[Marxism] Review of Sean Wilentz's biography of Andrew Jackson

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 23 18:45:41 MST 2019

(Wilentz apparently wrote the letter that was signed by 4 other 
historians excoriating the NYT's Project 1619. I am not surprised that 
sectarian shitheads at WSWS would find him amenable to their designs.)

NLR 42, NOV DEC 2006

Sean Wilentz, Andrew Jackson
Henry Holt: New York 2005

Reviewing the wave of political upheavals around 1830 that overthrew the 
Bourbons in France, detached Belgium from the Netherlands, secured 
Catholic emancipation to Ireland, brought the Reform Bill to England and 
unleashed civil wars in Spain and Portugal, in his Age of Revolution 
Eric Hobsbawm saw the most radical popular advance of the time in the 
election of Andrew Jackson as President of the United States. Viewed 
comparatively, two landmarks of his presidency stand out. The electorate 
of 1828 that put Jackson into power, with a record 56 per cent of the 
vote, was by far the largest in history: over a million strong, it was 
three times the size of the American turnout in 1824. The mobilization 
that produced this majority, moreover, was the work of the first modern 
mass political party. The second development was more original than the 
first, but together they spelt a lasting transformation of American 
democracy, of whose importance posterity has never doubted. The 
reputation of the man personifying this change remains far more 
contested. In his own day, Jackson was hailed by many as a heroic 
democrat, the beau ideal of a self-made man who rose to the nation’s 
highest post as a foe of social privilege and slayer of the ‘monster 
bank’, saviour of the nation and fearless champion of the people. Others 
saw him as ‘King Andrew’, a divisive tyrant driven by petty personal 
prejudices, contemptuous of the law of the land and merciless to the 
weak, who debauched government with a spoils system and destroyed the 
nation’s prosperity with a fixation on hard money.

The facts of Jackson’s career are stark enough. He was born in 1767 of 
poor Scots-Irish parents, immigrants from Ulster, in the former lands of 
the Catawba peoples, where North and South Carolina meet—an area well 
known for its opposition to the eastern elites. At the age of fourteen, 
he served the insurgents against George iii. Captured by the British, he 
was slashed with a sword-blow by an officer, leaving a declivity in his 
skull for which Jackson never forgave them. For the rest of his life, he 
continued to believe that they wanted to retake the continent. Becoming 
increasingly obstreperous after his mother’s death soon afterwards, he 
frittered away a sudden inheritance from a grandfather in Ireland, but 
learned enough law to get himself appointed by a drinking companion as a 
prosecutor in the frontier zone of Tennessee—not yet a state—at the age 
of twenty-one. En route to Tennessee, he purchased his first woman 
slave. Like many later ambitious presidents, he then moved up the social 
and political ladder through marriage to the daughter of a state 
surveyor and land speculator. Jackson rose swiftly on the frontier as a 
cotton planter, speculator and slave trader. In his early thirties, he 
became Tennessee’s first Congressman, and a year later was briefly 
Senator, before quitting for a lucrative job as a circuit judge back home.

However, Jackson’s real political breakthrough came from the camp, not 
the courtroom. A trigger-happy brawler, duellist and warmonger, who had 
long itched for military command, he got his chance in 1812, when war 
broke out with Britain. Ordered south by Madison to block any danger of 
Indian insurgents linking up with British forces or the Spanish in 
Florida, he crushed a small Creek rising, unleashing a proverbial hatred 
for the enemy with an exemplary massacre, and was allowed to dictate 
terms of surrender that confiscated more than half of Creek 
lands—territory covering most of today’s Alabama and a sizeable part of 
Georgia—regardless of whether or not the population had fought against 
him. Soon afterwards, Jackson cemented his military fame with a 
successful defence of New Orleans against an assault by British 
regulars, a battle fought—unknown to both sides—as the ink was already 
dry on the Treaty of Ghent that concluded the war. Nonetheless, he was 
widely feted as a second Washington, who had saved the nation—after the 
humiliation of the torching of the White House by Admiral Cockburn’s 
forces—in its second ordeal against Britain.

