People’s Choice

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

John Quincy Adams had seen this day coming for years. His only consolation was that he had helped postpone it till now. The son of the man he considered most responsible for American independence, Adams felt a peculiar responsibility for the outcome of the republican experiment. And these last few years the experiment hadn’t been turning out well at all.

His father, John Adams, and most of the other founders had feared that republicanism would degenerate into democracy: that government of the people would become government by the people. Nothing in history disposed them to look hopefully on such a development, for never in history had ordinary people run their own affairs without very quickly running them into the ground. The elder Adams linked arms after the Revolution with those who sought to curb the popular excesses of the revolutionary era; at Philadelphia in 1787 a convention of the skeptics wrote a constitution that took power from the states and conferred it on the central government, and in doing so diminished the influence of the people in politics generally. As vice president and then president, John Adams continued to work to keep power out of the hands of the unlettered and incompetent, and in the hands of those best suited by education and experience to exercise it responsibly.

But it was a losing cause. A first setback occurred when Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams for president. Jefferson was more the aristocrat than Adams, as anyone who compared Monticello, where Jefferson's slaves worked their master's plantation, with the Adams home in Massachusetts, where Adams himself tilled his modest garden, could see at once. But Jefferson cast himself as the tribune of the people, and he carried the day. James Madison was hardly less elegant than Jefferson, but he, too, posed as the defender of the many against the few. By the end of Madison's presidency the formula had been perfected, and James Monroe, yet another Virginia planter, entered the Executive Mansion almost unopposed.

John Quincy Adams watched and learned. He noted, among other things, that being Secretary of State gave a man a large head start toward the presidency. Jefferson had been Secretary of State before becoming president; so also Madison and Monroe. So when Monroe offered to make Adams his Secretary of State, the offer included a presumption of the presidency thereafter, and Adams gladly accepted.

Yet even while he did his time as a diplomat, the political climate continued to shift. Like an autumn storm that rose in the west and gathered strength as it approached the Atlantic, the wind of democracy began to blow in the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi and gained force on its way east. New states entered the Union with few restrictions on the vote, and their example caused the old states to change their own rules. Equally alarming to those—like Adams—who counted on the restraining effect of representation, the states began to allow voters, rather than the state legislatures, to choose presidential electors. Campaigns for president became popularity contests. The highest office in the land went to the favorite of the lower classes.

Adams escaped the early gusts, winning the presidency in 1824 by luck and political art. But during the next four years he often wished he hadn't won, so abusive was his treatment at the hands of those who claimed to speak for the people. And now—on the morning of March 4, 1829—he prepared to deliver the presidency to the man the people, in all their ignorant majesty, had chosen: Andrew Jackson.

The morning of Adams' defeat should have been the morning of Jackson's greatest triumph. And in some ways it was. Everything Adams deplored about the direction of American politics, Jackson applauded. To Jackson, the current contest in America was simply the latest stage of the historic struggle against privilege that ran back to the Magna Carta and included the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the English Revolution of the 17th and the American Revolution of the 18th. At each stage the people seized more of what by right belonged to them, from those who intended that power remain the monopoly of the few. Finally, for the first time in American history, and for one of the very few times in human history, the people had chosen one of their own to govern them. And now they were to install him in the highest office in the land. A man would have been dead to noble emotion not to feel the power and meaning of the moment.

Jackson felt it all—and much besides. The thousands of farmers, mechanics and crossroads merchants who had come to Washington City to inaugurate him, and the hundreds of thousands of their brethren who had voted for him, could almost taste the fruits of their hero's triumph, but Jackson alone knew what the victory had cost him. He had been fighting for the people's right to direct their own affairs since the Revolutionary War, when, as a mere boy, he took up arms against Britain. A gash to the head from a British sword left him with a permanent crease in his skull and an abiding hostility to all things British; smallpox contracted in a British prison marked the beginning of a lifetime of compromised health. The war also cost him his mother and brothers (his father had died before his birth), throwing him orphaned upon a turbulent, threatening world.

As a young man he entered politics in Tennessee. He battled the antidemocratic forces in the state and the nation, going so far as to challenge George Washington when the father of his country adopted what Jackson took to be excessive airs. His audacity on behalf of the people earned him enemies who slandered him and defamed even his wife, Rachel. He dueled in her defense and his own, suffering grievous wounds that left him with bullet fragments lodged about his body.

When the British again threatened American autonomy, by provoking Indian attacks in the West and seizing ships and sailors on the Atlantic, Jackson joined his voice to those of others demanding war in defense of American security and rights. When the 1812 war came, he led an offensive against the Indians, and upon its success took charge of the defense of the Mississippi against Britain's attempt to sever the United States along the line of the great river. At New Orleans in 1815, he threw the redcoats back, to their astonishment and that of most of his compatriots. The victory won him the adulation of the American people, but the campaign added to the ranks of his political enemies, who carped at his boldness and his impatience with the forms of military command.

