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.
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This gets to the heart of conservative populism, as opposed to liberal populism. The liberal version begins with a hatred of the rich and of corporate America and wishes to bring them down, largely through government action. Jackson harbored no ill will toward the winners of society. What he hated was governmental action that favored the wealthy or gave favored citizens special paths to wealth. His message continued: “but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society — the farmers, mechanics, and laborers — who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.”
Jackson then added a touch of eloquence to his message: “If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, [government] would be an unqualified blessing.”
Jackson sustained his veto in Congress and went on to a resounding reelection victory in November 1932. Biddle, who dismissed Jackson’s veto message as having “all the fury of the unchained panther, biting the bars of his cage,” wasn’t prepared for this defeat or what came after. Upon reelection, Jackson promptly killed Biddle’s bank by withdrawing all federal funds from it and depositing them in various state banks. The American people, by all indications, approved.
JACKSON WAS AN UNABASHED nationalist. When South Carolina moved to “nullify” federal tariff laws it didn’t like, meaning it declared those laws null and void as far as South Carolinians were concerned, Jackson made clear he would not tolerate this assault on the Constitution.
“Give my compliments to my friends in your state,” he told a South Carolina congressman. “And say to them, that if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct, upon the first tree I can reach.” He infused his threat with credibility, and the nullification movement fizzled (though Jackson also helped craft a compromise reduction in tariff rates to mollify South Carolinians at least a little).
As a nationalist, Jackson harbored bold ambitions for his country that included westward expansion yielding a transcontinental nation, facing two oceans and positioned to dominate global trade. As a master military strategist, he fixated on anything that could threaten that vision, particularly British encroachments in the independent republic of Texas or the Mexican lands west of it. And yet he repeatedly adopted prudent courses of action designed to avoid unnecessary wars with either Britain or Mexico.
This became particularly challenging when Mexico proved intransigent on the matter of reparations to U.S. citizens who had been abused by Mexicans on the high seas or in their efforts to do business inside the country. Mexico had been unable to thwart these outrages against foreigners, and France had invaded the Mexican port city of Veracruz in order to force Mexico to pay appropriate reparations. Britain had threatened similar action to get redress. But Mexico treated the United States as a hapless neighbor that couldn’t mount a serious challenge. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee submitted a report saying it could, “with justice, recommend an immediate resort to war or reprisals.” The corollary House committee said there was “ample cause…for taking redress into our own hands.”
But Jackson opted for a more measured approach. He sent Congress a message declaring that these “wanton…outrages,” and Mexico’s refusal to offer redress, “would justify, in the eyes of all nations, immediate war.” Yet the impetuous warrior urged that this sister republic be treated with particular courtesy. “We should act,” he said, “with both wisdom and moderation by giving Mexico one more opportunity to atone for the past, before we take redress into our own hands.” (Mexico’s intransigence eventually contributed to the Mexican War a decade later.)
Also, while Jackson offered recognition to the Texas republic almost immediately after that breakaway Mexican province declared its independence, he refused to move toward annexing that vast territory into the United States. Although he coveted Texas fervently as a crucial element in America’s westward expansion, he knew such an action would almost surely mean war with Mexico. He wasn’t prepared to upend his domestic agenda with such a war. Thus, it was left to President John Tyler and his successor, James Polk, to bring Texas into the Union (which led, as Jackson had predicted, to war with Mexico).
Thus we see a president with strong nationalist sentiments, huge ambitions for his country, and an acute understanding of the arts of war — who, nevertheless, chose caution and restraint in matters that could embroil his country in hostilities with other nations. While he viewed wars as sometimes necessary and certainly didn’t shrink from bellicosity when personal or national honor was at stake, he understood that wars have huge consequences throughout the nation, anticipated and unforeseen. Hence he applied a severe test of justification in matters involving the presidential war power.
Finally, Jackson brought to the presidency a temperament that favored candid talk and open expression to the American people, implying a faith in the electorate’s ability to sift through the issues of the day and make sound decisions. No one ever had to guess what he was really up to or what motivated his actions. The people responded to that trait by giving him strong support throughout his presidency. Jackson has always been a polarizing figure, in his own time and in history, but he always managed to get a large majority behind his brand of leadership, and he left office amid waves of adulation and appreciation from most Americans. In the later polls of historians on presidential performance, he consistently has ranked in the great or near-great categories.
BASED ON THE RECORD it is easy to see that Andrew Jackson was history’s Tea Party president, the White House occupant who most thoroughly personified the impulses, viewpoints, fears, and hopes of today’s conservative populists. And it is worth noting, at a time when the Tea Party is often dismissed as a fringe movement, that Jackson was a thoroughly mainstream politician of his day. So what lessons can be drawn from the presidency of this man who left such a mark on his era? What brand of politics would he devise if he were dropped into our midst in this time of crisis?
He would declare war on the federal government, not just because it is too cumbersome and expensive but also because it is too intrusive into the everyday lives of Americans. He would try to find or build a party committed to this attack on governmental power and prerogative. He certainly wouldn’t find it in the Democratic Party, but he wouldn’t find it on the Republican side either. The earmarks, the appropriations logrolling in Congress, the special constituency largess, the endless increases in federal expenditures — he would attack it all ferociously. But the would go after specific programs, knowing that that is the only way to really tame the government. You You can’t merely shrink the size of all the programs and expect any success in trimming the federal behemoth. You have to kill programs. Ronald Reagan tried that and failed. Jackson would see it as a pivotal part of his assault.
Jackson would be aghast that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac still exist. Kill ‘em, he would demand. The whole story of these government-sponsored enterprises would scandalize him — government guarantees that amount to government subsidies that are then used to lobby the government for ever more economic leverage, with huge amounts of money flowing into the pockets of a chosen few and little regard for the safety of the country’s financial system. He would shake his head and sigh that he had seen that play before.
He wouldn’t be surprised at the spectacle, for example, of Barney Frank’s persistent heraldry of Fannie and Freddie, all in the name of helping people buy houses, even as Jim Johnson placed Frank’s domestic partner on the Fannie Mae payroll and funneled foundation money into a Boston charity cofounded by Frank’s mother. That would not be unfamiliar to him. But he would wonder: Where was the opposition? Why didn’t critics step back from this sad episode of political back-scratching and see in it an assault on fundamental governmental principles? Why, he would wonder, would so-called conservatives such as Senator Robert Bennett of Utah or Christopher Bond of Missouri become such Fannie Mae shills? Was it merely the campaign contributions or the job provided to Bennett’s son? Couldn’t they see the inherent problem with this special arrangement between government and this huge financial institution?
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online