The Most Dangerous President: Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

It’s easy to hate on Andrew Jackson when Donald Trump claims him as “his” president. And it’s no wonder Trump likes Jackson so much; there are many parallels. The 2016 election replayed that of 1828, offering a similar “lesser of two evils” ballot. Like Hillary Clinton, John Quincy Adams had been a secretary of state and direct relative to a former president. Both represented the establishment of an old politics that had fallen low, doing nothing for the laboring classes but everything for businesses and banks. Like Donald Trump, Jackson was an outsider to politics and highly unstable, appealing to the masses who were pissed at an elitist government doing nothing for them. He came to “return government to the people” — or so he claimed. “General Jackson” personified everything the old-school Democrats feared in the new frontier politics: non-accountability, contempt for liberty, and rank appeal to the uneducated. He channeled the military usurpers of Rome who led their republics to ruin in the name of saving them. It was an ugly choice, between a despised Adams and a frightening Jackson, and enough voters were fed up with what they despised to swallow their fright. Jackson won and became the most powerful and dangerous president up to that point in the nation’s history. He remains, in my view, the most dangerous president in history.

When I say “most dangerous”, I don’t mean he was the worst. (That honor belongs to Woodrow Wilson.) He was certainly one of the worst, but he did get a couple of things right. But even when Jackson was right, it was for the wrong reasons — vengeful reasons for which the Constitution became a tool for settling personal scores.

Here are Jackson’s legacies: (1) popular politics, (2) Indian eviction, (3) the National Bank veto, (4) the Nullification Crisis, (5) the Bank War and Panic, (6) Indian wars and tears, (7) active pro-slavery. I’ll go through each.

1. Popular politics

Jackson made politics more democratic, but his democratic model was largely a sham. He cultivated his image as a “man of the people” while turning the presidency into a dictatorship. He was the living proof of the Constitutional framers’ worst fears — that popular opinion can be treacherous.

Before Jackson, political parties controlled presidential elections. Party caucuses nominated candidates among the elite, and campaigns were conducted on the pages of party newspapers. Jackson was the first president elected by the people, in the way we know elections today. He saw democracy and liberty as self-reinforcing: a democratic oversight of the government would guard against its being taken over by an elite and thus prevent policies that would benefit a privileged few. The Constitutional framers took a different view — that democracy could just as likely threaten liberty as complement it. Many voters are unable to make thoughtful and informed decisions about their government, and majority opinion (mob rule) can be just as despotic as rule by a king. The founding framers designed the government to be run by a political elite, yes, but constrained in their actions by the limiting powers of the Constitution.

In particular, the electoral college as we know it today was set down in law in 1803 under Thomas Jefferson, and reflected that the United States was a federal republic, made up of individual states each requiring a distinct voice in elections. America was not a single monolithic “democracy” to be ruled by an overall popular vote. If it were, then presidential candidates would never bother appealing to smaller states with low populations. If you don’t live in those areas, your views would hardly matter; effectively, you wouldn’t be part of the constituency. The American founders wanted more than just a simple majority rule in any case; they wanted a compound form of majority rule, or a “majority of the majorities”. Since Jefferson the goal of the electoral college has been based on this principle of compound majority rule — not a majority of the national popular vote, but a majority of the electoral votes compiled from states in which the victor also achieved a majority of the statewide popular vote.

That system worked like a gem in two-party elections, where the winner by necessity obtained a compound majority of the vote. But now, under Jackson, plurality “winner-take-all” elections became the dominant method of the states — and that’s how it remains to this day. Meaning, even if a candidate doesn’t receive a majority (more than 50%) of the popular vote in the state, as long as he or she receives a plurality (which can be less than 50% as long as it’s more than any other candidate), that candidate takes all of the state’s electoral votes. This makes it possible for a third-party or independent candidate to rob another candidate of a true Jeffersonian victory. And that has happened — four times for sure, and possibly two other times. The four presidents whose wins were unquestionably undeserved were James Polk, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and George W. Bush. Those whose victories may have been undeserved were Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. It’s hardly a coincidence that Polk, Cleveland, Wilson, and W. Bush ended up bad presidents; indeed Wilson and Bush were the worst presidents of all time. They won the presidency by accident.

