by Jonathan Hobratsch
Here’s my blog on Andrew Jackson, a president much in decline in presidential rankings, despite the current president’s fascination with the man. Jackson’s presidency is actually a mixed bag, and this blog attempts to give Jackson credit when it can, despite my personal dislike of Jackson’s presidency.
Previous presidential rankings can be found on the website.
Andrew Jackson 7th President (1829-1837)
Score: 63/115 total points (54.7% ideal)
Andrew Jackson departed from John Quincy Adams’s more merit-based approach in awarding political appointments. Jackson preferred a patronage system to reward loyalty to him and to his new party. This wasn’t a completely new concept. Thomas Jefferson purged most of the Federalists from office when he had been elected. Jackson, however, took this further and filled the offices primarily with people loyal to him. The term derives from, “to the victor belongs the spoils,” a quote uttered by prominent Jackson supporter William L. Marcy.
Jackson framed the spoils system as much needed reform in order to make the chain of command more efficient and to flush out corruption, which he believed was due to lack of term limits in government positions. The merit-based approach used by many previous presidents led to many positions becoming unofficially life term appointments and some of those in power used their long-term influence for nefarious reasons. Jackson believed rotation in office would crack down on corruption.
Jackson acted quickly on his spoils system. Nearly 1,000 government officials with longtime government civil service jobs, regardless of their virtue or ability, were removed from office and replaced by Jackson loyalists. The post office saw nearly 500 postmasters, many with blemishless records, removed from office in a single year, only to be replaced with Jackson loyalists, some with little experience for the positions. Overall, the spoils system became a common element of machine politics and continued with little resistance until the Gilded Age when civil service reform became a major campaign issue.
Jackson’s political patronage resulted in a mediocre cabinet since these offices were given to the top tier of his supporters with much less focus on capability. Martin Van Buren, the primary architect of the Democratic Party, was given Secretary of State (later elevated to Vice President). Samuel D. Ingham, who had helped Jackson win Pennsylvania, was given Secretary of the Treasury. John Eaton, who had been Jackson’s favorite aide during the War of 1812 and had published a biography of Jackson in time for the 1824 election, was given Secretary of War. James M. Berrian, a leading pro-slavery Jackson advocate from Georgia, was made Attorney General. William T. Barry, another War of 1812 veteran and Jackson supporter, was given Postmaster General, a position Jackson elevated to the cabinet. Finally, John Branch, a leading North Carolina supporter, was given Secretary of the Navy.
Ultimately, Jackson’s cabinet proved unexceptional and disharmonious over regional partisanship. Turnover in Jackson’s cabinet was common. Jackson’s cabinet saw more turnover than previous administrations. Jackson went through four state secretaries, five treasury secretaries, three attorney generals, three navy secretaries. Only the positions of Secretary of War and Postmaster General saw little turnover with two appointments each. Some scholars believe Jackson appointed a high number of mediocrities so that he could better control them.
Of the 19 total cabinet members, none of the cabinet members are remembered as exceptional cabinet members. For the most part, the legacies of the treasury secretaries—Ingham, Louis McLane, William Duane, Roger B. Taney, and Levi Woodbury—are the most tarnished. The first three secretaries failed in finding a middle ground between Jackson and the Bank of the United States. The last two were fully in step with Jackson and share the blame for ushering in the Panic of 1837. Lewis Cass, Jackson’s second Secretary of War, was a notorious central figure of the Indian Removal policy. Amos Kendall, arguably Jackson’s most influential adviser, did well with combating corruption in the post office, but he also banned abolitionist literature from being mailed to the South. None of Jackson’s cabinet appointments were remarkable; although, Van Buren and Kendall were very capable.
Since Jackson had issues with most of his own cabinet, he ended up relying on informal advisers, Jackson loyalists and yes-men that scholars have label, “the kitchen cabinet.” It was easier and quicker to bring in and kick out members of an unofficial cabinet or think tank, than it was to go through official protocol and nominate, confirm, fire, and replace a cabinet member. Besides, Jackson’s unofficial cabinet would not need to bend to intraparty factions.
Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet” would generally include Van Buren, Taney, Kendall, Jackson’s nephew and adopted son Andrew Jackson Donelson, Francis P. Blair, and others. Kendall and Bair were editors for a pro-Jackson newspaper, Argus of Western America. These men were more in line with Jackson’s views on key issues, and they would help him in making policy decisions that incorporated his views.
Jackson was also a poor executive when it came to appointing justices, and he had plenty of opportunity for success since he appointed six judges to the Supreme Court. Of these, his decision to appoint Taney as Chief Justice may be his worst political appointment. Taney’s, who would later preside over the notorious Dred Scott decision, has been roundly criticized as the worst Chief Justice in US history. Taney’s influence on the court lasted nearly 30 years, including three years into the Civil War.
Another justice, James Moore Wayne, served the court for 32 years. Wayne was a consistent supporter of Taney. Although from Georgia, Wayne stayed with the Union. Justice Henry Baldwin served for 14 years, while Philip Pendleton Barbour lasted only 5 years. Neither left an impact and Baldwin has been called an “incoherent jurist” by historians. On Jackson’s final day in office, he nominated John Catron, who would serve until 1865, and William Smith, who would decline the nomination. Catron should get some credit for his strong unionists views leading up to and through the Civil War.
Not all of Jackson’s judicial nominations were poor choices. Jackson’s first Supreme Court justice was probably his best, although Jackson would not concur. John McLean had been an influential supporter of Jackson in Ohio. He had formerly been a supporter of John Quincy Adams and Clay but had converted by the 1828 election. In fact, McLean had been Adams’s Postmaster General. Unfortunately for Jackson, McLean veered back to the ideology of Adams and Clay soon after his confirmation to the Supreme Court. McLean defended unionism leading up to the Civil War (he died in 1861), and he was one of only two justices to oppose Taney and the majority in the Dred Scott decision. Unlike most justices, McLean was openly political and ran for the presidency several times, including as a Republican shortly before his death.
Overall, Jackson proved to be a poor judge of men, seemingly believing that a loyal supporter will somehow manage the job. His intentions to clear out corruption through term limits might have been sincere, but his methods backfired, leading to even more corruption over time.
Party Leadership: 10/10
Jackson scores a high mark here for good reason. His supporters created a new, strong party around him that dominated (despite losing two presidential elections) until the Civil War over 30 years later. This approximately 30-year period is known as the Age of Jackson. Just as Republicans harken back to Ronald Reagan today, the early Democrats looked to Jackson as their model.
Jackson, Van Buren, and other lead Democrats harnessed the populist rage against the elites after Jackson had won the popular vote in 1824 but had lost the election after Henry Clay dropped out of the race and influenced Congressmen to support Adams. After Adams made Clay Secretary of State, then considered a stepping-stone to the presidency. Jackson and his supporters spun this incident as a “Corrupt Bargain.” Jackson, already a populist, became more so, catering to the desires of the masses. Expanded white male suffrage, opposition to the elitist US Bank, term limits, abolishing the electoral college, and other populist reforms became a major part of Jackson and Democratic rhetoric, even if they didn’t act on all of their words. This resulted in a party that, according to Van Buren’s theory of two parties in permanent opposition, would always see the people triumph over the elites. Jackson would use popular enthusiasm to expand presidential power to act for the “Will of the People.”
Jackson’s leadership was so strong that anti-Jackson factions—National Republican, Anti-Masons, and Nullifiers—were forced to merge into a single party—the Whigs—in order to compete, although their party was unified mostly in opposing populism and Jackson than they were unified on many issues. The Whig lack of unity ruined their tactical integrity in most national elections.
Support for Jackson did not make Jackson a great party leader alone. He had a brilliant political intelligence that may have exceeded even Jefferson’s, although Jackson was no Jeffersonian intellectual. Jackson was, however, good at spinning his faults into strengths. For instance, once when Jackson signed a document it was handed back to him after it was noticed that his name had been written down incorrectly. Jackson responded, “It is an unintelligent man that cannot spell his own name more than one way!” Such language endeared him to the common voter.
