A few weeks ago, I read a headline that said that former President Jimmy Carter had to receive medical treatment after suffering from dehydration while helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house. The 39th President recovered and went right back to work serving others. No one should be surprised that Jimmy Carter was spending his time helping a wonderful organization like Habitat do meaningful work providing homes to families in need. No one should be surprised that a few times a month, Jimmy Carter voluntarily teaches Sunday School at his home church in Plains, Georgia. No one should be surprised, because Jimmy Carter's life as been one of public service. Now, at 92 years old, the ex-President still seeks to be an advocate for those in need, pursue social justice, and set an example of dignity. Jimmy Carter is an international statesman, a veteran, and a true public servant. However, he achieved most of his acclaim after 4 trying years in the White House.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter appeared to be the perfect candidate for the perfect time. For the past, 8 years, the United States was a political and social mess. The economy was in decline. Race relations were far from ideal. The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal created a mistrust of government never before seen in American history. Despite the efforts of a good and decent man, President Gerald Ford, Americans wanted a break from business as usual in Washington. Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia offered something new. He was not part of the swamp of Washington. He was an outsider. Furthermore, Carter, an outspoken born again Christian, carried himself with a level of integrity, humility, and honesty, not often seen on the banks of the Potomac. In a close election, Carter defeated the incumbent Ford and became the 39th President of the United States.
Critics of President Carter regard his presidency as one of the true failures of the 20th Century. He was a weak leader that accomplished nothing and diminished our standing in the world. These charges, serious as they may be, are overstated. Yes, Cater was a weak President. He lost the confidence of Congress, and more importantly, the American people. However, for all of his presidential shortcomings, Carter had several significant achievements that help to balance out the struggles.
First and foremost, Jimmy Carter is a good person. He conducted himself and his administration with decency and respect. While this is far from a guarantee of strong leadership, it is significant because of the aforementioned political disgraces of early 1970s. It is important that Americans trust and respect their president, even if they don't agree with him. Carter made the presidency respectable again. A process started by his predecessor Gerald Ford. His sincere religious faith, while off putting to some, served as an asset in the early days of his administration. However, some of the support he enjoyed from the emerging evangelical movement began to evaporate when conservative religious leaders realized that Carter wasn't going to use the office to further their worldview. Nevertheless, Carter was and is well respected for his character.
Finding real domestic achievements is a challenge when studying Jimmy Carter. One of the main reasons for this is that Carter had terrible relations with Congress. Carter had no relationships with the leaders on the Hill, and generally refused to play the quid pro quo games necessary to move legislation forward. As much as Americans claim they want a Washington "outsider" to shake things up in D.C., the truth is that the ability to cultivate, maintain, and benefit from relationships with Congress are often times the most important qualities in a successful presidency. Carter was a true outsider, this played well on the campaign trail, but hindered him once he attempted to govern.
For all of his struggles with Congress, Carter did have significant achievements on the world stage. The President improved relations with China, Latin America, and signed a significant arms limitations treaty with the Soviet Union. However, it will be his efforts in the Middle East that will be the crowning achievement of the Carter presidency.
The state of Israel was established in 1948, following the end of World War II. From the very beginning of its existence, Israel was under nearly constant attack. Several declared wars and multiple armed conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors occurred between 1948 - 1976. Israel's largest and strongest enemy was Egypt. Often times, when conflicts would arise in the region, Egypt was leading the charge against the Jewish state. Hoping to establish some sort of peace in the troubled area, Carter invited President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minster Menachem Begin to Camp David to hammer out a peace agreement. After days of arguing and intensive negotiations, Carter personally brokered peace between the two historic enemies. In return for territorial concessions, Egypt recognized Israel's right to exist. While there are many other aspects of the accords that had long lasting effects, the important part is that Carter successfully championed the most significant step toward peace in the Middle East ever taken in the twentieth century.
