Jacksonian America Essay

23f. Jacksonian Democracy and Modern America

Andrew Jackson rose to national prominance as a General during the War of 1812.

The presidential election of 1828 brought a great victory for Andrew Jackson. Not only did he get almost 70 percent of the votes cast in the electoral college, popular participation in the election soared to an unheard of 60 percent. This more than doubled the turnout in 1824; Jackson clearly headed a sweeping political movement. His central message remained largely the same from the previous election, but had grown in intensity. Jackson warned that the nation had been corrupted by "special privilege," characterized especially by the policies of the Second Bank of the United States. The proper road to reform, according to Jackson, lay in an absolute acceptance of majority rule as expressed through the democratic process. Beyond these general principles, however, Jackson's campaign was notably vague about specific policies. Instead, it stressed Jackson's life story as a man who had risen from modest origins to become a successful Tennessee planter. Jackson's claim to distinction lay in a military career that included service as a young man in the Revolutionary War, several anti-Indian campaigns, and, of course, his crowning moment in the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812.

Jackson's election marked a new direction in American politics. He was the first westerner elected president, indeed, the first president from a state other than Virginia or Massachusetts. He boldly proclaimed himself to be the "champion of the common man" and believed that their interests were ignored by the aggressive national economic plans of Clay and Adams. More than this, however, when Martin Van Buren followed Jackson as president, it indicated that the Jacksonian movement had long-term significance that would outlast his own charismatic leadership.

Andrew Jackson is known to have harbored animosity for Native Americans. During his administration, many tribes were moved to reservations in the Oklahoma Territory.

Van Buren, perhaps even more than Jackson, helped to create the new Democratic party that centered upon three chief qualities closely linked to Jacksonian Democracy. First, it declared itself to be the party of ordinary farmers and workers. Second, it opposed the special privileges of economic elites. Third, to offer affordable western land to ordinary white Americans, Indians needed to be forced further westward. The Whig party soon arose to challenge the Democrats with a different policy platform and vision for the nation. Whigs' favored active government support for economic improvement as the best route to sustained prosperity. Thus, the Whig-Democrat political contest was in large part a disagreement about the early Industrial Revolution. Whigs defended economic development's broad benefits, while Democrats stressed the new forms of dependence that it created. The fiercely partisan campaigns waged between these parties lasted into the 1850s and are known as the Second Party System, an assuredly modern framework of political competition that reached ordinary voters as never before with both sides organizing tirelessly to carry their message directly to the American people.

A "mob" descended upon Andrew Jackson at the White House to celebrate his victory in the election of 1828. Public parties were regular occurrences during Jackson's administration.

A new era of American politics began with Jackson's election in 1828, but it also completed a grand social experiment begun by the American Revolution. Although the Founding Fathers would have been astounded by the new shape of the nation during Jackson's presidency, just as Jackson himself had served in the American Revolution, its values helped form his sense of the world. The ideals of the Revolution had, of course, been altered by the new conditions of the early nineteenth century and would continue to be reworked over time. Economic, religious, and geographic changes had all reshaped the nation in fundamental ways and pointed toward still greater opportunities and pitfalls in the future. Nevertheless, Jacksonian Democracy represented a provocative blending of the best and worst qualities of American society. On the one hand it was an authentic democratic movement that contained a principled egalitarian thrust, but this powerful social critique was always cast for the benefit of white men. This tragic mix of egalitarianism, masculine privilege, and racial prejudice remains a central quality of American life and to explore their relationship in the past may help suggest ways of overcoming their haunting limitations in the future.

The Hermitage
The election of 1828 has been labeled as one of the dirtiest in history; it also drew a higher population of voters to the polls than ever before. Let's face it, people like dirt. In keeping with this tradition, the caretakers of the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's estate, have set up a site where the election of 1828 is recreated, including "up-to-date" news on the status of the election. In addition, you can find out about Jackson's life, as well as details about his beautiful estate.

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Presidents of the United States: Andrew Jackson
Old Hickory, as Andrew Jackson came to be known, rode into office on a landslide of popular sentiment, winning 55% of the popular vote in an election where 60% of the total population showed up. Born in a log cabin, and having no formal education, Jackson fought in the Revolutionary War at age 13; he was the only President who served in both the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

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Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson signed into effect the Indian Removal Act of 1830, displacing all Indians east of the Mississippi River. His policies directly led to the Trail of Tears, in which a quarter of all Cherokees who made the march died before they reached their destination of Oklahoma. Not all of Andrew Jackson's policy enforcing was this flawed; however, the concise biography about Jackson found at this site discusses some of the more negative aspects of his Presidency.

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Andrew Jackson on Indian Removal
For all of the benefits of Jacksonian Democracy, a massive flaw was its obvious racial prejudice. The PBS site linked here has taken excerpts from Andrew Jackson's Seventh Annual Message to Congress in 1835. In it, Jackson infers that the Indians are uncivilized and in need of government help to ensure their prosperity. These assumptions led Jackson to enforce legislation that has haunted America to the present day.

