Saturday, May 26, 2018

Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy by Robert V. Remini

This is Volume 3 of a three volume biography of Andrew Jackson. I read the first volume in August 2012 and the second volume about five years later. I decided not to let as much time pass before getting through the third volume, and I’m glad I didn’t. Like the first two volumes, each of which held my attention as a result of a deep investigative interest, I found myself on a similar and enjoyable journey in Volume 3.

In Volume 1, the question was “Can I trust this biographer to present an unbiased portrait of Andrew Jackson?” I could. In Volume 2, the question was “Can the history of political parties in the United States be accurately seen as an ongoing struggle between the conflicting desires for liberty and power?” It could. In Volume 3, the question, bluntly put, was “Did Andrew Jackson break the Constitution?”

He did.

Andrew Jackson Was a Hothead

But before I go there, let me deal with something else, something that seems to re-open my investigative interest in the first volume. Namely, can I trust this biographer to present an unbiased portrait of Andrew Jackson?

Again and again in the text, Remini will make mention of Jackson’s notorious temper. And seemingly every time he does, he goes out of his way to stress that Jackson never let this notorious temper affect his judgment or subsequent actions. Here’s an example:

News of the action of the Nullification Convention shot up to Washington and around the country with record speed. The defiance shocked and infuriated the President. As he prowled the corridors of the White House, he uttered all kinds of savage threats, but at no time did he allow his feelings to color his judgment or influence his actions. In moments of crisis he exercised absolute control over his normally volatile emotions.

After a while, these statements began to ring hollow with me. This episode regarding South Carolina’s Nullification Convention is as good an example as any. It seems very much to me like Andrew Jackson is precisely letting his feelings color his judgment and influence his actions. The Nullification “Crisis”, as it is often called, began when South Carolina passed an ordinance of nullification, declaring the Federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832 null and void within the borders of South Carolina. When informed of this action by a sympathizing unionist, Remini reports that Jackson was in full agreement with the man, who “reassured the President of the loyalty and dependability of the union men in South Carolina.”

“We would rather die,” he wrote, “than submit to the tyranny of such an oligarchy as J. C. Calhoun, James Hamilton, Robt. Y. Hayne and [George] McDuffie and we implore our sister states and the federal govt. To rescue us from these lawless and reckless men.”

Jackson responded immediately. “I fully concur with you in your views of Nullification. … It leads directly to civil war and bloodshed and deserves the execration of every friend of the country.”

Civil war and bloodshed. And Jackson wasn’t kidding. He had already taken several actions that would make such an outcome possible.

Five hundred stand of muskets, for example, with “corresponding equipments,” had been ordered to Castle Pinckney, and a sloop of war with a smaller vessel had been dispatched to Charleston and would reach the city momentarily. General Winfield Scott had been directed to take command of the entire operation. In addition, the commanding officer at Castle Pinckney would be instructed by the secretary of war to deliver the arms to the unionists in the state. Should circumstances so dictate, additional ordnance would be provided.

Now, Remini stresses that in all of this, Jackson acted carefully within the limits of the law, and then uses that fact to praise him again for his tempered restraint. But that is not the only way to look at Jackson’s actions. Just because he acted within his constitutional powers does not mean that he wasn’t letting his feelings color his judgment and influence his actions. The current President, by way of extreme example, has the constitutional power to order bombing strikes against any nation or actor he perceives as an imminent threat against the United States, but that doesn’t mean that every time he orders such an action he is acting with caution and tempered restraint.

The bigger question, to my way of thinking, is why is the current President dropping bombs, and why is Jackson preparing the federal army for war against one of the nation’s states. After all, isn’t nullification something states in the 1830s were allowed to do?

That’s a deep question, and I’m not sure I know the answer to it. Jackson, clearly, didn’t think so.

“The Union must be preserved,” Jackson reiterated, “and its laws duly executed, but by proper means.” We must act, he went on, as “the instruments of the law.” [His sympathizer] was to tell the unionists “that perpetuity is stamped upon the constitution by the blood of our Fathers.” Nothing could dissolve the Union. Nothing. Constitutional amendment was the process provided to secure needed changes or improve “our system of free Government.” For this reason a state may not secede, much less “hazard” the Union. “Nullification therefore means insurrection and war; and the other states have a right to put it down.”

