Despite what some may think, I’m not a Jackson apologist. But I do think it’s important to correct mistaken impressions of Old Hickory perpetuated both inside and outside of academia.

Michael Brendan Dougherty’s piece in The Week is a good example of the latter. Dougherty takes the standard approach to Jackson’s life: a rags-to-riches story (“Jackson grew up in log-cabin Carolinian poverty, became an orphan during the Revolutionary War, and then rose into a kind of frontier aristocracy”); emphasis on his violent temper (“He was a smoldering latrine fire of resentments and rage”); and the negative consequences of his populist politics (“This marauding style of patronage machine-building would live on for a century”). All of this supports his argument that “Andrew Jackson was America’s worst ‘great’ president.”

There are several things to take issue with in Dougherty’s narrative, but I want to focus on two. The first is his claim that “After the war [of 1812] and with designs on the presidency, he [Jackson] hired a few biographers in succession to spread perhaps the most captivating story of his life: his capture by the British at age 14 during the Revolutionary War” [1]. This is patently false. John Reid started the first biography of Jackson in 1816 and died after completing only the first few chapters. Jackson’s military aide and friend, John H. Eaton, completed the biography, which was published in 1817. The biography was revised for the 1824 and 1828 elections. Eaton also wrote the “Wyoming” letters, which were not a biography per se, for the 1824 campaign. Henry Lee, son of “Light Horse Harry” Lee and step-brother of Robert E. Lee, wrote a biography during the 1828 election, but it was never published during Jackson’s lifetime. So, there was essentially only one biographer (Eaton), and the first edition of his Jackson biography was not written with the presidency in mind.

Dougherty also argues that “Jackson’s purge of federal office-holders relied on a campaign of trumped-up and false charges against incumbents, especially in the Northeast where Jackson tried to build a base of political loyalty.” Jackson’s patronage policy was more complex than he suggests. Historians generally agree that he removed about the same percentage of officeholders as his predecessors. Jackson did not simply “purge” his enemies, however. As he explained to Treasury Secretary Samuel D. Ingham about his decision to offer one of John Quincy Adams’ relatives a job, “Whilst on the one hand we ought, & must, drive out spies & traito[rs] from our camp, and defaulters from the guard of our Treasury, we must shield the honest, & well behaved. Justice to ourselves & others require this.” On the other hand, Dougherty is right in that “[t]he geographic focus of the post office removals in northern states suggests an intentional strategy to boost support outside of Jacksonian Democratic strongholds in the South.”[2] That’s not the impression that Dougherty gives, though.

Finally, Dougherty repeats the most common criticism of Jackson today: “As president, he reversed the alternately benign and malign neglect of Indian affairs by his predecessors and engaged in the forced removal of Indians from the South, culminating in the Trail of Tears.” It’s impossible to defend Jackson’s treatment of Native Americans by modern-day standards, but it’s wrong to claim that the first six presidents didn’t do their part in endorsing the killing of Native Americans, the seizure of their land, and the destruction of their culture. All of that can’t be laid at Jackson’s feet alone, no matter how hard we try to paint him as THE villain in Early Republic U.S.-Indian relations.

[1] This story serves as the centerpiece of a forthcoming essay, entitled “‘I owe to Britain a debt of retaliatory Vengeance’: Assessing Andrew Jackson’s Hatred of the British,” part of a collection commemorating the Battle of New Orleans’ bicentennial to be published by LSU Press.

[2] These examples comes from my forthcoming book, Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democrats, p.p. 144-45, 142.

2 thoughts on “Was Andrew Jackson America’s Worst Great President?

  1. President Obama and Attorney General Holder believe that the big investment banks are too big to fail. President Jackson vetoed the Bank of the United States. His veto message had the famous “humble members of society” passage and set forth the foundations of American democracy. That puts Jackson way ahead of current standards.

  2. …and let’s not forget that Jackson was quite frankly on his ideas on Indian removal long before he was elected and that Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, too. Jackson represented the Zeitgeist of his contemporaries and it would be a mistake to shift responsibility on Jackson alone.

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