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.
Jackson exploded in rage. “So you see,” he scribbled onto a letter to a friend, “the Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver…Was there ever witness such a bare faced corruption in any country before?” For the next four years Jackson attacked Adams and Clay for this “corrupt bargain” and rode the resulting outrage into the White House in the 1828 election. His message to the American people essentially was: By bartering big political jobs in exchange for political power, these men have stolen your democracy, but I will get it back for you. It was a powerful message, reminiscent of today’s Tea Party, and it worked.
A year into his presidency Jackson projected his political philosophy vigorously when he stamped his veto upon legislation that would extend the so-called National Road from Maysville to Lexington, Kentucky. The National Road project had begun back in 1811 in Cumberland, Maryland, and extended west in stages over the years. It was just the kind of public works that fit neatly under Clay’s American System. But Jackson opposed the idea of Congress appropriating federal money for local projects, particularly projects within a single state. That, he believed, was unconstitutional.
In his veto message, Jackson said the people had a right to expect a “prudent system of expenditure” that would allow the government to “pay the debts of the union and authorize the reduction of every tax to as low a point as…our national safety and independence will allow.” Once the national debt left over from the War of 1812 was repaid, he promised, the government would make surplus resources available to the states for internal improvements. But he could not sanction direct expenditures for projects that went beyond purposes of defense and national benefit.
Characteristically, Jackson warned that such power in the hands of federal officials would lead inevitably to “a corrupting influence upon the elections” by giving people a sense that their votes could purchase beneficial governmental actions to “make navigable their neighboring creek or river, bring commerce to their doors, and increase the value of their property.” This, he said in a series of “notes” on the issue, would prove “fatal to just legislation” and the “purity of public men.”
Consider the significance of these brief quotes and their relevance to today’s politics. He talks about a “prudent system of expenditure” — government operating within its means. He wants to “pay the debts of the union” — extricating the country from the dangers inherent in ongoing deficit finance. He advocates “the reduction of every tax to as low a point as…our national safety and independence will allow” — sentiments that sound like modern supply-side thinking. He opposes a system that channels special beneficence to a chosen few, for example, to “make navigable their neighboring creek or river,” etc. — a strong rebuke to today’s congressional earmarking and other practices of favor distribution through stealthy governmental action. Finally, Jackson’s warning about the “corrupting influence” that follows power consolidation also sounds a tocsin for today.
JACKSON PRESSED HIS political outlook even more forcefully in his war with the Second Bank of the United States, which he eventually killed. The First Bank of the U.S., chartered during the country’s early Federalist period, was the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton, who saw the bank as a means of giving the economy sufficient liquidity, maintaining currency stability, and ensuring economic efficiency. Jefferson and his allies opposed this concentration of financial power, and in 1811 its charter had been allowed to expire. However, with the outbreak of the War of 1812 it became clear the country needed a central banking authority. State banks in the Northeast, where the war was unpopular, were protesting the war by hoarding the country’s meager reserves of specie (gold and silver), forcing banks in other regions to rely on printed money. That unleashed a menacing wave of inflation and considerable economic dislocation.
Thus, the Second Bank was established in 1816 in the country’s financial center of Philadelphia. Immediately it slipped into corruption as its first president promiscuously violated terms of the charter, speculated in the bank’s stock, and exploited the venal practices of the bank’s branch members. Jones was forced out, and his successor sought to clean up the mess by calling in unsound loans, foreclosing on overdue mortgages, and redeeming overextended notes from state banks. The result was the Panic of 1819 as local banks slipped into bankruptcy, prices collapsed, unemployment soared, and a general economic malaise gripped the country. (Sound familiar?)
During Jackson’s first term, Clay got the bank’s president, Nicholas Biddle, to apply for a new congressional charter for the bank, even though its existing charter didn’t expire until Jackson’s second term. There was considerable mischief in Clay’s action. He hoped to run against Jackson in the 1832 presidential election, and he saw the incendiary bank issue as his ticket to the White House. Clay knew Jackson hated what he called “this hydraheaded monster,” and so the president likely would veto the charter legislation. That would mean, Clay calculated, that Jackson would lose Pennsylvania, home to the country’s financial center. And if he lost Pennsylvania, the reasoning went, he would lose the election. Biddle, who hated Jackson as much as Jackson hated the bank, promptly put in for a new congressional charter.
Biddle was the picture of the eastern establishment of his day — dapper, smooth of manner, highly literate, widely schooled. Though he professed no interest in politics, he maintained a wide network of political friends — often kept in line with bank favors — that practically constituted a pro-bank political faction encompassing elements of both political parties.Arrogant to a fault, he had cultivated a reputation as a man of power and influence beyond what was prudent. When addressed as “Emperor Nicholas,” he would smile approvingly, unmindful of the political hostility generated by such personal grandiosity.
