J. M. Opal is a fortunate man. His new study of Andrew Jackson has come out just after President Donald Trump announced that he is Jackson reborn. Opal could hardly have even imagined a President Trump during the years he was researching and writing Avenging the People. Sometimes even historians get lucky.
Trump is not a reincarnation of Jackson, but there are disturbing parallels between their Americas.
But every silver lining has its cloud and Opal’s is huge, even tremendous. He has published a thoroughly researched and quite sophisticated book at a moment when popular discourse about history, or most anything else, has sunk to an all-time low. Sophisticated does not sell. This is not to say, though, that history is of no popular interest. On the contrary, Trump’s praise of Jackson stirred up a public debate that could be boiled down to the rather simplistic question of whether Jackson was a good or a bad person. The way that debate has played out has revealed the deep gulf between how national history is endlessly reexamined by academics versus how it lives—and is used as political currency—in the national imaginary.
Opal, like many academic historians, might have felt an obligation to raise the level of national discourse when he enthusiastically jumped into the Trump/Jackson controversy in the pages of TIME and the New York Daily News. However, in attempting to speak to a wider audience, he adopted a level of discourse on par with the president’s. Both essays dismiss Jackson as “a violent racist” who pushed for the expansion of slavery. Using Trump’s favorite pejorative, Opal labeled both presidents losers: “As for Andrew Jackson, he was on the wrong side of history, just like the President who idolizes him.” In the end, however, the Trump/Jackson fray may serve as a lesson in how populist leaders often turn criticism from their enemies to their advantage, as goads to galvanize their base. Criticizing the “flaws” of such leaders can spectacularly backfire when it turns out that those same traits are central to why their admirers love them. This is precisely what happened in the case of Jackson, and it may well help explain Trump, also. In any event, the comparison between Jackson and Trump helps to cast light on a persistent unresolved dilemma in American democracy.
A president identifying with Andrew Jackson—and a historian heartily agreeing—is a dynamic that is sure to induce déjà vu in students of American history. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a historian before he was an advisor to President John F. Kennedy, linked Franklin D. Roosevelt to Andrew Jackson in both The Age of Jackson (1945) and The Age of Roosevelt series (1957–60), following Roosevelt’s own lead.
The debate around Andrew Jackson reveals the deep gulf between how national history is examined by academics versus how it lives—and is used as political currency—in the national imaginary.
Roosevelt had gushed that the more he learned about Jackson, “the more he loved him.” It is likely, though, that Roosevelt did not appreciate Jackson’s accomplishments any more than does Trump, who is more than a little shaky on the specifics of the Jackson administration. Outside of his aggressive advocacy and implementation of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which neither Roosevelt nor Trump dwelled on, President Jackson was known mostly for saying no. He did not do things as much as stop his enemies from doing things. He vetoed the extension of the Bank of the United States. He stopped South Carolina’s attempt to secede. But Jackson’s accomplishments were not the point. Roosevelt’s base, like Trump’s current base, loved him for his enemies. Similarly, enemies defined Jackson, who aroused ferocious opposition. In the 1830s his detractors banded together as the Whigs to oppose the Jacksonian Democrats. Hatred of Jackson was the glue that held the Whig Party together.
Roosevelt recognized the parallels between Jackson’s enemies and his own, and he thought Jackson’s rise presaged his own. As he described Jackson’s situation:
The great media for the dissemination of information and the molding of public opinion fought him. Haughty and sterile intellectualism opposed him. Musty reaction disapproved him. Hollow and outworn traditionalism shook a trembling finger at him. It seemed sometimes that all were against him—all but the people of the United States. . . . History so often repeats itself.
Eighty years later Trump delivered a less ornate version of the same message. Speaking at Jackson’s Tennessee home, he told a cheering crowd:
It was during the revolution that Jackson first confronted and defied an arrogant elite—does that sound familiar to you? I wonder why they keep talking about Trump and Jackson, and Jackson and Trump.
