I just completed Jon Meacham’s biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion.
The most important action of Jackson delayed the Civil War. Jackson stood for Union solidarity when Calhoun and South Carolina supported nullification. Their call to action was aimed at The Tariff of 1832 that South Carolina and other southern states though unfair. The tariff, however, was only the means that challenged the power of the Federal government. This prelude to the Civil War was astutely resolved by Jackson through a carrot and stick approach. He had a force of action resolution from Congress and stationed troops to be ready to enforce it, but he also lobbied for a reduction in the tariff.
What came from the debates on the right of nullification were memorable speeches and arguments for the importance of the union. These arguments established that Americans are one people, not a confederation of states. This was the source of the country’s strength and the ability of any state to challenge this unity would only weaken the sum, create waste and conflict and invite foreign intrusion into the American experiment.
Jackson’s resolve and his reason resonated with Lincoln when the subject rose again 28 years later.
Calhoun and the other nullifiers understood that the power of the federal government would likely be used to subdue slavery. Abolition organizations were already spreading, and southerners were concerned about slave uprisings.
Jackson’s reasoning for Union solidarity was not driven by an abolitionist sentiment. He owned slaves and accepted the institution. His logic was centered on his belief in the constitution and its genius for resolving differences while retaining unity.
Jackson was considered the first modern president because he assumed presidential power that was radical at the time. His opponents accused him of being a king, a deliberate insult to the war hero who fought the British in 1812.
Jackson’s radical departure was considering himself a direct representative of the people, He may have been our first populist president. He executed this power with greater use of vetoes and his attack on the National Bank which he saw as a corrupt and elitist influence. Previous presidents deferred legislative matters to the Congress. His attack on the bank was supported by the House, but generated a censure from the Senate, which he considered a stain on his reputation. He lobbied the Senate and later had the censure removed. Jackson’s criticism of the role of a central bank lasted so long that the proponents of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 and our modern Federal reserve complained about fighting the ‘ghost of Andrew Jackson.’
His arguments to protect the Union made him a role model for Lincoln, but his use of the office to become active in the legislative process and the promote the elevation of popular democracy made him a role model of the Progressives, from Teddy Roosevelt to Harry Truman. While he was severely criticized for expanding presidential power in his day, it looks far less radical considering the power of office as it is used today.
Historians can debate if Jackson moved us further away from the vision of the Constitution and its framers, as so many of his critics contended, or was a step in the evolution or the practical clarification of the vision to address the issues of his day. There is much less agreement that his term was one of the most pivotal in the direction of our history.