U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Case Against Andrew Jackson


On October 17, 2016 three history professors and one political scientist gathered in the Fine Arts Theater on the campus of Tarleton State University to hold a public discussion about demagoguery.  Each of the historians, Michael Landis, Mattie Fitch, and Chris Hickman, addressed a famous demagogue: Andrew Jackson, Adolf Hitler, and George Wallace, respectively. Professor of political scientist Jesus Velasco moderated.  The presentations were well-received and a productive discussion ensued, with students and faculty alike making connections between the past and the present.

jackson“The Case Against Andrew Jackson”

By Dr. Michael Todd Landis, Assistant Professor of History, Tarleton State University

Demagogues can come in many forms, and demagoguery can be a tricky and troublesome label.  Moreover, Americans have been traditionally reluctant to apply that negative brand to their own leaders.  Nevertheless, I believe Andrew Jackson exhibits four attributes of demagoguery: 1. Disregard for laws and autocratic behavior; 2. Condemnation of the established government and use of outsider rhetoric; 3. Employs lies and fear tactics; 4. Incites violence.

Disregard for Laws and Autocratic Behavior

In November 1814, General Andrew Jackson was ordered by President James Madison to proceed to New Orleans to defend the mouth of the Mississippi from British invasion.  Instead of going directly to the city, Jackson instead violated his orders and invaded Spanish Florida and sacked the Spanish fort at Pensacola.  His illegal actions caused a diplomatic crisis with Spain while the United States was at war with Great Britain.

Once in New Orleans, in December 1814, Jackson declared martial law, suspended habeas corpus, and enforced strict curfews and travel restrictions on all residents.  Any who dared challenge Jackson’s authority was deemed a spy and traitor.  Mass arrests ensued and jails were packed with dissenters.  Jackson’s autocratic rule continued well after his January 8 victory over British forces.  The governor of the Louisiana Territory pleaded with Jackson to loosen his grip, and even his own soldiers grew tired of “Old Hickory’s” tyrannical methods, leading to desertion by the hundreds.  Nevertheless, Jackson’s reign of terror continued for two months after the end of hostilities.  When district and federal judges ruled against his actions, Jackson did not hesitate to imprison them as well.  In subsequent investigations, General Jackson refused to cooperate.

Old Hickory again violated laws five years later, again in Florida.  Enslaved Americans escaping into Spanish territory from Georgia and Carolina plantations had become quite a problem for enslavers like Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.  Moreover, escapees were teaming up with the Indians of north Florida (called “Seminoles” by white Americans) to resist United States expansion.  To destroy the Seminoles, President James Monroe turned to famed Indian killer (and now the “Hero of New Orleans”) Andrew Jackson.  Jackson was given specific orders from Secretary of War John Calhoun to take an army into Florida and destroy the Indians.  Under no circumstances was Jackson to engage the Spanish.  On March 10, 1819, Jackson and 2000 troops crossed the border into Florida and immediately waged war on the Spanish.  Jackson had decided to disregard his orders and conquer the peninsula on his own initiative.  “I will put to death every man found in arms,” he announced to the Spanish governor.  As he proceeded down along the Gulf coast, he burned Indian villages, murdered men, women, and children, and defeated Spanish forces.  Moreover, he arrested two British citizens living among the Seminoles, declared them enemy combatants, and, with no evidence and no trial, had them both summarily executed.  A lawyer and former justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, Jackson most certainly knew that his actions violated both domestic law and international treaties.  Though Jackson’s actions delighted most white Americans in the southeast and on the frontier, many lawmakers in Washington City were appalled.  Congress launched an investigation, and Speaker of the House Henry Clay gave an impassioned speech warning his fellow citizens of an American Napoleon.  Calling for Old Hickory’s arrest and trial, Clay prophesied that the young nation would not long survive if it allowed its generals to run amok and pursue their own personal vendettas and foreign policies.  The Hero of New Orleans, however, was too popular.  The Monroe administration did not dare move against him.  Jackson would never be punished for his crimes in Florida.

Jackson’s autocratic and illegal behavior continued as president.  He disregarded federal treaties with Indian tribes, seized their lands, and denied them rights.  When the Supreme Court ruled against the state of Georgia and in favor of the Cherokee Nation, President Jackson permitted Georgians to ignore the ruling and plunder the Cherokees.  Alarmed by the fast-growing abolitionist movement, enslaver Jackson permitted his Attorney General to instruct all postmasters to burn any mail deemed offensive to enslavers.  And finally, in order to destroy the Second Bank of the United States, he ordered his Secretary of the Treasury to remove federal deposits, an act expressly forbidden by United States law.  The Secretary preferred to resign rather than commit the illegal act, so Jackson replaced him.  His replacement, too, refused to do the deed, and was promptly fired.  In a sequence repeated by President Richard Nixon, Jackson found his willing accomplice in his third sectary, Roger Taney.  Taney dutifully removed the deposits, broke the law, and was awarded with an appointment to the United States Supreme Court.  (It is worth noting that the death of the Bank destabilized both American and British markets, and led to the disastrous “Panic of 1837,” which, in turn, produced a prolonged economic depression.)