There is nothing wrong with allowing many candidates in an election, but Jackson should have pushed for a mechanism that would have forced the states to do runoffs between the two parties who got the most votes, in the event that no candidate in the first round of voting obtained a majority. Rank-choice voting would have also solved this problem. Plurality-based voting was a steep price to pay for populist democracy.

And there were other costs to Jackson’s dismantling of elitist networks: amateurism in civil service, and a system of patronage bestowing privileges that were entirely unearned. The spoils system, in other words. Government positions went to Jackson’s friends and supporters as reward for their loyalty, not for any merit.

Adding to the vulgar tone of Jackson’s populism was his embodiment of the Scots-Irish code of honor and shame. He relished fights and called men out over the slightest affronts to his honor. Scholars estimate that before his presidency he fought anywhere between 10 and 100 duels. Most of the duels were over his wife Rachel who smoked a pipe, and who had never finalized the divorce papers for her first marriage, leaving him open to charges of bigamy. Because Jackson was so honor bound, the principles he articulated were often insincere and subject to change at a moment’s notice. Constitutional integrity was subordinate to matters of personal honor, as we will see below.

Verdict: In opening politics to the common man, Jackson left a legacy for good and bad. In terms of his own presidency, it was mostly bad, because his “democratic” rule was a tyranny, and his populism was rank. He did however plant the seed for a democracy that could be later improved over time.

2. Evicting the Indians (May, 1830 – March, 1832)

He’s hated for it today, and he was hated for it back then too, especially by Christian humanists. In May, 1830, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which over the course of the next nine years drove massive amounts of Indians off land that had been guaranteed to them by over 90 treaties. Jackson justified himself by arguing that whites had left their homes to travel to far-flung territories, and the Indians were simply being asked to do the same. Of course, whites had done so willingly and because they were seeking better opportunities, while the Indians were being coerced and terrorized into giving up their sacred homelands for lousy land in Oklahoma. Jackson slammed his northern critics as hypocrites, who lived on family farms which had long replaced northern Indian hunting grounds. If the Indians of the South were to survive, he said, they must be relocated away from whites who would only seek to obliterate their culture. Jackson thus fulfilled Thomas Jefferson’s “merciful” paternal vision of ethnic cleansing.

There were five tribes effected: the Choctaws and Chickasaws (from Mississippi), the Cherokees (from Georgia), the Creeks (from Alabama), and the Seminoles (from Florida). The Creeks and Seminoles wouldn’t budge (Jackson would eventually declare war on them), but the Choctaws and Chickasaws negotiated treaties for removal. The Choctaw’s treaty was signed in 1830, and they were the first of the five tribes to leave, starting in 1831. Many of them died on the trek out west from disease and starvation.

The Cherokees, on the other hand, relied on the law to protect them. Back in 1827, they had adopted a Constitution declaring themselves sovereign and independent, which the federal government recognized. The state of Georgia nullified the federal treaty and over the next four years passed legislature to abolish Cherokee laws and government, setting in motion a process to seize the Cherokee land, divide it up, and offer pieces of the land in a lottery to white Georgians. Jackson’s Indian Removal Act in 1830 was the last straw, and the Cherokees appealed to the Supreme Court. At first, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (March, 1831), the court didn’t hear the case on its own merits. Chief Justice Marshall just said that the Cherokees were part of Georgia. But a year later the court reversed itself in Worcester v. Georgia (March, 1832), ruling that (a) the Indian tribes were sovereign and immune from Georgia’s laws, (b) the federal government has the sole authority to deal with the Indians, and (c) thus Georgia had no right to nullify the federal government’s treaty with them. The ruling also (d) made the Indian Removal Act of 1830 invalid, but Jackson, outrageously, defied the court’s decision, saying, “If Marshall wants to enforce his decision, then let him try!” (Only one other president in history had the balls to defy a Supreme Court ruling: Abraham Lincoln.) Because the courts at this time weren’t sending out federal marshals to enforce their decisions, the ruling of Worcester v. Georgia was toothless. The Cherokee were screwed and would be evicted years later.

