Sunday, February 21, 2010


The word "controversial" surrounds the life and presidency of Andrew Jackson. For reasons that extend far beyond this small post, I don't think he would have had it any other way. He was the son of Scots-Irish immigrants from Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland. His father died before he was born in what was the border area between North and South Carolina. In other words, things didn't start well for Jackson in his life.

Jackson was the last president with any connections to the American Revolution. He, at the age of 13, enlisted himself as a courier for the Revolutionary forces. He and his brother were captured by the British and interned in a prisoner-of-war camp where they both contracted a fever. Their mother, who was to put it mildly feisty, met with the British commander and demanded their release which was granted. She walked them back home, but lost her older son in the process to the fever. Andrew survived. His mother went onto nurse soldiers and herself died from fever. Jackson had lost his whole family to the revolution and he emerged with a healthy hate for the British.

Jackson was basically a self-trained lawyer and he advanced quickly through the politics of Tennessee. In 1796, he was instrumental in Tennessee becoming a state. He spent years as a frontier lawyer in the rough and tumble world of that trade. You would think that Jackson learned to think on his feet.

During the War of 1812, Jackson became a national hero. He defeated the Red Stick Indians, one of whom was Tecumseh, an Ohio hero, who was an ally of the British, at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. Tecumseh was trying to form an alliance of Indians in America in order to stop the tide of American expansion to the west. In this regard he was following in the footsteps of Metacom, or King Phillip, in the the King Phillip's War in 1675-76. I'll get back to my thoughts on Native Americans later.

Jackson became the hero of the War of 1812 when he was the victorious commander in the Battle of New Orleans in January of 1815. He outsmarted the British commander Packenham by setting his troops in an impenetrable fortress and forcing them to attack it head-on. The topography of the battlefield contributed, but Jackson was able to use that to his advantage. Read up on this, it was a masterful battle and Jackson was a great battle commander. He proved himself in the War of 1812 and in the Florida battles with the Seminoles and the Spanish that resulted in the annexation of Florida in 1819 in the Florida Purchase Treaty. The other results of this treaty were in the west Oregon and southwestern US, that solidified the borders of Louisiana Purchase by setting a definite border between the US and British claims.

As president, Jackson was successful in changing the focus of the office from the Revolutionary elites to the common man. Was he a common man? Absolutely. He was orphaned by the death of his parents and he was able to survive and be successful despite his plight. In the 1824 election he garnered more popular votes than his opponents, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and to a lesser extent, Crawford. But in the quirkiness of the American electoral system, he didn't get a majority of the electoral vote. Therefore, the election went into the House of Representatives where it picked JQA and strangely enough, Henry Clay, Speaker of the House, became the Secretary of State. It was rightfully called the "Corrupt Bargain."

He was elected in one of the most partisan, evil campaigns in 1828. His wife Rachel, died before he took office and Jackson forever blamed the vitriol of the campaign, in which she was accused of adultery with Jackson, as she was accused of being married to her former husband when she married Jackson. That aside, he took office as the first president of the common man and the eponymous leader of the Jacksonian era.

I'll write about a couple of Jackson's greatest controversies as president and then we'll talk of his problems with Native Americans (NAs). First, the Nullification Crisis. Jackson's VP was John Calhoun, who by all accounts was a strong state's rights advocate and a big supporter of slavery. Jackson's hands were not clean in this regard. In 1828, the Tariff of Abominations became an issue. It caused the prices of southern goods, which it bought from the north to rise in price. It also caused the British to pay less for cotton, a southern staple. Calhoun came out for nullification of the tariff, based on the compact theory and nullification, put forth by Jefferson and Madison in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. In other words, Calhoun felt that the tariff was in violation of the rights of the citizens of the south and they should nullify it.

Jackson wasn't really in tune with this and threatened to lead a column of miltia to enforce the tariff and hang anyone who violated the law. In Jackson's mind, the constitution did not allow seccession, and he equated this action with seccession, therefore he would have to enforce the law. Calhoun backed down. It tells a lot about Jackson and his fealty to the constitution. I'm not saying I agree with him, but I see his point.

The Bank of the US was a fixture at the founding of the country. It served as an anchor of the early economy. Alexander Hamilton was an advocate of assumption of the debt of the states from the Revolutionary War. First approved in 1791 for twenty years. It expired in 1811. It was renewed in 1816 for twenty more years and was set to expire in 1836. For political purposes Henry Clay required that it be brought up in 1832 for renewal. Jackson vetoed the Bank and it stood as an act that struck for the common man against the rich eastern money interests. Clay wanted to defeat Jackson and in fact, ran as a National Republican in 1832 and tried to defeat him. Clay lost, but in 1833 the Whig Party was created in opposition to Jackson. They elected two candidates but they both died. The Whigs became the Republican Party and elected Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

Jackson vetoed the Bank of the US in 1832 and it was killed to never rear its ugly head again. The downside was there was no regulation of money until the dawn of the Federal Reserve in 1913. We see where this has got us. The Fed is an abject failure and will be for years to come. That's an argument for another day. Jackson vetoed the Bank because he thought it was unconstitutional and put too much power in the hands of an unelected group to control the economy of the US. He was right.

