One Southern monument that has not come under fire of late stands in front of the North Carolina Capitol. It is a bronze equestrian of Gen. Andrew Jackson, the president from 1829 to 1837, with a plaque that reads: “He Revitalized American Democracy.”
That’s the usual view of the man. Somehow, we just know that Old Hickory made America a more egalitarian place than what the stuffy, bewigged Founders had designed in 1787.
I don’t think the North Carolina statue should be removed. But I do think the plaque should be changed. For Jackson was the founder not of American democracy, but rather of a certain kind of American nationalism, one that still clouds our democratic horizons.
Let’s be clear, though: Jackson earned the love that most white Americans felt for him by the 1820s. That’s because he saved them from a long, harrowing struggle against the British. Although the empire officially recognized the United States in 1783, it wanted and expected the new country to fail. The British excluded American produce from many markets, dumped low-price goods in Eastern seaports, and organized a counter-revolutionary state in what is now Ontario. Above all, they had a loose alliance with the Indian nations and enslaved blacks who kept white families up at night, fearing for their lives. During the War of 1812, these “internal enemies” sometimes sided with the empire in a final effort to crush the republic.
A veteran of extreme violence in the Carolinas and Tennessee, Jackson hated the British and their “savage” friends as much as anyone. Maybe more. “Your government has at last yielded to the impulse of the nation,” he told his volunteers at the start of the war. “The hour of national vengeance is at hand.” In 1814 his men slaughtered Creek rebels; in 1815 he saved New Orleans from British invasion; in 1818 he attacked runaway slaves and Seminole towns in Florida. Each time he displayed a reckless, almost suicidal courage.
When Jackson spoke of the “nation,” he meant every white family who felt as he did, not every person living in the United States. The Jacksonian nation was not just all-white, but anti-black and anti-native. No wonder that his main priority as president was the deportation of some 70,000 native peoples out of their Southeastern homelands, and that the only big change in voting rights during his two terms was the loss of those rights by free black men. As for white men, they already had the franchise; Jackson didn’t give it to them.
Old Hickory’s fans also argue that he empowered ordinary folk by opening new lands and confronting the Bank of the United States. He certainly believed in their “sovereign” right to avenge themselves against their enemies and to seek fortunes around the world. For that very reason, though, Jackson didn’t think the people could regulate private interests for the common good. Indeed, his version of a republic didn’t have much of a public at all, except in wartime.
A hard-line judge and free-wheeling businessman as well as a soldier and statesman, he vehemently opposed local resistance to debt collection and scaled back national plans for infrastructure, education, and domestic markets. Partly as a result, Jackson-era frontiers were not strongholds for self-sufficient farming but rather for slave-grown cotton, whose frenzied export to Britain made the United States more dependent on the old mother country, not less so. And when the bust came as he left office in 1837, neither he nor the Democratic Party he had created showed much mercy for those holding the bag.
Put simply, Jacksonian nationalism mostly came out of race war and epic violence. It had little to do with the peaceful development of society, nor with the kinds of economic fairness that most Americans wanted, if given the choice.
Who, then, founded American democracy, if not Jackson? The answer, I think, is no one. Democracy is a struggle rather than an achievement, a process rather than an institution. It happens when people agree to be less cruel to each other, to accept their common needs along with their diverse backgrounds. It is more complicated, difficult, and fragile than any statue can convey. It is the shared challenge of all Americans.
J.M. Opal, of McGill University in Montreal, will discuss his book “Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation” (Oxford University Press), at noon on Sept. 11 at the National Constitution Center. To register, visit constitutioncenter.org/debate or call 215-409-6700.