Verdict: Jackson was not only a ruthless ethnic cleanser, he was a dictator who defied the highest law in land — the Supreme Court — in order to pursue his toxic policy. Most of the implementation would start years later, in his second term, when he warred on the two of the Indian tribes, and sent two out on “trails of tears”.

3. Vetoing the National Bank (July, 1832)

Killing the National Bank was a good thing. But Jackson did it for the wrong reasons.

The national banks should have never been. The first one was created in 1791 by Alexander Hamilton (George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury) and was opposed by many statesmen, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, for benefiting merchants and investors at the expense of most Americans. It was killed in 1811, but resurrected it as the Second National Bank in 1816, in desperation after the financial woes from the War of 1812-15. The problem with the national bank is that it had no accountability to the American people, and was essentially an independent fourth branch of government — dominating the economy while operating completely free of any checks and balances. It had the power to destroy state banks at a stroke by calling in their loans; it gave wealthy owners a large return with little risk; it was knee-deep in corruption, bribing government officials and making sweet deals with congressmen newspaper editors. In general, it represented a collusion between government and business that enriched the few at the cost of the many. Congress had no power to create corporations of a national character in any case, which is why both the first and second national banks were continually decried as unconstitutional. The second bank’s charter was up for renewal in 1832 (due to expire in 1836), and Jackson vetoed the bill — nominally, for all these very good reasons.

Jackson’s veto message has been hailed as piece of Constitutional brilliance from scholars across a wide spectrum. Neo-Marxists applaud it for attacking elitist privilege. Social justice warriors approve his economic arguments about the bank’s unfairness to the common people — making “the rich richer and the potent more powerful”; libertarians praise it for opposing corporate tyranny; originalists give it thumbs up for being in accordance with the Constitution. But we should be clear: Jackson didn’t believe a word of his own rhetoric. He opposed the bank for none of the good reasons he advanced. He hated the bank only because his arch-enemy Henry Clay supported it, and because he was enraged at both Clay and the bank’s director Nicholas Biddle for insulting and defying him. Jackson had supported the bank when he was Senator from Tennessee in 1823-1825, and only started turning against it when its branches in Kentucky (Henry Clay’s state) and Louisiana funneled funds to John Quincy Adams in the 1828 election campaign. As late as 1831 he had still been willing to support the bank’s recharter, if certain practices were reformed, and as long as the recharter did not occur prior to the 1832 election in November-December, so as not to jeopardize his re-election chances. When Clay and Biddle worked together in early 1832 to put the rechartering bill through Congress, and then openly flaunted it, Jackson was enraged at their humiliating defiance. Only at that point did he, in a fit of rage, decide the bank had to go — as he gasped at a colleague, practically foaming at the mouth, “The bank is trying to kill me, but I will kill it!”

Historians like Donald Cole resist this conclusion, saying that “Jackson vetoed the bill to recharter the bank, not because he was an angry, emotional man who held a grudge, but because he considered it a privileged, monopolistic, and undemocratic corporation”. These historians overestimate Jackson’s principles and way underestimate his temper. They are unable to account for the fact that Jackson had supported the National Bank and was willing to approve its recharter right up to the 11th hour, until Clay and Biddle shat on him. As we saw above, Jackson operated out of a fierce honor-shame code, and when he was insulted, vengeance was his.

Verdict: Jackson must be given credit for ending the National Bank. When its charter expired four years later, the United States would be free of corporate oppression for almost 80 years, until the creation of the Federal Reserve under Woodrow Wilson. But his victory should not be confused with a triumph of Thomas Jefferson’s vision (though the Jeffersonian Democrats, who hated Jackson, were surprised and pleased), nor that of a latter-day Bernie Sanders. Jackson was engaged in a personal quarrel, not an ideological crusade. And plenty of people knew it.

