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The Nineteenth-Century Trump

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President Donald Trump looking at a portrait of Andrew Jackson, Nashville, Tennessee, March 15, 2017

Donald Trump has often been likened to Andrew Jackson; this is welcomed and encouraged by Trump himself. President Trump has hung a portrait of Jackson prominently in the Oval Office and visited Jackson’s plantation home in Tennessee to honor his 250th birthday on March 15. He draws on the memory of President Jackson to give legitimacy to his own presidency in a number of ways, and Jackson’s brand of nationalism is all the more relevant today since it was directed, in part, against Mexico—Jackson hoped to take Texas from Mexico and annex it to the United States, a policy that eventually culminated in the war waged against Mexico by Jackson’s protégé, James Knox Polk. Jacksonian nationalism was also racial: a white man’s Americanism, excluding Mexicans, Indians, blacks, and on occasion even women.

Trump’s evocation of Andrew Jackson is intended to underscore the populist appeal of both leaders. Jackson, who served from 1829-1837, mobilized the white working class of his time—small farmers—much as Trump has sought to mobilize the white working class of our day. Nevertheless, their populist nationalisms are not identical, as historian Sean Wilentz has pointed out. Jackson firmly defended the federal government’s power over the states when South Carolina challenged it over the issue of an import tariff that, while protecting Northern industries, made certain goods in the South more expensive, particularly the cheap textiles used to make slaves’ clothing. Trump wants the federal government to shrink back from many of its activities, leaving education, science, healthcare, and the regulation of business largely to the states. Jackson was eager to reduce the federal deficit and succeeded in briefly eliminating the national debt entirely. What effect Trump’s budget will have on the deficit is far from clear (though in order to balance the budget it requires growth rates that are more than a percentage point higher than what the Congressional Budget Office estimates).

The most important parallel between Trump and Jackson lies in their rallying the white working class against ethnic minorities: Jackson against American Indians and blacks, Trump against Mexican immigrants and Muslims. Jackson’s project of “Indian Removal” was the first substantive issue his administration pursued after his inauguration in 1829. The avowed goal was to force Native Americans out of the lands east of the Mississippi that they had been guaranteed by treaties and send them, under military escort, west of the Mississippi to reservations in what is now Oklahoma and Kansas. The formerly tribal lands would then be available for white settlement. Ironically, there was little actual need at the time for new lands open to white settlers. When the Cherokee Tribe were evicted from their homeland in Georgia, in the devastating forced migration known as the Trail of Tears, that state recognized that there was no commercial market for the Cherokees’ abandoned farmlands, even with all the Indians’ improvements, and simply raffled them off.

Trump has experienced early difficulties staffing his administration, and so did Jackson. Jackson’s initial choices for Cabinet posts did not prove an effective working group. They split between followers of Secretary of State Martin Van Buren and those of Vice President John C. Calhoun. Like Trump, who seems to rely heavily on his son in law, Jared Kushner, on foreign policy, even if it means contradicting his secretary of state, Jackson turned increasingly to an informal group of advisers, jokingly disparaged as the “kitchen cabinet,” in contrast to the formal Cabinet meeting in the parlor. Jackson’s favorite, Van Buren, met with both. To staff lower federal offices Jackson initiated what was called “the spoils system”—in other words, a patronage system to reward political followers rather than a merit system seeking out competence and talent. (There was then no civil service system such as we have now.) The appointments of both Jackson and Trump have provoked surprise and alarm from contemporary observers.

Trump and Jackson share a reputation as “outsiders.” Though Trump inherited wealth, Jackson actually did come up the hard way from poverty in frontier Tennessee. He bought and sold slaves early and often in the course of his rise to wealth and influence. Once, in 1817, he sold forty people at one time for $23,000. On another occasion, after one of his slaves ran away, Jackson offered a $50 reward in the Tennessee Gazette for his recapture “and ten dollars extra for every hundred lashes a person will give to the amount of three hundred.” Three hundred lashes risked beating the man to death, but perhaps revenge outweighed financial interest. Not surprisingly, the Jackson administration consistently supported the institution of slavery, even to the point of interfering with the transmission of antislavery mail through the Post Office, in violation of federal law. Proslavery policy fit perfectly well with Jacksonian populism. Slavery and the repression of black people were at least as popular among poor non-slaveholding Southern whites as among slave-owners themselves.