But it seems clear that, in 1832, the people of South Carolina thought they had the power to nullify federal actions.

Events in South Carolina then began to move at a frightening clip toward confrontation with the federal government and possible civil war. The people of the state seemed to accept the Ordinance of Nullification with no perceptible concern. The union party, though respectable in character, was overwhelmed in the fall elections by an “immense, an almost silencing majority,” completely sympathetic to the nullifiers. Robert Y. Hayne resigned as United States senator and John C. Calhoun resigned as Vice President of the United States. Hayne was elected to succeed James Hamilton, Jr., as governor. A new legislature, composed mainly of nullifiers, elected Calhoun to take Hayne’s seat in the United States Senate and then proceeded to pass the necessary legislation to carry the Ordinance into practical effect.

The rhetoric, indeed, got heated on the South Carolinian side of the debate, but Remini doesn’t go out of his way to point out that, dare I use the term, constitutionalists like John C. Calhoun never let his feelings color his judgment and influence his actions, and that every action he took was in strict accordance with the law and the legitimate powers of his office.

But that, of course, is not how Jackson saw him.

John C. Calhoun: the spoiler, the agitator, the traitor. That was how President Jackson saw the South Carolinian. That was how Jackson’s advisors and closest friends also saw him. They spoke of the former Vice President as “the most wicked and the most despicable of American statesmen.” They reckoned his nullification theory and his conspiracy to disrupt the Union as the consequences of a disappointed ambition. “He strove, schemed, dreamed, lived, only for the presidency,” they contended. And when he failed to attain that office by “honorable means,” he scrambled to rise upon the ruins of his country. That was Jackson’s final judgment of the tormented southerner. He “lived and died in this opinion.” On his deathbed, Jackson expressed his regret that he had not executed Calhoun from treason. “My country,” he said, “would have sustained me in the act, and his fate would have been a warning to traitors in all time to come.”

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. There is another explanation for Calhoun’s actions, and for the actions of the majority of the voters in South Carolina, who clearly thought they were well within their rights to elect their own representatives who would, when necessary, nullify federal actions. That explanation is that the United States of America were, at that time, properly understood as a confederation of sovereign states, who created a federal government for their mutual benefit that was subservient, not ascendant, to their sovereignty.

Andrew Jackson had a different set of ideas, ideas that were quite revolutionary in 1832 but which most take for granted today. Including, clearly, his biographer Remini. His text is written through the anachronistic lens of today’s understanding of the American nation. Jackson assumed many of the modern powers of the president and the federal government, but those in Jackson’s time who opposed those assumed powers are not properly viewed as rebels or traitors. Jackson did. And, to a certain extent, Remini appears to as well. But as I read the words and represented thoughts of President Jackson on the page, I can’t help but think that he, far from being motivated by a reasoned and dispassionate view of the constitution, was much more swayed by a new understanding of himself as the sole representative of the American people.

Andrew Jackson Is the Will of the People

Very early in the volume, on page 16 no less, Remini clearly lays out both Jackson’s understanding of the American nation and, surprisingly, admits that it is flawed. In the context of the possible secession of states from the Union, he writes:

Andrew Jackson had an absolutely clear conception of his position on this question. It was simple, direct, and logical. It may not have been historically accurate, but he sincerely believed it to be so. Most important, it proceeded from his commitment to democratic principles. The federal government, he said, was “based on a confederation of perpetual union” by an act of the people. A state may never secede, and that was final. Moreover, the people, not the states, granted sovereignty to the federal government through the Constitution. They called the Union into existence, they created the federal government, and they granted federal power. These actions, he insisted, were taken by the people at conventions that ratified the Constitution. And in ratifying the Constitution the people automatically amended their state constitutions to accord with the new arrangement.

This understanding, to use Remini’s own words, is historically inaccurate. It was contested vigorously in Jackson’s time, not because his opponents were disloyal to the Union, but because what Jackson was championing was not part of the Union that they understood. And, when challenged, what evidence did Jackson offer to defend his radical views. Again, Remini provides the relevant phrase. None. He just sincerely believed them to be so.

