For starters, he was principled, fearless, and astute. And Washington, D.C., never trusted him, because he knew the real source of America’s greatness.
BACK in the late 1990s, William Kristol and David Brooks, then colleagues at the Weekly Standard, fostered a boomlet of a movement called “national greatness conservatism,” the central tenet of which seemed to be that the country didn’t rise to sufficient grandeur to satisfy their national aspirations. That was the Clinton era, remember, when the Gross Domestic Product was expanding at an average 3.5 percent a year, and unemployment hovered around 4 percent. Federal coffers were overflowing with cash, and the national debt was actually shrinking. The world was relatively stable, America’s global position seemed secure, and young U.S. soldiers weren’t dying in far-off lands. Americans were generally happy with their lot.
And that was precisely the problem, said Kristol and Brooks. The country had become complacent, a society of “Bobos” marinating in materialism, unvexed and uninspired, taking peace for granted. The country, they suggested, needed a shot of adrenalin to juice up its metabolism. It needed an inspiring mission, a heightened sense of national purpose nurtured by a “limited but energetic” federal government. It needed, more precisely, a latter-day Theodore Roosevelt.
This was a strange choice for conservatives. The impetuous Roosevelt was a progressive and a biggovernment man. He believed in robust taxation, trade protectionism, and governmental intervention into commerce. He was the forerunner of his distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, and the political heir of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay. Perhaps Kristol and Brooks were thinking more of TR’s defense and foreign policy views. He glorified war, linking it to — yes — national greatness. He was an imperialist whose global ambitions were tempered only by his slow realization that colonial suppression of farflung regions had become untenable in the 20th century. But he still wanted to dominate the world through military and economic might.
Much has happened since this idea of American greatness conservatism emerged — and then quickly fizzled. Brooks went on to his New York Times column, while Kristol directed his magazine toward the advocacy of ever-greater global projects for the country. America got a Republican president in George W. Bush who turned out to be a pretty close approximation of TR — an impetuous leader with a cowboy temperament who expanded the size and scope of the federal government and pursued the global goal of remaking other cultures in far-flung regions. His failures brought forth Barack Obama, who sought to aggrandize federal power to an extent not seen since Lyndon Johnson. That governmental zeal spawned in turn a counterforce in the Tea Party movement, which attached itself to the Republican Party with a conviction that never again would that institution be allowed to embrace the likes of Theodore Roosevelt.
But, if Roosevelt is no proper model, who among past presidents should Republicans turn to for lessons and guidance? Who is the Tea Party progenitor? Who offers the insight, outlook, and rhetoric for today’s GOP?
The answer is Andrew Jackson, who would have slapped down the notion of American greatness conservatism with utter contempt because he believed the country’s greatness emanated from its people, not its government. Jackson was the great conservative populist of American history, and his story bears study at a time when the country seems receptive to a well-crafted brand of conservative populism.
Indeed, conservative populism is the essence of the Tea Party — opposed to big, intrusive government; angry about the corporate bailouts of the late Bush and early Obama administrations; fearful of the consequences of fiscal incontinence; suspicious of governmental favoritism; wary of excessive global ambition.
These concerns and fears were Jackson’s concerns and fears 180 years ago when he became president, and his greatest legacy is his constant warning that governmental encroachments would lead to precisely the kinds of problems that are today besieging the country — and roiling the Tea Party. That legacy deserves attention.
JACKSON WAS OF COURSE a Democrat, but the Democratic Party of that era was almost the polar opposite of today’s version. The 19th century party emerged from the politics of Thomas Jefferson, who despised the governing Federalists of the early Republic for their elitist tendencies and push for concentrated federal power. Jefferson brought forth new political catch phrases: small government, strict construction of the Constitution, states’ rights, reduced taxes, less intrusion into the lives of citizens. His administration, historian Joyce Appleby wrote, would speak for “the rational, selfimproving, independent man who could be counted on to take care of himself and his family if only intrusive institutions were removed.”
In his first message to Congress, Jefferson vowed to abolish all internal federal taxes and reduce federal expenditures and personnel. He attacked a system in which, “after leaving to labor the smallest portion of its earnings on which it can subsist, government…consume[s] the residue of what it was instituted to guard.” Hamilton was aghast. He said this attack on Federalism should “alarm all who are anxious for the safety of our government…” But John Quincy Adams, whose father had just lost the presidency, understood the force of Jefferson’s proposals. They are, he lamented, “all popular in all parts of the nation.”
Jefferson governed as he had promised. He eliminated internal taxes, cut the size of government, reduced the national debt. He brushed aside Hamilton’s concept of selling federal lands at robust prices in order to fill government coffers for federal infrastructure projects. Jefferson sold the lands to ordinary Americans at modest prices based on his vision that the West would fill up with independentminded farmers reveling in their land ownership and opportunity for self-betterment. He was confident that these yeoman folk would build up the nation from below, thus obviating the need for elites to build it up from above.
Jefferson’s party dominated American politics for the next 24 years, but eventually it split into two factions that would become Jackson’s Democratic Party and the Whig Party founded by Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay wanted the power of federal Washington brought to bear boldly in behalf of domestic prosperity. Almost single-handedly, he crafted a philosophy of governmental activism and devised a collection of federal programs and policies he considered essential to American prosperity. He called it the American System, and it included big federal public-works projects such as roads, bridges, and canals; high tariffs to protect manufacturers; support for the magisterial Bank of the United States, a private-public institution designed to manage the money supply and foster currency stability; and federal land sales at high prices to generate federal dollars and hence federal power.
Jackson opposed all this. Born in the Carolinas in 1767, he fought in the Revolutionary War as an adolescent and then moved to Tennessee in search of opportunity. Tall, well-proportioned, and always well dressed, he carried himself in polite society with dignity and courtliness. But he could be ferocious in situations of contention. Famous for a hairtrigger temper, he demanded to be taken seriously. In Tennessee he gravitated to the law, made extra money as a merchant, bought land, and prospered. He was still in his thirties when elected major general of the Tennessee militia — a position taken very seriously by his neighbors at a time when frontier whites experienced the killing of a man, woman, or child by Indian attack every 10 days or so. His military acumen served him well at New Orleans during the War of 1812, when he devastated a British army seeking to seize that Gulf city and its strategic dominance over the Mississippi River Valley. Instantly he became the country’s greatest military hero and a potent presidential prospect.
JACKSON’S MOST PENETRATING political insight was that concentrated governmental power always leads to corruption and abuse. The way to prevent this, he believed, was to maintain a diffusion of power and keep it as close to the people as possible. It wasn’t that ordinary folk were less likely to abuse power; human nature applied to all. But if power were spread out through the polity it couldn’t be directed toward special favors and privileges for those who always managed to get their hands on power when it was available in sufficient increments. The playing field would be level.
In 1825 Jackson characteristically turned political defeat into a powerful political opportunity. He had run for president the previous year, along with John Quincy Adams, Clay, and a Georgian named William Crawford. Jackson received a plurality in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. But no candidate got an Electoral College majority, and hence the election was tossed to the House of Representatives, where Clay was speaker and the chamber’s dominant force. As the fourth-place finisher, he was out of the race, but he now held the power — and exercised it — to direct the victory to Adams, even rebuffing the clear political sentiment of his own state to give Kentucky’s House delegation to Adams over Jackson. Then Adams offered to Clay, and Clay accepted, the job of secretary of state, at that time the most promising stepping stone to the presidency.
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