Friday Talking Points — Donald Trump And Andrew Jackson
Last week, we pre-empted our usual Talking Points format for a pre-election column.
Last week, we pre-empted our usual Talking Points format for a pre-election column. This week, we’re going to do the same for a post-election column. The shock has not worn off, and it just feels too soon to return to analyzing Democratic politics. Democrats are in disarray right now, which is probably a good thing in the long run, at least if it leads to some major course corrections. But the wounds are still too raw for us to rub any further salt in them, so instead today we’d like to take a detour into history instead. If history bores you in general, we’d suggest you skip the rest of this column. For everyone else, let’s take a look back today.
Does any of this sound familiar? A presidential candidate presents himself as a “man of the people” who will fight the entrenched elitists who are running the country. He launches a campaign the likes of which America has never seen before — a campaign which absolutely horrifies those elites. His opponents call him patently unfit for the job, as well as boorish, crude, violent, unsophisticated, illiterate, and downright dangerous for the future of the country. The candidate himself complains of a president who is corrupt and illegitimate, rails against a totally rigged electoral system (direct quote: “there was cheating and corruption and bribery too”), and vows he will “clean the Augean Stables of Washington.” He also promises a government attuned to the needs of the people rather than the elitists. His campaign is denounced in the media as “the most rude and ruthless political contest that ever took place in the United States,” complete with charges (from both sides) of bigamy, adultery, slave-dealing, pimping a virgin to be raped by the Czar of Russia, bloodthirsty murder, tyranny, a stolen and rigged election, military despotism, the impropriety of buying a billiard table for the White House, and both sides warning that they were going to “save the Temple of Liberty from pollution.” After running a campaign closer to a cult of personality than anything previously seen in America, he wins the election.
The year was 1828, and the candidate was Andrew Jackson — the guy on the $20 bill in your wallet. While no historical comparison is perfect, the parallels between Jackson and Donald Trump are so pronounced that it’s really only a matter of time before others begin to notice them.
To say Jackson revolutionized American politics is to understate his impact. Before Jackson, every single president had come from a handful of elites in Virginia and Massachusetts. Jackson was the first president from any other state, and the first who realized the true power of motivating and exciting the American electorate in ways not previously seen.
Before Jackson, presidential elections were conducted by bizarre rules of decorum. You may think the following is an exaggeration, but I assure you it is not. Before Jackson, presidential candidates were supposed to sit quietly at home and await a knock on their doors, which would inform them that they had — without their ever suggesting the slightest interest in such a thing, of course — been nominated by their supporters for the highest office in the land. After this momentous event, presidential candidates were expected to continue sitting decorously at home, while close friends and allies did the actual campaigning for them. Eventually, another knock on the door would inform them that they had won the election. This was exactly what the pre-Jackson media (and electorate) fully expected and required of presidential candidates. Anyone daring to defy this tradition was held up to public scorn, for committing the cardinal sin of “electioneering.”
Jackson burned all of that to the ground. Jackson’s first run at the presidency was actually in 1824, when he won both the popular vote and the Electoral College vote by large margins (153,544 popular votes to John Quincy Adams’s 108,740), but because he hadn’t won an absolute majority in the Electoral College (there were four major candidates in the race), the election was thrown to the House of Representatives. One of the four presidential candidates was Henry Clay, the sitting Speaker of the House. Clay met with Adams, and they colluded (in what Jackson would call the “Corrupt Bargain”) to place Adams in the White House. Two days after the House vote, Adams announced Clay would be his Secretary of State.
Jackson went ballistic. He devoted the next four years of his life to getting the presidency the elites had stolen from him. Together with Martin Van Buren, he put together the first real political “machine” operation, and redefined how presidential elections would be run forevermore. Jackson’s list of firsts is a long one — he was the first candidate to publish a campaign biography, the first to have what we’d now call a “campaign war room,” the first to attempt public opinion polling (by having men travel up and down the Ohio River in steamboats and strike up political conversations with people on board), the first to give speeches during his campaign, the first to have a handy nickname (“Old Hickory”), the first to have a campaign theme song (The Hunters of Kentucky, which told the tale of Jackson’s military victory in the Battle of New Orleans), the first to have fan clubs across the country (“Hickory Clubs”), and the first to flood the nation with campaign-themed paraphernalia (everything from snuffboxes to whiskey flasks to wallpaper). He was, quite simply, the first to realize that politics needed to entertain the people. His supporters dreamed up all kinds of bizarre ways to do so, including erecting 100-foot-tall “Hickory Poles” and rolling huge balls of tin from one town to the next. Anything that got people’s attention was fair game.