Jackson’s popularity allowed his main kingmaker—Martin Van Buren—to follow Jackson into the presidency with the help of a successful scheme to move the Democratic Convention so early that the opposition within his party couldn’t field an alternative to Van Buren. Such finagling is representative of Jackson who used whatever intelligence he had to get what he wanted. By the end of his presidency, any intraparty challenges to his authority were mostly diffused. Those that still opposed him, such as John C. Calhoun, temporarily joined the Whigs. Even so, Jackson was still able to leave office with his party dominating both houses of Congress.
Jackson lived eight years after retiring from office and maintained his spot as leader of his party even during semi-retirement. While arguments can be made to diminish Jackson’s Party Leadership grade—such as docking points for creating a party that was mostly on the wrong side of the Civil War, for instance—it is important to point out that these grades do not seek perfection, but are rather relative grades. In this one area, Jackson excelled as first party leader for America’s oldest extant political party.
Economics and Finance: 3/10
If anyone wants to know why Jackson is overrated, this is one of the areas to consider. Jackson’s economic decisions were mostly disastrous.
A good chunk of Jackson’s presidency involved a fight over the National Bank. Jackson supported those that blamed the Panic of 1819 on the US Bank, even though the economy was currently strong and had been since the economic panic. Jackson accused the banks of corruption, fraud, theft, and for influencing elections. However, since the economy showed no weakness, the Whigs and some Democrats supported the bank. As such, Jackson initially tried to convert the bank into a more pro-Democrat, public institution, but bank president Nicholas Biddle saw no point in altering the bank if it was working well. Although, Jackson feigned some support for the bank as it aided Jackson’s goal of paying off the national debt, he secretly met with Van Buren and others to figure out a way to replace the bank. Jackson, however, had his advisers working hard to convince him not to outright repeal the bank without a replacement.
During a major speech, Jackson shocked even some of his own supporters when, after praising the bank’s role in paying off the debt, he called for Congress to work toward destroying the bank. Jackson supported his argument with factually untrue statements regarding the bank’s effects on the economy. He called the bank unconstitutional even though Supreme Court Case McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) declared it constitutional.
By 1830, Jackson called for a public bank with no shareholders and far limited powers to replace the US Bank. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri gave a major speech against the bank, slamming the bank’s powers to create paper currency. Jackson inspired by this speech exerted himself more fully into destroying the bank and called for an end of all paper currency.
At this point, bank president Biddle offered to reform the bank. Jackson, attempting to appear moderate by appointing two pro-bank Democrats (Livingston at State and McLane at Treasury) to his cabinet, feigned some initial receptivity to reform. In exchange for permanent support for the US Bank, Biddle offered to sell off its bank stock (making it more public), allow states to buy up public land, adjust Adams’s “Tariff of Abominations,” and to finish paying off the national debt before Jackson’s second term was over. Jackson played the US Bank with a pretended interest in the Biddle’s proposed reforms and somehow convinced the bank to urge Congress not to vote on a recharter bill until his second term. Accepting Jackson’s demand probably killed the bank, as it likely caused pro-Bank defenders to let down their guard.
Jackson struck Bank supporters before they were ready. He was able to kill the bank prior to Election Day. Jackson ignored his pro-bank treasury secretary in the weeks leading up to the abolishment of the US Bank. He favored the mouths and ears of Roger B. Taney and other anti-bank members of his “kitchen cabinet.” Jackson objected to any arguments that the bank was constitutional and decided to reinvent presidential veto power. The Congress moved ahead of schedule to vote on the bank, and as expected, the recharter bill passed, but Jackson vetoed it even though the bank had been declared Constitutional. Congress, despite the energies of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and others, could not muster the support to override Jackson’s veto.
Thus, Jackson rejected constitutional authority on a bill in the name of the “Will of the People.” Henceforth, most presidents have used the veto primary for partisan reasons rather than for constitutional reasons. Jackson delivered a message for his rationale in expanding his veto power just before he vetoed the bank.