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President Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
The Library of Congress has created a great resource for information on Martin Van Buren. Included are images of Van Buren and links to notable events during his presidency, such as the economic crisis labeled the Panic of 1837.

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The Rough and Tumble World of 19th Century Politics
Dirty campaigning was the order of the day during the era of Jacksonian Democracy. It was during this time that words like "mudslinging," "corrupt bargaining," and "duplicity" became associated with American Presidential politics. Look at this site to find out how the time of the statesman ran out with the coming of "Old Hickory."

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At the last public party of Andrew Jackson's Administration, a giant wheel of cheese weighing over 1,400 lbs. was "rolled" in and completely eaten by the guests in 2 hours. The White House reeked of cheese for weeks after the event.
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by Michael Kaplan

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, by Emanuel Leutze, 1862.  A classic allegory of Jacksonian America and one of the most ambitious statements of Jacksonian nationalism and empire building in the nineteenth century.  Architect of the Capitol.

Leutze’s mural study for the Capitol in celebrated the idea of Manifest Destiny just when the Civil War threatened the republic. The surging crowd of figures records the births, deaths, and battles fought as European Americans settled the continent to the edge of the Pacific. Like Moses and the Israelites who appear in the ornate borders of the painting, these pioneers stand at the threshold of the Promised Land, ready to fulfill what many nineteenth-century Americans believed was God’s plan for the nation.

Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Anatol Lieven, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000 (New York: Viking Penguin, 2005).

It was not the best of times for the United States Army. American soldiers had come overseas to uplift a downtrodden people and bring them the blessings of democracy and good government. Now, much to their surprise, the Americans found themselves struggling to suppress an insurgency among the people they were supposed to liberate. One soldier wrote that despite “frequent drubbings” at the hands of his comrades, the insurgents “‘bob up serenely’ at different points and it seems to be quite a job to subdue them.” Many of the soldiers were National Guardsmen without training for a mission they poorly understood and whose morale was undermined by unanticipated terrorist attacks. Army units were hobbled by a lack reliable intelligence and no knowledge of an alien culture and language. The Americans soon found that despite harsh, even savage, counterinsurgency measures—torture and abuse of prisoners, destruction of property and towns, confinement of civilians, leading to the deaths of thousands—the insurgency would not be suppressed. Iraq 2005? No, the Philippines 1899.[1]

Largely forgotten today as an epilogue to the triumphant Spanish-American War, the Philippine War remains an example of how the best of American intentions can go awry in the quest for empire. The United States took control of the Philippines largely for Hamiltonian motives of projecting America’s economic power in east Asia, but also for the Wilsonian ideal of spreading democracy. The war to suppress the Philippine insurgency soon fell into the pattern of Jacksonian wars against the Indians. American generals had spent their early careers fighting the Sioux and the Apache. Theodore Roosevelt and other boosters of empire, insisting that national honor was at stake, urged the use of Jacksonian measures of total war to “subdue the savages.”[2] 

But this was not a war that Jacksonians wanted to fight. The rank-and-file soldiers, Jacksonian nationalists all, had serious doubts about their mission and wanted nothing more than to go home. They looked with contempt on the Filipinos as “niggers,” and did not believe that the United States had any business taking on the burden of responsibility for nonwhite peoples who showed little capacity for self-government. “To use state power to reform and reconstruct societies inhabited by people whose skin colors and religions made white Americans distinctly uncomfortable was to go to the heart of the American dilemma about the appeals of liberty and empire, choice and coercion, freedom and power, whether the location was Alabama, Manhattan, or Luzon.”[3]While Jacksonian nationalists were the traditional supporters of America’s continental expansion, they had no desire to rule an overseas empire.

Equestrian Statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square, Washington, DC

Jacksonian nationalism has started to get the attention it deserves as a major force in shaping American culture and foreign policy. In large part this is due to the debate over the meaning of American empire that has taken on great urgency since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The question of whether America is a republic or an empire is an old one. While the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, frequently described the new republic as a rising empire, critics of American foreign policy from the opponents of the Mexican War in the 1840s to the opponents of the current war in Iraq have insisted that the United States betrayed its republican ideals and institutions in pursuit of world power. In their recent works, Walter Russell Mead, Anatol Lieven, and Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton examine the historical roots of America’s impulse to empire.

Jacksonian populist nationalism is central to understanding American empire in all three of these works. The authors also place Jacksonian nationalism alongside other streams of thought in American culture: Mead contrasts Jacksonianism with the Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, and Jeffersonian “schools” of foreign policy; Lieven conceives of the Jacksonian “tradition,” which incorporates Frontier, Nativist, White South, and Protestant Fundamentalist traditions, as an antithesis to the American Creed of civic nationalism; Anderson and Cayton look at Jackson’s “vision” of a populist empire in light of the imperial visions of William Penn, George Washington, Ulysses Grant, and Douglas MacArthur. Lieven in particular finds the role of Jacksonianism in shaping American culture and foreign policy most problematic and disturbing. But all of these authors trace those aspects of American foreign policy and the American character that confound Europeans these days to Andrew Jackson and the Scots-Irish frontier settlers he represented.

