With his implausible campaign promises, sordid history of fraud, and penchant for gilded furniture, Donald Trump has earned a reputation as grafter in chief. But that title also applies to Andrew Jackson, a man who even in death has conned a country into venerating him.
Recently, the mainstream press and Trump’s acolytes have evoked Old Hickory as an illustrative antecedent, either likening Trump’s rise to Jackson’s grassroots appeal or trying to preserve Jackson’s legacy by dismissing any similarities between the two.
Former Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon called Trump’s pseudo-populist speeches “Jacksonian.” Other supporters have marshaled the nineteenth-century slave-trader’s reputation to galvanize the Right’s current insurgency.
Trump has encouraged such comparisons. Upon taking office, he hung Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office, calling him “an amazing figure in American history — very unique in so many ways.” A week before the 180-year anniversary of the end of Jackson’s second term, the administration posted a picture of Trump saluting Jackson’s grave, captioned, “We build on your legacy.” Two weeks later, the president visited Jackson’s Hermitage Plantation, eulogizing, “Jackson first confronted and defied an arrogant elite. . . . Oh, I know the feeling, Andrew.”
Other segments of the media have resisted this analogy, rushing to protect Jackson’s supposedly hallowed legacy from Trump’s grimy hands. Politico called the comparison “outrageous,” arguing that Jackson, more than any other politician, “secured the future of democracy in America.” USA Today recruited a few historians to suggest that “in terms of foreign relations, [Jackson] was remarkably pacifist, not the brash-talking, fist-shaking, America-first contrarian that Trump seems to embody.” The Washington Post chimed in to argue that, despite the “ostentatious admiration for Jackson,” Trump’s advisers are wrong to compare the two.
The New York Times, on the other hand, saw a “direct parallel” between Jackson and Trump, citing the former’s calls to clear out the “giant Augean stable” and the latter’s promises to “drain the swamp.” The Atlantic acknowledged a few superficial resemblances — both complained of a “corrupt bargain” and “rigged” elections — while noting that Jackson’s attack on a judge was “on constitutional, rather than political and personal, grounds.”
Time skirted the analogy entirely, citing Jackson’s experience in the Senate and military, as well as his reputation as a braver, self-made man. Jon Meacham, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Jackson biography American Lion, called the comparison “imprecise” but conceded that Trump’s assumption of office was “unquestionably Jacksonian.”
Elite chroniclers of American history tend to have a cult-like fondness for charismatic leaders like Jackson. But whether they are eager to prove or disprove the alleged resemblance between the seventh president and the forty-fifth, they rarely acknowledge Jackson’s violent anti-egalitarianism.
That, more than anything, is his true legacy.
President of Certain People
An alleged champion of democracy and liberty, Andrew Jackson has been lovingly referred to as the “President of the People.” Combined with his war record and his opposition to the Bank of the United States, Jackson’s populist image helped him build a coalition of disillusioned voters sick of elites controlling the government.
But Jackson’s life did not match the egalitarian portrait that elite observers continue to sketch of him. From his military activity in the War of 1812 and the Seminole War of 1818, to his work as a slave-trader and owner, to the legislation he supported during his two presidential terms, Jackson visited nothing but misery upon blacks, indigenous Americans, and even his own supporters. He defaulted on promises, massacred men, women, and children, executed deserters, perpetuated the slave system, and pushed ethnic cleansing into the American political mainstream.
Jackson first gained prominence during the War of 1812. Though largely remembered as a replay of the Revolutionary War, this conflict also aimed to expand the United States into Spanish Florida, French Canada, and indigenous territories.
In the southeastern theater, Jackson waged a brutal campaign against British forces and the allied Creek tribes. Those Natives unwilling to surrender their homeland to the United States joined forces with the UK and Jackson conscripted the rest, promising to let them retain their lands after the war. At Fort Mims in 1813, his troops burned settlements, killing men, women, and children. At Tehopeka in 1814, he personally supervised the mutilation of eight hundred corpses. (We know the exact number because his men cut off their enemies’ noses to count the dead and preserve a record of their victory, turning long strips of flesh into bridle reins.)