The veto emboldened both support and opposition to Jackson, who was then labeled a “tyrant,” “dictator,” “King Andrew,” etc, by his opponents. Unfortunately, the Whigs (still often called “National Republicans”) had not yet unified their forces and an Anti-Mason candidacy under William Wirt hurt Henry Clay more than it hurt Jackson in the 1832 election.
Following reelection, Jackson replaced his pro-bank Secretary of the Treasury with Roger B. Taney, who proceeded to swiftly remove deposits from the US Bank and place them in pro-Jackson pet banks, which were mostly in the western states. After Jackson made Taney the new Chief Justice, Jackson’s new treasury secretary, Levi Woodbury, helped Jackson create his Specie Circular, which required that public lands be bought in gold or silver coins and barred paper currency for purchases. The former action caused a real estate crash in the east coast, and the latter caused inflation and prices to skyrocket nationwide. Jackson’s policy of giving economic surpluses as federal aid to the states also caused hyperinflation. As Jackson left office, Van Buren inherited the worst economic recession at that point: the Panic of 1837.
Fiscal conservatives like to point out that Jackson paid off the national debt. This is true. However, Jackson’s economic policies forced his successor to revive the national debt, which was never paid off again. Conservative fans of Jackson also ignore the fact that it was the more progressive John Quincy Adams that did more to pay off the national debt than Jackson did. Adams paid off about $14 million dollars of the national debt in a single term, while Jackson paid off only the $5 million dollars that remained and then took the credit for paying it off. Jackson should get some credit for fulfilling his economic policy goal, however.
Surprisingly, Jackson kept Adams’s Tariff of Abominations for three years before signing a new Tariff in 1832, which barely reduced the tariff. South Carolina had probably been holding out during Adams’s administration thinking Jackson would win the next election and work to repeal the protectionist tariff for a revenue-only tariff. As he did not avenge South Carolina, Jackson, and not Adams, had to deal with a Nullification Crises. South Carolina threatened secession if Jackson would not repeal the tariff, which strangled the cotton industry in favor of Northern industries.
I give Jackson some token points for fulfilling his policy goal of paying off the national debt and for maintaining a tariff that favored the more populous industrial sector of the country over the desired tariff rate of his agrarian base. Overall, Jackson ignorance of economics led to an eventual recession that tanked his own successor’s chances of success. Additionally, his handling of the tariff nearly led to an early Civil War. Jackson turned a period of economic prosperity to a period of economic despair.
Business and Labor: 2/5
The working class soundly supported Jackson’s rhetoric, but this same rhetoric frightened businesses that relied on the bank and a stable economy. Jackson’s economic actions hurt both business and labor, especially in the industrialized Northeast.
Jackson was the first president to use the federal government against labor, despite his pro-labor rhetoric. In 1834, working conditions were so bad (malaria and cholera were common) and the pay so low that workers building the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal opted to risk their jobs by striking. Jackson played the role of strikebreaker by sending in federal troops to break up the strike, setting a precedence of expanded executive power in labor disputes. In 1835, Jackson also sent in troops during the failed strike at the Washington Naval Yards.
Jackson’s presidency also saw the first general strike in US history, which occurred in Philadelphia in 1835, although earlier carpenter strikes in Boston had occurred during Jackson’s presidency. Inspired by strikes in Boston, approximately 20,000 Philadelphia workers went on strike for a 10-hour workday and for an increase in wages. The city of Philadelphia met the demands of the workers. This resulted in copycat strikes throughout the country, which often resulted in victories for labor. Unlike with the canal workers and naval yard workers, Jackson let local forces deal with any strikebreaking in these other areas, presumably because they didn’t involve the federal government, unlike the disputes involving the federally-funded canal and navy yards. .
I score Jackson low for the economic atmosphere and for setting a dangerous precedent of using armed troops to quell peaceful protest for basic working conditions. The token points Jackson receives are for his promotion of the working class, elevating them to a level of importance that they did not receive prior, and for allowing labor strikes to occur when they did not involve the federal government.