If the Middle East was the source of Carter's greatest triumph, it was also the cause of his greatest challenge in November 1979, the American embassy in Tehran, Iran was stormed and 52 Americans were taken hostage. The new Islamic leaders of Iran, were unwilling to release the hostages, it was payback for years of American support for the oppressive regime of the former Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Months and months of negotiations and a failed rescue attempt yielded no results. Meanwhile, images of blindfolded American diplomats appeared on American news channels on a nightly basis.
In addition to the hostage crisis, an oil shortage and energy crisis began to take its toll on the American economy. The United States' over reliance on foreign oil was proving to be a reality as an embargo led to long lines at gas stations across the nation. With prices rising, Carter proved to more of a lecturing parent and less of a leader. The President traded in his suit jacket for a sweater and encouraged Americans to do the same in an attempt to reduce energy consumption. When he gave a speech about the crisis on national television, the President's tone was less than inspirational and was met with ridicule and anger.
Jimmy Carter returned home to Georgia before embarking on a career as an international advocate for human rights. His work to ensure safe, fair, and free elections around the world has earned him international praise. His support for organizations like Habitat for Humanity has earned him the respect of even his harshest critics. In many ways, Jimmy Carter will be remembered more for his groundbreaking post presidency than for his tremulous four years in the White House.
I can't imagine what was going through Gerald Ford's head on August 9, 1974 as he solemnly took the oath of office to become the 38th President of the United States. Ford wasn't elected President, he never asked for the job. Ford wasn't even elected Vice President. Less than one year earlier, Ford was serving his 13th and perhaps final term as Congressman from Michigan's 5th district. Yet here he was, being sworn in to become the most powerful person in the world in the midst of a national constitutional crisis. How did this happen?
Gerald Ford had an interesting road to the presidency. He wasn't a child of privilege. Ford's mother Dorothy fled an abusive marriage when Gerald, then named Leslie King, was only days old. After seeking safety with family, Dorothy eventually met and married Gerald Rudolff Ford. The elder Ford provided, what the President later described as a "superb family upbringing." As a child, young Leslie King officially changed his name to Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr. Making Gerald Ford the only former King to ever become President of the United States.
Ford excelled academically and athletically. He attended the University of Michigan where he played for the Wolverines football team, helping to lead them to two national titles in 1932 and 1933. After college, he moved to New Haven, CT where he enrolled in Yale University to study law. He graduated in 1941, but like so many other young Americans his life plans changed on December 7, 1941. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ford enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After the war, Ford ran for Congress. He won his first race and would serve in the House of Representatives continuously until 1973. Then everything changed.
Congress overwhelming supported his nomination and Ford became the 40th Vice President of the United States in December 1973. He convinced his wife, who was tired of politics, to support the idea by assuring her that the Vice President is more of a ceremonial position that doesn't really do anything. The next few years, he believed, would be easy as compared to the rough and tumble world of Congressional politics.
When it became evident that Richard Nixon was going to be impeached for his role in covering up the Watergate break-in and interfering with the instigation, Ford must have known that his life was going to become much more complicated than he ever could have imagined when he agreed to accept the nomination as Vice President. Facing tough midterm elections, Congressional Republicans turned on Nixon. Party leaders urged the President to resign immediately. They were prepared to join with Democrats to impeach the President for crimes against the United States. Nixon wisely listened and Gerald Ford, a man who didn't run for the office, was now President of the United States.
It is within this context, that President Ford made the most important and controversial decision of his presidency: he pardoned Richard Nixon. Ford, who in no way condoned the secretive illegal actions of the Nixon administration, wanted to move on from the issue. There was an uneasy cease fire in Vietnam. Inflation was wrecking the American economy. The US was pursuing a policy of detente toward the Soviet Union. The trial of a former president, that may drag on for more than a year, could prove to be a dangerous and painful distraction from the issues of the day. Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, an affirmative statement that he had committed a crime, put the nation was going to move on.