Jackson was derided by his opponents for all this show business and glitz. But the people loved it. Jackson was, according to his opponents, a dangerously unstable individual who had fought duels (and killed opponents). It was unthinkable to put such a hothead in charge of the country. Andrew Jackson also became the first president to survive an assassination attempt, it’s worth pointing out (Jackson, 68 years old at the time, had to be physically restrained from thrashing the assassin with his cane). His military history — the reason for his celebrity in the first place — was denounced as nothing short of a series of bloodthirsty conquests by a Captain Bligh-like character who lashed out at his own men, at times.
All of this combined with changing laws to produce the biggest election America had ever seen. Property restrictions on who could vote were being dropped, and more people were now able to vote directly in the presidential election in more places. The total popular vote turnout actually tripled from 1824 to 1828, as a result of both the expanding franchise and as a result of Jackson’s new method of campaigning. The percentage of eligible voters who participated in the election rose from 27 percent in 1824 to 57 percent in 1828.
Jackson went on, as president, to set a different list of firsts. He was the first to veto laws he didn’t particularly like (previous presidents had only ever vetoed laws they considered unconstitutional). He invented the “pocket veto” as well. He took on the Bank of the United States, and won. As a direct result, he was the first president to be formally censured by the Senate. Jackson created his own pet newspaper, because others weren’t writing sufficiently glowing reviews of his policies (the editor of the Washington Globe was Francis Preston Blair, who moved into a house across the street from the White House — this “Blair House” is today still used by the White House, to host visiting dignitaries). He flat-out ignored the Supreme Court when he didn’t like their rulings. He also ignored Congress when they asked to see correspondence between Jackson and his cabinet, creating the idea of “executive privilege.” At one point, Jackson even fired his entire cabinet en masse, in large part because their wives were snubbing the wife of his Secretary of War (in what would become known as the “Petticoat Affair”). He was the first president to order federal troops to break up labor riots. At the end of his life, Jackson was reported to have remarked “that his main regret was in not having ordered the execution of John C. Calhoun for treason.” He shook up Washington by defining the presidency on his own terms — something never before attempted in such sweeping fashion. Again, the parallels to Trump are likely just going to become more evident as time goes on.
I was reminded of all this when thinking about Trump’s inauguration. The crowd attending the event is likely to be a lot different than previous crowds, that’s for sure. But no matter how much the elites (and Democrats everywhere) deplore Trump’s supporters, it won’t even come close to Jackson’s first inauguration.
Throngs of people viewed Jackson’s swearing-in at the Capitol. Tens of thousands — more than any previous president had ever turned out — showed up for the victory party. The following description is from Jackson biographer Robert V. Remini (from Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom 1822-1832, Volume II, Harper & Row, New York, 1981, pp. 177-180). The “Mrs. Smith” referenced was Margaret Baynard Smith, the wife of a senator from Maryland, who wrote down an extensive report of Jackson’s inauguration. High society was absolutely horrified at “the People’s President,” to put it mildly. After Jackson was sworn in, he was provided with a white horse to ride down Pennsylvania Avenue, with his adoring crowd in tow.
“As far as the eye could reach,” reported Amos Kendall, the side-walks of the Avenue were covered with people on foot and the centre with innumerable carriages and persons on horseback moving in the same direction. For a full half hour, I stood waiting for the stream to run by; but like a never failing fountain the Capitol continued pouring forth its torrents.” Slowly, gesturing his appreciation to the people who cheered and waved to him, Jackson headed for the White House, and oh, said the disapproving Mrs. Smith, “such a cortege as followed him! Country men, farmers, gentlemen, mounted and dismounted, boys, women and children, black and white. Carriages, wagons and carts all pursuing him to the President’s house.”