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(For the complete PBS documentary Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil, and the Presidency, on video, click here.)

Andrew Jackson and Jacksonian nationalism have so profoundly shaped the American character that the United States can rightly be called “Old Hickory’s Nation.” Walter Russell Mead made the conceptual breakthrough of looking at Jacksonianism not just as a political ideology limited to the Age of Jackson in the nineteenth century. Rather, as Mead defines it, Jacksonianism is a community of political feeling emanating from a populist folk culture. Jacksonianism is, in Mead’s words, “an expression of the social, cultural, and religious values of a large portion of the American public,” and is characterized by “a strong sense of common values and common destiny.”[4]Jacksonianism is poorly understood because its members are poorly represented in the cultural elites of Hollywood, the media, and academia. Listening to talk radio, the voice of contemporary Jacksonian populism, you can find that antipathies are mutual. Liberal commentators from H. L. Mencken onwards have dismissed Jacksonians as “Boobus Americanus” mired in ignorance, religious zealotry, jingoism, and racism, while Rush Limbaugh and a host of conservative commentators have raged against the “pointy headed academics in their ivory towers” as self-righteous snobs who are contemptuous of the values and institutions that ordinary Americans hold dear. Anti-intellectualism, the legacy of Scots-Irish resentment of the educated elites in England and New England, has been one of the less attractive sides of Jacksonian culture.[5]

“America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.”[6] G. K. Chesterton’s classic observation expresses the conventional wisdom of many historians and commentators who define American identity in terms of ideology—Lieven’s American Creed—and mulitculturalism. Mead, followed by Lieven and Anderson and Cayton, while recognizing the importance of the American Creed of civic nationalism, reject it as the sole basis of American identity. They insist that American national identity also rests on ethnic and cultural foundations—Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish—just like the nations of Europe. Samuel Huntington and Michael Lind have written that the original Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish settlers of the British colonies created the culture and institutions of the American nation to which all later comers were assimilated. Jacksonians conceive of the American nation as an English-speaking, Christian (in origins if not practice) folk community of European origins. Jacksonian populism, Mead argues, played the key role in assimilating later European, and now non-European, immigrants into the American cultural values of rugged individualism, entrepreneurialism, home ownership, and democracy. Jacksonianism made the American melting pot and the American dream a reality.[7]

The core value of Jacksonian populism, according to Mead, is honor. The Scots-Irish settlers of the American backcountry were a people of great pride despite their poverty. This proved a major “source of irritation to their English neighbors, who could not understand what they had to be proud about.” Despite their humble origins, the Scots-Irish did not behave in the spirit of humility and subordination expected of the lower sorts. “This combination of poverty and pride set the North Britons squarely apart from other English-speaking people in the American colonies.” The fierce pride of the North British emigrants would give birth to the Jacksonian code of honor. The Jacksonian code of honor is made up of several parts. The first principle of Jacksonian honor is self-reliance and respect for those who embody it. “Border emigrants demanded to be treated with respect even when dressed in rags.” The Jacksonian makes his or her own way in the world through hard work without either government handouts or inherited wealth and connections. Economic success or authority based on knowledge, talent, and experience, when achieved through honest work and not through corruption and chicanery is respected. Equality and individualism are the second and third principles of the Jacksonian honor code, but they also require “acceptance of certain social mores and principles.” Among these are loyalty to the family, responsibility for proper raising of children, “sexual decency (usually identified with heterosexual monogamy, which can be serial),” and honesty within the community. The Jacksonian code also expects a man to cut a dashing figure in the world and assert his personality with boisterous style, even if he has to borrow on credit to do it. Finally, and most of all, courage, a man’s willingness to stand up for what is right, to defend his family, his honor and liberty, his community and his country, by force of arms and violence when necessary, are the most compelling parts of the Jacksonian code.[8]

Andrew Jackson as romantic military hero

Andrew Jackson himself was a true American original who embodied the Jacksonian code to the fullest. He “rewrote the book on American political leaders” and “dominated the American political process more fully than any president before or since.” Jackson achieved all this through the force of his personality. “His was a brutish world in which freedom and violence were so inextricably intertwined that those who prospered did so less by virtue of their social connections…than because they were tough enough to strike at potential enemies before they could land the first blow.” Jackson was more than willing to use violence to achieve his ends whether through duels or fighting the Indians and the British. “The great lesson of his youth was that survival depended on the expression of passion rather than its restraint.” Jackson conceived of liberty as personal autonomy and the freedom of local interests from federal interference. This was the liberty of white male patriarchs to dominate their families and their local worlds. Men were first and foremost the protectors of women, children, and the community. Such a concept of liberty resonates with Jacksonians to this day: the modern populist conservative movement is dedicated to preventing big government from intruding in the ways Americans live their lives, as long as those lives are lived according to the precepts of the Jacksonian code. And in a raw nation struggling to create an identity, “Violent aggression against ‘others’ allowed the relentlessly competing white men of the United States to become brothers bound together in a common cause, the defense of liberty.” Building a North American empire through ethnic cleansing of the Indians, in which Jackson played a central role, shaped a racially exclusive definition of American identity.[9]