Moving on from Nixon might have been done with the stroke of the President's pen, but moving forward with the business of the nation would not prove to be so easy. Because Ford did not run for the office, Ford had no clear agenda. He was a Congressman, and a good one, but he had not spend months crafting policy statements and laying the groundwork for domestic agenda or foreign policy. He was thrust into the administration by the 25th Amendment and became President as a result of Nixon's crimes. He didn't ask for this. He had to put together a new cabinet, introduce himself to the nation, work with Congress, and even move his family into the White House all in a matter of weeks. Ford was hamstrung from the beginning.
The midterm elections of 1974 were a disaster for the Republican Party. The GOP broke from Nixon when they realized that he put their electoral prospects in jeopardy in 1974. Even though Nixon was gone, the damage to the Republican brand was done. Democrats strengthened their control of both houses of Congress; essentially making any legislation they passed veto proof. Throughout the remainder of his term, Democrats had very little to gain politically by working with the President.
Ford's lack of an agenda hampered him when dealing with the issues of the day. When South Vietnam fell to the communist North, Ford could do nothing to help stop the crisis. When the economy worsened, Ford introduced a policy that proved to be little more than a public relations stunt. The W.I.N (Whip Inflation Now) campaign, encouraged Americans to reduce their spending. It didn't help. Over the course of the recession Ford urged Congress to raised taxes to fight inflation and then reduce taxes to combat unemployment. The message was messy, confusing, and did little to inspire confidence in the Ford administration.
We've entered that part of the countdown that gets really tough. The reason being is that on the next few Presidents could all be characterized as "fair". Not good. Not bad. Just fair. Any one of the next few entries could swap places with another and you wouldn't hear an argument from me. It is also difficult because finding real legislative or diplomatic, achievements for our next group of leaders is quite a challenge. So, lets start with some fun facts:
Grover Cleveland is the only President to be elected to two non-consecutive terms. He served four years, before being defeated in 1888 by Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland went home for four years before returning to the White House in 1892. Making Cleveland both our nation's 22nd and 24th President.
As President, Grover Cleveland, age 49, married the 21 year old Francis Folsom. Cleveland had served as Francis's legal guardian after her father died when she was a child. Though their marriage is considered odd by today's standards (and very creepy by my students) in her day Francis Cleveland became an adored celebrity by the American public.
During his second term, Cleveland took a "vacation" aboard a friend's yacht. The true purpose of the expedition on the Long Island Sound was so that a doctor could secretly remove a cancerous tumor from the President's mouth without the press or Congress learning about the illness. Surgery was tricky in the 1890s. Surgery aboard a yacht was downright dangerous. Cleveland survived, the surgery remained a secret for years, and the tumor is on display to this day.
Cleveland had developed a reputation for hard work and honesty throughout his legal and political career. Known as Grover "The Good" for his character, he was difficult to attack during the campaign. However, his opponents pounced on claims that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. Despite the wishes of his advisers, Cleveland came clean. Yes, he had a child with a woman that wan't his wife. Yes, he had taken responsibility for his son. This kind of honesty was well received by the voters and should serve as a lesson for all politicians embroiled in an embarrassing scandal. Tell the truth. In November 1884, Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat in a generation to be elected to the nation's highest office.
During his time in Albany, Grover Cleveland became known for his strong and sincere belief in limited government. If his legislature passed laws he thought were frivolous, unnecessary, inappropriate for the government, or simply a waste of money, Cleveland had no problem vetoing them. His tendency to use such executive power earned him the name the "veto governor." As President, Cleveland brought the same by-the-book prudence to Washington. Not only would he veto bills he thought were wasteful, regardless of their intention, he encouraged Congress to take actions to limit the government's ability to grow.
A good example of this was his campaign against the federal tariff. Protective tariffs were a favorite tool of northern industrialists and Republicans. Many Democrats thought the increased prices created by taxes on imports were bad for the consumer. Cleveland agreed, but also felt that the federal government was simply bringing in too much money. The government was regularly running a surplus (what a problem to have) and Cleveland believed it was unfair to the people to take more of their money than was absolutely necessary. Furthermore, having so much extra treasure in the federal coffers would lead to wasteful spending on unnecessary programs. Cleveland successfully negotiated a lowering of the tariff.