Social Welfare: 3/5
This was not a major area of presidential concern. Social welfare existed only for disabled and aged military veterans and for their widows and orphans. Jackson did sign an executive order to reduce spending on pensions by forbidding anyone acting in the capacity of a military officer from receiving a pension until complete retirement and by extending the process of applying for a pension. This was probably done not only to reduce spending but also to crack down on abuses, although it certainly was a drag on good veterans needing a pension immediately. Secondly, Jackson was able to expand pensions to uninjured Revolutionary War veterans, all of whom were probably well over 55 years old at this time (if you include drummer boys), and most of whom were over 65.
Civil Rights and Liberties: 3/10
The hardest part about grading Jackson here is that at the time Jackson would have been seen as a kind of civil rights hero for inspiring universal suffrage for white men across the country (excluding South Carolina, which wouldn’t budge until forced by Reconstruction). Previously, property requirements and other restrictions prevented potential voters from voting in many states during presidential elections and other elections. Additionally, the voters in some states had no say on whom the presidential electors would vote for. In 1824, only half of the states (mostly Northern) allowed their voters to choose every elector, which is what we technically do today since we don’t elect presidents by popular vote. By the time Jackson left office, only South Carolina ignored its voting base. Jackson’s rhetoric had moved the country, which is as much as he could do considering the presidency at the time did not have the power to do more to force open an expansion of suffrage.
Related to expanded suffrage, Jackson’s concept of the presidency as a kind of superhero for the “Will of the People” certainly gave the voting public a larger say in how government should be run. In this sense, Robert La Follette, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, LBJ, and Barack Obama have Jackson as their earliest and strongest precursor on the use of the executive branch to enforce the demands of the people, even when our “ruling class” is reluctant to embrace progress.
The rest of Jackson’s record in this area is mostly atrocious. Jackson was the fifth slaveholding president (only the Adamses opposed bondage among Jackson’s predecessors). Unlike Jefferson, Jackson was not ashamed to have owned enslaved people. He owned 300 people in the course of his lifetime, including about 150 people at one time.
Naturally, Jackson was more interested in aiding his fellow slaveholders; however, he was also aware that the “slavery question” could potentially lead to a Civil War. These were both reasons why Jackson ordered the US postal service to ban the mailing of abolitionist tracts to the South. Similarly, these were both reasons why Jackson was conflicted about whether or not to admit Texas as a US State. In any case, Jackson cared little for the enslaved ancestors of millions of present-day US citizens. Jackson presided during the Congress that passed the infamous “gag rule,” which forbade any abolitionist petition or discussion in Congress.
Jackson’s abuse of another group of future US citizens was even more direct. Jackson, no friend of Indian tribes, would break dozens of Indian treaties since he didn’t believe that the federal government should treat the tribes as if they were sovereign countries. His Indian Removal Act was far more severe and organized than the more gradual removal programs of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. About 46,000 people died during the “Trail of Tears” as a result of Jackson’s signing of this legislation, another clear human rights violation by today’s standard. However, some scholars argue that Jackson believed his policy was a win-win since by moving the tribes Westward it would save them from being killed off by rogue settlers trying to steal their land.
On paper, the Indian Removal Act was legislation to allow negotiations for the exchange of land between the federal government and the “five civilized tribes,” although other tribes were affected as well. Naturally, it was used for more than that. Any tribe that would not trade their land for the land set aside for them in the West would be forcibly removed. While horrid by today’s standards, this act was popular during its time, especially in the South where these tribes lived. The removal allowed for white settlers to move in and expand their plantation slave society. The Indian Removal Act faced most of its opposition from New England and from the native tribes as well. Some of the opposition from New England, and in the North in general, was in part due to the future implications of an expanding Southern culture that was very different from the culture in the North. The concern for the native tribes might have been barely existent, even in the North.
From a supporter’s standpoint, the Indian Removal Act was a success with one hiccup. The Seminoles—longtime foes of Jackson—refused to comply. This led to the Second Seminole War in 1835, which lasted about seven years.
