Andrew Jackson's Presidency

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Was Andrew Jackson a tyrant or a man of the people?

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Andrew Jackson, a highly polarizing figure, was seen as both a tyrant and a man of the people. Critics labeled him a tyrant due to his disregard for the rule of law and the Supreme Court, his attacks on the Bank of the United States, and his implementation of the spoils system. However, his humble origins, unashamed populism, and policies that favored non-elite whites portrayed him as a man of the people. This dual perception underscores the complexity of his legacy.

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It's a common theme throughout American history that strong, independent leaders are frequently derided by their opponents as "tyrants." This tendency springs from the days of the Revolution when the American colonists fought against what they saw as the tyranny of King George III. Since then, the word "tyrant" has remained a mainstay of the ever-growing lexicon of American political invective.

Andrew Jackson was subjected to a fair amount of abuse throughout his political career. And, inevitably, he was frequently condemned as a tyrant. Mainly, this is because he was an outsider, someone who didn't fit into the charmed elite circle of Washington politics. He was rough; he was uncouth; he lacked the polish and sophistication the American political classes had come to expect in their presidents. But he was immensely popular in the country as a whole and saw himself as a man of the people, not just by virtue of his humble background but also due to the policies he pursued when in office.

Jackson's unashamed populism manifested itself in his scorching attacks upon the Bank of the United States. To him and his supporters the Bank was a cesspit of graft that corrupted public life with bribes and exerted a vice-like grip over the nation's economy. Inevitably, Jackson's attacks on the Bank provoked a savage reaction from his political enemies, who believed that the President was guilty of wrecking the American economy and national stability to make a crude power grab.

Yet Jackson remained unrepentant. When he vetoed the renewal of the Bank's charter in 1832 he articulated what became the classic expression of American populism:

“The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes..."

But Jackson's reputation for tyranny stemmed largely from his open disdain for the rule of law in general, and the US Supreme Court in particular. He thought (not entirely unreasonably) that the Court was packed with political opponents that were hell-bent on thwarting his legislative agenda in favor of the wealthy commercial interests they represented.

The most notorious case of Jackson's contempt for the judiciary came in his response to the Supreme Court ruling in Worcester v Georgia (1832). The Court held that the Cherokee nation had a natural right to its sovereign territory. As the Cherokees formed the equivalent of a foreign nation only the federal government had the constitutional right to negotiate treaties with them. The actions of the Georgia state government were therefore illegitimate.

Jackson's response was swift and uncompromising:

“[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision;

now let him enforce it.”

So Jackson completely ignored the ruling, undermining the rule of law and the elaborate system of checks and balances built into the republican system of government. Without Presidential support the Court's ruling was unenforceable and the State of Georgia could continue to encroach upon Cherokee land at will. The consequences for the Cherokee nation were, inevitably, disastrous. Jackson's open contempt for the law led directly to the Trail of Tears, a shameful act of ethnic cleansing in which the Cherokee were forcibly removed from their land and resettled elsewhere. The journey was long, brutal and arduous; over 4,000 Cherokee perished along the way in truly appalling conditions.

For good or ill, Andrew Jackson was part of a long-standing American political tradition, one founded on support for states' rights, farmers and the common people and heavily infused with a generous dose of anti-elitism. In that sense Jackson could indeed be described as a man of the people. At the same time, however, one cannot overlook the egregious violations of law under the Jackson Administration, not least those which led to immense suffering among Native-Americans. Nor should it be forgotten that by introducing the so-called spoils system of government appointments, Jackson corrupted the institutions of state, awarding positions on the basis of political reliability rather than merit.

The problem with Jackson's populism is the same with populism in general. The definition of who actually constitutes "The People" is invariably narrow, being drawn from an elite of some sort, despite populism's anti-elitist rhetoric. Jackson and his many supporters were clear in their own minds who did and did not belong in this privileged group. Their exclusionary understanding of who the American people "really" are has influenced, and to some extent, disfigured, political life ever since, entrenching inequalities deep in American society that have still to be adequately addressed. And so long as that time-worn tradition of populism, so perfectly epitomized by Andrew Jackson, remains buried deep within the American body politic, those glaring inequalities look set to remain with us for some time to come.

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First of all, it is worth noting that a person could be both a tyrant and a “man of the people.”  The two are not mutually exclusive.  A person could act in tyrannical ways and yet be popular if they used tyranny to pursue goals that the people liked.

My own view is that Jackson was clearly a man of the people if we define “the people” as common, non-elite whites.  It is also my view that calling him a tyrant is excessive.  The idea that he was tyrannical is more of a partisan attack on him than an accurate description.

People say Jackson was a tyrant because he vetoed more bills than all previous presidents put together.  They say he was a tyrant because he failed to enforce a Supreme Court decision regarding Indian Removal.  They say he was a tyrant because he worked to require states like South Carolina to obey the laws passed by Congress.  They say he was a tyrant because he destroyed the Second Bank of the United States.

The only one of these actions that can legitimately be seen as tyrannical is one related to Indian Removal, and even that was clearly in accordance with what the common white person wanted.  Presidents in modern times veto bills all the time.  Requiring a state to obey federal law is hardly tyrannical.  Destroying the Bank of the United States was no more tyrannical than it would be if the Republicans were able to abolish the federal Department of Education.  These were policy decisions that appealed to common people and that were simply tarred as tyrannical by Jackson’s detractors. 

Overall, Jackson was clearly a man of the people and there is no clear evidence that he should be called a tyrant.

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