Cleveland's support of a lower tariff was certainly based upon principle, but it probably cost him the election on 1888. The focus of the Republican campaign was tariff. They claimed that reducing the tariff hurt industrial workers in the North. Furthermore, they wisely chose a vice presidential candidate from New York in an effort to steal votes from President Cleveland's home state. Cleveland's association with an unpopular New York Governor, no doubt hurt as well. The plan worked and the Republican Benjamin Harrison won the election. Cleveland actually narrowly won the popular vote, but did not secure the necessary electoral votes. This fact hindered Harrison's presidency and would serve Cleveland well when he ran again in 4 years. On inauguration, Cleveland, gracious in defeat, held an umbrella over President Harrison while he took the oath of office. Francis Cleveland, meanwhile, instructed the White House staff to take good care of the place until they returned.
Four years, after a less than inspiring, largely ineffective Harrison administration, the Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland once again. In 1892, the economy was beginning to show signs of decline. A new political movement, populism began to take hold in western states. The populists called for greater government involvement in the economy. They advocated for policies that would protect workers, limit the power of monopolies, and give a greater voice to average Americans in the electoral process. Though Cleveland was far from a populist (certainly not economically), but he was more preferable to most Americans than the Republican Harrison. In 1892, Grover Cleveland became the first (and only) person to be elected President after previously being defeated as an incumbent.
Cleveland's lack of responsiveness to calls for action by the American people would come to define the President's second term. What was becoming evident in the 1890s, was that Americans expected more from their government The seeds of Progressivism were being sown in state capitols of the Midwest, big cities in the East, and farmer's organizations of the West. The hands-off, laissez-faire approach to governance that had come to symbolize the Gilded Age was ending and a new era of democratic activism was rapidly approaching as the nation prepared to enter the 20th century. Grover Cleveland was an decent, respectable, capable administrator. He served the United States with honor, but it appears he was unable to adjust to changing political climate of his second term. In the end, he proved to be Grover "The Good"...enough.
"I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President. He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place. He has very little respect for laws and constitutions [...] His passions are terrible. [...] His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; [...] but he is a dangerous man." - Thomas Jefferson (1824)
A few years ago, I walking through through Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom with my wife and mother-in-law. Seeking a break from the Florida heat, we decided to check out an attraction I'd never seen before: The Hall of Presidents. I would no doubt enjoy the show for two reasons. First of all, I'm a history teacher who enjoys the study of U.S. Presidents. Secondly, the theater was air conditioned. The show features audio anamotronic models of all former presidents. It is a celebration of the Constitution and the men who have led our nation. While all presidents are featured, a few have extended video tributes because of their disproportional positive impact on our country. Much to my surprise, featured along side Lincoln and Washington was Andrew Jackson; the champion of the common man. I couldn't help but glance over at the robotic Mr. Jefferson to see if he shared my surprise at the reverence paid to General Jackson. Sadly, Imagineering has yet to advance far enough to capture our 3rd president's astonishment.
Opinions regarding Andrew Jackson are numerous and passionate. A review 20th century history books will portray him as a hero for the common man, a military genius, and a titanic figure on the pages of American history. Modern day critiques, will regard him as emotionally unbalanced, a wild man, a racist, a brutal military commander, and a stain on the American presidency. Which vision of Andrew Jackson is correct? Both, depending one's point of view.
After the war, Jackson studied law and moved to the territory that would become Tennessee. He quickly found that he a knack for the legal circuit and for politics. He became a delegate helping to draft Tennessee's constitution in its bid for statehood. Jackson's successes led to wealth and he soon overcame his modest beginnings and began his transformation into one of the planter aristocracy. He acquired numerous slaves and a a plantation known as the Hermitage. Jackson was elected to the United States House of Representatives and later the Senate, where he made a less than positive impression on then Vice President Thomas Jefferson.
