Is there a little bit of Andrew Jackson in Trump? Stephen Bannon has said there is, and so has Rudolph Giuliani, and likewise any number of journalists, and the seeming unanimity has elevated the claim into the cliché of the hour. The cliché is wrong, however. And it is triply unfortunate. Historically it is an error. Politically it is an error. It makes Trump appear to be merely one more colorful character from ancient American political tradition, when he is, in fact, something new. And politically it is an error in still another way. The ghost of Andrew Jackson might have a lot to say to us right now, if only we would pay attention. A small lecture from the early republic about American fundamentals—that is exactly what we need. But the error about Jackson and Trump makes paying attention hard to do.
Jackson—dimly, you will recall—was not quite a Founding Father, but he was close enough. He did fight in the Revolutionary War, if only as a boy. The first six presidents were the various Virginians, together with the Adams family, but Jackson came next. His purpose and theirs were the same. This was to defend and advance the American Revolution. He proposed a clarification, though. The Founding Fathers, most of them, pictured the revolutionary new society of their dreams in a vaguely aristocratic light. This was entirely natural on their part, given the long-ago English background, and the not-so-long-ago colonial background, and everyone’s educational background. People studied the classics, with special emphasis on the republic of ancient Rome, which was strictly aristocratic, not to mention slave-owning.
But Jackson preferred a republic without a special class of uniquely privileged aristocratic rulers: a democratic republic, in short. Democracy was a pressing matter, in his estimation, and not just a utopian aspiration. Modern capitalism, with its sophisticated system of banking and credit, took root in the United States in the 1810s and ’20s and was proving to be a mixed blessing. The new economic sophistication allowed the financiers to assemble vast piles of capital, which was good. Only vast piles could pay for ambitious new industrial enterprises. But the new sophistication also allowed and even encouraged a swindler’s economy, based on unsecured loans and misrepresentations. Swindler capitalists began to set off one financial crash after another—the Panic of 1819 was the first—which were devastating to ordinary working people. Jackson and his followers worried that swindler capitalists were going to establish themselves as a malignant new aristocracy, on top of the traditional old aristocracy. And Jackson and his political movement became the enemy of swindler capitalism—the enemy of financial frauds and exploitations in their own time, and the enemy of swindler capitalism for the American future.
On this count alone, Andrew Jackson was not a Donald Trump. Jackson was an anti-Trump. The whole style of Trump’s business empire, with its systematic bankruptcies, tax evasions, and mountains of debt, is a throwback to the swindler style that Jackson found offensive. Now, it may be true that, back in the 1820s and ’30s, Jackson and his followers were at a loss over how best to oppose the swindler economy. Jackson did the right thing and the popular thing in abolishing the Bank of the United States, which was the central bank. The Bank of the United States was in large part privately owned, and a privately owned central bank posed a distinct danger of establishing a financial aristocracy. He ought to have replaced the privately-owned bank with a publicly owned one, however. It took Woodrow Wilson, his 20th-century successor, to do that. The Jacksonians were shrewd social critics, but the potentially positive uses of federal power were sometimes beyond their ken.
They understood political rights, though. The American republic was aristocratic in its early years because, as a matter of law, ordinary working men in one state after another who were too poor to own property were denied the right to vote. In one state after another, people who did not belong to one of the mainline Protestant denominations likewise could not vote, nor could they hold office. By custom, if not by law, the only people who rose to national power were the descendants of the English settlers, even though America was increasingly populated by people from other parts of the British Isles and from continental Europe. And, in one state after another, the Jacksonians launched campaigns to eliminate each of those political restrictions.
The Jacksonians agitated to secure the franchise for lower-class workingmen with European backgrounds of one sort or another. They agitated to eliminate the religious qualifications for political rights. They mobilized non-English ethnic and immigrant groups. In this fashion, the Jacksonians over the course of the 1820s became the first mass political-rights movement in American history, and the most effective. Their movement was America’s single most effective movement for religious freedom. It was Jacksonianism that liberated the American Catholics in the various places where Catholics needed liberation. The Jacksonians were a movement for what nobody at the time would have called multiculturalism—a movement for the full political and cultural acceptance of Americans who were not WASPs. The Jacksonians mobilized the Scotch-Irish, the Welsh, the Irish, and onward to the newly arriving immigrants from continental Europe. Jackson himself was the symbol of this development. The first six presidents were WASPs, every one of them. Jackson, the anti-aristocrat and friend of the working man, was Scotch-Irish, with an accent to prove it. He spoke with a burr. His second vice president and political heir was Martin Van Buren of New York, whose name and background and first language were Dutch. In these ways, too, Jackson and his movement were the enemy of every last trait that characterized the Donald Trump campaign of 2016.