As for the Indian Removal Act of 1830, let's talk. I want to defend Jackson, but that is difficult. Jackson was a slaveholder and didn't much care for Native Americans. His thoughts were a product of his class. He was a white protestant and that gave him a certain point of view that wasn't very different for his place and time. Remember, that Manifest Destiny was rampant and the NAs were in the way. The problem for the NAs was that they had a long history of intertribal warfare. From the time of the pilgrims, they were unable to join in opposition to the Europeans. Had they been able to do so, they would have driven them back into the sea.

Two great NA heroes tried to pull their people together to the extent that they put some serious pressure on the whites and represented the high water mark of the opposition. The first was Metacom, the second was Tecumseh. They never could overcome the intertribal warfare and their efforts failed. I would say that the NAs failed to capitalize on their advantage due to the fractiousness of the tribes.

The "nobel savage" paradigm is something I don't buy. The NAs appear to be similar to their predecessors throughout history. Their time had passed and they were overcome by a superior people. I don't want to intimate that I feel that the Europeans were better or smarter, but I feel they were more advanced and technology wills out. In this case it did. The NAs were a brave foe, but they lost out to a technologically superior people and that's the key. Right or wrong it happened. You can't relive history.

When it's all said and done, Jackson was an important president. He took the US to a new level and his influence extended through the subsequent elections of 1836, and 1844. In 1836, his VP Martin Van Buren won. He had a tragic presidency including the Panic of 1837. William Henry Harrison was elected on the Whig ticket, however, he died early in 1841 and John Tyler took over. (Thanks to Carl for noticing I made a mistake with the date. I knew it but, didn't edit properly.) With the help of Jackson, James K. Polk was elected in 1844 on the expansionist, Manifest Destiny platform. I will talk about Polk later. Suffice it to say that he expanded the US to its present boundaries.

Jackson died in 1845. His home, the Hermitage, is one of the most visited locations in America. I've always wanted to go there and I will this summer. Polk's house is about 60 miles from there. Two great American presidents and I'll visit their houses this summer. History is good.


Oso said...

Law and Order,

These just keep getting better.

I'd known of Jackson's opposition to a central bank-wonder what he'd think of the bailouts? I have mixed thoughts on the Fed-but that's for another time as you've written.

His reaction to the Nullification treaty was instructive. Maintaining the union took precedence over states rights.Out of curiosity,I know he had tremendous dislike for the moneyed interests of the Northeast, the Tariff would help them,or help the industrialists who I would expect to number among them.Assuming he continued his feud, his support of the treaty would indicate principle. Or wanting to tweak the British maybe?

I appreciate and agree with what you wrote about Indians. Various tribes could be as warlike or peaceful as any other class of people. That Noble Savage thing has always annoyed me, romanticizing a group in that manner IMO actually demeans it. Real culture is interesting in and of itself without well-meant adulation.

Ducky's here said...

We haven't learned much since Jackson's time regarding banking. Or maybe we have learned but choose to ignore the lesson.

We still wrestle with two questions:
1. How to finance wars
2. What is the source inflation and how can it be controlled.

Central banking is critical to both. Asset bubbles were even worse when multitudes of state banks were issuing currency and speculation was rampant. And a central bank makes war financing much easier.

As we have seen over the last couple decades, central banking is not immune to asinine monetary policy either. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Must be a flaw in capitalism.

Ducky's here said...

... as you come down hard on the Fed you should remember that we were on the gold standard during the depression.
Those nations that stayed on it the longest got hurt the worst, us among them. The gold standard tends to manage inflation by being deflationary and that can lead to unemployment.

If we were to try to convert to the gold standard now, all hell would break lose. Although partial reserve banking with the partial reserves held as gold seems to have some support but I can't profess to understand the implications.

Rather than blaming the Fed it would be better to understand the implications of the gold standard and that's a damn tough topic. The case for its negative role in the depression seems cast but what about Nixon's taking us off the standard and the roller coaster ride that followed and we blamed Carter for.
I nominate that topic as one that deserves more study.

Still, is the Fed really the critical issue? I wouldn't want to have a system of independent state banks all playing fast and loose as they see fit. We need effective monetary policy but:
1. It can be difficult under a gold standard
2. It can be bat shiite crazy under a fiat system

Bit of a mess no? Better heads than yours and mine or Greenspan's for that matter will have to figure this out.

So in a nutshell, why bash the Fed? Why not bash lousy monetary policy?

Law and Order Teacher said...

Thank you for reading. I don't know if it was the union so much as it was something he felt was mandated by the constitution. As for the Tariff he didn't care for it either, but it was the law. However, in the Supreme Court case brought by the Cherokees over their right to disputed lands in Georgia, the court ruled in their favor. Jackson chose to ignore the ruling, saying "Let Mr. Marshall enforce it." Contradictions, yes?

He certainly had no love for the rich, or those he perceived as rich. Mainly, he considered the bank unconstitutional. He also was disgusted by the blatant corruption of Nelson Biddle who ran the bank. He loaned money to those in congress who kept him in power.