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While Mead does not ignore the dark side of Jacksonianism—racism, xenophobia, a tendency to violence—he nonetheless emphasizes the positive contributions Jacksonianism has made to America. And Mead insists that Jacksonian America has been changing, overcoming its racist past, at a rapid pace for a folk culture. Anatol Lieven, on the other hand, sees very little to recommend Jacksonian America. Jacksonianism, America's “demon in the cellar,” having been shaped by the violence of the frontier and defeat at the hands of metropolitan modernizing “blue” America—the defeat of the white South in the Civil War was the most devastating of these—is little more than a culture of hatred and paranoia. Lieven seems to confirm all the conservative stereotypes of the liberal internationalist elitist who looks down on the people of “flyover country.” His analysis of Jacksonian culture sometimes descends into caricature. In fact Lieven’s main concern seems to be that Jacksonian nationalism is preventing the United States from finally fulfilling its destiny as a great civilizational empire, like Rome, that transcends racial and ethnic divisions, assimilates alien peoples to its Creed and culture and projects its cultural influence through space and time.[10] Unlike many critics on the left, Lieven has no problem with the idea of an American empire so long as it is not racially or religiously exclusive and can provide benevolent order and stability for the rest of the world through multilateral cooperation. This means that the United States must never engage in any unilateral assertion of power or take any action in the world without getting the permission of the European Union. Not surprisingly, Mead finds Lieven’s thesis overly pessimistic and less than persuasive. All that being said, Lieven does offer some important insights about the Jacksonian tradition.

The mainstream of American history has been a story of repeated triumph and success that produced the most dynamic and powerful nation in history. But this has not been the experience of all Americans. Unlike Mead and Anderson and Cayton who tell a story of Jacksonian success, Lieven believes that Jacksonian nationalism is rooted in the experience of defeat and humiliation by large groups in the United States that puts them out of step with the overall sense of triumph and progress in American history. “In the U.S. this sense of defeat and embattlement resides in four distinct but overlapping elements of the American nationalist tradition: the original, ‘core’ White Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish populations of the British colonies in North America; the specific historical culture and experience of the White South; the cultural world of fundamental Protestantism; and the particular memories, fears and hatreds of some American ethnic groups and lobbies.”[11]

If Mead emphasizes the assimilative power of Jacksonian America, Lieven sees this as the assimilation of hatred and racism by newer immigrant groups, especially Irish Catholics, East Europeans, and Jews, whose own histories of defeat led them to compensate by becoming rabidly nationalistic. This has had an unfortunate influence on America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. American support for Israel is based in part, Lieven believes, on Jacksonian admiration “for Israel’s tough, militarist society and its repeated victories in war,” and a strong affinity between right-wing Israeli nationalism and the American pioneer tradition. Jacksonian Americans who still celebrate their own heritage of conquering the land from the “savage” Native American Indians, which they liken to the ancient Israelite occupation of Canaan, can relate to the modern Israeli conquest and expulsion of the “savage” Arab Palestinians.[12]

The Jacksonian code of honor, Lieven believes, is nothing more than a means of enforcing and legitimizing a Herrenvolk democracy: an egalitarian white society of small producer farmers and artisans that excludes nonwhites. For Lieven, core elements of Jacksonian nationalism, “nativism, antielitism, anti-intellectualism and dislike of the Northeast,” but most especially “a strong sense of White identity, and violent hostility to other races,” are in conflict with the American Creed of constitutionalism, the rule of law, liberty, democracy, and equal rights and justice for all—the vision of America as the city on a hill. Mead saw a similar conflict: “Through most of American history and to a large extent event today, equal rights emerge from and depend on this popular culture of equality and honor rather than flow out of abstract principles or written documents.” The law has often been unable to protect the equal rights of unpopular minorities “in the teeth of popular feeling and culture.”[13] But while Lieven sees no diminishing of Jacksonian bigotry, Mead finds a growing tolerance in Jacksonian popular culture that is merging the Jacksonian code of honor with the American Creed.