Now a full General, and appointed the us military commander in the 
South, Jackson made sure he stayed in the limelight with a series of 
annexations and lunges beyond the Union’s borders. In these years, he 
pioneered operations of ethnic cleansing. Explaining that whites and 
Indians could not coexist in peaceful proximity to one another, he 
implemented the transfer of thousands of Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws 
and Creeks beyond the Mississippi, nominally in compensation for the 
loss of their lands to the east, in practice with widespread loss of 
their lives as well. In 1818, on the pretext of a punitive expedition 
against the Seminoles, without any constitutional declaration of war he 
seized Florida from Spain, summarily hanging a couple of stray Britons 
for good measure, with Cuba as his intended next stop—actions that 
caused a storm in Washington, but were eventually covered, leading to 
the satisfactory detachment of the peninsula from Madrid with the 
Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819. With more dead Indians and more land, 
Jackson’s star climbed ever higher in the political sky.

By 1824 he was poised to run for President. The Republican Party created 
by Jefferson, still overwhelmingly dominant, was split between competing 
regional contenders—Adams from the Northeast, Clay from the West, 
Crawford and Calhoun from the South—allowing Jackson to enter an evenly 
divided race, in which he won more popular votes than any of his 
opponents. But because the Electoral College was unable to muster a 
majority, the election was thrown to the House of Representatives, where 
Henry Clay, who detested Jackson as a lawless adventurer, swung the 
presidency to Adams—who then appointed Clay Secretary of State. 
Capitalizing on this ‘corrupt bargain’, and casting himself as a 
fearless outsider challenging an iniquitous establishment, four years 
later Jackson won by a landslide.

Once in power, Jackson’s first priorities were a purge of the civil 
service to install his supporters at all levels of the federal 
bureaucracy, and more sweeping measures of ethnic cleansing, rammed 
through Congress with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Next came an 
assault on the country’s proto-central bank, the congressionally 
chartered but privately owned Second Bank of America, viewed by Jackson 
as a citadel of monopoly wealth and improper political influence. This 
was a hugely popular campaign against the ‘monied interest’ that helped 
him win a resounding second term in 1832, when the rallying power of the 
newly created Democratic Party machine, the country’s first mass 
political organization, came into full play; in 1828, Jackson had headed 
a faction, but by 1832 he could count on the support of Party conclaves 
across the country at state and local levels. His final years in office 
saw him embroiled in tariff disputes with South Carolina, efforts to 
censor abolitionist mail to the South, and a speculative bubble that 
burst soon after his exit. Of more lasting significance, Texas was 
prised away from Mexico, if without Jackson himself being able to annex 
it, and mass deportation and death visited on ever larger numbers of 
indigenous people. His immediate legacy was secured by the election of 
Van Buren, his long-time political manager and lieutenant, in 1836, 
and—in a more emphatic sense—by that of his Tennessee client James Polk 
in 1844, arguably the most successful expansionist in us history.

Jackson polarized American opinion in his own lifetime, and has divided 
historians ever since. Sean Wilentz’s portrait of him, produced for a 
series edited by Arthur Schlesinger, draws heavily on his recent Rise of 
American Democracy (2005), of which—Jackson looming larger than either 
Jefferson or Lincoln—it can be regarded as a biographical distillation. 
‘Old Hickory’ does not lend himself easily to political hagiography, but 
Wilentz has shown himself capable of rising to the occasion. 
Well-regarded in the eighties as the author of Chants Democratic, a 
radical study of the early industrial working class in New York in the 
tradition of Edward Thompson, in recent years Wilentz has caught the 
public eye for the intensity of his identification with the Democratic 
Party, and its last president. A ‘family friend’ of Clinton and intimate 
of his courtier Sidney Blumenthal, whose apologia for the President he 
vetted, Wilentz shot to prominence with an impassioned address to the 
House of Representatives, in which he warned that to impeach the 
incumbent would ‘leave the Presidency permanently disfigured and 
diminished, at the mercy as never before of the caprices of any 
Congress’; ‘the Presidency, historically the centre of leadership during 
our great national ordeals, will be crippled in meeting the inevitable 
challenges of the future’. Even the New York Times found him excessive. 
Extolling Clinton for launching the Balkan War—‘the first us President 
to stop a genocide’—Wilentz has since explained to Rolling Stone that 
his successor (notwithstanding ‘high marks for ousting the Taliban’) is 
the worst president in American history. Modern Republicanism, indeed, 
is a toxic descendant of the very party that was created to frustrate 
Jackson’s Democracy, the Whigs of the 1830s and 1840s. With these 
retrojections, the scene is set for an update of the man they vilified. 
The onset and outcome of an American epic become joined in a time-warped 
loop, as Wilentz’s outbursts at detractors of Jackson—‘losers’ 
literature’—match fulminations at critics of Clinton at the other end of 
the Democratic narrative: the former’s ‘forceful style’ establishing 
‘the foundations of the modern democratic presidency’ menaced by the 
impeachment of the latter.