Thanks for your consideration on the NA statement. I admire the tribes, but historically they sowed the seeds of their own demised by their constant intertribal warfare.

As always thanks for the visit. I agree that bad monetary policy is a root cause of nearly all economic policy. Hence, my disgust with the Fed. I'm not so much opposed to institution as I am to its tendency toward missing the boat in nearly every economic crisis.

In the decade of the 20s, as the credit, margin buying, and speculation ran out of control, the Fed fiddled while the economy burned. They took no definitive action until it was too late. Injecting money into economy would have cushioned the blow a bit, while tightening the supply would've exacerbated the problem. Cetainly it may have ameleorated the banking crisis.

From what I've read the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, and the Fed policy were two major causes of the crash. Overproduction is always blamed, although I'm not convinced this is true. If it was however, elasticity calls for an injection of currency to allow prices to rise as demand would increase, buying would drive up prices.

Instead farmers lost their butts to low prices. FDR was foolish in his thought that price and production controls would stabilize prices. Instead, the government paid money to short production. To my way of thinking buying is good for the farmers.

I disagree with Nixon's actions on two fronts, gold standard and wage and price controls. Never work, never have. My only thought on gold is it may restrict spending some by doing away with, or severely curtailing fiat money. As long as government can print money it will.

One other thought on government spending. I think Obama went to school on FDR's buying votes with New Deal money. Someone with suspicious mind would think Obama is purposely withholding spending on the stimulus in order to start spreading the wealth in vital vote areas. Just a thought.

Oso said...

Law and Order/Ducky,
Two things I think might be said in somewhat late defense of post-crash Fed monetary policy under Hoover.

It's my understanding that accepted monetary policy at the time was to loosen/tighten the money supply in reaction to slight changes in the business cycle rather than to stick with a particular policy direction.

Also at that time the Fed did not act in unison;the individual reserve banks conducted individual policy which was not always coordinated.

Ducky's here said...

I don't think there would be much argument that understanding of monetary policy in a depression has advanced quite a bit since Hoover.

It remains to be seen but when the dust clears we may agree that Bernanke did act prudently.

What we seem to be having a tougher time accepting is that Greenspan's laissez-faire policy was a disaster and we need to learn from that. A pill the right doesn't want to swallow.

Carl Wicklander said...

Another excellent post, Law and Order Teacher. I don't really know what to add except perhaps that Harrison was elected in 1840 but died in 1841.

And controversial is the right word for Jackson. There are things I like about him and things that repel me. I like his actions in shutting down the bank but he also wasn't afraid to stretch his authority of his office. He certainly centralized power.

Law and Order Teacher said...

Sorry, I didn't edit my own post. Harrison died a month after a 2 hour inauguration speech. So much for self editing. Thanks for the correction, I didn't even notice the mistake. I'll fix it.

Oso, Ducky,
You are right that monetary policy is a crapshoot. It's kind of like weather, it's hard to predict. I'll never say that doing nothing is a policy.

Oso said...

Law and Order,
Had someone mentioned to me several months ago that there was an informative series on US presidents (and historical figures such as Paine) available I might have passed on the opportunity,thinking the subject rather dry at the time.

Instead you've really brought the characters to life for me. The parallels with present day geopolitics and the relationships with European history which I had been aware of are fascinating.

The stimulus money which funded this was well spent :)

Seriously, thanks.

tnlib said...

Well done, my friend, and most interesting. The man was his own man and, as you say, a bit of a character - but colorful.

I'm afraid "the Trail of Tears" turns me off, but other than that, I think he upheld the office quite well.

There is an "historical rumor" that Rachel's first husband lied to her when he told her their divorce had been granted.

The Hermitage is absolutely beautiful. Too bad the tornado that came through here several years ago wiped out all the magnificent elm trees that lined both sides of the long drive. A beautiful approach.

PRH....... said...

Sounds like fun to visit the places of the Presidents...I visted the Chickamauga Battlefield in Georgia a few years back.

It was a cold and rainy February(2006) and I could feel the ghosts of my great-great Uncles who fought and died(1 dead, 1 wounded) there for the Union.

Yes, History is good Steve...10 days until the Vietnam Reunion, see you then.

Carl Wicklander said...

No problem. It happens to me all the time! I can't tell you how many times I re-read some post from the past and realize I missed something like that.

Enjoy the Hermitage!

The Vegas Art Guy said...

I read American Lion last year and you did a great job on jogging my memory. He certainly was controversial.

Law and Order Teacher said...

I am glad that you feel you have learned something. I learn things everytime that I research these people. I'm not finished. I have some in mind. They'll follow. Thanks for your reading.

I'll see you soon. I'm very excited about the opportunity to look over the Vietnam era display. You have done yeoman work and really set up a great experience for us. Thanks, my friend.

You're right. The Trail of Tears, nothing good there. I'm sorry to hear that damage was done to the Hermitage. I'll still enjoy it and move on to Polk's house. Good stuff. Thanks for reading.

Jackson is a real American hero. As for his presidency, it is very controversial. Interesting guy, interesting historical figure. Good book. I read it and loved it.

Thanks and keep reading. I need your intelligence to set me straight. Thanks, sir.

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