If today’s journalists have embraced the Trump/Jackson parallel, it is no doubt because, incredulous at Trump’s victory, they have found themselves searching for an equivalent outsider. This differs from the embrace of the Roosevelt/Jackson parallel by last century’s press. In the 1940s reviewers of The Age of Jackson accepted the Roosevelt comparison because both Jackson and Roosevelt seemed part of a shared progressive lineage. Like Schlesinger, reviewers in Commentary, the New York Times, and other publications saw American history as an ongoing battle between the “people” and the “interests.” They thought of American liberalism as a single movement that stretched from Jefferson to Roosevelt and beyond. Jackson and Roosevelt towered as monuments to the people’s struggle against special interests.
Schlesinger’s work offered three novel elaborations on this widely accepted progressive mythos. First, he relocated the seat of liberalism from the West and South to the Northeast and replaced slaveholders, frontier farmers, and Indian fighters in the Jacksonian pantheon with the urban workingman. Second, in doing so, he deemphasized Jackson and emphasized the Jacksonians—that is, Jackson’s followers, who tended to cluster at the bottom of the social spectrum, as well as the politicians who attached themselves to him. Finally, Schlesinger claimed that Jackson advocated for a strong central state, and that this, rather than Jefferson’s weak state, eventually became the key to protecting the people. But by and large, what Schlesinger offered was a repackaging of the old progressive narrative.
Jackson’s base, like Trump’s and Roosevelt’s, loved him for his enemies.
Today historians have left Schlesinger and the progressive narrative far behind. In recently published histories, the Whigs are more likely to be the good guys than the bad guys. Moreover, American history as a single prolonged struggle between the people and the interests—essentially a story of class struggle—has been challenged by late-century identity politics, which brought attention to differences produced by, for example, race, gender, and ethnicity. Opal’s book, in other words, continues an ongoing reevaluation of Jackson and the Jacksonians by American historians. This is the revisionism so suspect among political pundits and politicians, yet so basic to the process by which scholars generate knowledge about the past. New research, new vantage points, new questions, and new topics yield new interpretations.
Until relatively late in his life, Jackson remained an obscure Middle Tennessee politician, slave owner, and militia leader. That changed with the War of 1812 and the associated blood-soaked Creek War. These provided a vehicle for his vengeance and his political ambitions. In the South these wars turned Indian property into white property and allowed the expansion of slavery. After guiding the Americans to victory in the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson emerged as a national hero.
In Avenging the People, Opal seeks the origins of this larger-than-life figure by inserting Jackson back into the bloody Carolina and Tennessee borderlands that produced him. To obtain land, whites evicted Indians. Indians resisted, and there was blood. For both Indians and whites, blood demanded more blood, but vengeance ultimately came to typify whites more than Indians. Indians had ritual ways of resolving conflicts. They accepted gifts to cover the dead and adopted captives to replace the dead. Individual whites could, by and large, only sate their vengeance by killing. On top of this, with the coming of the American Revolution and the division of the backcountry into Patriots and Tories, violence and vengeance increasingly marred relations between whites as well. Only stable government could eventually stay revolutionary violence; government demanded a monopoly on racial violence. Only government could validate and ratify land titles.
Jackson’s father died before he was born and the Revolution left him a fourteen-year old orphan. He had reasons to be vengeful. The Jacksons suffered little at the hands of Indians, but he had lost relations to the British and Tories and suffered a saber slash from a British officer whose boots he refused to shine. His mother, who went to try to redeem relatives held by the British, got sick and died before she could return. Jackson claimed that the law of his life was his mother’s last words to him.
In this world you will have to make your own way. To do that you must have friends. . . . [To forget a kindness done] is a base crime—not merely a fault or a sin, but an actual crime. . . . [Avoid conflict] but sustain your manhood always. Never bring a suit in law for assault and battery or for defamation. The law affords no remedy for such outrages that can satisfy the feelings of a true man.
This is the familiar Jackson of duels, feuds, and sensitivity about honor and manhood; Opal, though, argues that there was more to him. Opal’s narrative runs to blood and soil, but this is not the organic nationalism that later surfaces in European fascism. It is a legalistic American nationalism. When Jackson fully enters the narrative, he does so not only as a soldier but also as a lawyer. The violence of the backcountry formed the young Jackson, but his later life as a slaveholder and lawyer familiar with southern urban life shaped him as well.