Wilentz’s central argument is that Jackson had a coherent body of 
political ideas that underpinned his decision-making process. He was a 
complete Jeffersonian in his distaste for excessive government 
expenditure, his belief in spreading the nation ever-westward, his 
support of the ‘common [naturally white] man’, strict construction of 
the Constitution, suspicion to the point of paranoia of the ‘monied 
interest’, and the idea that the federal government should not create or 
protect elite privileges. His great achievement was to govern the nation 
in the spirit of these popular principles. ‘Democracy’s ascendancy was 
Jackson’s greatest triumph’, as Wilentz puts it—‘the supreme reason why 
his legacy retains its lustre’. Formulated in this simplistic way, the 
claim is quite empty. The expansion of the American electorate preceded 
Jackson, who himself did nothing to enlarge it. His presidency responded 
to changes such as the opening of the franchise to all white adult males 
in almost all of the states, the hardening of separate spheres for men 
and women, the rise of labour organization and, of course, religious 
revival—it did not create them. The central innovation of his presidency 
lay elsewhere, in the construction of a modern political machine capable 
of integrating the popular forces unleashed by these developments, 
against the background of the wide-ranging cultural transformation of 
the period that Charles Sellers has called the ‘Market Revolution’. The 
actual architect of the ascendant Democratic Party, however, was Van 
Buren rather than Jackson, who had neither the same organizational gifts 
nor interests. Intellectually, on the other hand, Jackson was the more 
radical of the two—envisaging, at least at the outset, a series of major 
alterations to the Constitution: abolition of the Electoral College and 
direct elections of senators and the federal judiciary. It is 
significant, however, that these got nowhere. Jackson never campaigned 
for democratic reforms to the political system. His leadership was 
essentially plebiscitary: the appeal of a military strongman. By 
temperament a natural autocrat, he fitted the role well, unlike the 
political generals—Harrison, Grant, Eisenhower—who followed him.

Nor was Jackson’s economic legacy in itself very substantial. His attack 
on the Second Bank was fed by his conviction that, as Wilentz puts it,

	improper activist government meant granting privileges to unaccountable 
monied men on the make as well as to those already well established. 
Sound, restrained government meant ending those privileges and getting 
the wealthy off the backs of ordinary Americans, ‘the humble members of 

But, combining suspicion of federal banking with a dislike of paper 
currency, he had no coherent alternative as a system of popular credit 
in mind. The result was a zigzag to chaos in his second mandate, as he 
redistributed federal deposits to ‘pet’ state banks, leaving an 
antagonized Second Bank in competition with them. This produced an 
inflationary bubble as loans for land sales and other speculative 
investments multiplied. Even Wilentz concedes the ‘enormous 
government-sponsored land racket’ that ensued, over which Jackson in 
practice presided. Belatedly, however, his administration, in principle 
committed to hard money, started to require all payments for land in 
specie. This was a key contributing factor in the subsequent financial 
collapse, only just held off till he left office (here was a genuine 
analogy with Clinton).

Jackson’s blunderbuss approach to opponents led to no clearer results in 
the other major economic conflict of his tenure, over the tariff of 
1828. Increasing the price of foreign goods, this hit the Southern 
states much harder than the North, because with little manufacturing 
they were more import-dependent. The South felt, correctly, that it was 
paying for the protection of Northern manufacturing and the development 
of Northern infrastructure. South Carolina, with the most slaves per 
capita in the Union, took the lead in opposing the tariff, eventually 
electing a convention that declared it in contravention of the state’s 
sovereignty, and thus void. Thundering against this threat to the Union, 
Jackson sent the navy to Charleston harbour to demonstrate federal 
resolve in tax-collection, and got a ‘Force Bill’ through Congress 
giving him the right to attack those arrayed against him, if their 
defiance persisted. At Clay’s instigation, however, Congress watered 
down the tariff and the dispute petered out, each side claiming victory. 
Wilentz lauds Jackson for ‘fortitude and cunning’ in resolving the 
crisis, but the episode was in large part shadow-boxing. What lay behind 
it was a more intractable tension, between mounting hostility to slavery 
in the North and angry reaction to abolitionism in the South.

