Just Like Andy Jackson

I noted with interest that earlier this week one of the Republican hopefuls who wants to win his party’s nomination for President of the United States said that he wants to treat America’s enemies just as Andrew Jackson did in the early nineteenth century. “Kill them!” this man yelled to the cheers of the audience. Since this individual claims to be a serious student of American history I trust he knows who Andrew Jackson considered as the enemies of America. Jackson viewed African-Americans–especially those with the decided gall to run away from slavery, the British, the Spanish, the Haitians, the Mexicans and Native Americans, especially the Creeks, the Cherokees and the Seminoles, all to be enemies, If this man thinks like Andy Jackson, the country may be headed for a heap of trouble.

I am one of those students of history who take the view that Mr Jackson was one of the worst Presidents we have had. In my mind he ranks with Warren Harding, Richard Nixon, James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce as one who did much more harm than good for the country.

I looked in the diary of one of his contemporaries for some period view. John Quincy Adams found Jackson wanting. John Quincy Adams is unfortunately often rated as a weak president. In his one term he was hindered from effective government by a hostile Congress. (Sound familiar?) Adams favored putting federal money into the education of women [the influence of his mother, Abigail Adams?], building observatories for astronomers to study the skies and improving roads and canals. However, he told Emma Hart Willard, pioneering women’s educator, “the Congress thinks of nothing but the making of soldiers.” Adams wrote in his diary that Jackson’s presidency “has been the reign of subaltern knaves” and that Jackson himself was “capable of double-dealing worthy of Ferdinand the Catholic or of Tiberius Caesar.” Jackson appointed Roger Brooke Taney, who would author the infamous Dred Scott opinion, to the Supreme Court bench. The day he left office, Jackson said he regretted not having the opportunity to shoot Henry Clay of Kentucky. During his two terms, Jackson replaced 20% of federal employees with party cronies. In the eight years of his life after he left the presidency, Jackson lived in fairly quiet retirement in Nashville, Tennessee.

John Quincy Adams, on the other hand, served seventeen years in the House of Representatives after he left the White House. He led the fight to establish the Smithsonian Institution, fought for First Amendment rights, especially for anti-slavery activists to petition Congress against slavery and, with Joshua Giddings of Ohio, for the free speech rights of members of Congress to express unpopular views. He successfully represented the Amistad captives before the United States Supreme Court where, before time-limits, his argument required ten hours.

For details I suggest interested readers look at Howard Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law and Diplomacy, the definitive work about the Amistad case and William Lee Miller’s excellent 1995 book, Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress.

Robert V Remini, now age 90, has written critically of Jackson and Jacksonian democracy. And for an over-all challenging look at United States’ history, I strongly recommend the late Howard Zinn’s books, A People’s History of the United States and A People’s History of American Empire. Also, if it can be found, the 1944 work by Alice Felt Tyler entitled, Freedom’s Ferment: Phases of American Social History from the Colonial Period to the Outbreak of the Civil War. Worth the effort to locate a copy, the book is a wonderful overview of multiple antebellum reform movements.

A candidate who wants to be like Andy Jackson makes me nervous. I haven’t yet heard one candidate invoke the name of John Quincy Adams. Come to think of it, none of this crop have yet invoked the names of Republican senators Charles Sumner of Massachusetts (1811 to 1874) or Bob Lafollette of Wisconsin (1855 to 1925). I wonder why that is.

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