No One Should Want Trump to Be Like Andrew Jackson
by Benjamin Studebaker
Today I read that President Trump has hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the oval office. One of Trump’s spokespeople heaped praise on Jackson, calling him:
an amazing figure in American history — very unique so many ways
Jackson was indeed unique–uniquely terrible. Many on the left dislike Jackson because of his mistreatment of Native Americans, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Jackson was objectively and provably a disastrous president for all Americans, native or otherwise. I continue to see Trump get compared to Jackson, but none of these comparisons capture just how bad Jackson was for the country. The 1830s were so long ago that few now remember just how absurdly terrible they were. Let me tell you all about it.
In 1828, Andrew Jackson defeated the incumbent John Quincy Adams to become the 7th President of the United States. In 1828, Adams was the most experienced presidential candidate in history–a distinction he still holds to this day. Adams had been president for four years, Secretary of State under James Monroe, minister to four different European powers (Britain, Russia, Prussia, and the Netherlands), and even senator for a term. Jackson had the least experience in public office of anyone to run for president to that point. He had served one term in the house and small pieces of two senate terms. Most of Jackson’s experience was military and most of that military experience was against the Seminoles in Florida.
It made no difference. Jackson ran a populist campaign and decimated Adams:
Adams subscribed so what was then called “the American System“. Modelled after the ideas of Alexander Hamilton, Adams sought to industrialize the country and turn it into a great power. He used tariffs to protect newborn American industries from their established British competitors, invested heavily in roads, canals, and other infrastructure, and created the Second Bank of the United States to stabilize prices and facilitate commerce.
Jackson was uninterested in industrialization. Having won the election with support from many southern, slaveholding, agricultural states, Jackson pandered to agrarian sensibilities. The southern states were slower to industrialize and despised protective tariffs, as they made it more expensive to import British manufactured goods and made it more difficult for Britain to buy southern cotton. South Carolina attempted to nullify the tariffs. Initially, Jackson talked a tough game. He threatened to use federal power to enforce the tariffs, and accused South Carolina of treason:
The laws of the United States must be executed. I have no discretionary power on the subject–my duty is emphatically pronounced in the Constitution. Those who told you that you might peaceably prevent their execution, deceived you–they could not have been deceived themselves. They know that a forcible opposition could alone prevent the execution of the laws, and they know that such opposition must be repelled. Their object is disunion: but be not deceived by names: disunion, by armed force, is treason.
Congress passed the Force Bill, authorizing Jackson to ransack South Carolina until it submitted. But Jackson’s bark was worse than his bite. He signed legislation to reduce the tariffs. At the time, Jackson was praised for averting a violent confrontation, but his compromise left the issue of nullification unresolved and eventually led to a much larger conflagration–the Civil War.
Jackson redirected infrastructure spending away from the industrial north and over to the largely unpopulated west. He also set a dreadful precedent by vetoing federal assistance for the Kentucky Turnpike, claiming that federal money should not be used to finance “local” projects. His decision would help to delay federal support for railroads by more than two decades, when the feds finally took an interest in helping build the Transcontinental Railroad.
It gets worse. Jackson refused to renew the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. When that charter ran out, public money was put into the hands of state banks. These state banks immediately embarked upon a policy of reckless lending, inflating land prices and exposing the state banks to undue risk. Rather than reconsider closing the national bank or regulating the state banks, Jackson blamed the inflation on the existence of paper money. He issued the “Specie Circular”, an executive order which required all land purchases from the federal government to be made in gold and silver. This destroyed the value of the paper currency and caused land prices to crash, as prospective purchasers struggled and failed to raise necessary metal. To make matters worse, Jackson had put a lot of the government’s money in “pet banks” located out west–in the states that were his core support base. This deprived the industrial northeast of the investment it needed to grow.
If these policies sound like a recipe for economic disaster, it’s because they are–the result was the Panic of 1837. But by 1837, Jackson’s handpicked successor–Martin Van Buren–was president. So it was Van Buren, not Jackson, who would earn the public’s hatred and lose the 1840 election to Tippecanoe and Tyler Too:
Jackson’s policies devastated the country’s economy for years. Using the Maddison Project’s historical economic data, we can estimate the per capita growth rates for the years surrounding the panic. It was a grim period. There were multiple years of recession:
It wasn’t until 1845 that the economy permanently recovered to 1836 levels:
That 9 year malaise is the among the worst in US history, exceeded only by the Great Depression (which had an 11 year recovery–according to Maddison, US per capita GDP first exceeded 1929 levels in 1940).
But that’s not all–Jackson is the creator of the infamous spoils system. Under the spoils system, newly elected US presidents would purge the civil service and hand out government jobs to friends, supporters, and even relatives. When Jackson took power, he fired 10% of the federal workforce, replacing experienced hands who had served under the founding fathers with his goons. This began a tradition that would continue for decades, ensuring that the federal government was consistently full of incompetent buffoons, corrupt swamp monsters, and presidential lackeys. This went on unchecked for half a century before Chester Arthur finally signed the Pendleton Act in 1883, which set up a merit-based system. Even then, many federal employees continued to get their hands dirty in politics until the passage of the Hatch Act in 1939, and the spoils system was copied at state and local levels, introducing a culture of corruption throughout the republic which arguably persists in some places to this day.
It should not surprise us that between Jackson’s inauguration of the spoils system and the passage of the Pendleton Act, historians rank most presidential administrations poorly. With incompetent and corrupt civil servants, it was difficult for the federal government to implement effective policies. Only two US presidents between Jackson and Arthur are ranked by historians as better than 20th all-time–James Polk and Abraham Lincoln. Immediately after Arthur signed the Pendleton Act, rankings improved:
Jackson was an awful president. We’ve hardly even mentioned the Native Americans. You don’t have to be some kind of lefty to see Jackson for what he was–the ultimate fount of corruption and incompetence in American politics, the living embodiment of the thin end of the wedge.
Yet many on the right will continue to let Jackson get away with it, for the same reason that Americans have always let Jackson get away with it–because he acted like a badass. Jackson killed people in duels. When an assassin tried to bring him down, he beat the man with his cane. Sure, Jackson rolled over on tariffs, but first he used the word “treason”. He’s so tough! We let Jackson’s tough talk obscure the reality that he had no notion of what he was doing, sank the country’s economy for a decade, and handed its civil service over to generations of goons.
This is Donald Trump’s favorite president? We should shudder at the thought and hope to whatever gods we worship that Trump doesn’t match Jackson’s fecklessness.