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Political cartoon of Andrew Jackson by Thomas Nast from Harper’s magazine, 1877

An important parallel between Trump and Jackson lies in their efforts to reshape the political organizations of their time. When Jackson’s presidential campaign first appeared, almost all American politicians avowed membership in a single political party, the Jeffersonian Republicans. Jackson and his follower Martin Van Buren succeeded in reshaping that party into the Democratic Party we have known ever since, and in the course of doing so provoked the emergence of a rival party called the Whigs. Trump too seems to need to transform the existing party system, by anchoring the Republican Party in the provincial working class, in addition to its traditional base in the business community. Whether Trump will succeed in such a dramatic undertaking—let alone serve out two terms in office as Jackson did—remains unclear. So far, he does not seem to have Jackson’s knack for political decision-making.

Donald Trump is notorious for violating present-day standards of sexual behavior. Andrew Jackson also violated the conventions of his own day, although this parallel has yet to provoke comment. In 1790 he began living with a woman named Rachel Robards, who was married to another man. Lewis Robards divorced her in 1793 on grounds of adultery, and soon afterward Rachel and Andrew married. The episode was unearthed during the presidential campaign of 1827-1828 by supporters of Jackson’s opponent, John Quincy Adams, and became a political issue. Once he was in the White House, another such difficulty emerged. Jackson appointed John Eaton Secretary of War, to be in charge of Indian Removal. Eaton’s wife Margaret (a.k.a. Peggy) had a checkered past and was ostracized by the wives of the other Cabinet secretaries as a loose woman unworthy of polite society. Jackson famously declared her “chaste as a virgin,” but could not make his Cabinet secretaries force their wives to toe his line. “I did not come to Washington to make a cabinet for the Ladies of this place,” he raged. In the end, Jackson had to dismiss his entire Cabinet to get beyond the problem.

One of the most significant—though as yet little noticed—similarities between Jackson and Trump is disregard for truth. Trump has become notorious for uttering untruths, although his critics sometimes include ill-informed factual errors along with deliberate lies when criticizing him. Andrew Jackson and his followers spread lies about John Quincy Adams when running against him for president; a preposterous one being that as ambassador to Russia Adams had procured an American girl for the sexual gratification of the tsar. Also untrue was the charge that Adams had put a billiard table in the White House at public expense. (Adams did install a billiard table, but he paid for it himself.) Playing billiards seemed an alien activity to Americans at the time, conforming to the negative stereotype of Adams as un-American, snobbish, and intellectual. To defend Jackson against charges of adultery, his campaign invented a story about a wedding between Andrew and Rachel in 1791, when, supposedly, they thought Lewis Robards had already divorced Rachel. Careful historical research by Jackson’s sympathetic biographer Robert Remini has disproven this tale. For Jackson, past events could be re-shaped to protect his honor. Jackson never apologized, never forgave, and did not shrink from violence. He participated in several duels and fights before being elected president, killing a man in one of them.

Ironically, the experiences of Jackson and Trump left them with quite different attitudes toward the Electoral College system. Jackson led in popular votes in the election of 1824, but lacked a majority in the Electoral College. In accordance with the Constitution, the presidential choice then reverted to the House of Representatives, which selected John Quincy Adams instead. Andrew Jackson had to wait until 1828 to gain a majority of electoral votes. Afterward, he advocated abolishing the Electoral College and choosing presidents by popular vote. Trump, of course, has every reason to love the Electoral College.

All in all, President Trump is by no means off the mark to call attention to Andrew Jackson as a precursor. The analogy, however, is not necessarily flattering.