Sunday, February 17, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Seven, With All Apologies to Bill Brasky

All of this leads to a rather troublesome dilemma:  Is a badass still a badass if he doesn't always do the right thing? - Badass of the Week guy (aka "Amazing Ben Johnson")

Pardon my Swedish, but Andrew Jackson was a sunofabeech (I'll be more clear about the sentiment towards the end).

Just take all of the crazy things done by Bill Brasky (even hunting down the Banana Splits), trade in Andrew Jackson's name, and you've pretty much got an idea of what Andrew Jackson's done.

The nicest things I can say about Jackson are 1) he dearly loved his wife and 2) he taught his parrot how to swear in two different languages.  I'd throw in that he stared down an even bigger SOB in John C. Calhoun during the Nullification Crisis, but that's like choosing between having someone hit your head with a frying pan over having someone hit your head with a heavier frying pan.

So what kind of Presidential character did Jackson possess?

Jackson more neatly fits the Active-Negative traits of a President far better than his predecessor John Quincy Adams.  Jackson as Compulsive is easy to note when you look at what he did as President.  Note above all Jackson's habits toward being Uncompromising and having anger management issues.

The anger management issues were pretty noticeable even to his followers: Jackson's entire backstory is one big fight after another.  A child solider of the Revolution, he was captured by the British and roughly treated, himself slashed at the head and arm by a British officer who tried to get Jackson to polish his boots.  That his brothers died (one in battle, one to illness in captivity) as well as his mother (who pledged to work as a nurse for the British to free her sons, and then died while treating a cholera outbreak) pretty much made Jackson hate the Brits for life.  Orphaned, he moved to the then-frontier of Tennessee carving out a career as a landowner, farmer (which grew into slave-owning)  and backwoods lawyer (back then formal training and a degree was hard to come by).  He got involved in the border wars against various Indian tribes rising up against expanding settlers, gaining battlefield experience and military rank up to General by the War of 1812 and his famous defense of New Orleans at war's end.  By then he'd developed some hatred towards the Natives as well.

Another sign of Jackson's anger was the numerous duels, of challenges offered and received.  He's close to owning the record number of duels in American history (the number varies between thirteen and somewhere in the hundreds) and is the only President to have killed a man in a duel.  Legend has it Jackson got so bored during a Cabinet meeting he dug out a dueling bullet from his arm and mailed it back to the guy who put it there writing "I believe this is yours."

His blunt and candid nature was something that made him less than popular among the political elite of the nation, but made him a favorite of the common people.  So when 1824 rolled around and he ran for the President - with his background as state judge, Congressman, General and War Hero, Senator, and all-around badass - he won a solid majority of voters and states.  But not enough to win the Electoral vote, throwing the results into the House of Representatives where to Jackson's ire the victory went to John Quincy Adams.

Jackson became the first man to openly campaign for the presidency a full four years before the following election (Screw Protocol was one of his mottoes).  It turned 1828 into one of the nastiest personal mud-fights for the office in electoral history.  It didn't help that Jackson's marriage to his beloved wife Rachel decades earlier happened when the couple thought her abusive then-husband had finalized a divorce: He hadn't, and had convinced a friend to trick the couple into thinking that.  Once the couple married, the first husband leveled the charge of bigamy at Jackson - who by that time was a growing political figure in Tennessee - and created the first political burr under Jackson's saddle.  By 1828 that bigamy accusation - while already known to most and already considered resolved when Rachel made her own divorce proceedings (the first in Tennessee's history) - was used as a sledgehammer against Jackson by Adams' supporters.  Jackson still won in a landslide - the number of eligible voters between 1824 and 1828 had expanded from propertied men to all non-slave men, and Jackson was hugely popular with the masses - but the stress of the mudslinging drove poor Rachel to illness and death.  Jackson grieved and swore to never forgive his enemies.

Jackson's presidency was one of political conflict, especially as Jackson came into office as a Populist figure and derisive of the egalitarian leadership that had forged Washington political circles.  Jackson's compulsive nature led him to push for what were radical changes to how government was operating up til then.  He imposed a Spoils system of granting federal jobs to party loyalists, arguing that to the victorious go the spoils.  He pushed against the federalist-themed American System of Henry Clay's - his enemy from 1824 and 28 elections - by opposing any federally-backed roads or canals programs that didn't involve multi-state involvement.  And he broke the Banking system of the United States - the one based on Hamilton's economic planning and backed even by anti-banking figures such as Thomas Jefferson - by ending the National Bank and replacing it with state-level banks operating by different rules.