Lieven finds disturbing implications in this Jacksonian conception of freedom. Freedom is restricted only to members of the Jacksonian community in good standing as defined in moral, cultural, and until recently, racial and ethnic terms. The old Jacksonian saying was “Free, White, and Twenty-one.” And so freedom is defined and circumscribed by the culture and moral values of the community. “The freedom of aliens, who do not share this culture, or deviants therefore can legitimately be circumscribed by authoritarian and even savage means, as long as the aim is to defend the community and reflects the will of the sound members of the community.” Historian David Hackett Fischer traced the roots of this attitude to the Scots-Irish idea of “natural liberty,” developed in the anarchic and violent conditions of the border culture of North Britain. It was the most radically libertarian concept liberty, the most “strenuously hostile to ordering institutions” to emerge in British America. But such liberty was not reciprocal; it did not tolerate dissent or any deviance from the community’s cultural norms.[14] Following Mead, Lieven argues for the absolute distinction Jacksonians make between those who are inside the community and accorded its protections, and those who are outside. As the Patriot Act indicates, the rule of law applies only to a limited extent to suspected terrorists who are not American citizens. “Death to the enemies of the community!” This distinction has led to the sanctioning of torture at Abu Ghraib prison and the deaths of 26 prisoners of war in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan.[15]

Lieven and Mead do agree that fundamentalist Christianity has added a strain of pessimism to the Jacksonian worldview. Jacksonian culture believes in original sin and rejects the Enlightenment’s belief in human perfectibility. This is in sharp contrast to the more optimistic mainline and evangelical Protestantism of the missionaries that is central to Wilsonianism. As a result, Jacksonians reject Wilsonian and Hamiltonian plans to build a peaceful world order. The most likely result will be a corrupt and malevolent world order not accountable to the democratic will of the people and thus hostile to the well being of the people. Jacksonians fear and loathe the United Nations: Kofi Annan’s role in the oil for food scandal has done nothing to alleviate this fear. Evangelical Christianity “was built on suspicion and rejection of universal institutions like the Catholic Church,” viewing international organizations as nothing more than tools of the Antichrist. A shared distrust of the motives of the international community helped create a new alliance between evangelical Christians and Orthodox and Zionist Jews. Evangelicals and Jews alike have expressed outrage at the U.N.’s indulgence of anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish state. “Right-wing American Christians have united with many American Jews not only to defend Israel against its enemies but also against what they see as a deeply flawed and even wicked moral basis of most of the world’s ruling elites.” For Lieven, of course, this is precisely the problem.[16]

General Jackson leads his men against the British invaders at the Battle of New Orleans

Lieven goes further than Mead in arguing that the fundamentalist Protestant religious nationalism of Jacksonian America is ideologically premodern and that the agenda of the contemporary Christian Right is nothing less than the abolition of the Enlightenment. This conflation of religion and nationalism can be traced back to the Scots-Irish homeland in Northern Ireland. Since the collapse of Afrikaner religious nationalism in South Africa, “the Ulster Protestant Loyalists are the only people anywhere else in the developed world whose culture and ideology resembles that of American evangelical Christianity.” Calvinist settlers in Ireland, America, and South Africa found in the Old Testament “both a language and a theological framework” to justify ethnic cleansing. “The biblical tones of Jackson’s addresses to the Cherokee and Creek demanding their removal across the Mississippi River were prefigured 150 years earlier in Cromwell’s addresses to Irish Catholics demanding their removal ‘to Hell or Connaught.’”[17]

Condemning Jacksonian influence in foreign affairs, Lieven fails to consider that Jacksonians often oppose American intervention abroad. While Jacksonians have no problems launching preemptive wars and overthrowing dictators, they only support such action when the security of the American people and the honor of the American nation are at stake. Jacksonians oppose idealistic or imperialist missions to spread democracy and remake the world in the American image. Thus the real reason that President Bush emphasized weapons of mass destruction as a reason to go to war in Iraq was to gain the support of the Jacksonian public, which would not have backed a war where there was no threat to American security. The flip side of the Jacksonian division of the world into the American folk community and the dark world outside is a recognition that other nations have their own folk communities, traditions and imperatives; they cannot be forced to adopt American values and institutions.[18] Jacksonians are not, to bring up Lieven’s bete noire, neoconservatives. The neoconservatives are using Jacksonian methods to achieve Wilsonian ends. So what then was the Jacksonian concept of empire?

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Jacksonians envisioned an American continental empire of autonomous local communities of white American citizens, write Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton. The Jacksonian vision was of a populist empire led by a white Scots-Irish and Anglo-Saxon band of brothers. Andrew Jackson’s own childhood on the frontier, where Scots-Irish families “experienced the American Revolution as an episode in the ongoing defense of family and community against an array of threatening outsiders” including “redcoats, Hessians, Tory irregulars, and Indian warriors,” shaped this vision.[19] Even earlier the warlike tendencies of the Scots-Irish were formed in clan warfare on the borders of England and Scotland and through savage frontier warfare with the Catholic Irish in seventeenth-century Ulster. Senator James Webb, who described the Scots-Irish as “born fighting,” believes that their central character trait as a people is “the mistrust of authority, the reliance on strong tribal rather than national leaders, and the willingness to take the law into one’s own hands rather than waiting for a solution to come down from above.” Andrew Jackson, the frontier border captain, certainly fit this description. As James Parton, an early Jackson biographer, wrote, “It appears to be more difficult for a North-of-Irelander than for other men to allow an honest difference of opinion in an opponent, so that he is apt to regard the terms opponent and enemy as synonymous.”[20]

