by Bruce W. Dearstyne
Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne is a historian in Albany, New York. His latest book is “The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History.”
Andrew Jackson — looking over Trump’s shoulder
In the official White House photo of President Donald Trump talking by phone on February 1 with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a portrait of President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) is seen prominently above and behind Trump’s left shoulder.
That was deliberate. Trump admires Jackson for his decisiveness, resilience, and unwillingness to compromise. Jackson is a favorite of White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Trump told reporters his inaugural address would be “Jacksonian” and indeed it was forceful, even truculent. The call with Turnbull was tense as Trump criticized Australia’s liberal refugee policies and seemingly disavowed a deal made by President Obama to transfer some of the refugees from Australia to the U.S. Jackson was there to reinforce Trump’s image of tough, determined leadership.
Two presidential portraits are visible in other Oval Office photos – Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. But Jackson’s is closer to Trump’s desk. In addition, in some photos, a small bronze statue of Jackson is visible on a table behind Trump’s desk.
Jackson and Trump’s strong personalities, strategies and messages are in some ways similar.
“The system is rigged”
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly asserted that “the system is rigged” and still insists he would have won the popular vote had it not been for illegal voters.
Jackson also railed against what he called corrupt politics. He ran for president the first time in 1824. Jackson was in a strong position — a popular military hero from winning the Battle of New Orleans, the last battle in the War of 1812, and service as Congressman and Senator. But he was one of four major candidates. When the votes were counted, none had an electoral college majority, so the election was decided by the House of Representatives. One of the four finalists, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, threw his support to another of the finalists, John Quincy Adams, who was elected. Adams promptly appointed Clay Secretary of State. Jackson called it a “corrupt bargain” between his two rivals. Resentment helped energize his 1828 campaign, when he defeated Adams, and his 1832 campaign, when he defeated Clay.
Jackson often denounced his political opponents, impugning their motives as being selfish and calculated to garner partisan advantage rather than helping the people of the nation.
Trump favors bold executive power. “Old Hickory” as Jackson was called, was a firm proponent of presidential prerogative and power. Jackson was a populist, portraying himself as the champion of the people against powerful and entrenched special interests and economic and political elites. He championed the rights of farmers, artisans, and ordinary workers. He believed the office of the President, not Congress or the courts, should be the center of national power. When he took bold executive action, he always explained it was for the common good and against powerful negative forces.
Confidence in a small group of insiders
Trump relies on a small cadre of confidants and advisors for advice, including his son-in-law, Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, and Chief White House Strategist Steve Bannon.
Jackson, like Trump, was inclined not to trust anyone until they had proven their loyalty. Jackson also relied heavily on a small group of trusted insiders for advice and was utterly self-assured about the wisdom of his decisions. He often consulted and confided in what critics called his “Kitchen Cabinet,” a small group of unofficial advisors.
One close advisor and trusted member of the “Kitchen Cabinet” was Andrew Jackson Donelson, Jackson’s nephew (Jackson had no children) who screened visitors, handled correspondence, provided advice, and sometimes served as the president’s informal spokesman and negotiator. Donelson and his wife Emily and their children actually lived in the White House, right across a hall from the president. Jackson was a widower, and Emily served as official hostess at White House functions.
Trump, like Jackson, values family ties. Jared Kushner and his wife (Trump’s daughter Ivanka) do not live in the White House, but Kushner has an office there near Trump’s and he and Ivanka live nearby in Washington. Ivanka may occasionally fill in for First Lady Melania Trump, who is still living in New York City with the Trump’s young son, at least temporarily reprising Emily Donelson’s role.
Jackson had no equivalent to Steve Bannon, a former director of Breitbart News, an online news, opinion and commentary website, who is becoming the Trump administration’s chief ideologue. But Francis Preston Blair, a Kitchen Cabinet insider and editor of the Washington Globe, a tribune for Jackson’s cause and the new Democratic Party, played a somewhat similar role of image shaper and media advisor. Blair had a gift for invective and rhetoric that helped sharpen, articulate, popularize and broadcast Jackson’s ideas and justify his actions.
