside of Christian colleges (ironically, Ellis himself was a secular Jew), or academic chairs funded by conservative institutes. So, I read perhaps a dozen different interpretations of Jackson during that time, from suggestions Dr. Ellis made. Virtually none of them took Jackson’s human rights violations against the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Seminoles, and other First Nations seriously. Arthur Schlesinger, whose Age of Jackson was the gold standard on this era for a generation, omitted the issue almost entirely. (It would have ruined his thesis that Jackson was a proto-New Dealer. Or would it?) They, too, either thought that dwelling too much on this facet, or considering the First Nations perspective, to be a sidelight to the “real story”- the expansion of democracy, and the rise of Jackson’s as the “people’s” champion against the “interests.”
I disagree, of course. Indian removal isn’t so much the true “real story” so much as it is intertwined with the other policies Jackson pursued in office. It was woven into the whole cloth that was Andrew Jackson’s complex, but almost wholly deleterious, presidency. Jackson’s popularity partly came out of his reputation as an Indian fighter, and his advocacy for expanding the frontier, even (or especially) at the expense of indigenous groups already there. And it bespoke Jackson’s imperious personality that eschewed abstract concepts like law and justice in favor of a prism that saw politics in personal and honor-bound terms. The real story is the paradox of how our first Democratic and first democratically elected president was the one whose administration was least governed by democratic spirit or principles.
And much of this paradox lies in the character of Andrew Jackson himself. As a general, there is a disturbing pattern of Andrew Jackson ignoring orders and taking the law into his own hands, even when it risked war. He wasn’t a general who thrived in organization and in working with civilian leaders, like the best “general presidents” Washington and Eisenhower. His military career consisted almost wholly of battlefield heroics where any success relied on almost blind luck or overwhelming advantage rather than any particular strategic genius. Oftentimes, such as his almost-certainly illegal invasion of the Floridas, he got away with it only because it yielded a politically expedient result, and to censure Jackson was to court the people’s wrath.
The problem for Andrew Jackson was that he viewed politics almost entirely in terms of personal alliances and grievances, a manifestation of the clannish and honor-bound aspects of Appalachian polity that thrived in longstanding feuds and the code duello. (To wit, Jackson killed or seriously injured multiple individuals upon the field of honor.) Indeed, reputation was often considered more important than the abstractions of law.
To set the context for this, Jackson rose to fame as a hero of the masses at a time when the modern two-party system was in its earliest stages of development. The Democratic Party formed out of the ashes of Jefferson’s old Democratic-Republican Party, fancying itself as the party of the common man. The party stood for little, except perhaps for low protective tariffs and states’ rights, a conceit that allowed them to punt on controversial issues by saying “let the states decide for themselves”. In this manner, they were able to become the party of the Southern plantation owner eager to check the overactive conscience of the Whigs, the Indian huntin’ frontiersman and the worker in nascent New York factories alike. It was, as historian Donald Cole attests, “a broad coalition of conflicting interest groups” and thus it had a stake in kicking crucial decisions like, say, the expansion of slavery or free labor, down the road, rather than address them forthrightly.
This mantle of the “people’s party” made the common man look to Andrew Jackson as a champion of sorts- a military hero (remember, the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans was a national holiday for decades), and a man cut from their cloth (a mistaken impression; Jackson was of nearly aristocratic descent). Jackson’s inauguration was filled with the salt of the earth (others might have called them “the rabble”) drinking the punch, stealing the sundries, and stamping bits of cheese into the White House carpets. Jackson was surely the beneficiary of the rise of popular (that is, universal white male) democracy–bereft of the old requirements of property ownership–although he did little personally to advance that cause.
This, in turn, contributed to the politicization (perhaps even the weaponization) of public office. If you look at every president before Jackson, they certainly doled out the choicest positions in government to their allies, but beyond this, they tended to be more meritocratic for the lesser posts. Jackson forfeited this practice, and as a result, most posts in government were filled with avaricious time-servers and ineffectual loyalists. Perhaps the low-water mark of Jackson’s appointments was Samuel Swartwout, a staunch supporter of his election. As Collector of the Port of New York, he embezzled one and a quarter million dollars from the federal coffers while illegally aiding Texan independence. Even beyond this, look at his cabinet sometime, and you will see the same tendencies of favoring loyalty over merit and qualification. Martin Van Buren might be a famous name, but he had virtually no experience in foreign affairs, making him a very poor choice to serve as Secretary of State; he was appointed only for his valuable New York connections.
Time and time again, Jackson made grudges personal, and he was often incapable of forgiveness, indifferent to mercy, and unable to differentiate his own judgment from the public good. Recall that this is the man who brought the government to a standstill over the honor of Peggy Eaton, an ethically suspect wife of his Secretary of War. Jackson (perhaps remembering how his own wife was maligned as a bigamist during the 1824 election) was convinced she was “chaste as a virgin” and fit for polite company, and would not relent until the rest of his cabinet (and their wives) deigned to entertain her socially. Everybody but Van Buren resigned in protest, resulting in a needless reshuffling of the government.