The second war against Britain made clear to many Americans something Jackson had sensed from the first: that the struggle for American popular rights was of a piece with the struggle for North America itself. The opponents of popular rights had filled the ranks of the Loyalists during the first war against Britain; the same opponents, or their heirs, had been conspicuously apathetic, in some cases seditious, during the second British war. Jackson's victory at New Orleans didn't end the British threat; the British still held Canada, and their ally Spain occupied Florida and Mexico. As long as these foes hovered about America's borders, the American experiment in self-government remained in peril. And while it did, Jackson couldn't rest.

Not that he would have rested anyway. His entire life, Jackson had known only struggle. He struggled against poverty as a child, against authority as a youth, against the British and Spanish and Indians as a soldier, against the enemies of popular rule as an elected official. His struggles defined him.

They also defined his era in American history, which was how he came to symbolize it. Much later, after America became a world power, it could be difficult to remember a time when the success of the American experiment in self-government did not seem assured. But it never seemed assured to Jackson and most of his generation. He and they fought two wars against Britain, an undeclared naval war against France and countless battles against Indians. They struggled for independence, for security, for the land that provided the opportunity to pursue the happiness of which their Declaration of Independence spoke. They also fought among themselves: over the meaning of the American Revolution, over the Constitution, over republicanism and democracy, over slavery and expansion. Perhaps Jackson exaggerated the degree of danger his country and his conception of government faced. But if he did, he wasn't alone, and it was all those who shared his perception of the precariousness of their world who had made him their president.

And so he came to Washington. Yet even this greatest of his public triumphs was marred by the cruelest personal blow he had ever suffered. Just before he was to leave the Hermitage, his home near Nashville, for Washington, Rachel died. The proximate cause was physical, a failing heart. But the deeper cause was the strain his race for the presidency had placed on her mind and soul. In their desperation to cling to power, the partisans of John Quincy Adams had recirculated and embellished the earlier libels against Rachel's character. Jackson blamed the Adams men for her death, but he couldn't help asking himself whether he had been complicit. It was, after all, his ambition for the presidency that had provoked the latest attacks against her. If he had retired to the Hermitage, as she wished, rather than continue his struggle against the foes of popular rule, she would still be alive. The knowledge was the heaviest burden he had ever borne.

But as he rose from the ground beside her grave, the very weight of her death confirmed his resolve to carry the struggle forward. He couldn't bring her back, yet he could fight on, to ensure that those who killed her not benefit from their crime. Like most great warriors, Jackson had always conflated the personal with the public; his own enemies became the enemies of his cause. So they did now, more than ever.

And on the morning of March 4, 1829, with the memory of Rachel in his heart and the cause of the people in his mind, he set off from his hotel to the Capitol to take his oath of office.

From the 1820s till the 1840s, Jackson and Adams bracketed American opinion regarding the most important political development of their era, the emergence of democracy. Adams believed that ordinary Americans weren't fit to govern themselves, that left to their own ignorance they would choose military heroes and demagogues who told them what they wanted to hear while leading them where they had no business going.

Jackson believed just the opposite. Democracy wasn't a perversion of the republican promise but its perfection, or at least a large step toward perfection. The point of republicanism was to make government responsible to the people who lived under its laws. Whatever diminished responsibility was monarchy or aristocracy, and if the American Revolution had been about anything, it was about throwing off those twin incubi of despotism. Democracy made mistakes; Jackson didn't deny that. But its mistakes were the honest and correctable mistakes of human misjudgment, not the entrenched mistakes of selfish elites. Did the people know what was best for them? Not always. But they knew better than anyone else knew for them.

The question of Jackson's day—as of every day since—was who was right, Adams or Jackson? In the mid-1840s, as Congress debated the slavery question, it was difficult to tell. Adams saw slavery as the acid test of American politics, and he perceived the acid eating through the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and everything Americans held, or ought to hold, dear. He saw section replacing nation in the affections of the people, and civil war the near-certain result. The prospect was deathlike.

Jackson observed the same events but interpreted them differently. Slavery wasn't the issue; sectionalism was. Jackson defended slavery, in part because he couldn't envision the political economy of the South without it, but mostly because he perceived the attacks on slavery as threats to the Union. The abolitionists might not intend to shatter the Union, but that would be the result of their actions. South Carolina had almost seceded over a tariff; how much more dangerous must it consider attempts to abolish the institution on which its whole way of life rested? Nor would South Carolina be alone on this issue. Its Southern neighbors would feel compelled to rally to its side. Jackson relied on democracy to resolve the slavery dispute, if not at once then ultimately. The Northern states had abandoned slavery peacefully when a majority of voters there decided slavery no longer served their interests. When a majority of voters in the Southern states decided the same thing, slavery would end in the South. To force the issue was to assert that the people couldn't be trusted with political power. Jackson could never accept that.

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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