For all of his political successes, it is for his success on the battlefield that made Andrew Jackson a national figure; and a controversial one at that. Upon the outbreak of hostilities between the U.S. and Great Britain during the War of 1812, Jackson organized a group of volunteers to defend the western lands from the British. Most of Jackson's fighting was done on the frontier against Native American allies of the British. On the battlefield he proved to be a skilled and successful commander of men. This was also where his cruelty began to show through. Not only was Jackson incredibly ruthless toward his enemies, he had little stomach for disloyalty or insubordination. He is known to have had at least 6 of his own men executed for refusing to follow orders. This was against the recommendation of the soldier's court martial. Despite his harshness as a leader, it seems men were willing to rally behind the general and give their all for him. Nowhere was this more evident than the famed Battle of New Orleans.
When Jackson's men arrived in the Crescent City, they knew that holding the city was crucial. Whoever controlled New Orleans, controlled the Mississippi. Whoever controlled the Mississippi, controlled access to the west. The General controversially declared martial law in the city and began preparations for battle. Jackson's ragtag group of volunteers from many different walks of life, joined together with American regulars and awaited for the British attack. The British arrived with roughly 10,000 soldiers, nearly double the American forces. In a shockingly one-sided affair, Jackson's forces decimated the British invaders. The red coats suffered more than 2,000 casualties. The Americans only 71. New Orleans was defended, the British forces retreated, and Andrew Jackson became a national hero. The fact that the war officially ended with the Treaty of Ghent two weeks before the battle, mattered little to American public (news traveled very slowly in 1815). The War of 1812, was by any military measure, a draw. But to Americans at the time, it was viewed as a Second War of Independence and Andrew Jackson was viewed as this generation's George Washington. Jackson's march toward the White House was launched on the banks of the mighty Mississippi in 1815.
Thirteen years would pass between the Battle of New Orleans and Jackson's election to the presidency. In the interim, General Jackson continued leading troops throughout the southern United States fighting Indians. He created an international incident and nearly started a war with two countries when he overstepped orders, invaded Spanish Florida, and executed two British citizens. In 1824, Jackson was denied the presidency despite winning the popular vote and securing the most electoral votes, but failing to get a majority. Will discuss this event in more detail in future posts, but Jackson's "loss" in 1824 helped to mobilize political factions of everyday Americans into what would become the Democratic Party. In 1828, Jackson had his party were back with a vengeance.
Jackson won in a landslide. He had captured the vote of the common man. However, it is important to understand what this term meant in 1820s America. The "common man" only applied to the common white man. Women, slaves, free blacks, and Native Americans were certainly not included in this number. Jackson was the first President who attempted to appeal to the average white man, because for the first time their votes were important. By 1828, there was nearly universal white male suffrage. Early Presidents didn't worry about the votes of average Americans, most states didn't even count them. Common people didn't vote for Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, or Monroe, These leaders were chosen exclusively by the Electoral College without consideration of the common person's wishes. This was perfectly in line with the Framer's intentions. But now, with the removal of property requirements and an ever expanding male electorate, being a champion for the "common man" became a political necessity. So, Andrew Jackson, who lived in one of the finest homes in the nation, and possessed more wealth than most Americans could ever dream, was viewed as a working man's President. The transition of power from educated elites to ordinary white American males signaled the rise of mass democracy in America and came to be known as the Age of Jackson. Thousands of everyday Americans descended upon Washington to celebrate the inauguration of "Old Hickory" as President. Though the streets were filled with excitement, Jackson was in mourning as he took the oath of office. Just weeks after his election, Jackson's wife Rachel died suddenly of a heart attack. She was buried at Jackson's Tennessee plantation wearing the dress she had recently purchased for the inauguration. Yet again, Andrew Jackson had lost the most important person in his life.
Andrew Jackson was claimed to be a Jeffersonain, which is to say that he believed in a limited role for the federal government. Yet, much like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson expanded the power of the government once he was in power. In particular, Andrew Jackson expanded the power of the presidency itself. To Jackson, he represented the common man, therefore anything he wanted to do was something the common man must also want. Any personal slight against him, was a slight against the common man. More than any previous President, Andrew Jackson's temperament, or lack thereof, defined his actions in the White House. The policies he pursued can best be understood as settling a personal score between himself and a political opponent or as an attempt to further the cause of the common white man; sometimes both.
