Look at any list of greatest presidents and you will find it populated with strong, tough men who, through force of will, achieved what they wanted to achieve. Hence, George Washington, the great Revolutionary General, is routinely put in the top three. Franklin Roosevelt, despite his own physical maladies, ranks up there because he defeated the Great Depression and the Axis Powers. (Let me be clear: I am merely referring to the the myth of FDR — if anything, he exacerbated the Great Depression.) Ronald Reagan stood down the Soviets. John Kennedy, thanks to the glorification of the Thirteen Days, is seen as a capable and strong leader (whereas, if we focused on the Bay of Pigs, his debate with Khruschev, or his administration’s creeping involvement in the Vietnam War, we would have a decidedly different interpretation.) Feckless, weak presidents like Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford rank near the bottom in most lists; tough SOBs like Harry Truman and Teddy Roosevelt count as “near-greats.”
In fact, most Americans see their ideal president as President James Marshall, the fictitious leader of the free world played by Harrison Ford who pretty much single-handedly stops a terrorist threat in Air Force One. Americans want their presidents to be able to do this:
(Actually, Americans would probably be pretty happy with any character played by Harrison Ford becoming president.)
The president who comes the closest to this macho ideal is probably Andrew Jackson.
This guy defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans by inflicting more than 2,000 casualties. (The number of casualties from Jackson’s forces: 71.) This guy challenged a man (Charles Dickinson) to a duel after he insulted Jackson’s honor and his wife Rachel. Dickinson shot first, hitting Jackson in the chest and leaving a wound Old Hickory would carry for the rest of his life. Jackson staunched the bleeding, cocked his weapon, and shot and killed his rival. This guy was nearly assassinated as president, yet lived when his would-be assailant’s pistol misfired. Jackson, standing on the steps of the Capitol, responded by beating the failed assassin with his cane. This guy even threatened to hang his vice president during the Nullification Crisis.
If I was ranking presidents based on the likelihood of Harrison Ford being cast as them in their biopics, Andrew Jackson would probably rank number one. Alas, that’s not a good way to honor or remember former leaders, and unfortunately for Jackson, he was the second worst president in United States history.
Andrew Jackson, our seventh president, served in office from 1829 to 1837, and he was the bridge between the kind of men the Founding Fathers envisioned serving as president and the kind of men that, for the most part, have served since then. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Adams were, for all their legitimate differences in character, personality, and philosophy, statesmen who were the most elite of men — monetarily, intellectually, and based on past accomplishments — in the United States. Indeed, the intellectual differences between the brilliant former diplomat John Quincy Adams and his successor, the blatantly non-intellectual war hero Jackson, could not be more stark. From Jackson on, people have run for president by attempting to show how representative they were of the American public writ large, both in their life stories and their political views — rather than, say, running on their own competence or views, whatever else the “people” might believe. Jackson’s age marks the beginning of the peculiarly American strain of populism that has stretched through every political party, every political philosophy, and every political era since then. Since Jackson, every president has emphasized his “common” life story, how he rose from nothing, and his “common” political beliefs. Perhaps this phenomenon has been for the good, tying our presidents to the people they serve. Part of me, however, fears that it has debased our politics, exalting the plain and common above the extraordinary and singular.
The marks against the Jackson administration are numerous and damning: he inaugurated the spoils system, the practice of appointing government workers based on party affiliation rather than capability or competence; he brought the U.S. to the brink of Civil War over his harsh handling of the Nullification Crisis; he vetoed the Second National Bank, which contributed to the subsequent Panic of 1937; he appointed Roger Taney as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who wrote the Dred Scott Decision, the single worst and most embarrassing decision from the Supreme Court in its history; and of course, he enacted the policy of Indian removal.
Indian removal, and Trail of Tears that followed it, was a policy that could only emerge in a Jacksonian age. For years, American politicians had argued that Indians should assimilate into American society and culture. The Indians in question had: They were literate, wrote constitutions, intermarried with whites, and adopted Christianity. Some even owned their own slaves. However, not even this would stop land-hungry white settlers from trying to steal their land. The petitioned the government again and again. After many years of government waffling in every branch, the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Georgia could not snatch land from the Cherokees, and that the tribe had a right to self-government. Jackson, beholden to the “will of the (white) people,” ignored the decision, and eventually Jackson and later Martin Van Buren would forcibly remove tens of thousands of Indians from their lands. Some have cast doubt on whether Jackson actually said, “John Marshall [the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court] has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” But, in effect, that is what Jackson did. And ever after have American Indians suffered in this “Land of the Free.”
Because of this policy, Native Americans and others horrified by Indian removal have bemoaned his presence on the $20 bill. Many hoped, once the desire of the federal government to put a woman on our money was made known, that Jackson would finally be replaced; many were dismayed when, instead, it was announced that Alexander Hamilton’s visage on the $10 bill would instead be the one to be replaced. Imagine! The first Treasury of the Secretary and most able advocate of a national bank and a national economy erased from our currency, while a notorious bank hater remains!
But thanks be to Lin-Manuel Miranda. Partly due to his spectacular Hamilton show on Broadway, Hamilton will reportedly remain a “ten-dollar Founding Father.” And, a government source told CNN, a woman would instead replace Jackson on the $20 bill.
Let it be said that it was a popular movement that finally displaced Jackson. And let all good Americans rejoice.