Never had there been such an inauguration of a President — not even Thomas Jefferson’s. Never before had the ordinary citizen expressed his enthusiasm for a new administration so spontaneously, with such obvious affection and good will. Few inaugurations since have matched it in ardor and excitement. The people had massed in front of the Capitol to witness the “triumph of the great principle of self government over the intrigues of the aristocracy” and now they trailed their adored leader back through the streets toward the executive mansion, reluctant to let him out of their sight. Then it suddenly occurred to a number of ladies and gentlemen who were watching the procession from the safety of their homes that this shouting, “raving Democracy” intended to enter the “President’s palace,” as they grandly termed the White House. The “palace” was about to be invaded by the rabble — the people. What had the country come to! The masses seemed to think that with Jackson as their President they had a right to attend the inaugural reception, something normally restricted to polite society.
By the time the General arrived at the mansion all the rooms on the lower floor were filled to capacity by a mixture of every conceivable race, color, and social standing. People from the “highest and most polished,” said Joseph Story, an associate justice of the Supreme Court, “down to the most vulgar and gross in the nation” poured into the White House. “I never saw such a mixture,” he moaned. “The reign of KING MOB seemed triumphant,” he added. “I was glad to escape from the scene as soon as possible.”
A modest White House reception had been planned. Nothing elaborate, nothing like the previous presidential “levees,” which had had a regal and elitist tone to them. But what took place verged on public disorder. It became a wild, near-riotous scene. Barrels of orange punch had been prepared, but as the waiters opened the doors to carry them out, the mob spotted them and rushed forward to seize them. The “most painful confusion prevailed” as waiters and guests collided. Pails of liquor splashed to the floor, glasses fell and were smashed or stepped on, and such mayhem ensued “that wine and ice-creams could not be brought out to the ladies.” Several thousand dollars in smashed china and glassware were lost during the pandemonium. To add to the general melee, men with “boots heavy with mud” stood on the “damask satin-covered chairs” in order to get a better look at their President. It was a “regular Saturnalia,” laughed Senator James Hamilton, Jr. “The mob broke in, in thousands — Spirits black yellow and grey, poured in as one uninterrupted stream of mud and filth, among the throngs many fit subjects for the penitentiary.” One “stout black wench” sat quietly by herself “eating in this free country a jelley with a gold spoon at the President’s House.”
When Mrs. Smith and her family arrived at the mansion, they were aghast at the spectacle in progress. “What a scene did we witness!” she gasped. “The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros, women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping. What a pity what a pity.”
Poor Jackson. They nearly suffocated him with their display of love and happiness. Everyone wanted to shake his hand, or touch him or congratulate him. Amos Kendall caught sight of him standing a few steps from the south entrance shaking hands with “people of all sorts and descriptions.” The journalist tried to get to the President but the flow of people surged toward him and bucking it invited physical injury. “Like hundreds of others,” Kendall said, “I leapt in at the window of an adjoining room.” Still it was impossible to get near Jackson. Finally the pressure got so bad and the danger of actually injuring the President so real that a number of men formed a ring around him as “a kind of barrier of their own bodies.” The President, reported Mrs. Smith, was “literally nearly pressed to death and almost suffocated and torn to pieces in their eagerness to shake hands with Old Hickory.” Happily, he made his escape from his well-wishers and returned to his temporary quarters at Gadsby’s. It was 4:00 P.M.
The flight of the President did not dampen the spirit of the mob, however. The mayhem, if anything, got worse. Indeed, it now looked as though the mansion itself was in danger and might collapse around them. To relieve the pressure inside the building, tubs of punch and pails of liquor were transferred to the lawn outside and all the windows were thrown open to provide additional exits for those anxious to keep up with the refreshments. The strategy worked. The “rabble” bolted after the liquor, using the fastest means of exit.
It was wild. For ladies and gentlemen of refinement it was an awful commentary on American life and customs. What would the rest of the world think? What would they say? And, they asked, what had happened to American political institutions to bring this about?
Jackson slipped away to his Inaugural Ball, which (much to Mrs. Smith’s relief) was only open to ticket-holders, and thus left all the rabble outside. But the most shocking inaugural celebration had already happened, and had become part of America’s history. For the first time, the people had chosen someone the elites didn’t approve of, and they were overjoyed at their victory. Two other paragraphs from the biography are worth excerpting as well.