Jacksonians were Trumpism’s enemy in one other way. Trump is called a populist, which means, I guess, that he rails against international institutions and the “swamp” in Washington, and he flirts with the narrow ethnic politics of white nationalism, and his followers somehow find him charismatic and, God help them, they take him at his word. But Jackson was a democrat, which is not the same as a populist. He was certainly charismatic, but the movement he built did not depend on a great leader, and it did not invoke a narrow ethnic group or the unvariegated “people” that are every populist’s dream. Jackson and Van Buren, his comrade in these endeavors, built instead the first mass political party in the history of the world—a new institution that was designed to survive into the future. This was the party that, after a short period of uncertainty about what to call it, became known as the Democratic Party. There was room in it for people of every religion; and people of every level of wealth, down to the poorest, which meant a lot of people; and people from all of the ethnic groups that had crossed the Atlantic to America from Europe.
Jackson ran for president in 1824, before his party had been properly organized, and he did pretty well, but not well enough to win. He tried again in 1828. His party was by then on its feet. The party mobilized the largest electorate by far in the history of the world—a mass of people who in many cases were enjoying for the first time their political rights. The immense size of the electorate guaranteed victory. It was a revolution. And, in his triumph, Jackson succeeded in ascribing his preferred meaning to the American Revolution and to the United States, which was democracy, and not aristocracy: a democratic republic, and not an aristocratic one. Today we do not remember Jackson’s achievement because we assume it. We cannot imagine the United States in any other light, and therefore do not give the matter any thought. But we had better give it some thought.
Jackson was a democrat, which is not the same as a populist.
Only, wait: What about the Indians, and the slaves? Wasn’t Andrew Jackson a moral monster? The belief that he was, in fact, a monster has had a chilling effect on democratic memory in America. And yet, is it too much to ask for an extra moment’s thought on this question? We ought to be able to recall that, in the early 19th century, the United States was at war with a variety of Indian tribes and nations, and had been at war for hundreds of years, and America’s survival and future depended on victory in those wars. Jackson fought brutally, which ought to make us cringe. Some of his own followers did cringe and even so remained faithful Jacksonians. Nathaniel Hawthorne is an example: a loyal Democrat and Jackson man whose loyalty did not prevent him from wincing at cruelty to the Indians. Perhaps Jackson also acted with a humane motive sometimes, which ought not to be forgotten. He did adopt an Indian orphan, for what it’s worth. In any case, if you reject the Indian Wars, you reject America. I do not see why we cannot look back today with admiration on both sides of the Indian Wars of long ago—on the Americans who wanted to build a democratic society, and on the Indians who were America’s enemies because they wanted to preserve their own society. America’s origins were tragic, and this we have to accept.
And the slaves? Most of the early presidents owned slaves, and Jackson was among them. Such was the reality. Even Ulysses S. Grant owned slaves at one point in his career. America was born with slavery. The question was whether to get rid of it and, if so, how to do it. But those questions took a while to enter into the mainstream political debate. A New York faction of the Jacksonian movement was sharply anti-slavery, but, during Jackson’s era, the debate about slavery on the national scale was something that most people, even in the North, were not yet prepared to have. At least it can be said that, when the death-knell for slavery began to ring, which was on the occasion of the rise of the Free Soil Party in the later 1840s, the presidential candidate on the Free Soil ticket was Jackson’s heir, Van Buren, who was protesting against the official Democrats. Jackson’s legacy can, in this respect, be described as positive, though, of course, other Jacksonians went the other way.
Perhaps the traditional Democratic Party dinner ought to be renamed the Jefferson-Jackson-Obama Dinner, to make clear that, from Van Buren to Lyndon B. Johnson and beyond, the Democratic Party did evolve. It improved. It became more consistent. The anti-slavery currents from the party in Jackson’s day, which seemed marginal at the time, turned out to be the currents with a proper idea of the future. But this only means that, when the Democratic Party in the mid-20th century finally came around to embracing the civil rights revolution, it did not turn into a new kind of beast. The party did not betray its origins. It straightened out its own contradictions. The party that had always been pro-Irish-American and pro all kinds of groups now became, by logical extension, pro-African-American, too. The principle was implicit from the start, even if Democrats in the early 19th century were slow to see it. That is what Democrats in our own time ought to say, in any case.
They ought to insist that America’s Democratic Party has remained in the deepest of ways unchanged. It is the historic party of democracy and anti-aristocracy; the anti-royalist party; the anti-swindler party; the party of religious freedom; the party that knows how to be multicultural and “diverse” and, at the same time, to be the party of the variegated people as a whole. It is and has always been the party of the crazy-quilt American working class; the party of voting rights; Andrew Jackson’s party; the party of the American Revolution, in Jackson’s democratic interpretation—the party of the revolutionary hopes that, once upon a time, thrilled and inspired democrats in unhappy regions of the world everywhere.
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Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.