Andrew Jackson was a good president

Andrew Jackson was the first populist in the White House. His political style is reminiscent of Donald Trump - but their biographies could hardly be more different

Since the beginning of his term in office, Donald Trump has made it clear several times which of his predecessors inspires him the most. It is Andrew Jackson, who presented himself as a representative of the "common man" and was known for his belligerence.

The shock of the election results to the Washington power elite was deep. The aversion to the new president was only surpassed by the aversion to his voters: those who had defeated the previous political elite and brought Andrew Jackson into the White House were insulted as rabble. This is what happened in the spring of 1829, when a president of the USA took office for the first time who - regardless of his own opulent lifestyle - presented himself as a representative of the common man, the common people. It was a change of epoch, a departure from the series of downright aristocratic presidents connected to the founding of the nation in the 1770s and 1780s, who until then had come exclusively from Virginia and Massachusetts. The age of "Jacksonian democracy" began, in which today's Democratic Party has its roots, which refers to Andrew Jackson as one of its founding fathers.

Portrait in the Oval Office

This president, who ruled for two terms until 1837, has returned to the political consciousness of the Americans since today's President, Donald Trump, has made it clear how much he sees Jackson as a role model - not in terms of party affiliation, of course due to Jackson's authoritarian leadership style and his dazzling, always combative personality. Above all, Trump is likely to have a deep affection for a man who, like him, got into American politics as a lateral entrant and was more of a tribune than a statesman. In his classic work on the history of the USA, the Basel historian Hans Rudolf Guggisberg spoke of the fact that Jackson and his new party represented a medium-sized, individualistic movement and “articulated a basically conservative protest against the emerging modern economic society with its tendencies towards concentration of power and class formation ».

Jackson's portrait now hangs in a prominent place in the Oval Office and can be seen in many photos showing Trump signing decrees or making phone calls to foreign leaders. Trump has repeatedly expressed his admiration for his predecessor, while critics of his administration see Jackson's “kitchen cabinet” with old companions as unofficial advisers as a forerunner of the President's family, now established in the White House. The tourist industry in Tennessee's capital, Nashville, is delighted with the attention paid to "Old Hickory" - as Jacksons is nicknamed; Jackson's estate, The Hermitage, just outside their gates, where he found his final resting place, received a flood of inquiries following Trump's election.

There may be parallels in political self-image and leadership style between Trump and Jackson; their careers, on the other hand, could hardly be more different. Jackson came from a humble background, worked his way up with talent and doggedness, and pursued a military career (from serving in the armed forces, Trump was postponed for medical reasons during the Vietnam War). Jackson was born on March 15, 1767 in a small settlement on the border of the then colonies and present-day states of North Carolina and South Carolina - he was the last President of the United States to be born a subject of the British Crown. He lost his parents early, and as a young man he went to Tennessee, where he found his way into politics - and the military - after a non-academic legal education.

He made a name for himself as a fighter against the Indians, first as commander of the Tennessee militia, then in the regular army. Jackson became a hero of the nation when he defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. By then he was already a rich man. After laying the foundations for his prosperity with land speculations - mostly with land that belonged to Indians - he steadily increased his property and from 1804 resided at The Hermitage, a large plantation that was managed by slaves.

Booted out by the elite, then victorious

A first attempt at the presidency failed in February 1825; the previous autumn, the popular elections had not given any of the four candidates an absolute majority in the electoral college, so that, according to the constitution, the House of Representatives had to decide. There John Quincy Adams was elected president, which for the irascible Jackson was the result of a "corrupt deal". Four years later, Jackson won clearly and triumphed in all the states of the West (which then reached as far as the Mississippi) and the South. It was a dirty election campaign which, according to some observers, was only surpassed in terms of unsavory appetite in 2016. The personal attacks on Jackson's marriage came at a high price: his wife Rachel, who accused his husband of bigamy, died of a heart attack a few weeks after the election. Jackson's unconciliatory disposition continued to harden: "May God forgive their murderers - I will never be able to!" He said after their funeral.

During his presidency, Jackson was usually energetic and unimpressed by criticism. He smashed the National Bank in the spirit of his electorate; the country's infrastructure has been continuously improved. During his tenure, essential foundations for the rapid industrialization of the USA were laid, such as the expansion of the railway network. He expanded the powers of the presidency, which he demonstrated in the so-called nullification crisis. In early 1833, South Carolina threatened to leave the United States due to disputes over customs issues. Jackson saw this as treason and was determined to use federal troops against the breakaway state (whose secession was at the start of the civil war 27 years later). Even the first-term vice president, John Calhoun of South Carolina, Jackson said he was ready to hang. With that determination, Jackson became the nation's savior.

Guggisberg saw in him “a personality (...) Shaped by simple integrity, willpower and pragmatic thinking; He had no intellectual interests, but all the more talent for political leadership ». Its foreign policy was largely successful. Disputes with France were settled and new trade agreements were signed with numerous countries, including the first with an Asian country, Siam (Thailand). Both imports and exports from America rose massively. Recognition of Texas, which had split off from Mexico in 1836, was postponed by Jackson for domestic and foreign policy reasons until the last day of his term in office. The darkest page of his biography is the expulsion of the indigenous people by the so-called civilized nations in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Indians were killed in numerous deaths from their ancestral areas in the south as part of the Trail of Tears relocated desolate Oklahoma; Several merciless wars were waged against the refusing Seminoles in Florida.

In view of Jackson's personality, it is not surprising how the first assassination attempt on an incumbent American president took place on January 30, 1835: The guns of the probably insane house painter Richard Lawrence jammed; according to witnesses - and a legend lovingly cultivated in Washington - the president beat him up Assassin with his walking stick before Lawrence could be arrested. Jackson had eight years of retirement after leaving office. He remained politically active behind the scenes before he died on June 8, 1845 on his estate.

Notorious as an "Indian butcher"

Andrew Jackson remained a national hero well beyond the 19th century. Equestrian statues of the general have been erected in numerous American cities, the most famous of which are in New Orleans and Lafayette Square in front of the White House. Many years after his death, votes were cast for him in presidential elections. In the recent past, however, its reputation has suffered greatly. He is even more resentful of dealing with the indigenous people than of owning slaves; Using the term "Indian butcher" for Jackson is widespread. Under the administration of Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, it was decided to move Jackson's portrait from the front of the $ 20 bill to the back - a decision that was, however, pigeonholed under Trump.

One thing sets Jackson apart from all other presidents: he is the only one of them who killed another person in peacetime. Jackson shot an opponent in a duel in 1806 and carried his opponent's bullet - which the doctors did not dare to remove - in his body until the end of his life. Jackson later said he would have shot the other man if the bullet had gotten into his brain. The piece of lead, however, sat a few centimeters from Jackson's heart - an organ, one can assume, made of stone.

Of Ronald D. Barley was recently published by Klett-Cotta: Drinkers, Cowboys, Weirds - The 12 Weirdest Presidents of the USA. The 286-page book also includes a chapter on Andrew Jackson.