The emotional side of me would like to give Jackson a zero for Civil Rights & Liberties. However, I give him the score he has for his role in expanding suffrage, even if it is more indirect than direct. Andrew Jackson’s populist rhetoric did much in helping those without property or not enough property win their right to vote. A 21st-century eye will certainly deem expanded white male-hood suffrage as progress that falls insultingly short. However, we must remember this is progress nonetheless and a step towards suffrage for those ignored Americans of the Age of Jackson and beyond.
Domestic Unrest and Criminal Justice: 8/10
The Nullification Crisis was Jackson’s main area of domestic unrest. Southerners, especially South Carolinians, reeled when Jackson’s predecessor, Adams, had signed the “Tariff of Abominations,” which slapped a high tariff on imports. The tariff protected Northern industries, but it discouraged European trade for American Cotton. Additionally, the South had to import more goods since they had a far less diversified economy than the North. So certain was the South that Jackson would defeat Adams in 1828 and would amend the tariff significantly, that they refrained from any significant protest. They would be disappointed.
Jackson made little effort to repeal or replace the Tariff of Abomination until 1832 when he was up for reelection. Former president John Quincy Adams, then a US Rep., strangely enough, was the primary author of the new tariff of 1832. The tariff was reduced but so insignificantly that South Carolina drafted an Ordinance of Nullification, declaring that the state had a right to nullify federal laws that were unconstitutional. Thus, South Carolina refused to enforce the tariff.
Jackson responded with a bellicose address after his reelection. Meanwhile, new VP Van Buren (who had replaced South Carolina nullifier John C. Calhoun, who became the first VP to resign) and Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, tried to pressure Jackson to end the standoff by lowering the tariff, but they were unsuccessful. Jackson called on Congress to pass a Force Bill to expand presidential power so that he could call on the US military to enforce the tariff in South Carolina. In this, Jackson had Whig support, including from Sen. Daniel Webster, a major critic of Jackson. The Force Bill passed and South Carolina later “nullified” the Force Bill as well. However, Henry Clay, who had just been defeated by Jackson in the recent election, opposed Jackson’s rhetoric and worked on a compromise tariff, which would gradually reduce the tariff over time. South Carolina under the pressure of being invaded by a president with a past history of unilateral invasions, accepted Clay’s Compromise Tariff of 1833. Strangely, Jackson and Clay—the two greatest of foes—indirectly worked together to fend off a potential early Civil War.
The strong unionist attitude by Jackson during the Nullification Crisis would inspire later presidents such as Taylor, Fillmore, and Lincoln.
Jackson gets high marks for competently dealing with a potential secession crisis, and quelling it before it began. I take away some points for preferring military action to negotiating a compromise. However, he did sign Clay’s compromise bill.
Immigration and Citizenship: 3/5
Jackson, the son of Scots-Irish immigrants, continued the lenient immigration and naturalization policies of his predecessors. Jackson’s expanded Democracy, however, probably encouraged immigration to the United States.
Infrastructure and Domestic Improvements: 7/10
Jackson followed Madison and Monroe in opposing internal improvements in rhetoric, but he accepted them much of the time. Jackson’s policy was to accept internal improvements only if the improvement was used for national defense (coastal defenses) or for national commerce (canals). In gray areas, such as the case with the Maysville Road Bill, Jackson opposed internal improvements.
The Maysville Road Bill aimed to extend the Cumberland Road (also known as the National Road) which would link Washington DC to the West. The Maysville Road Bill funded the latest extension, but since this extension was entirely within Kentucky, Jackson vetoed the bill, believing Kentucky should handle it. It can be argued that Jackson vetoed it because it was within Henry Clay’s state, Henry Clay being both Jackson’s likely opponent in the upcoming election (he would be), and the major voice behind federally funded improvements.
Overall, while Jackson was strict in his interpretation of what improvements were constitutional and which were not, he spent more on these projects in his first term than the more improvement-friendly JQ Adams did his only term. In fact, in two years, Jackson spent more on improvements than all his predecessors combined. He also saw the extension of the National Road from the nation’s capital to Illinois via Ohio.