Remini heaps praise on Jackson for his proclamation in response to the Nullification Crisis, calling it “a major statement in constitutional law,” and Jackson “a statesman of the first rank.” But little in it rests on any precedent other than Jackson’s invented understanding of the U.S. government.

The people of the United States, Jackson went on, formed the Constitution, acting through their respective states. “We are one people in the choice of President and Vice President.” The people, he declared, not the states, are represented in the executive branch.

The electoral college, appointed by state legislatures, be damned, I guess.

This assertion culminated Jackson’s efforts to redefine the presidency and the relation of the American people to their government. It was another appeal for recognition that it was the presidential office -- not the legislature, no matter what Webster or Clay or Calhoun argued -- that embodies all the people. The President is the representative of the American electorate and directly responsible to them. By his actions and words he articulates and executes their will.

This “assertion” culminated Jackson’s efforts to “redefine” the presidency and the relation of the American people to their government. The italicized words are crucially important to my point of view. This was an assertion, not a constitutional argument, and Jackson was attempting to redefine, not support the existing definition of the American president.

Many in his inner circle publicly agreed with him, but privately staked out lines of dispute and uncertainty.

Martin Van Buren quite agreed with the President’s argument as well as the position he had taken, but he questioned whether the mere passage of nullification laws constituted an act of treason that would authorize presidential action. “You will say I am on my old track -- caution -- caution,” Van Buren counseled; “but my Dr Sir, I have always thought, that considering our respective temperaments, there was no way perhaps in which I could better render you that service which I owe you.” What Van Buren did not fully appreciate was that Jackson allowed his words to freight his emotional intensity; his actions carried nothing but restraint.

That last line is priceless. Essentially, what Remini wants me to believe is that Martin Van Buren, living at the same time and working in close consultation with Andrew Jackson, did not realize what his biographer, reading 150-year-old scraps of paper, clearly understood. Andrew Jackson was a hothead.

Meanwhile, ugly signs mushroomed all over Charleston. Palmetto cockades were sported on hats and lapels, and it was reported that volunteer regiments of nullifiers adopted a red flag with a black lone star in the center as its ensign. The American flag appeared on public and private buildings and on steamboats flying upside down. (When Jackson heard about the steamboats he burst out in a stream of expletives. “For this indignity to the flag of the country,” he reputedly said, “she ought to have been instantly sunk, no matter who owned or commanded her.”) General Winfield Scott, in charge of military preparations, reportedly wrote to the secretary of war “saying that blood would be shed and that he did not believe any thing could prevent it.”

No. Not, I suppose, with such a bloviating president in the White House, one taken to bursting out in streams of expletives.

But why? It’s fun to pick these holes in Remini’s supposedly objective account, but the larger and more important question is why did Jackson take this view, this view that the president alone represents the will of the American people. Why was it so important to him? Well, to understand that, I think you have to first recognize that is was not the president, per se, that Jackson believed represented the will of the people. It was Jackson himself.

Remini will not agree with me on this subject. He sees Jackson as a “statesman of the first rank,” someone whose motivations are noble, whose actions are premeditated and prescient.

President Jackson marks an important break with the past. He is the first and only statesman of the early national period to deny publicly the right of secession. Secession was a doctrine no longer in keeping with a democratic society, no longer congenial to the idea of “a Federal Union founded upon the great principle of popular representation.” Whether at some point in time it had any validity no longer mattered. It was a dead issue as far as Old Hickory was concerned, annihilated by the historical evolution of a democratic society.

Jackson, in this telling, and despite being “the first and only statesman of the early national period to deny publicly the right of secession,” is, like most pivotal historical figures, representative of a new wave of cultural and socio-economic forces. He argued that America “had been formed by the sovereignty of the people, not the sovereignty of the states. It was not a confederation, not a banding together of individual states, but a permanent welding of the people.”

