Thursday, February 9, 2017
Totally Whigged Out
President Trump hung a portrait of one president in the Oval Office, that of Andrew Jackson – “Old Hickory.” Bold, egotistical and one of the key founders, oddly for a Republican president, of the modern Democratic Party (actually organized in the mid-1820s), which he upgraded and restructured during his presidency (1829-1837). The Democrat’s 1829 victory was the result of a populist surge (“sovereignty of the people”) against “elitists” in what would become the Whig Party (in 1834… no Republicans yet). Dems were powerfully aligned against big government, sharing a deep commitment to an agrarian way of life and very mistrustful of urban values. They elected a “frontier president” who acted in accordance with frontier values.
But a more thorough examination of Jacksonian Democratic Party policies explains why his portrait appears on Trump’s office wall, and ironically appears on our twenty dollar bill: “Jacksonians feared the concentration of economic and political power. They believed that government intervention in the economy benefited special-interest groups and created corporate monopolies that favored the rich. They sought to restore the independence of the individual—the artisan and the ordinary farmer—by ending federal support of banks and corporations and restricting the use of paper currency, which they distrusted.” Wikipedia.
Back then, the total population of the United States was about 13 million, with over 70% being farmers. But besides the fact that we were then primarily a nation of farmers – today less than 2% of modern America is engaged in farming – Jackson’s presidency was almost entirely based on domestic issues. The United States was hardly a global power, and given the state of communications and transportation in that day, our nation was almost entirely self-sufficient and isolated. Foreign trade existed, of course, but was not a particularly significant segment of our economy. Jackson’s presidency thus had very little impact beyond our borders. Yet Jackson redefined and reinforced the power of the presidency like no other.
Jackson’s fiery temperament, his unbridled ego, made him a lot of enemies along the way. Historically, presidents who leaned toward the autocratic did not fare well in American politics. One conservative magazine, The New Republic (3/25/16), made this observation about Donald Trump’s egotistical approach to the presidency: “Have Americans ever placed anyone with the curious characterological make-up of the Donald in the White House before? To find comparable presidents, we have to go back to the nineteenth century: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and John Tyler. While these four nineteenth-century presidents were all more qualified than Trump to set foot in the White House—each had previously served in a high-elective office—they did share his reckless temperament. This history lesson should make Americans wary of Trump, as three of the four were doomed to unsuccessful one-term presidencies.” The member of that quartet who served two full terms? You got it. Andrew Jackson.
Biographer Jon Meacham, interviewed in the January 27th Washington Post addressed the fascination that other American presidents shared over their admiration of Jackson: “In the long view, Jackson has been a source of inspiration for very different presidents. Franklin D. Roosevelt saw himself as a latter-day Old Hickory battling Wall Street during the New Deal — so much so that the 1937 inaugural stand on Pennsylvania Avenue was a replica of the Hermitage, Jackson's Tennessee house. Harry S. Truman adored Jackson, kept a bronze of him in the Oval Office, and once drove from Missouri to Nashville to measure Jackson's old clothes to make sure a statue of Old Hickory was historically accurate. And Truman once wrote this: ‘Jackson looked after the little guy who had no pull, and that's what a president is supposed to do.’ (Which is, by the way, one of the best definitions of the American presidency I've ever encountered.) Ronald Reagan liked Jackson's theatrical flair and hung a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office, just as Trump has now done.”
Rising as a military hero, Jackson became one of the most polarizing figures in American history. His track record of racial intolerance is hard to believe in a modern era, and that he is now Trump’s apparent model seems to give greater insight into Trump’s policies regarding immigration and the treatment of inner city racial minorities: “After narrowly losing to John Quincy Adams in the contentious 1824 presidential election, Jackson returned four years later to win redemption, soundly defeating Adams and becoming the nation’s seventh president… As America’s political party system developed, Jackson became the leader of the new Democratic Party. A supporter of states’ rights and slavery’s extension into the new western territories, he opposed the Whig Party and Congress on polarizing issues such as the Bank of the United States. For some, his legacy is tarnished by his role in the forced relocation of Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi…
“Jackson made it clear that he was the absolute ruler of his administration’s policy, and he did not defer to Congress or hesitate to use his presidential veto power. For their part, the Whigs [the opposition; see below] claimed to be defending popular liberties against the autocratic Jackson, who was referred to in negative cartoons as ‘King Andrew I.’” History.com. He challenged the continuation of a central bank, and tensions between Jackson and South Carolina almost started a civil war. He even went so far as to ignore Supreme Court rulings he found distasteful.
Upon his inauguration, Jackson swept bureaucrats from key posts across the federal government with ample popular support: “Jackson's summary dismissing of so many career bureaucrats in the executive branch led to considerable opposition. These men he was dismissing and replacing were men of means; elites, men of status, as it were, and they would be quick to oppose Jackson on every front. Gradually, these men joined other dissatisfied factions and coalesced into a political party all their own; an opposition party, an anti-Jackson party with the strangest of names: the Whigs…
“The new Whig party attracted an eclectic mix of members including Southerners fighting for state's rights, nationalists, agriculturalists and Northern free trade capitalists, and a host of others, all unified in their dislike for Andrew Jackson. They were also active on many fronts, both progressive and conservative, seeking to maintain American uniqueness, holding to strict moral codes, such as no consumption of alcohol or mail on Sundays, while at the same time seeking internal improvements to roads, bridges, schools, and reforming prisons.” Study.com. The anti-Jackson legacy was at the core of the Whig ascension to power.
But Jackson’s Democrat successors, his handpicked Martin Van Buren (the Whigs won the popular vote over Van Buren but the Electoral votes sealed his victory… sound familiar?) and James Polk, attempted to continue Jackson’s imperious definition of the executive branch. Whigs railed and mounted a push to reestablish the supremacy of the Congress. But Whigs, formed as a party pretty much dedicated to anti-Jacksonian policies and little else, did not last long.
“In its two decades of existence, the Whig Party had two of its candidates, [William Henry] Harrison and [Zackery] Taylor, elected president. Both died in office. John Tyler succeeded to the presidency after Harrison's death in 1841, but was expelled from the party later that year.” Wikipedia. Millard Fillmore was the last Whig president. But the utter incompetence of Whig presidents ultimately resulted in the dissolution of the Whigs… eventually replaced by a new party, Republicans, “founded by anti-slavery activists, modernists, ex-Whigs, and ex-Free Soilers in 1854… The Republicans dominated politics nationally and in the majority of northern States for most of the period between 1860 and 1932.
“There have been 19 Republican presidents, the first being Abraham Lincoln, who served from 1861 to 1865, when he was assassinated, and the most recent being Donald Trump, who took office on January 20, 2017.” Wikipedia.
Can a president so focused on imposing his individual vision on American government sustain in a modern era? Is an American rejection of globalization, a withdrawal from internationalism, viable in the 21st century? How do those who oppose this vision organize to defeat Trumpism? How committed is the GOP to support the new president’s view of America? Is Trump’s embracing of Jackson’s imperious persona likely to move the United States to the brink of another American civil war as did Jackson’s battle with South Carolina? We do live in interesting times…
I’m Peter Dekom, and looking at Mr. Trump’s heroes and values tells us much of what we can expect in the next four years.