Jacksonians rejected “a multicultural world that white Americans saw as both dangerous and anachronistic,” discarding the “traditional notion of North American empire as the dynamic product of constantly negotiated relationships among many local communities.” George Washington held on to this older notion of relations between whites and Indians, insisting that America should engage in an orderly process of building a republican empire. While Washington was willing to use force against hostile Indians he believed it should only be a last resort. He preferred making treaties with the various Indian nations leading to a peaceful accommodation between the natives and the United States. The idea of ethnic cleansing or extermination of the Indians appalled Washington. His hope was that the Indians could eventually be assimilated peacefully into white American society.[21]

Andrew Jackson with the Tennessee Forces on the Hickory Grounds (Ala), 1814.  Library of Congress.

But for Jacksonians removal or extermination of the Indians was the idea. Jacksonians embraced a “new romantic conception of the United States as an expression of a homogenous national identity [that] required the subjugation of all alternatives, no matter how local or peripheral.”[22] Anatol Lieven speculates that had the South succeeded in securing its independence in the Civil War, it would have emphasized Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish ethnicity and fundamentalist Protestantism as the main elements of a southern national identity, in contrast to the increasing ethnic heterogeneity of the North.[23]

This new national identity, though, was not meant to preclude or undermine the autonomy and liberty of local communities of white Americans. The proper role of the federal government was to remove all threats to local liberty while not becoming such a threat itself, and leaving white communities and individual white Americans free to pursue happiness. In their pursuit of empire, Americans have as often resented the intrusion of the federal government as they have relied on it. The Scots-Irish frontier settlers, as Anderson and Cayton point out, demanded two things as the price of loyalty to the United States: cheap land and the ethnic cleansing of the Indians. “The direct exercise of federal power in almost any other form” especially in the forms of direct federal taxation and protection of the lands guaranteed to the Indians by treaty, “was unwelcome and might easily become the occasion for massive resistance.” Hatred of the Indians and of intrusive federal authority was even more pronounced south of the Ohio River than north of it. This was a root cause of the Civil War.[24]

Sam Houston at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend

It was in the crucible of frontier warfare with the Indians that Americans developed their preferred strategy of fighting total wars until unconditional surrender. Jacksonians, then and now, view war not as politics by other means, but as a good vs. evil struggle to defend the community against its enemies. After his decisive victory over the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend, Alabama on March 27, 1814, Jackson defended his slaughter of the defeated enemy as the only way to convince a savage foe to sue for peace. Because of his victory and the courage of the Tennessee militia, the “Barbarians” would “no longer murder our women & children, or disturb the quiet of our borders” since “they have disappeared from the face of the Earth.” Jackson expressed an even more primal satisfaction at the destruction of the Creeks. “We have seen the ravens & vultures preying upon the carcasses of the unburied slain. Our vengeance has been gluted.” Anderson and Cayton comment that the destruction of the Creeks was, for Jackson, “the climax of a life lived intimately with violence, it unleashed his passions and the fury of his men in a dance of death that continued until they had spent the last of their strength.”[25]

Such sentiments resonate today in the midst of the life and death struggle with Islamic jihadism. Jacksonians respect power: they believe, in Rush Limbaugh’s words that “the world is governed by the aggressive use of force.” Donald Rumsfeld remarked at one his press conferences that the tactics of the war on terror were to kill as many of the enemy as possible. Dick Cheney likewise, in Leslie Gelb’s words, “sees the dark side of the world, a reality that largely eludes Democrats but not most Americans. He understands power and knows how to wield it….”[26] Lieven fears that fighting the war on terror in such stark Jacksonian terms will prevent the United States from developing the multilateral cooperation he believes it needs to win the war.

Elite northeastern Whigs “who shared Washington’s vision of a republican empire making an orderly progress across North America,” feared that Jackson’s unrestrained populism would transform America into a land of lawlessness and chaos. “By the 1820s,” Anderson and Cayton conclude, “war in the United States had become an expression of personal interest, territorial conquest, and racial hatred; the impulse to empire reflected the collective power of a brotherhood of English-speaking white men united to protect the United States and all it stood for in their minds.” Jackson’s political rivals, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, who initially shared Jackson’s vision of a populist empire, had come to see Old Hickory as a real danger to republican institutions. Jackson could well turn himself into a military dictator, an American Bonaparte. “Jackson was a symbol of naked aggression, of personal liberty run rampant into violence, of a new American order in which almost anything was deemed acceptable if it could be construed as a defense of American families, American values, and American freedom.”[27]