Thus, by his words and deeds, Jackson continued to recast attitudes and perceptions of this nation and its operation. Republicanism was giving way to democracy, and Andrew Jackson was an important instrument in that change. Republicanism, with its emphasis on liberty, preached the need for strong states as a counterweight to the central government, but by the mid-1830s that philosophy could not accommodate the dynamics of an emerging industrial society. Protecting freedom in the modern world required a strong national government. Besides, the way to minimize the danger to individual rights was to fashion a government elected by all the people. In short, majority rule best protected freedom -- not the states, and certainly not a hobbled or enfeebled central government.

It’s often difficult to tell, like in these last few sentences, whether Remini in speaking in his own voice, or only paraphrasing the views and perspective of his subject. But either way, they strike me more as assertions than arguments. If there is some evidence that a strong national government is needed to minimize the danger to individual rights, in either Jackson’s or the more modern world, I would like to be presented with it. And the idea that popular elections are the best way to protect the rights of the individual is almost laughable.

Again and again, Remini will comment on how Jackson, in assuming more power for president, was doing it not for his own selfish reasons, but as the embodiment of some great cultural change taking place in American society. Here’s another example:

Jackson was the first President to hit the problem head on. He believed that all officials of the executive office fell totally and completely under his authority. They were to obey him, not the Congress. Here again Jackson established a new dimension of presidential power. He assumed total authority to remove all cabinet officers without notifying Congress, much less obtaining its consent. Today the power seems obvious. Not so in the early nineteenth century -- not until Jackson decided it once and for all.

And why did Jackson do this? To satisfy his own ego and secure his own authority? No.

This was another example of the small but important actions Jackson took that added to the power of the presidential office. His success in undermining the equal but separate doctrine of the Founding Fathers and tilting power more toward the executive was the result of the changes that had taken place in the American system of government and American society since the beginning of the century. An expanding economy had produced a rising democracy and, as a consequence, the American electorate demanded a greater say in the operation of the government. Since Jackson had become their spokesman and symbol, they were quite prepared to accept him as their representative at the seat of government. What was happening, therefore, was something that everyone sensed and accepted, even if they could not describe or define it, namely, the slow, continuing evolution of the nation from a republic to a democracy. Jackson by his conduct as President and his relations to the American people was asserting his role as the tribune of the people. And the electorate genuinely saw him as their representative. Their will was now being exercised through him, not through the legislature as was true in the past. The government had always been based on consent, right from the beginning of the American experiment, but consent was indirectly given through the legislature. Now, under Jackson, it was being expressed through the executive in a very direct manner.

Andrew Jackson, in other words, is not just the President of the United States. He is the will of the people.

Andrew Jackson Broke the Constitution

But is Remini right? Was “the electorate” “quite prepared to accept him as their representative at the seat of government”? Was this something that “everyone sensed and accepted”?

On May 6, 1833, President Andrew Jackson, accompanied by some members of his cabinet and Major Donelson, embarked on the steamboat Cygnet for Fredericksburg, Virginia, where the President was scheduled to lay the cornerstone of a monument in honor of the mother of George Washington. Then it happened. At Alexandria, where the steamboat made berth, Jackson retired to a cabin and had seated himself in a chair wedged between a long table (being set for dinner) and a berth. … Jackson was reading a newspaper and smoking his pipe with his right elbow on the berth and his left arm resting on the table. … “Thus confined, and thus situated,” he was interrupted by Robert B. Randolph, a former lieutenant in the navy, who had been dismissed for theft at Jackson’s specific direction. “In a plain & supplicating tone,” Randolph inquired if Jackson was the President. Old Hickory looked up from his newspaper and answered affirmatively. “Excuse my rising, sir,” he said. “I have a pain in my side which makes it distressing for me to rise.”

Randolph said nothing but pressed forward … pulling off the glove on his right hand as he moved. “Believing that he had a wish to shake hands with me, which is so common,” Jackson later recounted, “I said to him, do not draw your glove.”

“You have injured me,” Randolph responded “in a soft tone” of voice.

“How?” asked the President.

And with that, Randolph “dashed his hand” into Jackson’s face.

“What Sir. What Sir,” cried the President.