Indeed, the ball climaxed a memorable day. The inauguration proved so lusty in its display of the American spirit at its most boisterous, exuberant, and vulgar that the essential ingredients of this inaugural became traditional. It was the first people’s inaugural. The people — not politicians or Washington society or the Central Committee — made it uniquely their own. “It was a proud day for the people,” reported the Argus of Western America on March 18, 1829. “General Jackson is their own President. Plain in his dress, venerable in his appearance, unaffected and familiar in his manners, he was greeted by them with an enthusiasm which bespoke him the Hero of a popular triumph.”
Speaking from a different point of view, Mrs. Smith had to agree nonetheless, although she tempered her comments with a small warning. “It was the People’s day, and the People’s President and the People would rule. God grant that one day or other, the People do not pull down all rule and rulers.”
Now, of course, this won’t happen during Donald Trump’s inauguration. Security has become rather tighter than in those long-gone days. Nobody’s getting near the White House that the Secret Service doesn’t vet, in other words. Still, it’s quite likely to be a pretty raucous party out on the Mall and throughout Washington next January.
But like all historical parallels, it only goes so far. Andrew Jackson certainly shook things up, but a lot of his actions were eventually condemned by history. No other president has ever dismissively ignored the Supreme Court, for instance. Which is a good thing, since it’s a pretty dangerous thing to attempt.
Donald Trump is no Andrew Jackson in many, many ways. But Trump owes a lot to the outsiders who came before him and pioneered the entire “running against Washington” theme that has run through our politics ever since Jackson’s election. Some call this “populism,” and by some definitions this term fits. Populism is always against powerful elites, and “on the side of the people.” But populist movements almost always have an uglier side as well — anti-immigrant scapegoating is usually a big part of populism, both historically and currently.
What is truly bizarre right now is that nobody knows what Donald Trump is going to do with the presidency. Nobody. Not his supporters, not his opponents, not the media, and certainly not his own party. Maybe he’ll follow through on his crazy campaign slogans, and maybe he won’t. Maybe a Republican Congress will set the agenda, and maybe they won’t. Nobody really knows what to expect. As Beltway insiders attempt to read the tea leaves, what stands out is that nobody really has any clue what Trump is going to do — probably not even Trump himself.
One thing seems certain, though. Trump, like Andrew Jackson before him, is going to pick and choose which Washington traditions he chooses to follow, and which he doesn’t. Would anyone bat an eye if Trump announced he’ll only allow reporters of his own choosing into the White House press pool? Or that his family will be his inner circle of advisors? Trump is going to shake all kinds of things up, and at this point absolutely nothing seems so far-fetched that you couldn’t imagine Trump doing it. Painting his last name on Air Force One? Um, OK. Contracting the building of the border wall out to his own company? Wouldn’t surprise me, at this point. He’s already said his businesses will be placed in a not-so-blind trust consisting of his own children.
This is the only sure bet, right now: Trump will simply not listen to people who tell him: “But we’ve always done it this way before.” Time-honored traditions will quite likely be jettisoned, much to the horror of today’s Washington elite. Senators’ wives (and husbands, nowadays) will be downright scandalized by much of it, no doubt. Many of these insiders are currently deluding themselves with the fantasy of “the presidency changes people, because they always rise to the seriousness of the office.” It’s the long-sought “Trump pivot,” but my guess is that it just isn’t going to happen (or, if it does, it will be very short-lived).
I don’t have any overarching conclusions to draw today, but I did think it was worth pointing out some of the similarities between Jackson and Trump. In both cases, the people wanted to shake up Washington in a major way. That’s what they voted for, and that’s what they got in the 1820s. That is also probably what they’re going to get in the next four years as well. America survived Jackson, but emerged a different place — elections never went back to the way they had previously been run, just to name one big difference. Donald Trump may have irreversibly changed how the game of politics is played in America as well. It’s not a very comforting prospect to some, but the idea that things are just going to “go back to the way they were” after Trump is probably nothing more than wishful thinking. Donald Trump redefined American presidential campaigns, for better or worse, and he’s quite likely to redefine the American presidency as well.
Chris Weigant blogs at:
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Friday Talking Points — Donald Trump And Andrew Jackson