Justifying tough decisions by insisting they are in the public interest
In Donald Trump’s inaugural, he painted a dark picture of “American carnage” with a nation beset by economic dislocation, loss of jobs, crime, and foreign threats. He blamed the Washington power structure. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital have reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the costs.” Trump promised to set things right on behalf of “the forgotten men and women of our country.”
As president, Jackson was tough and decisive, always justifying his actions by asserting they benefitted the people against political and economic elites and special interests. In 1832, he vetoed a bill to re-charter the Bank of the United States. The bank was a longstanding private corporation sponsored by the government. Jackson charged that it was in effect a government-supported monopoly, unduly benefited “the rich and powerful,” promoted economic privilege, and exercised behind-the-scenes political influence. As he often did, Jackson personalized the issue. “The Bank is trying to kill me, sir, but I shall kill it!” he exclaimed to his political ally Martin Van Buren. The bank was outmoded by 1832 but reforming it would have been better than killing it. Jackson would not consider that option. Emphasizing his role as an instrument of the people against predatory wealth, he insisted it had to go. Congress could not override his veto. Destruction of the bank plunged the nation into its first major depression a few years later.
Presidential vs. Congressional power
Jackson believed executive power should be paramount in the American government. The president represented all the people; Congress was more like a collection of representatives of parochial viewpoints and local interests. Not surprisingly, this attitude led to confrontations with Congress.
In 1830, Jackson vetoed a bill passed by Congress to provide federal support for construction of a public road in Kentucky. It was part of a broader interstate system reaching from Ohio to Alabama and had broad Congressional support. Jackson vetoed it on the grounds that it really benefitted only one state, Kentucky. That was the home of one of his great political rivals, Henry Clay, by then a senator from that state. Jackson’s veto message exalted the president’s responsibility to guard the federal treasury and protect the national interest over provincial ones. But his resentment of Clay, and his determination to assert his veto power and upstage Congress, were also major motivations.
After his veto of the Bank of the U.S. re-charter bill in 1832, Jackson tried to hasten the bank’s demise by withdrawing federal funds from it. The Senate, led by Clay, censured him in 1834 for transferring the deposits without Congressional approval. He “has assumed upon himself authority and power not conferred by the Constitution,” said the censure resolution. It had no legal effect but Jackson resented it and campaigned to have it expunged. When Democrats got control of the Senate in 1837, they granted his wish and expunged it from the record.
The national interest above all else
Trump often asserts he is out to defend the nation’s interest against internal and external threats. Jackson made a similar case for his policies on a number of occasions, some of them high-stakes and dramatic. In 1832, South Carolina threatened to “nullify” a federal tariff law and secede from the Union if the tariff were not repealed. Jackson responded with a proclamation that a state “cannot possess any right to secede” and warned that “disunion by armed force is treason.” Early in 1833, at his behest, Congress passed the “Force Bill,” authorizing the president to use whatever force he deemed necessary to collect the tariff and repel any move toward secession. Jackson made it clear he would use armed force against South Carolina if it actually moved to secede. At the same time, at Jackson’s urging, Congress also passed a compromise tariff. South Carolina backed down and the crisis was defused. Jackson had cemented his reputation as an unflinching leader and defender of the union. Abraham Lincoln cited Jackson’s strong stand when he opposed secession in 1861.
Evidence of prejudice?
Trump has been critical of Muslims, Mexicans, people with handicapping conditions, and other groups. Critics say many of his expressed views about women have been demeaning.
Jackson has been criticized for racism. He was an unrepentant slaveholder. Slavery was still legal at that time but recognized as a reprehensible practice by enlightened people of the era. He never questioned the brutal institution or expressed concern about its morality. He had little use for abolitionists.
Jackson was the prime architect of the policy of forced removal of Indians from the Southeast to new lands in the West. Jackson believed that the Indians constituted a menace to the states where they resided. He acted pursuant to an act of Congress and in part in reaction to rising state government hostility to the tribes, particularly in Georgia. One of his repeatedly offered rationales for removal was that the tribes could keep their identification and autonomy once they resettled on the western lands. He disregarded appeals to consider a more fair and humane policy. Critics condemned the removal policy as unjust and brutal, and historians have agreed.
Contempt for the courts
Donald Trump has been critical what he calls liberal judges. He referred to the federal judge who ordered suspension of his recent ban on immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries as a “so-called judge” and called his decision “ridiculous.”