Or else, consider the Nullification crisis, often seen as Jackson’s finest hour, a decisive and manly confrontation with the forces of secession usually used to counter the equivocally of Pierce and Buchanan in most histories. This, too, devolved into a personal conflict with its ringleader (and former Jackson vice-president) John C. Calhoun. Dr. Ellis was probably right when he said that, ideologically, this amounted to two different interpretations of states rights rather than Jackson unilaterally championing the idea of union. If you really distill it to its essence, though, it was actually more of a personal vendetta to kneecap Calhoun, a need to impose his will over him and vanquish his enemies rather than resolve the crisis (and indeed, when we look at the forty subsequent years, he did not resolve the issue of secession at all.)
Similarly, he turned the decision to renew the Second Bank of the United States–a major choice about the fiscal destiny of the country–into a small-minded contest over personal honor. Jackson, who had been cheated by bankers as a young speculator, never forgot the experience, and this was compounded by his feuds with mercantile interests and moneyed powers aligned with John Quincy Adams and arguably Jackson’s greatest enemy, Henry Clay. The Second Bank was big–its capital was about two times as large as the entire operating budget of the federal government, and Jackson saw it as a latent tyrannical force, an octopus with tentacles in every corner of public life, as another historian, Robert Remini, put it. And he drew particular ire toward the bank’s president, the slightly effete and fussy Nicholas Biddle, in whose pudgy face he saw every well-mannered aristocrat who ever looked down on him.
He vetoed the bill. It was within his rights, certainly, but here’s the distinction: every presidential veto before this was done on the grounds of concerns about the bill’s constitutionality. Jackson knew perfectly well the recharter bill was constitutional. Instead, for the first time, he vetoed a bill entirely because he disagreed with its politics. It was a momentous decision, one that played a large role in turning the president into a political actor, and as a force that could shape legislation. However, it also dismantled the only institution keeping the country’s fragile and confusing financial system in place. In the wake of Jackson’s veto, he removed federal deposits in the bank, fired two Secretaries of the Treasury, and forced Biddle to demand repayment of loans in hard currency to refinance his bank, and triggering a recession. Jackson’s “Specie Circular”, demanding that money for federal lands be paid in gold and silver, was even more ruinous, and a trigger for the Panic of 1837, one of the worst in our history. All this to satiate his dislike of big city bankers. And we put this guy on our printed money! (By the way, I fully support this campaign to put some women on the $20 bill instead; I voted for Shirley Chisholm, but the winner, Harriet Tubman, would also be a great choice.)
The worst part of it, though, was Jackson’s lack of accountability; he never saw himself as being subject to law. Like Nixon after him, he saw himself unilaterally as the law. He was the general whose judgment always prevailed, who could hang men and invade foreign soil arbitrarily whenever he wished. Small wonder he was the first president censured by Congress (for withholding documents pertaining to his Bank Veto). Jackson could not accept that there were restraints–legal restraints, moral restraints, whatever–preventing him from carrying out his will.
There has been a lot of talk- much of it legitimate- about the imperial presidency, the legality of executive orders, and the role of Congress and the Supreme Court in checking presidential power. But these arguments have nothing on Andrew Jackson, our first, and perhaps only, truly lawless president. When Chief Justice Marshall wrote his decision Worcester vs. Georgia upholding Indian claims to the land, Jackson is said to have uttered the quote: “Mr. Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it!” but this is almost certainly apocryphal, and there wasn’t much in the decision for Jackson to carry out. It does, though, neatly echo Jackson’s response, ignoring a Supreme Court decision, and with it, the concept of the rule of law itself.
So, let’s survey the wreckage: an inhumane act of ethnic cleansing, the hopeless politicization of government work, unforced errors that ruined the American banking system. My friend Rick, a very solid historian of British and American academic exchanges during the 1800s, believes that Jackson single-handedly delayed universal suffrage in the United Kingdom by decades. Any Tory MP would be wholly justified in using Jackson to show what would happen if you entrust just anybody with the franchise. It doesn’t disprove the value of democracy, but it does demonstrate the danger of demagoguery, when appeals to the people are unchecked by policy competence and moral insight.
Andrew Jackson had many of the markers of a successful president: he was elected handily twice, he led a new viable coalition of voters, he supported the expansion of democracy, and with some struggles, he got much of his program through Congress. Ultimately, this is why Jackson is our worst president: because he used his considerable gifts for such ruinous and unjust ends. The size of the federal government was small back then, but Jackson used its fullest force to enhance the privilege of white settlers at the expense of the First Nations. He used the presidency (whose power he played a key role in strengthening) not for the cause of justice, but to satisfy, even to the point of violence at times, resentment and grievance on a national scale. Andrew Jackson is, in the end, the only president I can characterize as a tyrant, and as such, he is the worst president in this ranking.