4. The Nullification Crisis (November, 1832 – March, 1833)

This was personal vendetta #2.

On November 24, 1832, the South Carolina state convention adopted an Ordinance of Nullification, which declared that the “Tariff of Abominations” was unconstitutional and unenforceable in South Carolina. Vice President John Calhoun (a South Carolinian) spearheaded the nullification attempt, telling Jackson that the tariff was inequitable (benefiting the North at the expense of the South) and unconstitutional (geared toward special interests rather than general welfare). He was right: the tariff raised the price of imported manufactured goods in the South while protecting fledgling industries in Mid-Atlantic states and New England from foreign competition. The entire South howled over the tariff, and South Carolina was incensed enough to resort to nullification — the idea that a state can nullify a federal law if the state believes it to be unconstitutional, and that the state can also obstruct the enforcement of the law within its borders. Jackson responded angrily and swiftly, rejecting the principle of nullification as invalid, even though he had been a pro-nullifier in the past.

Before getting into why Jackson was so pissed at South Carolina’s hubris, it’s worth examining how the issue of nullification is viewed today. Many Americans are under the impression that nullification is still practiced by states, but that’s not precisely true. The Supreme Court declared nullification invalid in 1859 (Ableman v. Booth). What happens today is better classified as neo-nullification, when a state refuses to enforce a federal law within the state. When states “neo-nullify” federal guns laws, health care requirements, marijuana prohibitions, or the REAL ID act, there is no binding declaration of unconstitutionality or the obstruction of any federal enforcement of those laws. It is simply that the states themselves are not required to enforce what they object to. Neo-nullification was made valid by New York v. United States (1992) and Printz v. United States (1997); the Supreme Court held in both that the federal government cannot force state officials or state legislatures to enforce federal laws. But true nullification hasn’t been an option since 1859.

Yet there are many pro-nullifiers who would love to see Ableman v. Booth overturned. James Rutledge of the Abbeville Institute, for example, approves state nullification, since the union was built on it — not just before the American Revolution, but after. For example, the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were brutally enforced by President John Adams, and they remain to this day among the worst assaults on civil liberties. The states of Virginia and Kentucky nullified those acts that same year and obstructed their federal enforcement. Thomas Jefferson’s Trade Embargo of 1807 left the nation starving; the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut nullified the embargo in 1809, declaring it unconstitutional. Rutledge has a point: where nullification has succeeded, Americans were much freer and better off as a result.

Other libertarians, like Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute, have reservations about nullification. While the Articles of Confederation allow for nullification, the Constitution does not, and the president swears to uphold the Constitution, not the Articles. The problem with state nullification is that it undermines any serious attempt at national governance, and this is why the framers of the Constitution wrote in (mildly) centralizing provisions. The federal government is thus empowered to use force to ensure that federal laws are obeyed, or to put down secession attempts. This doesn’t mean a president necessarily should take such actions just because he legally can. This is especially true for secession, which is the nullification of all federal laws for sake of independence. Coercion violates the spirit of self-determination embedded in the American Revolution and written in the Declaration of Independence. When federal force is used, it should be used judiciously.

I think Eland probably has the right of it, and I would add that the favored examples of the pro-nullifiers (the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the Trade Embargo of 1807) are old and obsolete. The landmark case of Marbury v. Madison (1803) implicitly gave the role of nullification to the judiciary, not the states. From that point on, it was the courts that increasingly determined whether or not laws are constitutional — as they should, since judges have the legal expertise suited to the task. State nullification is basically veto power catering to constituencies, which can too easily sideline the constitutional question. The other thing I find puzzling about today’s pro-nullifiers is that they seem oblivious to the fact that state governments can be just as tyrannical and wrong-headed as the federal government. (When states want to neo-nullify federal gun laws or health care provisions, I don’t sympathize; when they want to neo-nullify the REAL ID act or marijuana prohibitions, I suddenly feel like a states-rights activist.) Put simply, nullification makes national governance a farce. If a state wants a federal law declared unconstitutional and obstructed altogether, then the state should bring the matter to court.

