The Democratic Autocrat

tags: Andrew Jackson, Trump

Nancy Isenberg is T. Harry Williams Professor of History at Louisiana State University, the author of the New York Times bestseller White Trash, and coauthor, with Andrew Burstein, of Madison and Jefferson.

It was James Parton, America’s most prolific “great man” biographer of the nineteenth century, who convincingly captured the unsettling appeal of Andrew Jackson. The two-term President was, he stated, a “democratic autocrat.” This wasn’t the only one of Parton’s paradoxes. His Jackson was at once a “patriot and a traitor”; he was among the “greatest generals” in history and yet “wholly ignorant of the art of war.” The “first of statesmen” who had “never devised” a piece of legislation. To his rowdy followers, Jackson was the common man’s hero; to his outraged, outspoken enemies, he was an imperious imposter—“King Andrew I.”

Parton’s 1860 retrospective on the imperfect Andrew Jackson is a foreshadowing of our current dilemma in having to abide by “King Donald I.” Because few of us know how concerned this nation’s founders were with what they called an “elective monarch,” and a “monarchical republic,” we don’t register their hesitancy to grant the chief expansive powers to veto legislation, make high-level appointments, and wield authority as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Many trappings of royalty were immediately attached to the presidency. George Washington’s birthday was celebrated in the manner of the British monarchs. He was serenaded to the tune of “God Save the King.” He rode in a lavishly equipped carriage and held courtly receptions. His portraiture imitated the grandeur of European sovereigns. Thomas Jefferson rejected such pageantry and fancy dress, yet his own Democratic-Republicans rallied around his personhood, too. If he was our anti-royalist philosopher king, the Jameses, Madison and Monroe, were nonetheless styled as Jefferson’s legitimate “heirs.”

Jackson, however, was no heir to Jefferson. After his loss to John Quincy Adams in 1824, a good friend of Jefferson’s reported that during Jackson’s revenge run for office in 1828, the recently deceased ex-President had considered Jackson a bad joke, ill-bred for an elevated office, a man without either the intellect or temperament to head the country. Jackson’s critics caricatured him as William Shakespeare’s greatest royal villain, Richard III. Even close friends admitted that the orthographically challenged Tennessean was prone to furious outbursts. The most famous image associated with the 1828 campaign was the so-called coffin handbill, which graphically depicted Jackson’s numerous victims: honorable soldiers he’d had executed. He himself carried a bullet next to his heart from a duel in which he shot a man dead; his walking cane, ordinarily a sign of gentility, concealed a sword. Brute force, not calm reasoning, was the measure of the man. One of his many enemies put it bluntly: He “made up in oaths [i.e., obscenities] what he lacked in arguments.”

Jackson wasn’t the heir of the beloved Washington either, though the faithful tried to convince history this was so. Between the first and seventh Presidents, only one represented dignified authority—Washington, who at one point in his career had the chance to become a dictator, and said no. In 1828, incumbent President Adams was called “professor.” (He’d taught at Harvard.) No one had more experience in diplomacy. Adams represented U.S. interests in foreign capitals before serving as Monroe’s secretary of state. He was the epitome of effeminate expertise and the ultimate political insider. It should sound familiar. Adams was Hillary Clinton to Jackson’s Trump. ...

Read entire article at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

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