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Why the Ghost of Andrew Jackson Haunts the Modern U.S. Presidency

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson’s military fame helped him win the 1828 presidential election. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Only one U.S. president has an entire era named after him. And it's not Washington, Kennedy, Roosevelt or Lincoln. The man who holds that distinction is Andrew Jackson, a two-term commander-in-chief who served from 1829 to 1837.

"We call Washington's time the Revolutionary and founding eras, not the Age of Washington. Lincoln belongs in the Civil War era, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the Progressive era," wrote Daniel Feller, a professor at the University of Tennessee, in an essay for The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. "But the interval roughly from the 1820s through 1840s, between the aftermath of the War of 1812 and the coming of the Civil War, has often been known as the Jacksonian Era, or the Age of Jackson."

While all presidents seem to wax and wane in the public consciousness to some degree, Jackson's name pops up regularly, even more so in recent years. But why would the ghost of a president who died in 1845 still haunt contemporary political discourse?

The answer is, like Jackson, complicated.

For starters, President Donald Trump has a habit of name-dropping Jackson, whom he admires, to such a degree that he hung a portrait of his hero in the Oval Office.

"Inspirational visit, I have to tell you. I'm a fan," Trump said during a 2017 visit to Jackson's Nashville mansion, according to The Washington Post. Both Jackson and Trump won power in part by stoking resentment in working-class people toward the rich and famous, calling themselves champions of society's underdogs, the Post pointed out.

But unlike Trump, who was born rich, Jackson was a self-made man who literally fought his way to the top. He also served with distinction in the military and was elected to multiple vital governmental positions before assuming the presidency.

"The image of Jackson as a quintessential product of American democracy has stuck. Yet always complicating it has been the interplay between the personal and the political. If Jackson is a potent democratic symbol, he is also a conflicted and polarizing one," wrote Feller.

"In his own lifetime he was adulated and despised far beyond any other American. To an amazing degree, historians today still feel visceral personal reactions to him, and praise or damn accordingly."

Sound familiar?

As a man, Jackson was known for his violent temper, iron will and his decisiveness under fire. Others have noted his fairness, self-awareness and political brilliance. He was also a blatant racist, bigot and narcissist.

No matter his personal failings, he overcame incredibly difficult odds on his path to success.

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Born to Fight

Andrew Jackson was born in 1767, just a few years before the Revolutionary War. He signed up to fight at the tender age of 13. Early hardships were tangible — two of his brothers and his mother died during the war, and Jackson placed their deaths squarely on the British.

As an impoverished orphan, he grew up in various foster homes and had little formal education. However, he worked for several attorneys and — vitally — managed to learn enough of the legal system to become a lawyer himself. These skills would serve him well for the rest of his life.

Upon moving to Tennessee, which was then considered part of the untamed West, Jackson slowly climbed in power and wealth, through land dealings and shrewd politicking. In 1796, he was elected as the new state's only U.S. representative. The next year, he was elected as a U.S. senator, where his hatred for political niceties became abundantly clear.

Miserable, he returned to Tennessee and was elected as a judge of the state's Supreme Court. In 1804, he resigned, citing poor health.

Amid these accomplishments, Jackson was also a cotton plantation owner and merchant, who owned perhaps 150 men, women and children as slaves. That's one reason for a recent campaign to have former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman replace him on the U.S. $20 bill, a change that the Trump administration put on hold.

In May 1806, a man named Charles Dickinson accused Jackson of cheating him out of a horse race bet; he also insulted Jackson's wife, Rachel. Jackson challenged Dickinson to a pistol duel. Dickinson shot first and struck Jackson near his heart, but Jackson stood and returned fire, killing his opponent. Contrary to legend, which contends that Jackson engaged in anywhere from five to 100 duels during his lifetime, it was the first and only formal pistol duel that he ever fought.