With all this controversy in mind, let’s return to Jackson. In his day, nullification was an open and hotly debated question (Ableman v. Booth was over 25 years in the future), and Jackson had always affirmed nullification. As we saw in the case of the Indians, for example, the state of Georgia had years before nullified the federal treaty with the Cherokees and passed legislation to abolish Cherokee laws and government. Jackson was perfectly fine with this. But he shouldn’t have been. Even on the assumption that nullification is a valid principle (which again I don’t believe), a state can only nullify what applies to its sphere of control. It cannot nullify Indian laws, because the Indians had been granted sovereignty by federal treaties, and the U.S. has the right to enter into treaties with Indians. This is what the Supreme Court Case of Worcester v. Georgia affirmed in 1832, only eight months before the South Carolina crisis.

In other words, Jackson gave the finger to the Supreme Court — the highest authority in the land — in order to uphold a state’s right to nullify Indian treaties, which is plainly wrong. And yet now, confronted by a rebellious South Carolina, he was making sweeping claims that nullification was wrong — and that it was wrong period. His stated reason was that “nullification amounts to an assault on the foundations of democratic government”. I think that’s actually right, but he sure as hell never believed that in the past, and he almost certainly didn’t have a real change of heart now. He opposed South Carolina’s nullification ordinance, rather, out of personal hatred for his vice president John Calhoun.

Calhoun had been pissing him off for years. Thanks to his wife Floride Calhoun, the malicious Eaton Affair (1829-31) had blown up the Jackson administration, causing the resignation of every single cabinet member except one. Floride had led the other White House ladies in a vicious smear campaign against Secretary of War John Eaton and his wife, all because Mrs. Eaton was supposedly a loose woman. Jackson was enraged at how the Eatons were being snubbed and ostracized. His deceased wife Rachel had been the butt of endless jokes for her pipe-smoking, and of endless insults for her failure to finalize the divorce papers of her previous husband before marrying Jackson. He knew what it felt like, and was furious at his vice president for not controlling his wife’s gossip. Calhoun was also a South Carolinian, and he was now spearheading the nullification coup. This for Jackson was the last straw; he took Calhoun’s rebellious allegiance to his home state as (a) a sign of further disloyalty, (b) a conflict of interest to his office of the vice president, and (c) a personal affront to his own presidential supremacy.

On December 4, Jackson delivered his annual address, which included a compromise proposal to lower the tariff (which Jackson hardly cared about anyway). Then, on December 10, he issued a special “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina,” which was uncompromising in the extreme, asserting the supremacy of the federal government and warning that state defiance of federal laws (nullification) and disunion by armed force (secession) were acts of treason to put down with force. The state of South Carolina immediately began military preparations to resist Jackson and the federal army, and a furious John Calhoun soon resigned the vice-presidency.

The nullification crisis continued from January to March in the following year. At the end of January, 1833, with the state’s Nullification Ordinance due to take effect in a week, South Carolina agreed to postpone implementing it until Congress resolved the compromise tariff. In February, Senator (and future president) John Tyler denounced Jackson’s policy against South Carolina, claiming that the president’s actions were that of a bullying dictator. On March 2, Tyler was the lone voice in the Senate to vote against Jackson’s plan to use military force against South Carolina (the Force Bill). At this time, however, Congress also passed a new compromise tariff which South Carolina accepted. The imminent war was headed off, and South Carolina withdrew its Nullification Ordinance. As a parting blow, however, the state nullified Jackson’s Force Bill as a face-saving gesture.