Outsider Rhetoric

In both his 1824 and 1828 runs for the presidency, Jackson portrayed himself as a virtuous outsider who would “reform” Washington.  Claiming (falsely) in 1828 that the Adams administration was riddled with corruption, Jackson and his admirers asserted that only a frontier hero, untainted by Capitol politics, could save the nation from scheming insiders.  Of course, Jackson’s outsider rhetoric masked the truth that he was a powerful aristocrat who had served in politics for decades: delegate to the Tennessee constitutional convention; justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court; military governor of Florida; and member of both the US House of Representatives and US Senate.

Lies and Fear Tactics

In all three of his campaigns for the White House (1824, 1828, 1832), Jackson employed vicious lies and effective fear tactics.  In 1824, he won the popular vote, but not the Electoral College.  When the election went to the House, representatives easily preferred the experienced and reliable Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to the unbalanced, unpredictable Jackson.  In his rage, Old Hickory declared a “stolen election.”  Moreover, when president-elect Adams selected Henry Clay (who had supported Adams in the House electoral decision) as his Secretary of State, Jackson concocted a “corrupt bargain” to explain events.  Both accusations were utterly false: the US Constitution worked appropriately when the House chose Adams; and there is no evidence of any nefarious, secret deal between Adams (a man of deep moral convictions) and Clay.

Four years later, Jackson once again faced-off against Adams.  In addition to charges of rigged elections and back-room deals, Jackson and his supporters fabricated monstrous lies about Adams’s personality and career.  They claimed he had served as a pimp to the Tsar of Russia during his diplomatic posting there, and that he was a corrupt aristocrat who pilfered public funds and felt disdain for “the people.”

In 1832, to win re-election in the face of deep Northern hostility over Indian Removal, Jackson invented a massive lie about the Second Bank of the United States, the pillar of the national economy and an institution championed by his bitter rival Clay.  The Bank, Jackson claimed, was a “monster” threatening American liberty and individual rights.  Playing on deep fears of banks stemming from the Panic of 1819, the president successfully convinced untutored Americans that the Bank was the source of all their problems, and that only their great hero, General Jackson, could slay the beast.  Once re-elected, Jackson (as recounted above) proceeded to remove federal deposits, break the law, and destroy the national economy.

Incites Violence

Andrew Jackson was the product of an extremely violent frontier, as well as an aristocratic enslaver steeped in the “Code of Honor,” which demanded that any challenge be answered with violence.  As a professional politician, Jackson encouraged his supporters to break laws, employ mob action, and attack any one they deemed dangerous or different.  Reformers of any kind, abolitionists, Whigs, anti-Jackson critics, and Indian rights advocates all suffered violent reprisals at the hands of Jacksonians.  The most brutal assaults were saved for abolitionists, who were regularly beaten, terrorized, or, in the case of Elijah Lovejoy of Illinois, murdered.  Similarly, Jackson enthusiastically supported the Texas Revolution, which was an act of violence by pro-slavery whites in Mexico against the anti-slavery Mexican government.  One of the leaders of the revolt, Sam Houston, was a devoted protégé of General Jackson.

My case against Jackson may not be eloquent, but I pray that it is clear.  He fulfills four key qualifications of demagoguery: disregard for laws and autocratic behavior; outsider rhetoric; lies and fear tactics; and inciting violence.  Other scholars may take a more nuanced approach to demagoguery, but as Jackson lacked subtlety, so does my case against him.

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  1. So your unintended hopeful conclusion is this: If the United States could survive Andrew Jackson, we can survive Jackson-type clones whenever they’re elected? I jest.

    Question of historical contingency: I wonder what Jackson would’ve done with nuclear weapons and the world’s most powerful military?

    More seriously: How does Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. handle these facts in his affirmative book on Jackson? – TL

    • I don’t think ASJ was interested in “facts.” He sought to cleanse the history of his beloved Dem Party. I consider “The Age of Jackson” more propaganda than history.

      As for nuclear weapons, Jackson probably would have avoided them — atomic bombs against the Indians would have ruined all that fantastic cotton soil. 😉

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