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Andrew Jackson Was A Comprehensively Terrible President

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Dylan Matthews has a superb summary of the record of Andrew Jackson, one of the very worst presidents in American history. His enthusiastic support of ethnic cleansing is well known:

But Jackson is even worse than his horrifyingly brutal record with regard to Native Americans indicates. Indian removal was not just a crime against humanity, it was a crime against humanity intended to abet another crime against humanity: By clearing the Cherokee from the American South, Jackson hoped to open up more land for cultivation by slave plantations.

What is less well-known — in part because a generation or two of historians, led by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr’s highly influential and deeply terrible book The Age of Jackson, for various reasons erroneously portrayed Jackson as the forerunner of the best aspects of the New Deal — is that his economic policies were horribly reactionary by any historical standard:

It’s genuinely bizarre that some modern liberals, like Sean Wilentz and Arthur Schlesinger, have claimed Jackson for liberalism, ostensibly for his embrace of “populism” (read: rejection of northern anti-slavery white men in favor of Southern pro-slavery white men). In reality, Jackson’s economic policy views were almost cartoonishly right wing.

Context is important here. Jackson was succeeding John Quincy Adams, a truly great, scandalously underrated president who was an enthusiastic supporter of government intervention to build necessary infrastructure (“internal improvements”) and fuel economic development. Adams believed that “taxing and being taxed were essential to responsible self-government; the country required a modern, national, and regulated banking system … and the federal government had an important role to play regarding the ‘general welfare’ in the creation of educational, scientific, and artistic institutions, such as the Smithsonian Museum, the national parks, the service academies, and land grant universities,” according to recent biographer Fred Kaplan.

Jackson believed none of that. He believed government was a threat to be contained, that national banks like the one originated by Alexander Hamilton were abominations and threats to freedom, and that the federal government’s role in building infrastructure should be limited. He vetoed a bill to run a road in Kentucky, arguing that federal funding of such infrastructure projects was unconstitutional.

“While he criticized the Maysville Road for being insufficiently national, Jackson did not wish to be misunderstood as favoring federal funding for a more truly national transportation system,” Howe writes. “Instead he warned that expenditures on internal improvements might jeopardize his goal of retiring the national debt — or, alternatively, require heavier taxes.” The veto, Howe continues, ultimately led to “the doom of any comprehensive national transportation program.”

If there’s a link between the New Deal and the Jackson administration, it’s that the Jacksonian element in American politics made New Deal programs substantially worse as the price of enacting them and then withdrew their support almost entirely after the 1938 midterms. The idea that Jacksonianism was the precursor to the activist and progressive elements of the New Deal is an almost precise inversion of the truth. The Great Society required the defeat of Jackson’s political descendants, not their support. And, no, Jackson does not merit credit for the expansion of the (white male) franchise that occurred in the first part of the 19th century for the obvious reason that he had nothing to do with it.

But, to be Scrupulously Fair, while he believed that while state governments should feel free to nullify valid treaties that stood in the way of ethnic cleansing they should not nullify federal tariff policy, so Jackson must be credited with climbing over one low bar.

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