Verdict: Jackson probably did have the Constitutional right to use force against South Carolina, but he was a hypocrite for doing so. He had always sympathized with states rights to nullify. In his now violent opposition to nullification, he was ruled by his hatred for Calhoun, whom he despised for perceived disloyalty, and by his own feelings for executive supremacy. That’s the classic behavior of a dictator. When Jackson left office he was asked by a friend if he had any regrets, and he said: “My two chief regrets are that I did not shoot Henry Clay and hang John Calhoun.” That statement shows the degree to which the National Bank and Nullification Crisis were personal vendettas for Jackson. And it should be stressed that South Carolina had a very legitimate grievance (which was solved by the compromise tariff). The “Tariff of Abominations” seriously penalized the South. This was wholly unlike the nullification grievance of Georgia against the Cherokees, which hadn’t a legal leg to stand on.

5. The Bank War and Panic (September, 1833 – 1837+)

Jackson’s veto didn’t guarantee the bank’s defeat. With four years still left in the bank’s charter (until 1836), Nicholas Biddle had time to manipulate the financial system and wreak havoc. So a year after his veto, Jackson proceeded to finish the job he started. On September 20, 1833, he announced that the government would no longer use the Second Bank of the United States; he removed all federal funds from the bank and redistributed them to various state banks that were loyal to him. This was wrong on many levels, and his Secretary of the Treasury, William Duane, called him on it. Duane refused to sign off on Jackson’s plan to redistribute the funds, since he (rightly) believed such an act required Congressional approval. No matter, Jackson fired Duane on the spot, and appointed Roger Taney to replace him. Taney then began a delicate tightrope act of withdrawing funds — not too rapidly so as to devastate the economy, but quickly enough to counter Bank Director Nicholas Biddle who immediately tried to foil Jackson by retaliating against his pet banks. Biddle (a supreme asshole) began a drastic contraction of the bank’s credit and stopped lending. In his words, “nothing but widespread suffering” would force Congress to see things his way. The contraction had the effect he was aiming for, causing business failures and unemployment levels to skyrocket. Jackson and Taney got more than they bargained for, and the American people suffered for it.

Only a full year later, in September, 1834, did Biddle finally stop his reckless game, at the furious demands from business leaders in New York and Boston. He resumed the National Bank’s lending (until the end of its charter in 1836), giving up his war with Jackson. The economy righted itself — for a few months. In late 1834 inflation shot up again, thanks this time to Jackson, who picked up where he left off the previous year, dispersing huge amounts of federal funds to his pet banks, which flooded the economy with a massive surplus, causing the runaway inflation. Biddle’s National Bank shifted from a policy of contraction to runaway expansion, with smaller banks following suit. The amount of paper money in circulation increased dramatically. Jackson tried to dam the effect by putting through some hard money policies over the next two years, but they were counter-productive. By requiring that all government land sales needed to be done with gold or silver (in 1836), the market soon crashed.

The result was the infamous Panic of 1837, the worst depression in American history until the Great Depression of the 1930s. It started in April, 1837, five weeks after Jackson left office, and would last until 1843. To be fair, there were many causes for the depression, some of which were external and beyond the control of American policy. For example, the Bank of England had drastically reduced its credit in 1836, forcing many British companies to stop doing business with America. Demand for American cotton was especially hit, triggering a huge fall in prices. But the most significant reasons for the Panic were indeed domestic. Jackson’s killing of the National Bank was good in itself, but the way he went about it was not.

Verdict: Jackson’s dispersing funds to pet banks was as reprehensible and fiscally irresponsible as Biddle’s freezing the economy to force Jackson’s hand. Flooding the economy with the federal surplus led to runaway inflation and rampant speculation, especially in real estate, and desperate attempts to stop the flood made everything crash. That happened soon after Jackson’s term ended, and the blame was dumped on Martin Van Buren who had to clean up Jackson’s mess.

6. Against the Indians: war and tears (December, 1835 – 1837+)

When the five tribes were evicted by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Seminoles in Florida refused to leave, and when they kept digging in, Jackson declared war on them in 1835. The Second Seminole War ended up being the longest and bloodiest Indian war in American history, lasting until 1842, when President John Tyler finally ended it and allowed several hundred Seminoles to remain on the Florida lands. (Thanks to Tyler, many Seminole descendants remain in Florida to this day.)