The early republic was a work in progress liable to fracture at any moment, and Jackson lived along its fissures.
Opal is at his best delineating the connections between the various parts of Jackson’s world. He articulates the relationship between Jackson the strong man—the feared Man on Horseback who admired Napoleon’s “energy”—and Jackson the champion of his own idiosyncratic version of the rule of law. Jackson did not think deeply about the law, but its rules and strictures appealed to his “quick yet uncurious mind.” His embrace of law contained loopholes “in the name of natural rights and aching passions.” He honored both “‘sacred’ principles and righteous anger.” Above everything, he emphasized the law’s protection of property. The only property redistribution that he sanctioned was the transfer of Indian land to whites. Far from endorsing debt relief or other redistributive measures, he wanted to limit the sovereignty of the people.
The early republic was a work in progress liable to fracture at any moment, and Jackson lived along its fissures. Not all Americans were nationalists, and Opal contends that Jackson was closer to the Federalists, with their embrace of strong government, than the Jeffersonians, who favored a weak state. Jackson developed a propertied nationalism; he did not want local rules, or even federal laws, to interfere with his right to secure his property in runaway slaves and unpaid debts anywhere in the country. He always remained sensitive to what he regarded as betrayal by the federal government when it failed to protect him and other citizens in their lives and property.
When, in the wake of the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson rose to national prominence, not everyone was enthusiastic. Some federal officials feared his “authoritarian impulses,” which became visible in his unilateral invasion of Florida and executions of British subjects. However, Jackson’s supporters always outnumbered and overwhelmed his enemies. His early adherents, Opal contends, were as rooted in an ethos of vengeance as was Jackson and understood their hero in the terms of how they believed he might give them what they craved. The “American people were part of an epic drama, not a historical process,” Opal writes. In the minds of Jackson’s admirers, their lawful nation paradoxically owed its persistence to Jackson’s “raging ambition, his thirst for glory, gratitude and even vengeance.” What might seem on the surface to be grave faults of character had in fact secured a greater good. It is a rationale familiar to us today.
Opal’s portrait of Jackson and his world is insightful and vividly rendered, but it is also oddly incomplete. Having followed Jackson to his arrival on the national stage, Opal seems to lose interest in him. He has surprisingly little to say about Jackson as president or of the working-class Jacksonians, whom Schlesinger, and later Sean Wilentz, both emphasized and celebrated. He rushes through the 1820s and ’30s. These decades, in which Jacksonians captured the country, come across as an anticlimax. Jackson’s seemingly contradictory attitudes toward federal power, as well as his war on the Bank of the United States and its corruption, both get only cursory attention. The conflict with South Carolina gets none at all.
Opal is certainly correct about Jackson’s hatred of Native Americans and his unrepentant slaveholding, but even these accounts remain partial and offer less critical context than one might hope. There is no question that Jackson sought to turn “southeastern North America into a vast domain of ‘wealthy inhabitants unmixed by Indians,’ a US frontier rather than an international borderland”—but then, so had every other American president since Jefferson. Jackson likewise did not invent coerced cessions and Indian removal, even if he was one of their most ardent implementers. At heart Jackson was not that different from the anti-Jacksonian Henry Clay, who did not consider Indians “an improvable race” and thought they were doomed to extinction.
In the end, Opal’s disinterest in how Jackson governed brings him into surprising alignment with Schlesinger, despite the fact that the latter focused a great deal on the details of Jackson as president. Schlesinger ultimately viewed Jacksonianism as a brief interlude of strong government during a period in which the state remained weak; Jackson’s actions therefore mattered little, except inasmuch as they provided a seedbed for developments in the twentieth century. Jackson sowed what Roosevelt much later reaped. Opal’s op-eds similarly prophesy that Jackson’s failures are forerunners of Trump’s presumed failures.
So how revealing are comparisons between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump? The answer is: symbolically, quite a bit.
Jackson was the first president to claim the mantle of democracy as the electorate expanded in the early nineteenth century to include virtually all adult white men. And he was the first to play the flip side of this coin in 1824 when he famously claimed that only a corrupt bargain of his opponents had thwarted the democratic will of the people and denied him electoral victory. Relatively few American presidents have made such claims before or since. In 2016 both the victor, Trump, and the loser, Clinton, did.
