The GOP is becoming the party of Andrew Jackson, and some conservatives aren’t happy about it.
Until recently, Jackson was a bit of a political free agent. Democrats, who once celebrated Jackson as one of their own and championed how he stood up for the common man, have almost entirely purged the seventh president from their list of honored figures. Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb appears to be one of the handful of remaining holdouts, however, he’s currently little more than a relic within his party.
Jackson’s notoriety hit a low after the Treasury unceremoniously announced it would strip his visage from the front of the $20 bill in 2015, with few voices of protest. But Old Hickory has received a remarkable surge in interest since President Donald Trump began adopting Jackson as his model. Trump’s Oval Office contains both a portrait and a statue of Jackson, and though Trump rarely demonstrated ideological convictions on the campaign trail, he has wholeheartedly embraced the legacy of the White House’s first Democrat.
So should Republicans and conservatives follow Trump and adopt Jackson as a model president? “Not so fast,” says National Review Editor-in-Chief Rich Lowry, who wrote in POLITICO that the GOP “already has a perfectly acceptable—nay, altogether superior—19th century champion in the person of Abraham Lincoln.”
Lowry noted that Jackson belongs in the pantheon of great Americans, but wrote that he should be left on the political party waiver wire now that Democrats have given him the boot; Lincoln’s model of “personal responsibility and striving” is a better fit as the cornerstone creed of the GOP. Jackson has too much baggage, according to Lowry. And besides, Lowry wrote, the “Whig ethic was passed into the DNA of the Republican Party,” since the party’s founding, not Jacksonianism, and politics should stay that way.
“Democrats have long wanted ownership of Lincoln,” Lowry warned. “And now the GOP’s hold on the Great Emancipator is getting cross-pressured by [Trump].”
While Lowry is correct that Lincoln rightfully has the most honored place in the history of the Republican Party, he’s wrong about the need to jettison Jackson. Lincoln’s political creed could best be described as “Hamiltonian”—after Founding Father Alexander Hamilton—which political scientist Walter Russell Mead defined as being pro-business, for stable markets and promoting trade abroad.
However, both Hamiltonian and Jacksonian ideas were present and essential at the Republican Party’s creation. And it so happens that in the modern political landscape they must once again work in tandem to correct each other’s shortcomings and create a dynamic governing creed.
A more thoroughly Jacksonian party would focus on: Peace through strength and reorienting foreign policy to focus on narrower American interests, better trade deals for the American people, preventing crony capitalism, curtailing the bloated and out-of-control administrative state, and returning policies decisions back to the states.
An infusion of Jacksonian ideas into the party of Lincoln will ultimately be a net positive, especially in a time when populist discontent is roiling the country and the West in general.
Jacksonian Origins of the Grand Old Party
Twitter was aglow with hot takes and pseudo-history after Trump suggested in a recent interview that had Jackson “been a little later” he could have possibly have prevented the Civil War. The statement brought howls of derision from the media who were quick to remind the American people—after a quick Google search—that Jackson had, in fact, been dead for sixteen years when the war started, and he was a slave owner to boot.
Trump later tweeted that Jackson saw the war coming, was angry about it, and wouldn’t let it happen.
While Trump’s statement was inarticulate, there was some truth in what he was saying. During Jackson’s presidency, a clique of southern Democrats, led by the militantly pro-slavery John C. Calhoun, threatened to nullify federal tariff laws that interfered with the interests of plantation slave owners. Many expected Jackson, a native of South Carolina, to support their cause.
But Jackson was onto the scheme, which he saw as a trial balloon for secession to protect the institution of slavery. Jackson was a slaveowner, but his devotion to the Union was greater than his attachment to the “peculiar institution.” He signed a “Force Bill” to ensure tariffs were collected, deployed ships to South Carolina, and threatened military action if the state attempted to violate federal law.
Jackson then issued a “Proclamation on Nullification,” which served as a template for Lincoln’s constitutional arguments for permanent union at the start of the Civil War. The message was clear, as Jackson said in his famous toast: “Our Federal Union—It must be preserved!”