Jackson also had his run-in’s with the courts. In 1832, the Supreme Court invalidated a Georgia law that had prohibited unlicensed whites from living on Cherokee Indian lands. It was part of Georgia’s campaign to pressure the Indians out of the state. The court ordered the release of two missionaries who had been convicted and imprisoned for violating the law. Jackson secretly favored the Georgia law because it reinforced his Indian removal plans. He criticized the decision, dramatically remarking, according to one recollection, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” The president did not initiate any enforcement action. But he quietly helped convince the governor of Georgia to release the prisoners, avoiding the issue of whether he would enforce a Supreme Court ruling he did not agree with.
Making things personal
Trump personalizes issues and takes things personally, often venting his displeasure with critics or opponents via Tweets on Twitter. Jackson had a similar tendency to conflate policy critics with personal enemies.
He was offended when the wives of Vice President John Calhoun and of several cabinet members shunned Margaret Eaton, wife of Secretary of War John Eaton, for allegedly having an affair with John before their marriage. Jackson was sympathetic because his late wife Rachel had been the subject of innuendo during the 1828 campaign when opponents questioned whether her first marriage had been legally ended before she married Jackson. He believed their attacks hastened her death just after the campaign ended. Jackson came to regard opposition to Peggy Eaton as equivalent to opposition to John Eaton and to the president and his polices.
Jackson pressured his cabinet members to get their wives to relent and, when they refused, he dismissed them in 1831. He eased his friend Eaton’s departure by first appointing him Governor of the Territory of Florida and, later, Minister to Spain. Vice President John Calhoun had grown critical of Jackson’s policies and his wife Floride had acted insultingly toward Peggy Eaton. Jackson began to shun him and in 1832 he resigned to become senator from South Carolina. Jackson replaced him on the ticket, a widower who had supported Peggy Eaton, served as Jackson’s Secretary of State until 1831 and after that as Minister to Great Britain. Elected with Jackson in 1832, Vice President Van Buren became one of Jackson’s closest advisors. Jackson groomed him to run for president, successfully, in 1836.
Trump is a Presbyterian and he has said he will espouse Christian values but so far it is not clear just what that means. Jackson was also a Presbyterian, though not a faithful churchgoer. He said he read three chapters of the Bible every day. His letters and speeches often had echoes of scripture and hymns.
Toward a new political party?
Jackson was elected president as a Democratic-Republican, a party started by Thomas Jefferson but fading by the late 1820’s. Jackson and his lieutenants built on the foundations of that party to found what was initially called “The Democracy” and then the Democratic Party, dedicated to the cause of popular rights, a theme it has carried down to the present day.
That may be another parallel with Trump, who used to be a Democrat, switched parties and ran and was elected as a Republican, but is often at odds with leaders of his party. His identification as a Republican seems tenuous. Trump has a portrait of the founding president of the Democratic Party looking over his shoulder and a portrait of the first president from the Republican Party gazing down from across the Oval Office. He might have a Jacksonian goal in mind of either refashioning the Republican Party to fit his vision or establishing something to replace it.
Andrew Jackson — hero, villain, some of each?
Jackson could be thin-skinned, stubborn and arbitrary. Critics and opposition politicians called him King Andrew I. But he was definite and firm and was the most popular president between Jefferson and Lincoln.
Jackson’s historical reputation has gone up and down. For many years, historians regarded him as one of the nation’s best presidents for his strong, decisive leadership. Progressive and liberal leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman praised him as a strong president who acted for the people against entrenched interests.
More recently, though, there has been increased focus on his racist views, slaveholding and harsh Indian policies, sending his reputation into eclipse. Democrats have mostly stopped hailing him as a heroic Democratic leader. Last year, President Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, as part of a currency redesign initiative, decided to move Jackson’s portrait from the front to the back of the $20 bill. Escaped slave and Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman will replace him. It was a demotion for Jackson. It will take a couple of years to phase in the new design. Will Trump reverse it, as he has so many of Obama’s policies?
Andrew Jackson in his day was as controversial as Donald Trump is now. Jackson is one of Trump’s models, so studying Jackson’s presidency – the good and the regrettable – may be a useful way of getting insights into Trump’s view of the presidency and predicting what he may do.