Andrew Jackson at 250: President’s legacy isn’t pretty, but neither is history

Andrew Jackson at 250: President's legacy isn't pretty, but neither is history.

Editor’s note: H.W. Brands is the author of “Andrew Jackson” and other works of American history. He is a professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin and is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He wrote this essay about Jackson’s legacy for the USA TODAY NETWORK.

Andrew Jackson was born 250 years ago this March 15. For much of that quarter-millennium, he was one of the most admired figures in American life. Parents christened their sons after him; towns, counties, lakes, mountains and schools bearing Jackson’s name appeared in every state. The famous image of Jackson having one of the best hair days in American history was engraved on the $20 bill.

But Jackson started falling out of favor a couple generations ago. He was a tough sell amid the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, when his unrepentant ownership of slaves marked him as one to be censured rather than praised. Jackson owned fewer slaves than such other icons as Thomas Jefferson, but Jefferson had the good grace to feel guilty about benefiting from the bondage of others, and so was easier on liberal sensibilities. Jackson, who never admitted feeling guilty about anything, seemed to be asking for dismissal from the pantheon.

More damning, in the minds of many, was Jackson’s attitude toward Indians. Jackson first made his name as an Indian fighter; while president, he endorsed the policy of Indian relocation that culminated in the forced removal of the Cherokees to the trans-Mississippi West. By the turn of the present century, it was scarcely an exaggeration to say that the one thing American schoolchildren learned about Jackson was that he was the author of the Trail of Tears.

Historical reputations rise and fall; Jackson isn’t unique in this regard. But his case is peculiar in the extent of the fall and for what it says about historical memory. Oddly, Jackson’s reputation was the victim of his success. His sins were remembered because his achievements were so profound.

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Jackson’s foremost achievement was securing the triumph of democracy as the touchstone of American politics. Jackson was born a subject of the British empire; he grew to adulthood in a republic governed by elites who expected and received deference from the mass of the American people. In most states, the right to vote was confined to white men who owned property and had been long in residence; even among white males, voters were often a small minority.

Things changed during Jackson’s middle years. Western states like Tennessee sought to attract settlers by offering them the right to vote; Eastern states eventually followed suit to keep from losing residents. Meanwhile states shifted from having their legislatures choose the electors who in turn elected the president, to letting voters choose the electors. The consequence was that, by the time Jackson ran for president in 1824, nearly all adult white males could vote, and their votes determined the outcome of presidential contests.

Visitors hear the history at the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson before entering for a tour. Sunday Feb. 26, 2017, in Nashville, TN

(Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)

At least that was how the new voters thought the system was supposed to work. It failed to do so in 1824, when Jackson received the most popular votes and the most electoral votes but, in a four-way race, not a majority of either. The contest went to the House of Representatives, where John Quincy Adams emerged as the winner, with the help of Henry Clay, the fourth-place finisher.

To the supporters of Jackson — a son of the frontier, the first common man to get so close to the White House — this was an outrage against democracy. To the supporters of Adams — the son of previous president John Adams, and the latest in the series of men favored by wealth and education who had monopolized the presidency since its inception — it was a valiant holding of the line against the rabble.

What you should know about Jackson

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March 15, 2017, marks 250 years since Andrew Jackson’s birth. Karen Grigsby / The Tennessean

But the line couldn’t hold much longer. In their 1828 rematch, Jackson trounced Adams in both the popular and electoral votes.

The effect of Jackson’s victory was enormous. He was hailed as the first “people’s president.” Mothers and fathers who had never dreamed that their sons might one day become president suddenly did so. A boy couldn’t grow up to be George Washington unless he was born into the gentry, but a boy from the humblest origins could grow up to be Andy Jackson, because that’s what Jackson had done.

The triumph of democracy was the dominant theme of American life in the first half of the 19th century. Jacksonian democracy was far from perfect: Most women and African-Americans couldn’t vote. But the principle that political power in America rested with ordinary people became firmly entrenched.