The Creeks in Alabama also stood their ground, but not for long; their war was over as soon as it started. In the spring of 1836 they launched a campaign to drive out white settlers, but by June most of the Creeks were captured and given to the army. Their trail of tears began in July, 1836, as the army marched them west to Oklahoma, with little more than the clothes on their backs. Many of them died along the 750-mile route.

In January, 1837, the Chickasaws began the trek out to Oklahoma, and settled with the Choctaw tribe which had settled there already back in 1831-33. Finally, in May, 1838, came the last (and worst) trail of tears under President Martin Van Buren, who used Jackson’s Indian Removal Act to evict the Cherokees in Georgia. About 4,000 Cherokees died on the march, from starvation, disease, and exhaustion. Although Van Buren is responsible in part for the Cherokee trail of tears, it was the last leg of Jackson’s program, and he deserves the most blame.

Verdict: Jackson’s deeds speak for themselves. His treatment of the Indians alone makes him one of the worst presidents of all time.

7. Slavery: mail burning (1835)

Jackson was the first active pro-slavery president. There were presidents before him who happened to own slaves, of course, as was standard, and some of them even not liking the practice. Jackson was the first president to crusade for the actual cause of slavery. When abolitionists started sending anti-slavery mailings into the south in early 1835, Jackson’s postmaster general, Amos Kendall, allowed them to be burned. When Jackson learned of the anti-slavery mailings, he wanted the abolitionists blacklisted — their names recorded in newspapers — and attacked free speech and the press by recommending that Congress pass an act prohibiting abolitionist papers in the south. Then he rammed through the House a gag rule that made bringing any anti-slavery petitions illegal.

Verdict: Jackson was the first president to crusade on the side of slavery. This speaks for itself.


Conclusion: Rating Andrew Jackson

Jackson thus has an overall bad presidential record:

1. Popular politics — Mostly Bad
2. Indian Eviction — Bad
3. Vetoing the National Bank — Good
4. The Nullification Crisis — Bad
5. The Bank War — Bad
6. Indian wars and tears — Bad
7. Slavery – Bad

I score Andrew Jackson as follows:

Peace — 2/20
Prosperity — 11/20
Liberty — 2/20

Overall score — 15/60 = Very Bad

The peace rating of 2: For initiating the longest and costliest and bloodiest Indian war (the Second Seminole) in American history, and his use of the army to force the other tribes onto their “trails of tears”, he is docked minus 15 points off the bat. Jackson also ran roughshod over South Carolina by sending warships to patrol the state coast, fortifying federal forts, and threatening to hang the nullifiers — almost starting a civil war. He probably had the Constitutional right to do this, but he wasn’t wise to threaten force over a nullification issue. To his credit, he gave South Carolina a face-saving way out of the conflict, by working with Congress to lower the tariff; for that I throw him 2 points.

The prosperity rating of 11: The good Jackson did for American prosperity is almost evenly matched by the bad. Vetoing the National Bank was the best thing he ever did, and for decades the American people would be better off for it. He did it for horrible reasons, but at least he did it. Jackson was also the only president in history who balanced the federal budget to the point that there was no national debt at all, and while that was very short-lived (for about a year), he deserves credit for making it happen. On the bad side, his outrageous Bank war with Nicolas Biddle and his specie circular were the primary causes of the Panic of 1837.