It is this core idea of Jacksonian nationalism that Lieven believes is being exploited and misused by the Bush administration in the war on terror. Jacksonian bellicosity so applied, in Lieven’s view, transformed the war on terror from a legitimate defense of American national security by hunting down al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, to a war for empire in Iraq. In a war against inhuman savages, be they Indian warriors in 1814 or Islamic jihadists in 2005, all means and methods to destroy the enemy are legitimate, to secure the safety of the American people. Of course this does not work well with realist or multilateral diplomacy. But the majority of the American people, then and now, shared Jackson’s assumptions and vision: “assuming the rightness of an American cause and affirming a romantic vision of national greatness.” And again in terms applicable to nineteenth-century continental expansion and twenty-first-century intervention: “The defense of American values and the propagation of American freedom through increasingly larger spheres offered sufficient justification for war; the United States conquered not to subjugate but to liberate territories and their peoples.”[28]

The Jacksonian interpretation of American history contained more than a small hint of denial about their impulse to empire. “American wars were always just wars: they occurred only when citizens had to defend themselves against those who, out of lust for power or devotion to ideology or even a simple affinity for evil, sought to enslave them.” And there were certainly times when this was true; World War II is a case in point. Still, the targets of American empire building were understandably skeptical of Jacksonian claims to honor and virtue. “Who is not familiar with that race of migratory adventurers that exist in the United States,” wrote the Mexican envoy Manuel Eduardo de Gorostiza in 1840, “who always live in the unpopulated regions, taking land away from Indians and then assassinating them? Far removed from civilization, as they condescendingly call it, they are precursors of immorality and pillage.” Jacksonians such as Old Hickory’s protégé Sam Houston condemned Mexico’s president Santa Anna as a tyrant determined to suppress the liberty of the white male American settlers of Texas. For Mexicans, Jackson’s populist empire threatened the very survival of their nation, leading to a “war of race, of religion, of language, and of customs.”[29] Gorostiza’s words foreshadow current talk of the “war of civilizations” between the West and Islam.

General Winfield Scott's Entrance into Mexico City, September 1847, by Carl Nebel.  Wikimedia Commons

The Mexican War was the high point of Jacksonian empire building. But its true importance, Anderson and Cayton argue, is that just like the French and Indian War of the 1750s it destabilized the very empire it created setting the stage for the Civil War. While Jacksonian nationalism was a vital part of the culture of both North and South, in the South it became tied up with slavery. Northern Jacksonians were as devoted to the white man’s republic as southerners, but like Ulysses Grant they came to see a contradiction in an empire of liberty bolstered by slaves. Northerners wanted to be rid of both slavery and the slaves. Northern Jacksonianism was moderated by strong Hamiltonian and Wilsonian influences: the rise of industrial capitalism, social reform movements, and a culture of female-driven domesticity. Men like Grant had to earn the respect of others through hard work, education, self-discipline, reliability, and the restraint of passionate emotion. In northern eyes, slavery perverted southern men “into angry, violent brutes—caricatures of Andrew Jackson—who exploited both enslaved Africans and women to satisfy their lust for personal independence.” Southern Jacksonians continued to see local autonomy, including the right to own slaves, as central to liberty. Southerners “remained committed to a world fashioned by Andrew Jackson and his peers, a world in which governments refrained from asserting central power and using military force against its [white] citizens,” leaving them free to rule their families, assert themselves in the world, and dominate racial “others.”[30] The Civil War was fought to resolve the tragic contradictions of Jacksonianism—its tensions between populist liberty and hierarchical domination. It was, as Anatol Lieven argued, the first and most devastating of a series of defeats Jacksonians would suffer until well into the twentieth century.

Jacksonian heroes bring down a tyrant.  U.S. Marines from the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, Charlie Company, enter one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad, April 9, 2003. Wikimedia Commons

* * * * * * * * * *

Much of this review has looked at the problematic and disturbing parts of the Jacksonian heritage. So I would like to conclude, as Mead does, with an acknowledgement of the positive strengths that Jacksonianism brings to America and its role in the world. The years since September 11, 2001 have witnessed a Jacksonian revival: many “blue” Americans have for the first time discovered their Jackson within. It was Jacksonian firemen and policemen who, on 9/11, rushed into the burning buildings to save the lives of their fellow citizens. Jacksonian nationalists are the force that makes American hard power effective in the world. As Mead wryly observes, it is the Jacksonian cultivation of military prowess that enables the American people to stand up for liberty both at home and abroad, and not act like, say, the French in 1940. Images of American military might and the American celebration of violence in the media increase respect for American hard power in the world. And for all of its willingness to use force in world affairs, Jacksonian America imposes valuable restraints on empire building since intervention abroad has to meet its test of being necessary for the honor and security of the American people.