One of the first actions taken by the new President was to fire dozens of civil servants; many of whom had served through several previous administrations. Jackson called his policy "rotation in office." Jackson argued that civil service jobs belonged to the people, not to the current office holders, and it was only healthy that more citizens should have an opportunity to serve their country. In reality, Jackson was hiring his friends and firing his enemies. Critics called this form of political patronage the "spoils system" and it came to define the federal government for the next 60 years, leading to decades of corruption and inefficiency. Jackson may have wanted to drain the swamp, but instead he simply made it more stagnant.
Early in Jackson's first term he faced the prospect of a national crisis as the state of South Carolina claimed that it had the authority to nullify a federal law. The federal tariff (a tax on imports) was a law that primarily benefited northern industry and merchants at the expense of southern planters. The reason being that, because of their refusal to diversify their slave-based economy, southerners imported all manufactured goods. Therefore, they resented the higher price they had to pay because of the tariff. When the southern economy began to falter (do to a fall in cotton prices), South Carolinains blamed the Yankee "tariff of abominations." Advocates of nullification, refusal to enforce a federal law within a state's borders, took control of the South Carolina statehouse, a full on crisis was born. The biggest and most ardent supporter of this policy was Jackson's own Vice President, John C. Calhoun. South Carolina voted to nullify the federal law.
Jackson rejected South Carolina's claim. The supremacy clause of the Constitution prohibits nullification. Jackson prepared to raise an army, invade The Palmetto State, and personally hang the leaders of the movement. Such a threat is very real when it comes from a man who has killed men in duels and executed his own soldiers. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and a compromise was orchestrated in Congress. The tariff was gradually lowered, Jackson didn't invade South Carolina, and Vice President Calhoun decided he would be better suited (and safer) in the U.S. Senate. To his supporters, Jackson was a strong Unionist. To his critics, President Jackson's heavy handedness seemed to resemble that of a king.
When Andrew Jackson learned of the decision written by Chief Justice John Marshall, he supposedly said that John Marshal had made his decision, "now let him enforce it." Over time, some during the next President's term and in violation of the court's order, the Cherokee were rounded up at gun point, removed from their homes, and forced to march westward. This forced march of thousands of Cherokee men, women, and children, came to be known as the Trail of Tears. Thousands of people died, but in the mind of Jackson, and a great many Americans, it was progress. The forced removal of Native Americans not only had tragic consequences for the thousands of families displaced, but also for generations of slaves to come. By opening up the Deep South to white settlement, the cotton industry was able to spread into the fertile, profitable soil of Dixie. With one single act, Jackson and Congress further advanced America's two original sins: the eradication of Native American society and the institution of slavery.
There is no event that serves as a better example of Andrew Jackson's stubbornness, unwillingness to compromise, and the personal nature of his politics, than the Bank War. The Bank of the United States served as a stabilizing force in the American economy. By law, it is where federal deposits were kept. I could provide loans, issue bonds, and do all of the things that one might expect a bank to do. However, much of the interest in the bank was controlled by eastern elites. With branches in places like New York, the bank brought great financial power to the cities of east. In the early nineteenth century, proximity mattered. The further away a person, business, or government was from a power center (financial or otherwise) the less influence they had. The "common man" of the frontier who Jackson claimed to represent had little to say when it came to the nations finances. They also felt like they received little benefit from the Bank of the United States. To Jackson, the Bank represented what he called "corrupt privilege." Jackson's rhetoric against the Bank of the United States would be similar to modern day critiques of Wall Street, hedge fund managers, and lobbyist. The Banks wielded too much power and didn't serve the interests of the people.
That being said, it doesn't appear as if reforming the Bank was going to be a hallmark of Jackson's administration; he doesn't mention it in his first inaugural address. The bank had a 20 year charter, that wouldn't need to be renewed until 1836. As is customary throughout most of American history, Presidents and Congress do not go about the business of repealing the acts of previous administrations. If, in 1836, the Congress felt the Bank did not need to continue, they would allow it to expire. However, the existence of the Bank became to primary issue in the Election of 1832, four years before it needed to be discussed.
