Jackass: America’s First Populist President

Days before running for President, Andrew Jackson declared, ‘I am not fit to be president.’

Despite being both rich and powerful Andrew Jackson declared, ‘The rich and powerful often bend government to their own selfish purposes.’

And when asked if he had any regrets from his presidency, Andrew Jackson replied, ‘That I didn’t hang John Calhoun.’ John Calhoun was his Vice President.

He rallied against the corruption of professional politicians, his opponents did not take him seriously and his blunt manner of speaking won him many dedicated followers. Thomas Jefferson labelled him as unfit for office with little respect for the law and a dangerous man. Yet ‘Old Hickory’ has been labelled as the Peoples’ President with an overall positive two terms in office.

The first president born outside of Massachusetts or Virginia, he grew up in poverty and was orphaned at the age of 14. He became a lawyer on the frontier, a circuit judge on the Tennessee superior court then a landowner of a large plantation which eventually had 150 slaves. Business and legal interests aside, he gained his fame in an admirable military career fighting against the British. He led 5,000 soldiers to victory in America’s first independent victory over a European power at the Battle of New Orleans. It was here that he gained his nickname as his troops said that he was as tough as old hickory wood.

The military nickname was used throughout his presidency to gain support

Now a household name in the young republic he ran for the presidency in 1824 and although he won the popular vote, his race was ultimately a failure. Spurred on by this for his next campaign, he whipped up passionate support against the corruption of Washington, the corruption of banks and the corruption of career politicians. Laughing off his challenge, his opponents branded him ‘Jackass’. This only fed into his populist campaign. He adopted the ‘Jackass’ slur to his campaign and his electoral image became a donkey which the Democratic Party uses to this day. He won the election in a landslide.

‘Jackass’ was used in both positive and negative portrayals of Jackson during his two terms in office

Once in office he abolished the Electoral College as he believed that since the President and Vice President were elected to government then they should wield the power of government. As a result he became the first president to use his veto as a matter of policy instead of sparingly as others tended to do. Additionally he purged cabinet offices and government departments to fight corruption then appointed supporters of his whom he felt he could trust. He then even went as far as abolishing the national bank as he believed that it furthered the interests of the wealthy. Yet throughout his time in office his opponents continually labelled him as the man who simply gave the appearance of representing the common man to further his own gains.

Yet given his swashbuckling swagger into Washington and his crusades against ‘professional’ politicians, his presidency had several successes. He held the union together when South Carolina attempted to leave (Granted, he did threaten them with an invasion from 50,000 soldiers after which his Vice President resigned), he cleared the vast national debt, he created the Democratic Party, spread politics to the common man through electoral reform, opened up free trade to British Caribbean colonies and was successful in reducing corruption in the federal government.

However a dark shadow still looms over his presidency given his policy towards Native Americans. Although he believed in small government, the exception was his relocation policy. 45,000 Native Americans were given the choice of adopting a white lifestyle or being forced to move west. While negotiations were on-going, the majority were forcibly removed with 7,000 dying along the way in what became known as the ‘Trail of Tears’. Some may state that we cannot place 21st century values on a frontier man, yet at the time there was considerable outcry in America and beyond at this inhumane policy.

Andrew Jackson is seen as an influential president today given his firm preservation of the union, his fight to keep power out of the hands of the wealthy and for being the first president to frequently use his executive powers. Yet not without clear controversy, not least because in his younger days he murdered a man for passing comment on his wife.

This entry was posted in American History, Nineteenth Century and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Jackass: America’s First Populist President

  1. Sean Munger says:

    My nomination for the worst-ever President of the United States. Great write-up!


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