When Jackson drew a red line, even the bravest wouldn’t dare cross it, because this wrathful man had “shoot” in his eyes.
A deal was struck between nullifiers and unionists, though some, like Lincoln’s predecessor, Henry Clay, later questioned if it would have been better to let Jackson crush South Carolina and end the threat of secession forever.
On the eve of the Civil War, many of Jackson’s closest lieutenants, such as Francis Preston Blair, Thomas Hart Benton, and Sam Houston, were too old to be the prime movers in party politics. Nevertheless, most were strident defenders of the Union and began to associate themselves with the newly-formed Republican Party. What followed was a seismic shift in politics as two parties regionalized and grappled with the slave issue above all others.
Without the critical element of militant Jacksonian unionism, the Civil War would have been a conflict with no victory for the North.
Jackson and Lincoln, Better Together
It’s clear that Republicans are at their strongest when they combine the best elements of the Jacksonian and Hamiltonian creeds. As political scientist Walter Russell Mead recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
Abraham Lincoln fused Jacksonian unionism with Henry Clay’s Hamiltonian vision when he created the modern Republican Party. Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan revitalized the party of their times by returning to the Jacksonian-Hamiltonian coalition that made the old party grand.
Dismissing Jackson from the venerated ranks of the right also means doing away with men like Reagan. Like Jackson, Reagan channeled populist, middle-class anger toward conservative ends. He decried the “little intellectual elite” in Washington dictating to Americans how they should live their lives, and articulated a vision for how to restore America’s founding principles.
Old Hickory would likely have nodded along in agreement with this populist conservative revival.
Jacksonians are not without their flaws. At their worst, they excuse the dysfunction of Jacksonian America by blaming others and neglecting the concept of America as an idea, not just a tribe.
While an anti-elitist, Jackson never let class envy consume him as it did Andrew Johnson, the Jacksonian vice president of Abraham Lincoln who utterly failed as president. And it must be said, as conservative historian Harry Jaffa brilliantly explained in his book, Crisis of the House Divided, it’s fortunate that Lincoln’s philosophy became the dominant thrust of the newly-formed Republican Party in the lead up to the Civil War. Far too many nominal Jacksonians, like Lincoln’s famous rival, Stephen A. Douglas, failed to grasp the problem of disbanding the creed of America as an idea, based on the philosophy that “all men are created equal.”
This is the menace of the alt-right that would destroy the Republican Party and American conservatism along with it.
However, Hamiltonianism also has its own deep flaws.
While Hamiltonians like Lincoln, and others like William McKinley, and the more recently George W. Bush, have undoubtedly been supporters of capitalism, at their worst they neglect when the big institutions are crowding out the “little platoons” of society.
Jackson railed against and ultimately stripped the charter from the crony capitalist Second Bank of the United States, and modern Tea-Party Jacksonians took to the streets in anger after presidents Bush and Barack Obama bailed out banks in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007.
The national bank and the bailouts under Obama and Bush had their benefits, but they were ultimately corrupting influences in American life. A capitalist system picking winners and losers through government power almost always benefits the rich and powerful who can bend it to their will, as Jackson rightly explained in his bank charter veto message.
Hamiltonians undoubtedly believe in the “opportunity society,” yet they are often too trusting in large corporate entities and their government facilitators to create it. This outlook plagued the Republican Party in the Bush years and created a populist backlash that gave rise to the Tea Party, and ultimately, Trump. It drives much of the resentment toward the “globalists” today.
Following a colorless route that is pro-business to the expense of all other concerns is a death sentence for maintaining a vibrant and popular party in the twenty-first century.
While Lowry is correct that Lincoln should remain a dominant figure amongst Republicans, he is wrong to suggest this means Jackson and his philosophical decedents cannot hold sway within the party as well. And if Lowry believes adopting Jackson will allow Democrats to steal Lincoln, he should rest easy that progressives are likely too busy purging their party’s old heroes and other historical figures to bother.