Randolph attempted to strike again but [a companion of Jackson’s] seized him and pulled him away. A scuffle ensued and the table was overturned. Several of Randolph’s friends, who had accompanied him aboard the vessel, grabbed him and rushed him off the boat. Poor Jackson had been so trapped behind the table that he could not rise with ease, nor seize his cane in time to defend himself. “Had I been apprised that Randolph stood before me,” he said, “I should have been prepared for him, and I could have defended myself. No villain has ever escaped me before; and he would not, had it not been for my confined situation.”

Evidently not. At least in the case of Robert B. Randolph, Jackson’s usurpation of power prompted him not to accept Jackson as his representative at the seat of government, but to find the president and punch the miscreant in the nose.

That, of course, is not the way Remini views it. In commenting on this first-ever physical attack on a sitting president, Remini makes two observations.

That Andrew Jackson should be the first President to be criminally assaulted is very suggestive. For one thing it says something about Jackson himself, the kind of man he was and the emotional passions he aroused in some people. But for another, and far more important, it says something about the age. It was a sign -- one ugly and frightening -- that the country was undergoing disturbing changes in its character, mood, and behavior. In forty and more years of the presidency, nothing like this had happened before. Regrettably, assaulting Presidents became a terrible fact of American life. And the thing that Jackson dreaded the most came about, namely the necessity of placing “a military guard around the President.”

Was Randolph a man with a grudge? Probably. But in googling him I found an interesting letter from Randolph to ex-President James Madison, seeking Madison’s assistance in restoring his reputation and career, and dated a fortnight before the attack on May 6. In that letter we find the following sentences.

“I consider the administration of Andrew Jackson as subversive of constiutional liberty at least; and utterly guided by feeling and passion; and altho my degredation and ruin have been long ago plotted by his malicious, invidious and utterly dishonest official subalterns, it has been his pride to connive at it all, and to make me the victim of their base and heartless injustice.”

Remini blames the attack, at least in part, to the increasing coarseness of American society -- which sounds suspiciously to me like the clarion call of some modern-day conservatives. (Clearly criminals are motivated by base and evil desires. What other explanation could there be?) And although Remini allows that perhaps Jackson’s tendency to arouse “emotional passions” in “some people” may be a complicating factor, there is no mention of what it is that Jackson does to arouse those passions. In this respect, I think the words of Randolph’s correspondence to Madison are relevant. Not only did Randolph think that the administration of Andrew Jackson was “subversive of constiutional (sic) liberty,” he ascribed those actions not to “absolute control over his normally volatile emotions,” but rather saw them as “utterly guided by feeling and passion.”

Remini will offer this same perspective when dealing with the episode of an actual assassination attempt on President Jackson -- again the first in U.S. history.

It was the first time a President had been attacked with intent to kill. Unhappily, it was also another sign that something powerful and frightening was operating in the country and which was changing its character and mood. The nation had come through forty years without such an experience. Six Presidents had administered the country during periods of stress and calm, through war and peace. Still nothing like this had ever happened before. Never had an American citizen dared to approach the chief executive and attempt to alter the course of history by pointing a loaded pistol at him and firing it.

Again, short mention of Jackson’s “forceful personality,” and then a long discussion of the changing socioeconomic strata of the country.

No doubt the forceful personality of Jackson did indeed attract lunatics everywhere. But as some suspected at the time, a deeper and more troublesome factor may have been involved. American society itself was undoubtedly at fault. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century the American way of life had changed dramatically -- sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The industrial revolution, the transportation revolution, the increased migration westward, the steady rise of the standard of living, the increased momentum in the democratization of political institutions, and the social and economic mobility that visitors instantly noticed -- all these had produced marvelous improvements in the quality of life in America. But they also produced hideous side effects. Poverty, urban crime and violence, blatant and vulgar materialism, the disparity of wealth and privilege spawned by the industrial revolution, racial and religious bigotry -- there, too, increased. Social conditions fell to such a depth that reform movements had already begun. These were organized attempts to change and better American society, to extirpate materialism, to raise the quality of education, to advance the rights of women, to free the slaves, to ameliorate working conditions, to improve penal and mental institutions, and to establish temperance as a national virtue. The assassination attempt, therefore, was only one more indication that something was terribly amiss with American life and needed attention and healing. It was “a sign of the times,” editorialize the New York Evening Post on February 4, 1835.