The liberty rating of 2: His treatment of the Indians goes a long way to torpedoing his liberty record. While Jackson was perfectly willing to send troops to South Carolina to suppress their nullification of the tariff law (his legal prerogative, but something he shouldn’t have done IMO, since it violated the spirit of liberty enshrined in American tradition), he did not send troops to protect Indians from whites when Georgia nullified a federal treaty that did not pertain to their jurisdiction (his legal obligation, and something the Supreme Court required him to do). He was also the first active pro-slavery president, suppressing the distribution of abolitionist writings in the south. His contribution to the democratic model of government was based on rank populism. Under Jackson, voting became plurality based, which meant that third party and independent candidates could rob a real winner from their victory. Because of that, America got two bad presidents (Polk and Cleveland) and two utterly catastrophic ones (Wilson and W. Bush). I allow him 2 points for his whack against elitism, but no more than than, because his model of “democracy” was so inherently rank and populist.

So Jackson gets 15/60 points from me — a bad presidency indeed.

However, Jackson was not the worst president. He was among the worst, but the very worst was Woodrow Wilson. But while Wilson had the worst presidential record, he was not as dangerous as Jackson. There are bad presidents who were at least humble (though Wilson wasn’t even one of these), and I often imagine, vainly perhaps, that if they had lived to see the catastrophic impact of their presidency and were asked if they had regrets, that they would have admitted their offenses and disasters. We know what Jackson said. All he regretted was that he didn’t shoot Henry Clay and hang John Calhoun. If given a chance to do things over, other presidents might have improved on themselves; Jackson would have probably done worse.

3 thoughts on “The Most Dangerous President: Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

  1. The people of the time didn’t see Jackson as the lesser of two evils, they genuinely liked him because he was a war hero. To answer your other points:

    1) Jackson didn’t bring Democracy to the masses, the masses brought Jackson to the White House, because they already had the mechanisms of Democracy in their hands. Without the expansion of voting rights under James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, Jackson would have never been elected.

    2) You are correct here, except Jackson removed the Sacs and Foxes Indians from Wisconsin & Illinois.

    3) Bank Veto – we saw the chaos of having no bank under Jackson, and the credit robbing Independent treasury made recessions worse. I believe the 1st & 2nd bank were the best banking systems we had. Jackson did only go after the bank because Clay favored it though. It’s the same reason he vetoed the Maysville Road bill

    4) What Jackson did here was to give into South Carolina by giving them exactly what they asked for, a reduced tariff. He passed the force bill with the new tariff, but this would be like warning an insolent child that threw a tantrum not to “do it again” after giving them exactly what they asked for to begin with. This action led to future rebellion by rewarding it.

    5) Bank war, this was illegal as Jackson broke a law passed by Congress. Jackson also crashed the economy. I feel little sympathy for Van Buren, as he was Jackson’s lackey and he went along with all of his plans. Van Buren was also a terrible president in his own right.

    6) This was covered in number 2, Jackson also had a terrible human rights record when it came to African Americans as well, as he was the first pro-slavery president.

    My write up on Jackson is here:

  2. Interesting that you approve the first and second national banks. I agree with you about Martin Van Buren. Ivan Eland ranks him all the way up at #3 which astonishes me.

  3. I consider the 1st & 2nd banks our best banking systems. Look at the history of the other systems we had:

    No System/Pet Bank System: Under Jackson this was disastrous, as the pet banks pumped too much currency into the market creating massive inflation. This combined with the specie circular, crashed the economy into one of the three worst recessions ever. This system would also allow for the largest amount of political manipulation, as the party in power could choose winners and losers. Imagine if this system were in place when people were calling for “free silver”.

    The Independent Treasury: This one was tended to be to tight fisted in monetary supply during recessions which deepened them. The Panic of 1937 & 1993 were both long and deep recessions, as well as the Panic of 1857, which was only ended by the civil war.

    Federal Reserve: It had a hand in causing the depression through an overly tight monetary policies, which it repeated to help cause the housing market crash in 2008. It had hand in the stagflation of the 1970s as well when it introduced overly loose monetary policies. While it was better than the above two systems, kit could be better.

    Under the 1st & 2nd Banks of the United States of America, there were no major economic calamities, except the one caused by the Embargo Act. Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin even apposed removing the bank, and Madison saw the folly of his ways and re-chartered the bank after he let it lapse and there was a major economic downturn.

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