President Donald Trump is an enigma in the field of politics; perhaps the only comparable political figure to Trump would be Andrew Jackson. In fact, a portrait of Jackson has been featured in the Oval Office following Trump’s inauguration to signify the populist nature of the new administration. Trump also told Fox News’s Tucker Carlson on Thursday that he was going to visit Jackson’s home and was in the middle of reading a book about him.
While Jackson was a military hero, popular leader, and populist trailblazer, many of Jackson’s actions were far from laudable. Jackson was the founder of the Democratic Party; however, the more Trump associates himself with Jackson, the more Jackson will be connected to the Republican Party rather than the Democrats. The political risk is that Trump will help Democrats continue to distance Jackson from their party’s history, while they project Jackson’s worst flaws onto Trump. Trump, on the other hand, hopes to channel Jackson’s populist appeal to insulate himself from such criticisms going forward.
Jackson has been on the 20 dollar bill since 1928; yet he may be the least well-known figure shown on American currency. Here are seven things you need to know about Jackson.
1. Before he was president, Jackson was a general who fended off the British in New Orleans but also imposed martial law on the city. Jackson was is a war hero who fended off the British at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. Following the victory, Jackson subjected New Orleans to the tyrannical vice of martial law. He imprisoned political dissenters during that time period:
One who complained in an anonymous letter published by the Louisiana Courier on March 3, 1815, was a prominent state legislator, Louis Louaillier. As the The New Yorker’s Caleb Crain recounted in a book review a decade ago, when Jackson discovered the letter’s authorship, he had Louaillier arrested. An attorney for the jailed lawmaker applied forthwith for a writ of habeas corpus — essentially, a judicial ruling that Louaillier’s detention was unconstitutional. A federal district judge, Dominick Augustin Hall, was outraged by Jackson’s action and signed the writ.
Upon being notified of this, Jackson ordered his troops to have Judge Hall arrested. The jurist was seized from his home in the dead of night and brought to the jail, where he was placed in Louaillier’s cell.
Jackson had Louaillier tried for mutiny in a court-martial, and refused to release him even after he was acquitted. Meanwhile, another federal judge, Joshua Lewis, issued a writ of habeas corpus demanding Judge Hall’s release. As night follows day, Jackson had Lewis arrested, too. The plenipotent general then had five soldiers escort Judge Hall out of town, marching him four miles upriver.
Two things can be true: Jackson saved the country through the victory at New Orleans, but in the aftermath of the victory he acted tyrannically through martial law.
2. Jackson ran a series of real-estate scams prior to being elected president. Dinesh D’Souza explains in his book, Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party, that Jackson would use his wealth and political influence to blackmail Native Americans off their property and then sell the property at a higher price than he originally paid for it. In other cases, Jackson would invest in property under other names in order to conceal the sprawling amounts of property that he and his associates owned. Those properties too were sold at higher prices than they were initially purchased.
Jackson’s political opponents would frequently attempt to use these shady land deals as a political bludgeon against him, but it never stuck due to the real estate records being destroyed. These land deals seemed to have had a Whitewater-esque feel to them, but it didn’t matter to Jackson’s supporters. They were just ecstatic that Jackson was taking land from Native Americans and selling it to them.
3. Jackson railed against cronyism as a presidential candidate, yet implemented the “spoils system” while in office. Jackson’s first run for president in 1824 ended with him losing to John Quincy Adams due to what he called a “corrupt bargain.” The House of Representatives was tasked with deciding the election since none of the candidates received a majority of Electoral College votes, although Jackson had received a plurality of those votes as well as a plurality of the popular vote. House Speaker Henry Clay wielded his power to ensure that Adams won; Clay became Adams’ secretary of state shortly thereafter.
A furious Jackson assailed Adams’ and Clay’s “corrupt bargain” as one of his major presidential campaign themes in 1828 to highlight what he saw as corruption within the Adams administration. But once Jackson channeled that populist fury to the White House, he did not practice what he preached with his invention of the “spoils system”:
Under the guise of reform, many offices were doled out as rewards for political services. Newspaper editors who had championed Jackson’s cause, some of them very unsavory characters, came in for special favor. His most appalling appointee was an old army comrade and political sycophant named Samuel Swartwout. Against all advice, Jackson made him collector of the New York City customhouse, where the government collected nearly half its annual revenue. In 1838, Swartwout absconded with more than $1 million, a staggering sum for that day. Jackson denied that political criteria motivated his appointments, claiming honesty and efficiency as his only goals. Yet he accepted an officeholder’s support for Adams as evidence of unfitness, and in choosing replacements he relied exclusively on recommendations from his own partisans. A Jackson senator from New York, William L. Marcy, defended Jackson’s removals by proclaiming frankly in 1832 that in politics as in war, “to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.” Jackson was never so candid—or so cynical. Creating the “spoils system” of partisan manipulation of the patronage was not his conscious intention. Still, it was his doing.