In the final year of the war, as Jackson’s troops were flagging, he promised Cherokee leaders governmental cooperation if they joined the battle. “As long as the sun shines and the grass grows there shall be friendship between us,” Jackson assured chief Junaluska, “and the feet of the Cherokee shall be toward the East.”
Jackson also issued a call for black Americans to enlist, assuring slaves freedom and guaranteeing freemen equal wages. Jackson visited a Louisiana plantation, going into the fields himself to personally pick his slave fighters. “If you will go, and the battle is fought and the victory gained on [our] side, you shall be free,” he vowed. Jackson left with over five hundred slaves to defeat the British in New Orleans.
Little changed for the Brits or the Americans when they signed the Treaty of Ghent: territorial possessions returned to the prewar status quo. Indigenous people and black soldiers did not fare as well. Jackson appointed himself commissioner to impose the treaty with the Creeks, forcing them to cede twenty-three million acres of land in southern Georgia and central Alabama to the US government. “The United States would have been justified by the Great Spirit, had they taken all the land of the nation,” Jackson said. “The truth is, the great body of the Creek chiefs and warriors did not respect the power of the United States. . . . We bleed our enemies in such eases to give them their senses.”
Jackson ushered in a new era of plantation slavery on the newly acquired acreage, and he and his associates raked in money from buying and reselling seized Creek land. He reneged on his promises to let the allied fighters keep their land.
The Cherokees never received government cooperation, and the slaves, drawn to the battlefield by the allure of freedom, found themselves returned to their captors. One reflected:
Two days before, I had, with my fellow soldiers, saved their city from fire and massacre, and their wives and children from blood and burning. Yet, the people of New Orleans would have had me shot simply for contending for my freedom, which both my master and Jackson had solemnly before high heaven promised before I left home.
Jackson’s actions in northern Spanish Florida soon sparked another war. In 1818, rumors of runaway slaves living in Seminole towns spread, and the major general ordered his troops to set fire to the settlements. They captured Spanish-held Pensacola and St Marks.
During the conflict, Jackson apprehended two British men and had them executed for supposedly instigating the Seminoles to fight the US. His raids targeted some peaceful encampments, and the Seminole people would nickname him “Sharp Knife” because of his ruthlessness.
Jackson’s conquest amounted to another land grab, and he became governor of Florida after Spain surrendered of control. Transitioning from a military post to a political position, Jackson still actively encouraged officers to deal harshly with the indigenous population. But his relentless ferocity did not confine itself to enemy combatants. Jackson advised officers to beat deserting soldiers and, after multiple offenses, to execute them without trial. His own militias “feared him more than they feared the enemy,” perhaps because he ordered six men shot for absconding shortly before being honored in New Orleans for his exceptional military service.
Thanks to his humble Scots-Irish background, Jackson appeared to many voters like a self-made man who would expand democracy for the have-nots. But as with his military career, Jackson’s public image masked a darker reality. As a soldier and politician, but most strikingly as a slaveholder himself, Jackson displayed a deeper commitment to the institution of slavery than any other president. And for good reason — the slave system enabled his class mobility.
In 1804 — before he invaded Spanish Florida to search for slaves in 1818 and before he pressured Congress to prohibit any mail deemed “anti-slavery” from being transmitted in 1835 — Jackson bought the Hermitage Plantation in Nashville. Eventually, he would enslave approximately 150 people, as well as fifty more at Halcyon, which he owned with his son.
One of Jackson’s many advertisements for runaways offered “ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.” At Hermitage, Jackson whipped the enslaved men, women, and children to increase labor productivity. On their backs, he ascended to society’s slaveholding elite, and became the first and only president to have traded slaves.
For almost sixty years, he participated in the domestic slave trade that extended from Virginia to the Gulf of Mexico.
Jackson’s Real Record
Ascending to the nation’s highest office didn’t make Jackson any more benevolent.
In 1829, the year Jackson was inaugurated, gold was discovered on Cherokee lands in Georgia. White colonists razed and destroyed Native property and claimed the bullion. Jackson, citing states’ rights, refused to intervene. (His support for federalism seemed to disappear during the Nullification Crisis, when he used federal authority to enforce tariffs over South Carolina’s objections.) Eventually, the Supreme Court, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, backed Jackson.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 — described at the time as “the leading measure” of Jackson’s administration and “the greatest question that ever came before Congress” — took effect only a year after Jackson assumed the presidency. The order called for the forceful relocation of the Cherokee, Muscogee-Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations — over ninety thousand people — from the eastern United States.
The act effectively legalized ethnic cleansing in the United States. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “the conduct of the United States Americans toward the natives was inspired by the most chaste affection for legal formalities. . . . It is impossible to destroy men with more respect to the laws of humanity.”
Jackson likened indigenous people to “savage dogs” and boasted as a general that “I have on all occasions preserved the scalps of my killed.” The Indian Removal law would ultimately be responsible for the deaths of over four thousand Cherokees on the Trail of Tears. In an 1830 appeal, the Cherokee Nation leaders wrote:
[There are many] who could not think of living as outlaws in their native land, exposed to numberless vexations, and excluded from being parties or witnesses in a court of justice. . . . We cannot endure to be deprived of our national and individual rights, and subjected to a process of intolerable oppression.
Jackson’s removal policy would inspire the Nazis’ Lebensraum as they attempted to forcibly resettle the Polish people. Hitler even praised Jackson’s ruthlessly efficient murder of the Native Americans and considered building a “reservation” for the Jews in the Lubin area.
The accomplishment that’s supposed to make up for all of this bloodshed is Jackson’s role in increasing the popular classes’ democratic participation.
But even this achievement is questionable. Broader developments in industry and commercial agriculture boosted political involvement; Jackson’s contribution doesn’t seem to extend past his image as a “common man.”
From Richard Hofstadter to Lee Benson to Richard McCormick, an array of historians have not only refuted the idea that the era saw a national, democratic uprising, but questioned whether Jackson played any part in the movement that did heighten popular interest in politics between 1824 and 1848. Well before the Age of Jackson, more and more white men were receiving the right to vote. And Jackson’s “era of democracy” also yielded the loss of the franchise for free black men and foreign-born voters in several states, as well as the barring of immigrants from the polls nearly everywhere.
Fundamentally, Jackson’s goal wasn’t to empower the downtrodden, but to enhance his own prestige and power. “Democracy was good talk with which to win the favor of the people,” Thomas Abernethy writes, “and thereby accomplish ulterior objectives [but] Jackson never really championed the cause of the people; he only invited them to champion his.”
As Sean Wilentz puts it, “the leading Jacksonians were shown to be not champions of deprived workers and small farmers, but cold-blooded political entrepreneurs, often men of great wealth or men eager to become wealthy, whose main purpose was to get power and keep it.”
Far from expanding the political capacities of the popular classes, Jackson’s largest contribution to American democracy was to empower the slavocracy.
An Indelible Stain
Andrew Jackson’s barbarous actions in the military became infamous; his land grabs and slaveholding amassed him a fortune; his treatment of Native Americans codified mass extermination. Even after leaving office, Jackson called on American troops to seek out and kill indigenous women and children: to do otherwise, he wrote, was like hunting “a wolf in the hammocks without knowing first where her den and whelps were.”
Jackson symbolized American authority, which perhaps explains why many still praise his “genuine conviction.” But he was no more a President of the People than he was a friend to the Indians (as he once claimed during land negotiations). He was, rather, a murderous racist, an opportunistic appropriator of democratic rhetoric.
And he left an indelible stain on American society.