Visitors to the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson are led into the front entrance hall to begin their tour. Sunday Feb. 26, 2017, in Nashville, TN (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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Visitors to the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson travel to the back of the property to see cabins that were Jackson’s first residence on the property. Sunday Feb. 26, 2017, in Nashville, TN (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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A museum at the Hermitage shows off Andrew Jackson’s carriage as well as many other personal objects and tells the story of his life. Thursday Feb. 23, 2017, in Nashville, TN (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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Visitors peek into the farm office and President Andrew Jackson’s personal study at The Hermitage on Feb. 26, 2017. (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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Visitors to the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson are led into the front entrance hall with a spiral staircase as the centerpiece to begin their tour. Sunday Feb. 26, 2017, in Nashville, TN (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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A museum at The Hermitage shows off Andrew Jackson’s personal objects and tells the story of the seventh president’s life. (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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A historical interpreter tells visitors about the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson. Sunday Feb. 26, 2017, in Nashville, TN (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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Visitors to the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson look inside rooms including Jackson’s bedroom where he died in 1845 Sunday Feb. 26, 2017, in Nashville, TN (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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Visitors to the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson peer into the upstairs bedrooms. Sunday Feb. 26, 2017, in Nashville, TN (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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One employee takes a break on the second floor as another tells the story of the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson to visitors in the entrance hall. Sunday Feb. 26, 2017, in Nashville, TN (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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From the vantage point visitors can look into the pantry, dining room and parlors at the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson. Sunday Feb. 26, 2017, in Nashville, TN (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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Visitors stroll among the flowers in Rachel’s garden at The Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson, on Feb. 26, 2017. (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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Visitors hear the history at the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson before entering for a tour. Sunday Feb. 26, 2017, in Nashville, TN (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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Andrew and Rachel Jackson are buried in the garden at the Hermitage Sunday Feb. 26, 2017, in Nashville, TN (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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Visitors hear the history at the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson before entering for a tour. Sunday Feb. 26, 2017, in Nashville, TN (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
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In time, this principle would mandate the extension of the vote to women and blacks. But by then, the revolutionary nature of the Jacksonian achievement would have been largely forgotten. Democracy was taken for granted; it was seen as historically inevitable. Nothing special was owed to Jackson in the matter.

Jackson’s fame faded for another reason. Before he was the people’s president, he was America’s military hero. His victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans was judged the greatest triumph of American arms since the Revolutionary War. Jackson was hailed as the second General Washington. Where Washington had won American independence from Britain at Yorktown, Jackson confirmed independence at New Orleans.

But in time, the significance of Jackson’s feat began to pale. By the mid-20th century, when the United States had become the greatest military power in history, it was easy to think that America had been destined for this role from the beginning. Again, the sense of inevitably obscured Jackson’s achievement.

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If recent generations have forgotten Jackson contributions to the things we like about America, they have remembered too well his participation in the things we don’t like. Jackson’s slaveholding isn’t admirable, but neither was it unusual. In fact, it was necessary to his other accomplishments, in that it was a prerequisite for the contemporary esteem that made his accomplishments possible. Jackson lived in the slave South, and in the slave South, successful men owned slaves. If Jackson had not owned slaves — if he had been a failure as a planter, say — he would not have won the confidence of those around him. If he had opposed slavery on moral grounds, he might have been a better man, but he never would have been president. Of the first 12 presidents (Jackson was the seventh), only two never owned slaves. Every Southern president before the Emancipation Proclamation owned slaves.

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Jackson’s Indian policy was similarly in line with that of other presidents. From George Washington to Ulysses Grant, American policy was to get Indians out of the way of white settlement. Jackson was more forthright than some others about the policy, as he was more forthright about many things. But his policy wasn’t materially different from the presidents who came before and after him.

None of this is intended to whitewash Jackson’s reputation. Nor is it to make Jackson a hero for today’s generation. Each generation gets to choose the heroes it feels comfortable with. But the case of Jackson should afford a reminder that history is complicated. America didn’t become the country it is today without significant contributions from people once deemed heroic but now thought embarrassing or worse. The problem, if it is one, is not with Jackson; the problem is with American history. That history contains chapters we aren’t proud of, and shouldn’t be.

But while it would be a mistake to celebrate those chapters, it would be a greater mistake to tear them out of the history books. They’re part of what we are today. And they suggest that we’re no innocents ourselves: Almost certainly, we’re doing things that will puzzle and mortify our grandchildren.

Andrew Jackson was not a humble man. Yet if, on his 250th birthday, he can remind us of the need for humility, he will have done his country another good service.

H.W. Brands is the author of “Andrew Jackson” and other works of American history.

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