Jackson ended up engaging in the same type of corrupt actions that he accused Adams and Clay of conducting.
4. Jackson eliminated the federal debt and implemented some protectionist policies. Here is a rundown of Jackson’s domestic policies:
He is the only president to have ever completely eliminated the federal debt; Jackson inherited a $58 million debt and turned it into $20 million yearly surpluses. Jackson opposed federal infrastructure projects, as he believed they were best handled by local governments. Jackson was overall a protectionist; he did achieve some trade agreements but also implemented tariffs designed to protect certain industries. In this regard, Jackson is mostly known for preventing South Carolina from nullifying a tariff passed by his predecessor that they vehemently opposed. He vetoed the renewal of the Second Bank of the United States, which was an entity akin to the Fannie Mae government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) as a tool of political cronyism.
Two months after Jackson left office, the country suffered the Panic of 1837. There is still debate as to whether or not Jackson’s policies contributed to it. The Left argues that Jackson’s elimination of the debt resulted in the crisis. Some argue that Jackson’s refusal to renew the Second Bank of the U.S. left the market vulnerable to that type of a financial panic. Brian Lipshutz argues in The Daily Signal that letting the Second Bank expire combined with “his executive order to require payment for government lands to be made in gold or silver (the so-called ‘Specie Circular’), and his decision to place the federal surplus into financially unstable hand-picked ‘pet banks'” were all contributing factors to the panic.
However, the Independent Institute’s Robert Whales argues in a lengthy paper that the panic was due to factors that Jackson could not control, such as “political instability in Mexico (which caused capital flight to the United States plus inflation-driven exports of silver), surging drug addiction in China (which reduced silver flows to China as its imports of opium soared), payment of war reparations, and Europeans taking advantage of what they saw as investment opportunities in the United States.” Whales writes that the real GDP per capita growth rate was 0.9 percent annually under Jackson, which was “the second strongest decade in the first half of the nineteenth century.”
That certainly leaves the causes of the Panic of 1837 up for debate, but it’s likely a combination of the factors that Whales and Lipshutz list.
5. Jackson was a slave owner and trader. According to D’Souza, Jackson owned over 300 slaves throughout his life, as many as 150 at once, cementing Jackson as “a large slave owner by American standards.” D’Souza also noted that Jackson also was in the slave trading business, a practice that most slave owners didn’t engage in at the time.
“In one telling incident, Jackson purchased an ad in a local paper offering a bounty for one of his runaway slaves,” D’Souza wrote. “Jackson offered a $50 reward for the return of the slave and ten dollars extra for every hundred lashes any person will give him to the amount of three hundred.”
6. Jackson paved the way for the Trail of Tears. Jackson campaigned on removing the Native Americans from their land and followed through on it with Congress’ passage of the Indian Removal Act. Jackson ran into a snag when the Cherokee tribe refused to leave their land, putting the matter into the hands of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled in favor of the Cherokee based on prior treaties; Jackson’s response: “Let him enforce it.” It’s not known if Jackson used those exact words, but he clearly ignored the court’s ruling and continued his efforts to remove the Cherokee from the land. Eventually, they were removed by force under Van Buren.
“Native Americans who were unable to travel were rounded up and put into internment camps, a policy reminiscent of the Japanese internments that a later Democratic administration would enforce during World War II,” wrote D’Souza. “Reports differ about how bad conditions in the camps were; what no one disputes is that around four thousand Indians died from malnourishment and disease. The Trail of Tears has gone down in American history as cruel and infamous. It certainly was, although its perpetrator was not ‘America’ but rather the Jackson Democrats.”
7. Jackson is the founder of the Democratic Party. The aftermath of the 1824 election resulted in the Democratic-Republican Party splitting into two parties: the Democratic Party and the Whig Party. The former was led by Jackson; the latter was the ineffective opposition party (much in the same way the current Republican Party is). Today’s Democrats have attempted to wash their hands of Jackson, going as far as attempting to eliminate their Jefferson-Jackson dinners. It’s also true that the more moderate Jacksonian Democrats are a thing of the past given the Democrat Party’s turn to far left. But they can’t run from the fact that Jackson is their party’s founder and that, as D’Souza wrote, Jackson “was only the beginning of a long, subsequent Democratic Party history of dispossession, cruelty, bigotry and theft.”