The would-be assassin, Richard Lawrence, whose pistol misfired twice at the public funeral of Representative Warren R. Davis of South Carolina, was, as Remini mentions, thought to be insane. If so, that would seem, from my point of view, undercut the socioeconomic argument Remini is otherwise making. (Unless, of course, he wants to add a rise in insanity to his list of societal effects.) But reading the account, I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t more than one lunatic at the funeral that day.

Immediately after the attempted assassination, there was a general rush to get the President to safety. “Boiling with rage,” the General kept trying to club the young man but was finally hustled to a carriage and sped to the White House. Once away from the rotunda, Jackson quickly regained his composure. He acted as though nothing had happened. Indeed, his outward calm in moments of crisis always amazed his friends. Martin Van Buren, who followed him to the White House and expected to witness an outpouring of Jacksonian wrath, was stupefied to find Old Hickory “sitting with one of Major Donelson’s children on his lap and conversing with General Scott, himself apparently the least disturbed person in the room.” Outside the White House a sudden thunderstorm broke, booming and raging and threatening; inside the house an old man quietly played with a child and shrugged off the seriousness of what had happened to him.

Excuse me. In the moment of crisis, Jackson was not showing outward calm. In the moment of crisis, he was trying to club the young man with his cane. Imagine the scene. Old Hickory -- sixty-eight years old with his shock of white hair and flaming eyes -- savagely swinging his cane like a cudgel, while a group of younger men sought to restrain and remove him from the scene. It was only after the crisis had passed, in the calm seclusion of his executive mansion, did the schizophrenic-in-chief show the outward calm he was evidently so selectively famous for. There is a reason, I contend, that Martin Van Buren was “stupefied” to find Jackson not boiling with rage, and it isn’t because the President was skilled at mastering his emotions.

And then, there is the judgment of the other statesmen of his day.

To men like Clay, Webster, Adams, Calhoun, and others, Andrew Jackson represented in American government the same sort of arbitrary authority that was associated in Britain with the crown. In their minds, Jackson presumed monarchical powers, powers that were unconstitutional and abhorrent to the American experiment in liberty.

I don’t see how Remini can escape this conclusion himself. And to be fair, he doesn’t escape it. There are times, in fact, when he states it quite clearly. But whenever he does, he seems to excuse it, appealing to a kind of progressive reading of history that verges on the same excesses as Manifest Destiny.

Jackson’s constitutional views proved untenable, but they were genuinely democratic. What he did, of course, was further subvert the doctrines of republicanism. Central to the constitutional system was the notion of checks and balances, but Jackson made a shambles of that notion by insisting on his primacy as President in interpreting and executing the law because he -- and he alone -- represented the people. Andrew Jackson was the great advocate of democracy. Majoritarian rule was the only thing that mattered in his thinking about the operation of government. But the democracy he practiced reduced to near ruin the kind of republic conceived by the Founding Fathers. He tilted the tripartite system in favor of the executive. In circumventing the Supreme Court, in thwarting the will of Congress and insisting on his right to direct legislation, and in riding roughshod over the claim of any state to assert its sovereignty against the collective rights of the nation, he shaped the constitutional system into something more appropriate to a modern, democratic state, which requires strong executive leadership.

In other words, Andrew Jackson broke the Constitution. But that’s okay, because it needed to be broken so we could be the great democratic country we were meant to be.

Final Thought

To be fair, Remini does not heap mindless praise on Jackson, and appropriately calls out his crimes and flaws when it is necessary to do so. But in his preface, Remini seems to offer this absolution to his biographical subject.

However, what needs to be taken into account in any final evaluation of General Jackson is that he loved the Union with a passion and that he sought to preserve it from those who would deliberately or unwittingly destroy it.

After delving deeply into this three-volume biography of the man, I’m left with the decided opinion that it was Andrew Jackson, not his political enemies, who deliberately or unwittingly destroyed the Union he supposedly loved so passionately.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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