To understand the Second Bank of the U.S., it’s best not to think in terms of today’s Federal Reserve System, created during the Woodrow Wilson administration. True, the Bank had the same mission as the Federal Reserve — to ensure financial liquiditythroughout society and maintain a stable currency. But the Fed system was carefully crafted to insulate it from the winds and forces of political agitation — and to discourage the Fed from engaging in political chicanery with all the money at its disposal. The Second Bank of the U.S. was not protected in that way, and society was not protected from the Bank.
Hence, a better analogy from today’s financial world would be Fannie Mae, the sprawling government-sponsored mortgage finance company created in 1938 to foster mortgage borrowing in a country ravaged by the Great Depression. In recent decades, however, Fannie Mae became the largest and most powerful financial institution in the world. Its CEO from 1991 to 1998, James A. Johnson, represents a modern-day incarnation of Nick Biddle. Like Biddle, Johnson was brilliant, smooth, politically adroit, and ruthless in his exercise of the power at his command. And like Biddle, Johnson got rich in his government-sponsored job. In their book, Reckless Endangerment, Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner write of Johnson, “His job as chief executive…presented him with an extremely powerful policy tool to direct the nation’s housing strategy. In his hands, however, that tool became a cudgel. With it, he threatened his enemies and regulators, while rewarding his supporters. And, of course, there was the fortune he accrued.”
Biddle also turned his position in the financial world into a political cudgel. He used bank funds to lobby Congress for special favors and treatment. He offered loans on favorable terms to supportive members of Congress (Daniel Webster was particularly rewarded) and funneled bank funds into the political campaigns of his favorite legislators. He also contributed to the campaigns of those challenging his congressional detractors (James K. Polk, a Jackson protégé, was particularly targeted). At one point, he even squeezed the money supply to generate a recession in hopes of undermining Jackson’s political standing.
When Congress passed the new Bank charter, Biddle was ecstatic. “I congratulate our friends most cordially upon this most satisfactory result,” he wrote. “Now for the president.”
THE PRESIDENT WASTED NO TIME in vetoing the legislation, daring his political opponents to make the most of it. Few documents in the American political literature capture conservative populism with the verve and power of Jackson’s veto message. In it he portrayed the bank as a government-sponsored monopoly that employed the money of taxpayers to enhance the power, privileges, and wealth of a very few Americans and foreigners — “chiefly the richest class” — who owned stock in the bank and worked for it. If government is to grant such gratuities, he said, “let them not be bestowed on the subjects of a foreign government nor upon a designated and favored class of men in our own country.” Rather, he added, such favors should be granted in such a way as to “let each [American] in turn enjoy the opportunity to profit by our bounty.”
Jackson made clear he harbored no impulse toward economic equality or societal leveling. “Distinctions in society,” he wrote, “will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law…” It is worth lingering over these words. Jackson was saying not only that government should not interfere with any citizen’s pursuit of wealth, but that it also has an affirmative obligation to protect the rich from elements of envy bent on taking their wealth from them.
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?
As for Bennett, Jackson would shed not a tear over the abrupt end of his Senate career at the hands of the Tea Party in 2008. That’s precisely how American democracy is supposed to work, he would say, dismissing the expressions of sadness and puzzlement that emanated from so many denizens of the Washington establishment.
TURNING TO WALL STREET, Jackson would go crazy at the sight of the coziness that has developed between the country’s financial center and its government. He would go after that relationship like Beowulf after Grendel. He would dismiss the Dodd-Frank regulation bill as feckless — attempting to address the financial crisis by increasing federal meddling while leaving intact the fundamental problem of “too big to fail.” He would seek to smash the big banks into smaller entities and then get government out of their way. Once that was accomplished, he wouldn’t worry about executive pay, a sideshow issue in comparison to Wall Street’s capture of Treasury and the Fed. He would expel Wall Street henchmen from the government, particularly if they came from Goldman Sachs.
On the looming financial crisis stemming from funding liabilities in major entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, Jackson would level with the American people in stark terms. The programs are going under, and they’re going to bring down America with them, he would say. Get with the program or get used to the withering attacks he would unleash.
On foreign policy, Jackson would argue that America must play a significant role in the world. We are a great nation and must stand tall. But he would warn against getting involved in unnecessary wars unrelated to vital American interests. And he would ferociously attack anyone who suggested, for example, that opposition to America’s Libyan adventure amounted to isolationism. He would insist on reasonable and accurate terms of debate.
Corporate welfare in all its forms; high taxes that thwart economic activity and entrepreneurialism; persistent deficit spending; the bloated federal government; intrusions from Washington great and small into the lives of citizens; petty corruption in legislative activity; unnecessary and dangerous military ventures — all would come under Jackson’s damning political assault. Then he would take his program to the American people, let the chips fall, and rise or fall on his principles. This approach worked with the Bank of the U.S. back in the 1830s. Perhaps it will reemerge as the country’s dominant political force in the 2010s.
Robert W. Merry, former CEO of Congressional Quarterly, is the author of several books on American history and foreign policy, including most recently, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent.
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