Jackson, despite his reputation as an opponent of improvements, which is usually emphasis by his veto of the Maysville Road Bill, actually saw improvements flourish.
Energy, Resources, and Environment: 0/0
This was not a major area of presidential concern. Although, Jackson’s infrastructure projects certainly had a negative impact on the environment while allowing for greater access to resources.
Misc. Domestic: 4/5
Jackson also approved federal funding for an exploring expedition to the Southern Ocean after initially opposing such projects as unconstitutional. The United States Exploring Expedition confirmed the existence of Antarctica. Strangely, it was President John Quincy Adams that had requested this expedition in 1828, but Jackson supporters in Congress, some of whom favored the same expedition under Jackson, denied the request to Jackson’s opponent.
Jackson also reformed government administrative offices, mostly so that the government could handle the influx of land grant applications for settlers hoping to move westward. Additionally, Jackson expanded the judiciary to better cover Western states. Jackson saw Arkansas and Michigan enter the Union, and more Western states were to follow throughout the century.
Foreign Diplomacy: 5/10
Jackson’s foreign policy achievements are few, as he primarily focused on domestic issues such as political, social, and economic reform, and Indian removal.
Jackson could be credited with avoiding a war with Britain when the British occupied the Falkland Islands, violating the Monroe Doctrine. It is surprising that a trigger-happy Anglophobe like Jackson avoided a chance to wage war against his sworn enemy, but he may have felt the military was in no place to win a war on the offensive. The US could barely defend their own territory and had twice failed to take Canada in their recent history, and that was just next door.
His reactions to the French were much tougher, perhaps because he saw a major power he knew he could pick on without much risk. Jackson threatened to seize French ships and to build up the US navy if France did not compensate America for US ships destroyed during the Napoleonic Wars. France paid up rather than risk war.
Like Adams, Jackson offered to buy Texas from Mexico for $5 million, which was also refused. He declined a military takeover when it was suggested to him. He did aggressively seek monetary claims from Mexico.
Jackson also achieved a foreign policy success by opening trade to the British West Indies, something Adams had sought to do but failed to accomplish. Jackson also made several other trade deals, including with the Russian and Ottoman Empires, which resulted in a 75% increase in cotton exports. This was probably done to offset the tariff, which was hurting the cotton industry.
His attempts at foreign policy in Asia did not go well. He was unable to open trade with China or Japan, which would have eased the anger of his mercantile opponents in New England.
Peace, Defense, and Warfare: 5/10
Jackson did not see any wars with major foreign powers, but he did see three major “Indian wars”. The Second Seminole War, which occurred as a result of the Indian Removal Act, was the most expensive of all Indian wars. It lasted nearly 7 years—well past Jackson’s presidency—and expelled all but 300 Seminoles from the Florida Everglades.
The Black Hawk War took place in Illinois and Michigan Territory and occurred because the tribes under Black Hawk were resettling land that had been ceded to the United States. Most accounts say that the resettlement was peaceful, but the military was ordered to clear the land for white settlers. This was done quickly, leaving 77 soldiers and non-combatants dead and up to 600 tribal warriors and tribal non-combatants dead. Both Abraham Lincoln and his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, served in this war.
The Creek War of 1836 occurred towards the end of Jackson’s presidency. The Alabama state government passed laws that abolished the Creek tribal governments. The Creek, many who had fought for Jackson against other Creek and Seminoles, appealed to Jackson for protection. Jackson promptly ordered their removal to Indian Territory with the rest of the “Civilized” tribes by sending General Winfield Scott to defeat them and forcibly remove them from Alabama.
When a US trade vessel went to Sumatra (now an island in Indonesia) to trade for pepper, the crew was attacked by a local tribe, killing two and wounding eleven. Jackson responded by sending a navy to destroy the tribes small fleet and 5 forts, leaving about 450 tribesmen dead.
While Jackson avoided major military actions, he did approve a massive increase in military spending for the US Navy in order to protect American trade. More powerful European countries, and occasionally pirates, had a habit of harassing and boarding US ships in the early 19th century. The protection of mercantile ships can also be used as a cover to increase the navy for future use in warfare or for use in diplomatic intimidation.
