Since assuming the presidency, Donald Trump and his administration have embraced comparisons between Trump and Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. According to popular mythology, Jackson won election in 1828 on the backs of the “common man” and struck a blow against cultural and political elites (any of this rhetoric sound familiar?). He founded the Democratic Party and ushered in a new era of “Jacksonian Democracy.” Trump, through a spokesman, has described Jackson as “an amazing figure in American history—very unique in so many ways.” Steve Bannon described Trump’s inaugural address as “Jacksonian” in striking a populist and patriotic tone. Currently, a portrait of Jackson hangs in the Oval Office. For historians, this comparison with Jackson’s presidency is troubling. During his life, Jackson displayed a contempt for the rule of law, ushered in a new era of corruption in the Federal government, forcibly removed Native Americans from their lands, crashed the American economy, and redefined political rights along racial lines.
Throughout his life, Jackson disregarded the law when he saw fit. After the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson exceeded his military authority by declaring martial law across the entire city. In March 1815, he arrested a Louisiana legislator for criticizing Jackson’s dictatorial behavior. When presented with a writ of habeas corpus, signed by a Federal Court judge, Jackson had the judge thrown in jail as well. Even though the War of 1812 had ended, Jackson executed six militiamen for attempting to leave New Orleans before their enlistments had expired. Jackson eventually released the legislator and the judge from jail, but demonstrated his contempt for challenges to his power.
A few years later during the First Seminole War, Jackson exceeded the authority given to him by President Monroe. Monroe had wanted Jackson to attack the Seminoles and push them back from territory in Georgia. Instead, Jackson took it upon himself to seize the whole of Florida from the Spanish. He burned houses and crops and executed two British citizens who had aided the Seminole Indians. Jackson’s actions sparked an international incident by taking territory that belonged to a foreign power without a declaration of war. The Spanish eventually sold Florida to the United States rather than engage in a costly war. The conquest, coupled with his actions in defeating the British in New Orleans, turned Jackson into a national hero among those who wanted to expand the size of the United States.
While president, Jackson sought to open up more land for his white supporters to settle on. How did he accomplish this? By taking land from Native Americans. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, granting Jackson the power to buy land from Native Americans in exchange for territory further west. These treaties were not negotiations between equals. U.S. representatives compelled reluctant natives to sign agreements or struck deals with a small number of tribesmen and claimed that they applied to entire tribes. These actions lead to the forcible removal of Native Americans from the southeast and permitted the expansion of slavery. The culmination of Jackson’s efforts occurred in 1838 with the infamous Trail of Tears. This forced relocation of the Cherokee people from their historical homeland to lands further west resulted in the deaths of at least 4,000 of the approximately 15,000 Cherokee.
Before the era of “Jacksonian Democracy,” men needed to own a certain amount of property in order to vote. “Jacksonian Democracy” saw the redefinition of voting rights along racial rather than class boundaries. The expansion of political rights for white men came at the expense of everyone else. Women, of all classes and races, remained unable to vote. Native Americans had little political voice to stop the Jackson administration from removing them from their lands. As states rewrote their constitutions to expand the right to vote to include all white men, they made sure to exclude African-Americans, who in states like Pennsylvania could vote. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1838 expanded the franchise to include all whites while taking it away from African-Americans. “Jacksonian Democracy” in other words, meant democracy for white men and no one else.
After his inauguration, Jackson fired long serving government employees and replaced them with his own supporters. Jackson and his adherents claimed that they had opened up the government to the common man and prevented corruption by kicking out career civil servants. In fact, the patronage system made party loyalty and access to wealth, rather than competence, the best qualifications for higher office.
Jackson supported laissez-faire economics—the belief that the government should not interfere or attempt to regulate the economy. This belief extended as far as the national banking system. Jackson, who believed that banks swindled the common man out of their money, attacked and destroyed the Second Bank of the United States. In 1833, Jackson withdrew Federal deposits from the bank, leaving its money lending operations to state and local banks. In the absence of a well-regulated central bank, reckless banking practices abounded. The issue came to a head in 1836 when Jackson demanded that people buy government lands in silver or gold currency. His executive order triggered an economic panic when banks couldn’t come up with enough hard currency. The resulting Panic of 1837 crippled the American economy for years.
Once again, the Trump administration has embraced history in a particularly troubling way. Andrew Jackson used his populist rhetoric to justify corruption, disrespect for the law, and promote white nationalist policies. Despite the uninformed ramblings of our president, there’s nothing “amazing” about Andrew Jackson at all.