Here, naturally, Old Hickory acted to suppress criticism of the system 
on which his personal fortune was built. Jackson’s commitment to 
slavery—truculent like everything else about him—is an obvious 
embarrassment for Wilentz’s encomium, putting his hero’s reputation at 
risk with an important Democratic voting bloc today. But he is equal to 
the challenge. ‘It is easy to judge Jackson according to 
neo-abolitionist standards, to condemn him as slaveholder and, even 
further, as pro-slavery’, he writes, but ‘such verdicts, though, too 
often have more to do with the self-regarding sanctimony of posterity 
than they do with history’. No doubt Jackson was in his way a typical 
slave-owner, and ‘might even be counted as a pro-slavery man—except 
that, in the 1830s, the vast majority of white Americans, including the 
vast majority of anti-slavery northerners, blanched at the prospect of 
stirring a slave uprising’. The exculpation by bland non-sequitur is 
transparent. In Wilentz’s casting, Jackson was essentially moved by a 
commendable desire to preserve the unity of American democracy from 
sectional strife—a kind of rough-hewn Lincoln before his day.

Far greater exertions are required to burnish Jackson’s bid to construct 
a Herrenvolk republic free of Indians. Here Wilentz’s contortions are 
truly exemplary. His Jackson is a ‘sincere if unsentimental 
paternalist’, who simply wished for the good of the indigenous peoples, 
killing them only when ‘provoked’—though he lets slip a few pages 
earlier that he was a ‘fire-eating hater of unyielding Indians’. 
Yielding Indians were those who agreed to ‘voluntary’ removal from their 
ancestral lands, for their own protection, to ‘safe havens’ (Kurdistans 
for the 19th century?), so rescuing them from the ‘obliteration’ that 
would otherwise have befallen them. If these operations did not go quite 
as ‘smoothly and benevolently as Jackson had expected’, this was an 
unfortunate outcome he had in no way intended. His main fault lay only 
in too much financial rectitude. ‘Determined to minimize federal costs 
and extinguish the national debt’, he scanted on funds for ‘the care and 
protection of the relocated’. Criticisms of his actions at the time—to 
which Wilentz devotes only a few paragraphs, also understating the 
fierce resistance from the Indians themselves—were rife with hypocrisy 
and pseudo-philanthropy, unable to see, as Jackson did, that the 
existence of independent sovereign nations like the Cherokees was 
unconstitutional. Certainly, ‘in order to save the Indians, Jackson’s 
policy also destroyed thousands of them’, but to attack him unduly on 
these grounds is to ‘confuse tragedy with melodrama’.

In this repellent casuistry, systematically whitewashing a murderous 
programme of ethnic cleansing, that word stands out: tragedy. It recurs 
on page after page of unctuous euphemism. There were ‘numerous 
tragedies’ in Jackson’s presidency, ‘tragic limits’ to his outlook, and 
‘tragic dimensions’ to his achievement. Even his stance on slavery 
was—‘ultimately’—tragic. The function of the term is not merely to 
absolve Jackson of central responsibility for the mass robbing and 
killing of his deportations, but to envelop these in a mantle of 
Shakespearean dignity. Michael Rogin’s still unparalleled portrait from 
1975, Fathers and Children, leaves one in no doubt of Jackson’s 
simultaneously patronizing and murderous policies towards his so-called 
‘red children’. In contrast, after complaining of the sanctimony of 
posterity, Wilentz ends his book by telling us that Jackson paved the 
way for the loftiest values of the present. ‘If his own standards of 
equality and justice fall beneath our own, he helped make it possible 
for today’s standards and expectations to be as elevated as they are’ 
(sic). It is a relief from such sickly stuff to turn to a more robust 
celebration of Jacksonianism as it historically was, and remains: Walter 
Russell Mead’s Special Providence. Its admiring portrait of a tough, 
xenophobic folk community, ruthless to outsiders or deserters, rigid in 
its codes of honour and violence, is equally but more truthfully 
present-minded. Another son of South Carolina, Mead identifies the 
Jacksonian strain in American political culture as the principal popular 
basis of support for the war on Iraq.

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