Jacksonian firemen raising the flag at Ground Zero

Jacksonian America has proven to be quite liberal and progressive as folk cultures go. While it will never adapt the avant-garde lifestyles of “blue” America, in the past fifty years Jacksonian America has purged itself of much of its legacy of racism and religious bigotry: blacks, Hispanics, Catholics, Jews, and even Muslims, who live by the Jacksonian code of honor are increasingly welcomed as full members of the folk community. And Jacksonian America makes an essential contribution to America’s soft power by providing “the spectacle of a country that is good for average people to live in, a place where ordinary people can and do express themselves culturally, economically, and spiritually without any inhibition.” Anatol Lieven is wrong: Jacksonian populism will prove just as important as the American Creed as the United States develops into a civilizational empire. This image of America as a land of opportunity—a land of homeowners and car owners, of a popular culture far wealthier and more vibrant than the old elite cultures, a place where men and women create their own destinies—more than any abstract concepts of liberty draws millions of people from all over the world who want to become part of Old Hickory’s Nation.[31]


1. Anderson and Cayton, Dominion of War, pp. 333-338.

2. Anderson and Cayton, Dominion of War, p. 337.

3. Anderson and Cayton, Dominion of War, pp. 341-342.

4. Mead, Special Providence, pp. 224-226; Walter Russell Mead, “The Jacksonian Tradition and American Foreign Policy,”National Interest No. 58 (Winter 1999/2ooo), pp. 5-29.

5. Mead, Special Providence, pp. 226, 228; Lieven, America Right or Wrong, pp. 95, 101.

6. G. K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1922), p. 7, http://www.archive.org/stream/whatisawinameric00ches#page/7/mode/1up.

7. Mead, Special Providence, pp. 226-231; Lieven, America Right or Wrong, pp. 95-97, 101, 109; Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), pp. 38-46, 58-80; Michael Lind, The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution (New York: Free Press, 1995), pp. 7-9, 17-54.

8. Mead, Special Providence, pp. 231-237; David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 613-615.

9. James Webb, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (New York: Broadway Books, 2004), pp. 185-191; Anderson and Cayton, Dominion of War, pp. 210-218.

10. Lieven, America Right or Wrong, p. 41; Anatol Lieven, “Demon in the Cellar,”Prospect, No. 96 (March 2004), pp. 28-33.

11. Lieven, America Right or Wrong, pp. 87, 91.

12. Lieven, America Right or Wrong, pp. 95-96, 133-137, 180-181, 188-189.

13. Lieven, America Right or Wrong, pp. 49, 96; Mead, Special Providence, p. 236.

14. Lieven, America Right or Wrong, pp. 119-120; Fischer, Albion’s Seed, pp. 777-782.

15. Mead, Special Providence, p. 236; Lieven, America Right or Wrong, p. 120; Thomas L. Friedman, “George W. to George W.,”New York Times, March 24, 2005.

16. Mead, Special Providence, pp. 248-250; Walter Russell Mead, Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), pp. 88-93.

17. Lieven, America Right or Wrong, pp. 101, 122-126, 144-149; Joseph Fisher, “The History of Landholding in Ireland,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 5 (1877), p. 316.

18. Mead, Special Providence, pp. 243-248.

19. Anderson and Cayton, Dominion of War, p. 210.

20. Webb, Born Fighting, p. 78; Lieven, America Right or Wrong, pp. 96-101; James Parton,Life of Andrew Jackson(3 vols. New York: Mason Brothers, 1860), Vol. 1, p. 33.

21. Anderson and Cayton, Dominion of War, pp. 191-204, 209; Joseph J. Ellis, American Creatiion: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), pp. 127-165.

22. Anderson and Cayton, Dominion of War, pp. 236-237.

23. Lieven, America Right or Wrong, p. 109.

24. Anderson and Cayton, Dominion of War, pp. 196-197; Lieven, America Right or Wrong, pp. 96-97, 99-101.

25. Andrew Jackson to Tennessee Troops in Mississippi Territory, April 2, 28, 1814, in Harold D. Moser et al., eds., The Papers of Andrew Jackson (7 vols. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1980- ), Vol. 3, pp. 57-58, 65-67; Anderson and Cayton, Dominion of War, pp. 232-233; Mead, Special Providence, pp. 251-259.

26. “Rush Limbaugh’s Original & Updated 35 Undeniable Truths,” The ’Lectric Law Library, http://www.lectlaw.com/files/cur52.htm; Faye Fiore, “The Donald Rumsfeld Show, Coming to You Live,” Los Angeles Times, November 23, 2001; Gelb quoted in Victor Davis Hanson, “Come the Revisionists,” National Review, April 11, 2005.

27. Anderson and Cayton, Dominion of War, pp. 209, 243, 246; Henry Clay, Speech in the House of Representatives on the Seminole War, January 20, 1819, Annals of Congress, 15th Congress, 2nd Session, pp. 654-656.

28. Anderson and Cayton, Dominion of War, p. 244.

29. Anderson and Cayton, Dominion of War, pp. 270, 362; Manuel Eduardo de Gorostiza, speech before the “governing council,” June 3, 1840, quoted in Gene M. Brack, Mexico Views Manifest Destiny, 1821-1846: An Essay on the Origins of the Mexican War (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975), pp. 96-97.

30. Anderson and Cayton, Dominion of War, pp. 283, 289, 293-294.

31. Mead, Special Providence, pp. 260-261.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan

The Brave Boy of the Waxhaws.  Thirteen-year-old Andrew Jackson defies a British officer.

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