Reading the discussions of Andrew Jackson over the last couple of days has been really interesting to me. With both Dylan Matthews and Scott, I agree on all the merits of the case against Jackson. But I think it’s also just slightly misguided in emphasis. Jackson was terrible in pretty much every conceivable way–economic policy, slaveholding, genocidal murderer of indigenous peoples, extralegal executions of foreign traders, etc. John Quincy Adams was indeed much more of a visionary of a more just and functional America.
So you’ll see no disagreement from me on banishing Jackson to the back of the $20 or getting rid of him entirely. Good riddance.
But I think all of this lets the real culprits of American crimes off way too easy: white people. Relatedly, I this is a result of and is spurred on by too much focus on the presidency as a way to understand what is still a Great Man History that we can’t get beyond and a way to understand modern politics. These two issues intertwine to provide us a somewhat limited view of the problems of the past and the present. The problems of the past and present in the United States can be blithely summed up as too many racist, selfish white people. Matthews and Scott are both right by calling Jackson a reactionary. He was indeed. But it’s not like Jackson was putting himself out on the line politically. Jackson’s actions–destroying the National Bank, holding slaves, committing genocide against Native Americans–were all the popular positions of the American white population. There’s a reason he was so popular and a reason why the Whigs struggled so much to defeat him. He delivered on what millions of Americans wanted.
Andrew Jackson was the living embodiment of the American Dream in the early 19th century. Growing up dirt poor and barely literate, he managed to rise rapidly in American society through his use of violence, shrewd financial dealings, and military success. Owning slaves was the primary way to wealth for basically the entire South during the pre-Civil War period, a part of the nation it should be remembered that also included Maryland and Kentucky. Moreover, many, many whites would have loved to own slaves in southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The genocidal project was supported by nearly every white American, outside of the northeast at least. What is forgotten about in the Indian Removal debates is that the whites of Georgia simply would have massacred the Cherokee had the government not removed them. Yes, Jackson should have followed John Marshall’s decision. But remember that he and Van Buren faced zero political fallout for ignoring Marshall. The Democratic Party was the embodiment of white desire. Jackson may have been a reactionary, but so were the majority of American whites.
Another way this is really interesting is that it’s really hard for me to see people who are damning Andrew Jackson defend the American Revolution. The American Revolution was largely a movement of racist white tax avoiders who openly advocated for genocide against Native Americans and who then acted upon that. Yes, the fancy Enlightenment thought that gussied up the Declaration of Independence did cause some whites to question their society and you saw northern states slowly move toward banning slavery, although this was by no means an easy task in many of them. But even there, the real issue was slavery wasn’t making any money and so was easily disposed of. In the South, the reason there was some emancipationist talk was that the tobacco farms had depleted soil and so it didn’t make much financial sense. Almost the very moment the cotton gin is invented, all of that southern talk about emancipation disappears and the region doubles down on slavery. Slavery once again became the way for white wealth accrual in much of the nation. Andrew Jackson helped move that process along but he was also very much a creation of it.
The problem of Andrew Jackson is the problem of white people. It’s the problem of genocide against Native Americans after the American Revolution. It’s the problem of slavery. It’s the problem of James Polk lying to Congress to invade Mexico to expand slavery. It’s the problem of John C. Calhoun and John C. Breckinridge. It’s the problem of popular sovereignty and Bleeding Kansas. It’s the problem of the Democratic Party running Horatio Seymour in 1868 and Horace Greeley in 1872, both running on the Republicans doing too much for black people. It’s the problem of William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan wanted to exterminate Native Americans and being irritated with Grant for not allowing that. It’s the problem of Wade Hampton and Tom Watson. It’s the problem of Woodrow Wilson and the Ku Klux Klan, first, second, and third editions. It’s the problem of George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. It’s the problem of Reagan giving campaign speeches about race in Philadelphia, Mississippi and people responding to that. It’s the problem of the Tea Party and the rise of Donald Trump.
In other words, the problem of Andrew Jackson is not just that Andrew Jackson was a terrible person. It’s the problem of most American white people being racists. By focusing too much on Jackson or too much on Trump, we let ourselves and our society off the hook. Take Jackson off the $20, please! But by focusing our criticism too much on a single individual, we not only reinforce a type of personality politics today that is deeply problematic and reinforce Great Man History, we also cover up for our own culpability in all of these horrors and culpability of our ancestors.