Presiding over an era of profound political and social change, Andrew Jackson transformed both the perception and the practice of the American presidency. His civil rights legacy is a checkered one; he championed great changes in the American electorate, he fought to protect individual liberty, and he believed in states’ rights. Yet he was also sympathetic to slavery, and he oversaw the Indian removal policies of the 1830s.
The primary guiding principle throughout Jackson’s life and career was his belief that the majority should govern, an idea emphasized by the 1824 presidential election. In that election, Jackson won the popular vote but did not win a majority of votes cast. The House of Representatives, contrary to Jackson’s expectations, elected Jackson’s opponent, John Quincy Adams, president. Personally wounded, Jackson believed that democracy had been derailed in favor of regional and partisan considerations.
Four years later, in the 1828 election, Jackson was easily elected. Once in office, Jackson began a campaign to abolish the Electoral College, to place term limits on the presidency, and to restore democratic integrity to the political process. The 1828 Tariff of Abominations provoked his first presidential crisis. Although the Tariff was unpopular all over the South, South Carolina was particularly opposed to it. South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, Jackson’s vicepresident, resigned from office and wrote an anonymous pamphlet explaining South Carolina’s right to nullify, or disregard, federal law. Jackson, although he generally supported states’ rights, believed that South Carolina had an obligation to honor the congressionally approved Tariff and sent federal troops to enforce the Tariff. Only a negotiated compromise, which lowered the Tariff, prevented violence.
Jackson also presided over an era of increased suffrage. Sweeping through the country was a wave of reform that lowered or abolished property qualifications for white male suffrage. In short, it became easier for white men to vote. This wave, although it cannot be directly credited to Jackson, certainly met with his approval. He believed that the promise of liberty could only be fulfilled through the widespread, even universal, exercise of the franchise by white men. The wider the electorate, thought Jackson, the more meaningful the majority. And the more meaningful the majority, the more powerful the mandate.
Jackson was concerned with the balance between liberty and government. A believer that citizens were innately virtuous and capable of governing themselves, Jackson also believed on the right of the people to instruct their leaders. Furthermore, the will of the people (as measured by the majority) was sovereign. And although it might seem paradoxical, Jackson believed that as the country industrialized, it would need a stronger central government to ensure liberty for the minority. That vigorous government could easily grow out of control, so vigilance was also necessary, as well as term limits and rotation of office.
Yet Jackson’s support of slavery is a blot on his civil liberties legacy. Owner of approximately 150 slaves himself, Jackson believed that the Constitution expressly protected slavery. As a matter of law, then, slaves were private property. His belief that blacks were intellectually inferior is well documented, as well. Interestingly, although he supported the institution, Jackson was politically astute to foresee that arguments over slavery would one day divide the Union.
Because he presided over the massive Indian Removal, Jackson is often criticized for his brutal and racist views toward Indians. But the truth is, although he, indeed, thought of Indians as inferior to whites, he was no more racist than most Americans of his era. Indeed, he may have been slightly more enlightened than was typical for Jackson’s time. Jackson’s papers indicate a profoundly paternalistic attitude toward Indians, and they further indicate that his main intent in removing the Indians from their traditional areas was preserving them from extinction. White settlers, greedy speculators, and gold seekers would eventually displace Indians, who had no mechanism to deal with the cultural and territorial intruders. Although historians and others may argue about Jackson’s ignorance or hatred, or may assign genocidal intent, neither the facts nor the context support that charge.
Jackson’s contemporaries often remarked about his bad temper (and in his own writings, he admitted having one). And his reputation for being stubborn is well deserved. But much of the rest of his record is misunderstood. By the standards of his time, he was neither the unrelenting racist nor the recalcitrant Indian hater he is often believed to have been. His political beliefs and his view of America drove him to decisions that later generations may challenge, but Jackson always believed that he was right, and he always claimed to be working for the preservation of democracy. He did, indeed, preside over America’s transition from republicanism to democracy.
JAMES HALABUK, JR.
References and Further Reading