It was a bigger fight — the War of 1812 — where Jackson became famous. At the Battle of New Orleans, he led a ragtag mishmash of men in opposing nearly 10,000 of Britain's best-trained soldiers. When the dust settled, Britain had lost 2,057 men. The U.S.? Just 71. Jackson's leadership there made him a bona fide war hero.

Battle of New Orleans
This painting of the Battle of New Orleans by Percy Moran shows Andrew Jackson standing in front of an American flag with his sword raised.
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

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In the Oval Office

Jackson's military fame helped him win the 1828 presidential election. From there, he began exerting his power in ways that he felt would benefit the common man. The kind of person, he reminded voters, whom he had once been.

One of his most notable moves was to kill the Second Bank of the United States, which he felt was corrupt and existed to prop up the interests of the wealthy. In his pronouncement to Congress he said, "It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their own selfish purposes."

anti-Jackson satire poster
An anti-Jackson satire poster is titled "King Andrew, the First Born to Command," and makes fun of Jackson's authoritarian ways (circa 1820).
Kean Collection/Getty Images

Congress strongly opposed Jackson's handling of the situation and later censured him for his part in what they deemed the "Bank War." But Jackson ultimately prevailed.

In 1832, South Carolina presented another crisis — one of secession. In an event that became known as the Nullification Crisis, the state threatened to leave the Union over disputed tariffs. South Carolina prepared its militia in case of federal military action, and suddenly the stage was set for potential war.

Jackson did in fact threaten violence if the South Carolinians refused to stand down. "Disunion by armed force is treason," proclaimed Jackson in a statement to the would-be rebels. But he also allowed room for new tariff negotiations. An agreement was forged, violence was avoided and both sides saved face. It's no wonder that a generation later, in more perilous times, that Abraham Lincoln and others would invoke Jackson as a preserver of the Union.

These days, however, Jackson's legacy has a darker tinge, due to the president's harsh treatment of indigenous Americans.

"I would say that the thing he's now best known for is his Indian removal policy," says Daniel Feller in a phone interview.

For years prior to Jackson's presidency, America's political inertia carried out various actions meant to displace Native Americans. But it was Jackson who signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act. This act forced Native Americans to abandon their lands and led to the infamous Trail of Tears of the late 1830s, in which thousands died as they were forced by U.S. soldiers to move to reservations in the West.

It was a presidential decision that Feller says falls, "somewhere between regrettable and genocidal."

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Jackson's Perpetual Revival

These days, Jackson pops up regularly in media reports and social media, in part because of Trump's embrace of the man nicknamed "Old Hickory" by his troops because his toughness reminded them of a well-planted hickory tree. As for Jackson's current reputation, it depends who you ask.

"He's become a kind of surrogate for what you think about American history," says Feller. "Is American history a triumphalist story? I think the Trump-[Steve] Bannon camp would say 'yes....' Trump's line essentially is 'I'm just like Andrew Jackson, I too am a man of the people, beloved by ordinary Americans, despised and hated by the Washington insiders.'"

Some liberals though, have taken the opposite view of the Jackson/Trump associations. "It's gotten to the point that Jackson's reputation among the anti-Trump people has gotten to be so bad that basically you can accuse him of anything," and no one can convince them otherwise, he notes.

"It's a good example of how everybody's talking about Andrew Jackson, but the Andrew Jackson they're talking about is a kind of free-floating modern construct," says Feller. He agonizes that few reporters do the research to find out what Jackson really did during his lifetime.

"Those of us who respect accuracy and sometimes the complexity of the historical record are just appalled," at the way Jackson's name is wielded as a weapon by both liberals and conservatives, he says.

And yet that is the shifting nature of legacies. One generation's hero is another's villain.

Whether a leader's name is Washington, Lincoln or Kennedy, history's judgment will be long, unforgiving and ever-changing. That goes for Jackson — Old Hickory, judge, warrior, racist, slave owner, self-made man — and Trump, too.

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