The newspaper that had published the damning story about Jackson's late wife in 1828 was run by a personal friend of Henry Clay. Jackson believed Clay was responsible for besmirching his wife's honor just before her death and he hated him for it. If Clay was for something, Jackson regardless of politics, was against it. Perhaps, the President did exactly what Clay wanted. Clay pushed the Bank recharter through Congress and the President vetoed it. Now Clay could use the rechartering of the Bank as his signature cause as he ran against Jackson in the Presidential election of 1832 under the banner of the National Republicans. Clay set a trap and Jackson took the bait. But the plan didn't work. Jackson destroyed Clay in the election and then set his sights on killing the Bank of the United States.
Early in Jackson's second term, while Congress was out of town, the President ordered his Secretary of the Treasury to withdraw all federal deposits from the Bank. The Secretary refused. That would be illegal. Jackson fired him. He then appointed Attorney General Roger Taney to lead the Treasury Department. Taney agreed to remove federal deposits and send them to state banks run by Jackson's political allies. When Congress returned to D.C. they censured Jackson and Taney was no longer allowed to stay at the Treasury Department. It didn't matter, the deed was done, and the Bank would soon be dead. For his loyalty, Jackson nominated Taney as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taney would serve on the Court for many years, issuing some of the most controversial and infamous rulings in American history regarding slavery. It is Taney that wrote the opinion in the Dred Scott case that ruled that African Americans were not people that had rights worthy of protection.
Hoping to stabilize the economy, Jackson issued the Specie Circular which required that the federal government would only accept payment in the form of money backed by gold or silver. Most people didn't have access to this and credit dried up. It is ironic that a man who hated the idea of paper money is now on the $20 bill. Shortly after Jackson left office, the Panic of 1837 hit. It was the greatest economic downturn in the nation's short history. It would be left to Jackson's former Vice President, Martin Van Buren to handle the crisis.
Andrew Jackson is a controversial figure to say the least. His policies were aimed at helping the "common man" but many times these came at a great cost to the nation. The Indian Removal Act is one of the great unpaid sins in American history, yet at the time few saw anything wrong with it. Jackson came into office beating the drum of limited government and yet he used the power of the presidency to issue a record number of vetos, break federal law, and ignore the orders of the Supreme Court. His presidency, unintentionally led to the expansion of slavery and a national economic crisis. But in his day, he was loved. Yes, he had his critics (the Whig Party was formed in opposition to his policies), but he was viewed a champion of the "common man" until his dying day. For generations, the negative impact of his decisions were viewed by the public as unfortunate side effects of progress. It is only with time that we have been able to gain a clearer view of the long term consequences of Jackson's presidency.
On the podcast "Presidential" historian John Meacham had this to say about how Andrew Jackson should be remembered. "His legacy has shifted through time. [...] As our awareness of the plight of Native Americans, and the experience of enslaved people grew, Jackson's historical stock fell. [..] While his views on those matters were on the extreme edge of the mainstream of his time, they were still within the mainstream. And his sins were the nation's sins. And so to condemn him without condemning the nation itself is sort of a cop out. We can't simply blame Andrew Jackson for Native American removal and the endurance of slavery. The nation was complicit in those tragedies as well."
It's been 180 years since Andrew Jackson left the White House and he is still being studied, discussed, debated, beloved, and vilified. I'm confident that 180 years from now, we will still be talking about Old Hickory. Perhaps that's because Americans, then and now, see something of themselves in Andrew Jackson. He overcame tremendous hardship to achieve something great. He was tough, firm, and uncompromising. He loved, served, and defended his country. But upon closer examination, Jackson reveals unfortunate characteristics that we'd rather not admit.
Derek Trent Ashcraft
A place to discuss, among other things, politics, culture, food, faith, and nonsense.