Today’s guest post is by Newsweek editor, Jon Meacham, author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Thank you for your post, Jon!
Guest Blog by Jon Meacham on Andrew Jackson and the Controversy Surrounding Him
The punch saved the day. On the afternoon March 4, 1829, Andrew Jackson’s supporters, thrilled that Old Hickory had ended the reign of the unpopular son of another president, joyfully swarmed the White House, destroying carpets and crockery before being lured out of the windows by strategically placed buckets of punch. “Here was the corpulent epicure grunting and sweating for breath,” reported the New York Spectator, “the dandy wishing he had no toes—the tight-laced Miss, fearing her person might receive some permanently deforming impulse—the miser hunting for his pocket-book—the courtier looking for his watch—and the offie-seeker in agony to reach the President.” Establishment Washington was horrified, and Jackson’s aides had to form a protective circle around the new president in order to get him back to safety at his hotel. It was mayhem; “the whole house,” said Margaret Bayard Smith, a longtime Washington observer, was “inundated by the rabble mob.” There was, though, another way of looking at the matter. Perhaps, just perhaps, after six presidents from the upper reaches of American life, democracy—Jacksonian democracy—was making its stand.
I wanted to write about Andrew Jackson not only because of what he once meant, but what he means even now. History is not a clinical undertaking. The past, as William Faulkner once wrote, is never dead; it isn’t even past. To understand Jackson is to understand ourselves—the good and the bad, the light and the dark, the hope and the tragedy.
Every president since Old Hickory has worked in the shadow of, and stood on the shoulders of, Jackson, a man who is at once ubiquitous yet unfamiliar in the first decade of the 21st century. Think this may be overstated? Look no farther than the 2008 presidential campaign, one in which both candidates evoked elements of Jackson’s character and persona. Barack Obama was a change candidate, the nominee of the party Jackson founded, who would come to Washington, as Jackson did, to clean house. John McCain was a noble warrior who bears the scars of combat, a hawkish politician with a notable temper who is also capable of great human warmth.
Soldier, brawler, duelist, lover and politician, Andrew Jackson was the first American president to be the target of assassination, and the only one to attack his assailant. Tough and wily, passionate and canny, Jackson created the modern presidency, rewriting the script of American life to give the people a larger voice in its affairs than the Founding Fathers—who preferred government by elites over mass democracy—envisioned. Before Jackson it was possible to think of America without taking the role of the people into account; after him such a thing was inconceivable. As Harry Truman once said, “He looked after the little guy who had no pull, and that’s what a president is supposed to do.”
The challenges he face resonate in our own age. He believed the financial sector of the American economy was spoiled, corrupt and bad for the overall health of the nation, and so he destroyed, at great length, great drama and great cost, the Bank of the United States. He wanted the country to be a respected force around the world, and so he was quick to send forces to confront pirates, and he engaged in an epic diplomatic battle against France when the Chamber of Deputies refused to pay money it owed the United States. He thought the American Union sacred, and so he threatened civil war to put down radicals in South Carolina who were considering moves that could lead to secession. He was convinced that church and state should remain separate, and so he resisted calls for the formation of a “Christian party in politics,” and was troubled by ministers who involved themselves in politics.
He was the first truly self-made man to become president. Jackson was, to put it kindly, no scholar. When Harvard University voted to give the seventh president an honorary degree in 1833, a Massachusetts newspaper wrote that he deserved “an A. S. S.” as well as an “L. L. D.” From afar, the man Jackson had defeated for the White House, John Quincy Adams, was horrified his alma mater was recognizing a man he thought a barbarian who could barely spell his own name.
What could he teach the next president? Here are five lessons that President McCain or President Obama might usefully heed from Old Hickory:
Talk to people outside the Washington bubble. There was no Beltway in Jackson’s time, but there was an insular capital culture that could create divisions between Washington and the rest of the country. The White House can be lonely, isolating and distorting: presidents only hear good news from subordinates and criticism from foes. Jackson understood this, and often received members of the public as well as old friends, and he traveled every year to the shore in Virginia and back to his farm, the Hermitage, in Nashville, staying at hotels and public houses along the way. This way he could hear what real people were saying and get a sense of what real people were feeling—a crucial element in the art of democratic leadership. He also kept up a stream of correspondence with people around the country. No president will ever get as much unvarnished advice as he needs—the urge to defer to the man in power softens even the strongest of advisers—but Jackson found ways to learn more than he would have if he had simply depended on his staff.
Position yourself as the voice of the many. Jackson was the first president to assert that he was “the direct representative of the American people,” and he created a dramatic narrative in which he was the champion of the masses fighting corrupt elites—and he decided who to call a corrupt elite. Whether his foes were South Carolina radicals, the aristocratic Bank of the United States, or France, he always claimed the moral high ground. It drove his enemies crazy, but emboldened and motivated his own supporters beyond measure.
Turn your vices into virtues. Jackson was, to say the least, a hot-tempered man. (He carried two bullets in his body from duels and gunfights over matters of honor, and threatened to hang his own vice president.) But he was wise enough to know how to make this possible disadvantage an advantage. Once, during a crisis over the future of the Bank of the United States, he frightened a group of callers who had come to ask for economic relief. They left, terrified that to cross the president was fatal, and thus they moved closer to his position. After they left, Jackson’s apparent fury evaporated instantly. “Didn’t I manage them well?” he smilingly asked an aide. It had all been for show—and he got his way.
Control the message. Irritated by the coverage he was receiving from the partisan papers of the day, Jackson did not just whine about the press: he did something about it, founding his own newspaper, the Washington Globe. Often dictating stories and mapping out political strategy with its editors, Jackson was able to present his case in an unfiltered way to a broad audience. (It would be as though McCain founded Fox News or Obama created NPR.)
Appear inflexible—while being flexible. Jackson was an implacable defender of the Union against early Southern moves that could have led to secession. With thundering proclamations, he threatened the radicals with military invasion—he said he would personally lead the troops into South Carolina—but behind the scenes he cautioned the Union forces against precipitating any bloodshed, and in Congress his administration quietly produced legislation that ultimately defused the crisis peaceably. Old Hickory had won again.
FDR once said that Jackson was always relevant because the battles he fought—for the people against the privileged, for democracy, and for Union—were battles that face every generation. They certainly face ours. Here’s hoping the spirit of Jackson will help us see the way forward.
Jon Meacham is the editor of Newsweek and author of American Lion and the New York Times bestsellers Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship and American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. He lives in New York City with his wife and children. You can visit his website at www.jonmeacham.com.