In the minds of Jackson’s admirers, Jackson’s thirst for glory and vengeance had secured a greater good. It is a rationale familiar to us today.
Jackson, too, first successfully took on the role of tribune of the people fighting the corrupt and entrenched interests. The claim might have been, as Opal believes, false, but it was still effective. That garment has since become quite worn, but it would have been a miracle if Trump, like Roosevelt, had not donned it. Jackson was the first president to recognize the gift his enemies gave him when they hated him so extravagantly. It became a means to entrench his own support. Roosevelt and Trump have rejoiced in their enemies. What Opal adds to this symbolic repertoire is Jackson’s embrace of vengeance: the president as the strong and ruthless avenging arm of the innocent republic.
Trump’s appropriation of Jackson is certainly clumsy. He fits uneasily in Jackson’s skin. I can’t help but think of Edgar the Bug, the alien villain in the film Men in Black (1997) who clumsily wears a suit of his victim’s skin, which is forever slipping grotesquely out of place. In his Jacksonian skin, Trump claims to be the voice of the people. He demands protection for the people, and vows vengeance against the people’s enemies. Like Jackson—and Edgar the Bug—he is easily outraged. Jackson was a fearsome avenger. Trump is just Edgar the Bug. But it doesn’t matter if his performance rings false to me. It is his supporters who matter, and they appear to believe it.
Victim of corrupt elites, champion of the people, and avenger of the innocent are all symbolic stances perfected by Jackson, but what do they have to do with actual governance? Here things get murkier. There are disturbing parallels between Trump’s America and Jackson’s America. This is not because Trump is a reincarnation of Jackson; it is because there have been some persistent issues in American democracy that have never been resolved.
In Jackson’s America the symbolic stance of avenger turned into actual policy. Americans could conflate the innocent victim of an Indian attack—usually portrayed as female, sometimes pregnant—with the innocent nation. This is what allowed Americans to depict their conquest of the continent, their dispossession of its inhabitants, and the resulting impoverishment and diminishment of those who survived as an act of self-defense. Then, and now, to question American innocence is to incite the rage of those quick to point to an innocent victim and demand vengeance.
There is another problem. The expansion of the right to vote during the Jacksonian period is foundational to an American narrative that describes how, over time, American democracy has moved toward increasing perfection as it has been extended to encompass one group after another. Like the innocent nation, this is a narrative that politicians of both parties usually embrace; to deny the story is heresy. Historians are heretics. The extension of the franchise did form a great democratic triumph, but Opal echoes many historians in reminding his readers that “the promise of greater sovereignty for white Jacksonians was . . . directly tied to the enhanced misery of black and native peoples in antebellum America.” As Eric Foner has argued in his Story of American Freedom (1994), the actual trajectory of rights and freedoms reveals one of the great conundrums of American democracy. Some people lose freedoms even as other people gain them. Today, as voting is made intentionally more difficult for the poor and nonwhite, the electorate is effectively shrinking, and we find ourselves no freer of white supremacy than were the Jacksonians.
The questioning of narratives of American innocence and democratic perfectibility—both central tenets of Jacksonianism—are old hat among historians, but such questions rarely surface in American public life, and this impoverishes, constricts, and polarizes our politics. Trump’s identification with Jackson, his own sketchy knowledge of American politics, his often-ludicrous errors make him an easy target for ridicule, but he is president despite his faults. He has tapped into the hopes and resentments of ordinary people—mostly white people—who feel neglected and abused. The people who voted for him recognized his faults as fully as did his enemies. Those faults, like Jackson’s, were central to his appeal. He is president because he has harnessed deep and polarizing currents in our democracy. Liberals rode similar currents in the past. That is why Jackson matters now. It is why he mattered in the New Deal. It is also why a ferocious focus on Trump’s insufficiencies will in the long run be insufficient. Our problems run deeper than that. President Trump is an effect, not a cause, a symptom and not the disease.
Editor’s Note: Richard White and J. M. Opal share an editor at Oxford University Press.