Overall, Jackson avoided major wars with foreign powers. However, he had no problem waging war against weaker opponents, which he could easily defeat. Naturally, Jackson would score high if this area was graded exclusively on winning wars, however small. One must also take into account the cause of war and how a war is handled. In this case, much of this grade is carried over from the Indian Removal fallout. Jackson’s response in Sumatra can be considered excessive.
Scandal and Corruption: 2/5
As stated, Jackson hoped to change government for the better by purging the offices and placing fervent party supporters, regardless of ability, in political offices. His “Spoils System” backfired. Both sides would adopt this innovation, which would culminate in the political reform crisis that occurred during the corrupt Gilded Age.
The “Petticoat Affair” was the major scandal of Jackson’s presidency. Rumors had spread that Peggy Eaton, wife of the Secretary of War, had been a prostitute in her youth. More rumors arrived suggesting that the Eatons relationship had begun as an affair. While unverified, Floride Calhoun, wife of the Vice President, refused to socialize with the Eatons. The wives of the cabinet officers followed Mrs. Calhoun in shunning the Eatons.
Jackson was enraged with the public shunning of the Eatons and defended them without success. At first, he blamed Henry Clay, who had made similar attacks on Jackson’s wife in the past, but then he switched to blaming his own VP, John C. Calhoun, who had become a staunch Jackson opponent. Secretary of State Van Buren joined Jackson in his defense of the Eatons, resulting in a social battle line drawn in DC society.
The prolonged scandal looked bad for the administration, so Van Buren suggested to Jackson that the entire cabinet resign to end the scandal. Jackson agreed, which resulted in the largest cabinet turnover at one point in history up to that time, as everyone was compelled to resign except for the Postmaster General. Van Buren was kept on in Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet,” after Calhoun cast the tie-breaking voter rejecting Van Buren’s appointment as Ambassador to Great Britain. Jackson would reward Van Buren by making him his VP in his second term.
Overall, Jackson’s major scandal was minor. Jackson’s attempt at political reform may have helped in cracking down on some immediate corruption, but it only exacerbated the problem.
Jackson was the first sitting president to face an assassination attempt when a jobless citizen misfired two pistols in the direction of a cane-wielding Andrew Jackson. He was the first president to be the child of immigrants. He was the first president that was born relatively poor.
Jackson was also the first and only president to be formally censured by Congress. During the Bank War, Jackson refused to release classified documents to Congress. Jackson evoked executive privilege, which Jefferson had done during his presidency. The Congress, then barely controlled by Jackson’s opponents, formally censured Jackson, a symbolic slap on the wrist that has no actual punishing effect. Democrats expunged the censure from the record when they took Congress back over later during Jackson’s presidency.
Jackson expanded the powers of the presidency; although, most presidents ignored these precedents until Abraham Lincoln, who would often invoke Jackson when dealing with the Civil War. His set a precedent for expanding vetoes as a tool to cancel laws, regardless if they were Constitutional laws.
Jackson was immensely popular in his time, and he probably could have had a third term. He inaugurated what historians call, “The Age of Jackson.”
Jackson also has a lasting influence on both liberals and conservatives. Today, it seems more Republicans favor Jackson than Democrats do, mostly over Jackson’s perceived anti-intellectualism and his Indian Removal Act. However, Jackson’s use of the executive as a tool to fulfill the “Will of the People,” his desire to abolish the Electoral College, his desire to expand suffrage to make the government bend towards the people’s will, is more in line with mainstream liberals and progressives, than with mainstream conservatives. Populists, in general, have a stronger tie to Jackson, especially when you consider the rhetoric of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. One can make an argument over whose rhetoric is more Jacksonian, although Donald Trump chooses to use Jackson as a sort of patron saint, even while he ignores some of the better parts of Jackson.
Nevertheless, Jackson has become a symbol of a dark chapter in our history–the unjust, genocidal behavior towards entire civilizations of natives.