That was all before he was elected president. As president, he institutionalized genocide against Native Americans and oversaw policy that eroded the constitutional and civil rights of free people of color while adding protections to the institution of enslavement. He also unilaterally destroyed the single most important national banking institution of the period over his own party’s objections.
Even in the shadow of his infamy, however, Jackson is still credited with “securing the triumph of democracy as the touchstone of American politics,” in the words of one of his biographers. Jackson’s contemporaries called him the “people’s President,” and he literally opened the doors of the White House to the American public during his inauguration, ushering in what has been dubbed the era of the “common man” in American politics.
But Jackson was a champion for white men, not “the people.” In fact, Jacksonian advances in white male suffrage happened at the expense of free people of color, who saw their voting and citizenship rights significantly curtailed at the state level and fundamentally questioned at the national level as a direct result of Jackson’s “popular” politics.
To see Jacksonian politics as the triumph of democracy means lionizing a system that had racism and sexism embedded in its very foundation. The danger today is that we follow the path forged by Jackson, one wholly embraced by Trump: where politics becomes a contest for the support of the white working-class, forcing a false choice between economic and racial parity, instead of recognizing that a system that requires racism and sexism cannot rightly be called a democracy.
Jackson might receive credit for being a champion of the little guy, but in reality, while Jacksonians railed against the elitist Northeasterners who controlled the opposition, his party was equally dominated by wealthy white men. Jackson, himself, owned hundreds of slaves over his lifetime — 161 at the time of his death — placing him in the top-tier of the top one-percent of wealthy slaveholders.
As president, Jackson had little regard for niceties like separation of powers or conscientious dissent. He purged the federal government of John Quincy Adams’s appointments, installing his own loyalists. In the rare instance that Jackson’s appointees proved unwilling to follow his bidding, he summarily fired them, to be replaced with those who would. When the democratic process in Congress failed to advance his agenda, he responded by circumventing it.
For example, in 1832, Jackson vetoed bipartisan legislation to extend the national Bank of the United States with a message that imputed sinister motives to the bank’s champions and stoked fear about the foreign interests that controlled it.
He demanded that Congress investigate whether the bank was “safe” when it reconvened the following fall, but even the Jackson-controlled House failed to find any danger in it. Undeterred by these facts, Jackson directed his treasury secretary to empty the bank of its capital by executive action, and to siphon those funds to state banks that his friends controlled. When the secretary refused to toe the line, Jackson replaced him; and when his successor also refused, Jackson fired him, too, sliding his Attorney General Roger B. Taney into the position in a recess appointment. The Senate never confirmed Taney, but that didn’t stop him from following Jackson’s directive, effectively killing the bank two years before its charter expired.
When members of Congress complained about this illegal action, Jackson’s supporters accused them of manipulating the facts for political gain. The opposition-controlled Senate censured Jackson, but, in the last months of his presidency, a now-Jacksonian-controlled Senate expunged the censure from the record. That same Senate confirmed Taney as the chief justice of the United States over fierce partisan dissent.
In an effort to secure the popular vote in the Deep South for his chosen successor, Vice President Martin Van Buren of New York, Jackson and his allies suppressed anti-slavery activism by enacting some of the most restrictive legislation on free speech since the Alien and Sedition Acts. This effort included a federal gag on discussing slavery in the House and an attempt to censor media through the Postal Service.
These actions, combined with the divisive rhetoric of both parties, sparked hundreds of violent incidents against people of color and their allies, peaking in a series of riots in the summer of 1835. Instead of condemning this violence, Jackson blamed the “destructive” behavior of the media that riled up people of color and incited them to “insurrection” and “war.” He praised their counterparts in nonslaveholding states who felt called upon to confront and silence the “misguided persons who have engaged in these unconstitutional and wicked attempts.”
The violence exposed the reality of Jacksonian politics: populism equaled white supremacy, the repression of dissent and the unilateral authority of the “people’s president.” Jackson championed the white man, and he did so explicitly at the expense of minority populations, democratic norms and the rule of law.
Trump’s politics channel Jackson. He has accumulated political capital on the basis of his racism, starting with the birther conspiracy that launched him into national politics, and he won the presidency, in part, on the strength of his misogyny. He, too, subverts democratic norms whenever it suits his purposes, directing government agencies — including both his Justice Department and the Postal Service — to suppress the media and claiming the power to do things by executive order that he has no power to do. Trump’s verbal assaults on his perceived enemies have incited violence against them.
Like Jackson, Trump’s supporters applauded when he replaced career politicians (i.e., experienced administrators) with novices intent on dismantling federal bureaucracy. Trump’s popular democracy is once again the celebration of the “common man,” who is proudly white and Christian.
But we must guard against the impulse to let Trump, like Jackson, dictate the direction of American politics.
Jackson’s success drove both parties to embrace his narrow vision of American democracy. In 1840, the Whig opposition nominated their own version of Jackson — “plain-spoken” William Henry Harrison, who grew up on a plantation and lived in a mansion, but could convincingly swig hard cider with the “real folks.” The South overwhelming went for Harrison — marking the first time in 40 years that the “party of Jefferson” had lost the slaveholding states — and the Whigs took control of the House and the Senate.
Democrats learned their lesson. Van Buren had lost because he failed to attract white Southerners and Midwesterners, so the party set out to recapture their vote. They chose to measure “democracy” by the political agency of the white working-class, “equality” by the material conditions of white labor and “liberty” as the capacity of white men to do as they please.
Jacksonian popular politics cannibalized the nascent left-wing in the United States by aligning the white working-class with proslavery interests. This alliance worked politically — it secured the Democrats political power — but it also sacrificed their commitment to real social change.
For our politics to be truly popular, they must address the needs of the whole country, its entire populace — citizens and noncitizens, alike, documented or not — and especially the marginalized populations whose subjugation gave rise to this country. A platform without social justice at its core cannot rightly be called democratic.