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People's Choice

Almost from birth, Andrew Jackson was in training to become democracy's champion

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Jackson's devotion to democracy was unsurprising in one born of the people and bred in the school of hard experience. He trusted the people because he was one of them, in a way none of his predecessors in the White House had been. His attachment to the Union was more difficult to explain. On most subjects his politics aligned with the traditional states' rights preferences of the party of Jefferson. Throughout his presidency, on such bellwether issues as the Bank of the United States and internal improvements, he checked those in Congress who would have exceeded what he considered the proper bounds of federal authority. But he drew the line—a bright, sharp line, defended by arms if necessary—at anything that even hinted at secession. He would die with the Union, he said at the time of greatest strain with South Carolina. And he would take many with him.

Jackson's devotion to the Union was at least as much emotional as it was political, at least as reflexive as considered. Sometime in his early life—perhaps when the blood from that British saber wound streaked his face, perhaps when his mother and brothers died and he found himself alone, perhaps when he crossed the mountains to the frontier West—he became peculiarly attached to the cause of his country. Lacking a family, he identified with the American people. Jackson's enemies weren't wrong to describe him as a military chieftain, but they misunderstood what this meant. His deepest loyalties were not to friends and relations, except for Rachel; nor even to his Tennessee neighbors. The clan of Old Hickory, the tribe of Sharp Knife, was the American people. Whatever endangered them—the designs of the British, the weakness of the Spanish, the resistance of the Indians, the conspiracy of the nullifiers, the agitation of the abolitionists—elicited an immediate response, and sometimes an intemperate one.

Yet there was more to his sensitivity to slight than his heredity and personal experience. If Jackson defined life as a struggle, it was largely because life for Americans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was a struggle. Eventually, of course, the United States would turn out to be the great power of the Western Hemisphere and then of the world. But during Jackson's lifetime this outcome was neither obvious nor inevitable. In his youth America had to struggle for its very existence against the most powerful empire in the world. Till his middle age it was beset by Britain, France and potentially Spain, not to mention the numerous Indian allies of the Europeans. His victory at New Orleans meant the United States wouldn't be torn in two, but the country might still be hedged about by enemies and weakened at the borders.

Nor was the danger only external. Divisions within could be as lethal as assault from without. John Calhoun might consider states' nullification of federal law a constitutional issue, but for Jackson it was an existential question—in the literal sense of whether the nation would continue to exist. American life was precarious enough with the country united; with the country broken apart, the pieces would fall prey to those greedy foreigners, and to each other. His willingness to wage war against the nullifiers signaled his conviction that in a dangerous world—the only world he knew—unity was the closest thing to a guarantee of security.

Jackson's appeal to the American people was the appeal of the chieftain to the tribe. They loved him because he was their protector, their hero. But they also loved him because he embodied their hopes and fears, their passions and prejudices, their insight and their ignorance, better than anyone before him. By the standards of a later day, Jackson's democracy had far to go. The "people" he and his contemporaries spoke of were almost exclusively adult white males. But even this minority of the American population signified a tremendous expansion of political participation since Jackson's youth. Democracy, as he would have been the first to admit, was a work in progress. The American people agreed, and they were happy to march forward behind him. They chose him for what he was, but equally for what they were. His strengths were their strengths, his weaknesses their weaknesses. Democracy was—and is—a leap of faith. They placed their faith in him because he placed his faith in them.

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