Andrew Jackson: The First Imperial President

Amy H. Sturgis,

Release Date
January 6, 2012



According to Professor Amy H. Sturgis, Andrew Jackson frequently appears in top ten lists of great Presidents of the United States. The following reasons are often given to justify Jackson’s high ranking among Presidents:
1. champion of the common man
2. son of the frontier
3. war hero
4. enemy of the elite
5. champion of the United States Union
Sturgis argues that most of these reasons are in fact myths when they are analyzed in greater depth. For instance, Jackson engaged in several unauthorized activities during war, like invading foreign territory that he was not authorized to invade and executing non-US citizens he was not authorized to execute.
Additionally, many of the reform efforts that came out of the so-called Jacksonian revolution made Jackson appear as a champion of the common man. However, the Jacksonian revolution did not align with Jackson the leader or Jackson the man. For instance, part of the Jacksonian revolution was the abolition movement, yet, Jackson himself owned slaves until the day he died.
Jackson’s battle with the National Bank, Sturgis argues, gave the illusion that Jackson was an enemy of the elite. Although Jackson was constitutionally sound in challenging the National Bank, his reasons for doing so were more personal, rather than legal.
For more information on Jackson’s Presidency from this perspective, read the following two books:
1. Old Hickory’s War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire
2. The Passions of Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson: The First Imperial President
Andrew Jackson repeatedly shows up in top-ten lists of the great presidents of the United States, both those that are taken from popular audiences and those that are taken from professional historians. I’m not convinced that he belongs in these lists, and let me explain why. First, I think the reason he does is because there are certain myths that have grown up around him. For one he is the champion of the common man, he is a son of the frontier, he’s a war hero. For another, he’s the enemy of the elite, after all, he fought the Second Bank of the United States. And lastly, he’s considered to be a champion of the U.S. union because he stood against the idea of state nullification of federal law.
But, I think there’s something more to the Jackson story. The same people who buy into these myths also seem to think of his avid personal campaigning for office, for example, or his use of the unofficial “kitchen cabinet” as advisory body for his presidency, as just part of the sort of trademark, larger than life figure that he cut as a leader. I think we need to look more in depth at all of the aspects of Jackson before we determine whether or not he was a great president.
First of all, was Jackson a man of the people? Well he was, in fact, a son of the frontier. He was, in fact, in some ways, a military hero. He did have a scar where he was struck by a British official when he was a young child because he refused to shine the man’s boots. These sorts of things. He certainly displayed over and over again in his personal life, a tremendous individual courage. But, he was a war hero to those who didn’t have to go around and clean up the results of his unauthorized activities that he pursued when he was a military man. For example, his invasion of lands that were held by other countries that he wasn’t authorized to invade such as Spanish Florida, the killing of non-US citizens he wasn’t authorized to execute, such as the execution of two British citizens during the First Seminole War of 1818.
He did a number of things as a loose cannon, and the presidents who were in charge of the armies in which he served many times had reason to rue the fact that Jackson was on their side. The son of the frontier and war hero legend helped him claim the mantle of the champion of the common man, but when we look at the reform efforts that came out of the so-called Jacksonian revolution, we find they don’t have much in common with Jackson the leader or Jackson the man.
For example, one of the movements that came out of the Jacksonian revolution was the abolition movement, and Jackson remained to his dying day an unrepentant slave owner. Another was the women’s suffrage movement. And Jackson, even for his time, was really the subscriber to an antiquated, out of date cult of masculinity. For example, he—long after it was out of fashion—pursued personal dueling as a means of settling political disputes.
The national bank did represent an overstepping of federal bounds according to the Constitution, and he justly fought it. But if we look at the reasons he fought it, there’s much to be said that it was a personal conflict. In fact, much of Jackson’s political life seems to be tied around personal rivalries, personal likes and dislikes with other people, in this case Biddle with the bank. Jackson wanted to destroy him. And despite the fact he was going against something that was an overstepping of national authority, he sort of fought a wrong with another wrong because he himself stepped over his constitutionally given authority in order to fight the national bank. And so in a sense, his economic policy came from personal animosity. And it also represented a growth in national government because of the executive power he wielded.
His position against state nullification is also a difficult one to defend. For one thing, once again, it seems much more about personal animosity. In this case, Jackson going against John C. Calhoun, who left the position of vice president to go back to his home state of South Carolina, the state that pressed the issue with state nullification of federal law. And also it seemed an action in support of Martin Van Buren, who was Jackson’s hand-chosen successor to the presidency.
Also it’s difficult to defend the idea that he was so very pro-union when at the same time with the failure of Jackson to execute the decision of the judiciary in the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia case, his whole argument was that this was Georgia’s issue and not the US government’s. And so he could not in fact step in to defend the Cherokee Nation against the State of Georgia. So in that case he seemed to be arguing that states had more authority and that he couldn’t get involved as president in a situation where a state was up against a national authority. He’s not very consistent in terms of his policy.
Besides which, you could argue that there were some very interesting things about the decentralist vision of Calhoun and the notion of states’ rights that totally get missed in the argument for the common person when we consider the idea that Jackson’s pro-union stance was somehow a pro–common man stance as well. Jackson’s embrace of the spoils system—the idea that he should clean house once a leader came into office, he could clean house of those who existed before and replace them with his own personal supporters—is also something that led to the growth of the national government. And certainly if we think about Jackson’s overall policy toward Native America, this is a trend that is not one of any honor for the United States. He began a policy of coercive Indian removal that led to what we could consider today certainly meets the criteria for, if we use the definition of the United Nations, ethnic cleansing. That certainly doesn’t sound like something that belongs attached to the name of one of the great presidents of the United States.
Repeatedly, ever the frontiersman, ever the general, Jackson seemed to act as if might made right, and that does not lend itself to the idea of a president who was a supporter of personal rights or a supporter of the common man. In fact, he insisted that he embodied or personified the will of the people, much in the same way that Louis XIV suggested that he was the embodiment of France, which led Jackson’s detractors to call him King Andrew the First.
Of those kinds of reputations, great presidents, I don’t think, are made. Recent works in history show that Jackson was a bit of a loose cannon. He was someone who acted from personal passions. He was someone whose greatness was repeatedly brought low by a lack of self control and self discipline, someone who was controlling and at the same time uncontrollable. This Jackson was the kind of man who exemplified characteristics later associated with what we call the imperial presidency.
Before Abraham Lincoln, he represented selective adherence to the US constitution. Before William McKinley, he represented energetic imperialism. Before Teddy Roosevelt, he represented a cult of personality. And before Bill Clinton, he represented the personal made political. He was, in short, an imperial president in the making long before imperial presidents were cool, consolidating authority in the national executive and treating the letter of the US constitution as a suggestion rather than a constraint.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that another US president was a bit worried when he saw Andrew Jackson coming down the pike as a potential leader of the United States. Thomas Jefferson wrote this of Andrew Jackson:

“I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson president. He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place. He has very little respect for laws or constitutions, and is, in fact, an able military chief. His passions are terrible. When I was president of the Senate he was a Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings. I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage. His passions are no doubt cooler now; he has been much tried since I knew him, but he is a dangerous man.”

I recommend books like Old Hickory’s War and The Passions of Andrew Jackson as useful correctives to the current love affair that both presidential historians and the popular media seems to have with Andrew Jackson.