In each case Jackson's actions were relatively pro-active and could have labeled him as an Active-Positive because like an A-P type he never realized the consequences of those actions.  The Spoils system quickly broke down into a corrupt mess with incompetent party hacks getting cushy jobs.  And while breaking the Bank created an economic boom of sorts with increasing speculation and credit for business expansion, Jackson's follow-up move to force those banks to deal with specie - gold and silver coinage only, aka Hard currency - caused those state banks to fail, creating the nation's first Depression via the Panic of 1837.

What keeps Jackson in the A-N ranks was the compulsive nature behind each of those moves.  Whereas the A-Ps are cheerfully causing reforms in a current system in the belief that good things will follow, the A-N reform efforts are done solely out of the belief that the current system is bad and any changes need to happen no matter what: the changes Jackson pushed were reactions, not actions.

Two more things that harks to Jackson's compulsive and uncompromising nature: his handling of the Nullification Crisis, and the Indian Removal Act.

During John Quincy Adams' tenure he had succeeded in passing a high tariff that Southern states found too stifling and protective of northern interests.  It was hoped that Jackson's election in 1828 would end it, but Jackson and his backers didn't focus too much on it, fighting other battles such as breaking the National Bank.  By 1832 this became a crisis: Calhoun - serving at the time as Jackson's Veep as Jackson needed his power base to win the 1828 election - resigned his office so he could run as a Senate candidate to push his Nullification beliefs.  Jackson, seeing the growing woes and knowing how much of a bastard Calhoun was, finally got around to getting a reduced tariff voted in.  It wasn't enough for Calhoun and his state, and so South Carolina held a state convention that deemed both tariffs unconstitutional.

Jackson for all of his States' Rights ways was still an ardent Unionist and knew the nullification movement was an attempt at disunion.  He retaliated in three ways: he got passed a Force Act that gave him impunity in dealing with any state trying to ignore the federal government's authority to tax and regulate.  And then he sent ships to South Carolinian ports to back it up.  And he privately threatened to hang every nullification backer (hint: Calhoun) from the highest trees he could find.

A compromised tariff - backed by Clay, one of the politicos who lived to make deals - was reached relatively quickly and both sides cooled off.  But there's a reason why Jackson openly left the presidency with two regrets: "That I have not shot Henry Clay or hanged John C. Calhoun."

The Force Act and other responses by Jackson were clear signs of his A-N nature: A-Ns lean towards imposing force to get what they want for both good or ill.  But the Indian Removal Act and the fallout from that were even more obvious signs.

From the start of Jackson's tenure he had pushed for the removal of native tribes from the eastern states - especially the southeastern states from land slave-owners and farmers coveted - towards the more sparse western territories where settlers had yet to reach.  While in theory such removals were to be "voluntary", in fact and practice the removals were enforced through bullying and in some cases outright fraud.  The state of Georgia in particular passed a series of laws making it harder for the resident Cherokee to stay there.  The Supreme Court ruled against one of the harsher laws in Worcester v. Georgia but in the end little could be done to stop what Jackson started (Jackson apocryphally said "Justice Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it", but in truth the ruling never involved Jackson).  A lot of solid Jacksonians - notably Davy Crockett - were against the removals, but Jackson himself really didn't seem to care one whit.  To him it was a removal of troublesome forces - he had dealt harshly with the Natives of the southeastern states during his military years - and more land for white Americans to buy up.

What he sired was the Trail of Tears: one of the United States' more blighted spots of infamy in history, equal to the internment of Japanese-American civilians during World War II and second only to America's tragedy of race-based slavery.  That quote above from the Badass of the Week site manger Ben Johnson is drawn straight from this infamy: thousands of Natives died during their long march out to the Midwest, and Jackson didn't care.

It doesn't change the fact that Andrew Jackson was a badass - of the Presidents, only Theodore Roosevelt can claim greater badassery - but it does explain why I view Jackson as a sonofabitch.  And I wasn't the only one: an entire political party - the Whigs - formed based on simple pure hatred of Jackson the person and President.

There have been worse Presidents, some more destructive than what Jackson had done.  And Jackson did stand for the nation's unity in the face of southern nullification efforts.  But very few have been as complete a son-of-a-bitch as this guy.

No comments: