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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Andrew Jackson

By James Schouler (1839–1920)

[Born in West Cambridge, now Arlington, Mass., 1839. Died in Intervale, N. H., 1920. History of the United States of America under the Constitution. Vols. I.–IV.—1880–89.]

HE has left a landmark in our annals for all time. Much is said of the influence of ideas in producing history, but the really controlling influence of this epoch was that of personal example. And never did popular parties opposed to one another respond to personal guidance so heartily as those which now grew up under the leadership of those fierce combatants, always at variance with one another, Clay and Jackson; the one combining popular elements too intelligent and opinionated not to show signs of jealous dissension, the other having a blind democracy for a nucleus so dense, so devoted, and withal so carefully disciplined, that rivalry was kept low and political mutiny punishable as though by martial law. Strong in all his traits of character, his vices as well as his virtues, Jackson’s public example was one for positive good and positive evil,—a mixture of brass and clay. There could be nothing negative about him. What he purposed, that he put his hand to and bore it safely through. His mind moved rapidly, and with an almost lightning-like perception he had resolved the point while others were deliberating; and right or wrong, he was tenacious of his conclusion, and fought to have his way like one who felt it shame not to win. There was no twilight of dubiety about him; he knew, and knew earnestly; and within the steel horizon which bounded his vision he could pierce to the circumference in all directions. As his intellect admitted of no half-truth, so did his nature revolt at bargains and compromises, such as Clay, his mortal enemy, was an adept in arranging; but with him it was to conquer or die on every occasion, win a clean victory or endure a clean defeat. This temper, as those who knew him best have admitted, gave him a load to carry all his life; every step he took was a contest, and yet, if ever mortal may be said to have triumphed in what he undertook, every contest was a victory. Jackson could not live without a quarrel; and, though capable of strong and lasting attachment, friends and enemies often changed places as his ambition developed, and no one could remain long in his confidence who did not humor his foibles and bend to his purpose. Conscientious difference of opinion he knew not how to tolerate, and friendship that was not all in all was not at all. Gratitude implied a self-abasement, and he felt it for no one; even coequal companionship was something of a yoke to him; it was admiring devotion that won his heart, and the better angel of his nature was compassion. But though knightly towards women, tender to children, the young, the gentle, the fallen, to all who nestled up confidingly, his contempt for weakness disposed him to snatch whatever he wanted, regardless of others’ rights. He could bully a sister republic to get her territory, and drive the half-tamed Indian from his homestead and the white man’s neighborhood at the point of the bayonet, and all this with hardly the pretence of compunction. Frank and sincere in the main, and wishing to be thought so whatever ill might be imputed to him, of manners cordial and graceful, he was a generous host at home, and after his own ideal a Southern gentleman. Yet for all this he had something of the borderer’s fierce disposition; with the men among whom he had been born and bred might made right, and honor was vindicated by a brace of pistols at ten paces. Such a citizen could never have been exalted to national distinction in the courtlier age of the republic, and his fame waited long for civil recognition, even after his military success. Springing up out-of-doors and in the free sunshine, rough contact with mankind in a pioneer society gave him an education; and as a slave-holder, long used to an easy independence and to being waited upon, he acquired that self-confidence in later life without which consciousness of merit must fail of renown. As chief magistrate he was an innovation upon American life, a novelty,—in some sense a protest against the past. He was the first great product of the West, humanly speaking, Clay only excepted, whose genius partook more of Eastern example. He was the first President of this Union chosen from the west of the Alleghanies and a pioneer State; the first ever borne into the chair with a general hurrah and no real sense of civil superiority for the office. He was the first President from what we call the masses; the first whose following vulgarized, so to speak, the national administration and social life at the capital. Old age and debility had much to do with the venerating applause which constantly followed him, and forced even his whims to be respected; the people seemed anxious to make amends for so long neglecting to advance him.

Jackson ruled by his indomitable fores of will, his tenacity of purpose, courage, and energy. He did not investigate nor lean upon advice, but made up his mind by whatever strange and crooked channels came his information, and then took the responsibility. Experience made him rapid rather than rash, though he was always impulsive; and he would despatch the business which engaged his thoughts, and that most thoroughly. Though stretched on the bed of sickness, he held the thread of his purpose where none could take it from him; his will rallied and beat under the body. He decided affairs quickly, and upon impulse more than reflection; but his intuitions were keen, often profound, in politics as well as war. His vigor as an Executive at his time of life was truly wonderful. He left nothing in affairs for others to finish, betrayed no sign of fear or timidity, shrank from no burden however momentous, but marched to the muzzle of his purpose, and, like an old soldier, gained half the advantage in a fight by his bold despatch and vigor. The night march and surprise were points he had learned in Indian warfare; and were it war or politics, he carried out what he had fixed upon with constant intrepidity. This intrepidity went with a conscious sense of duty; for, though a Cromwell in spirit, Jackson’s ambition was honestly to serve his country. Loyalty to the Union, sympathy with the American common people, were the chief impulses of his being, for all he loved power; and hence a majority was almost sure to sustain him. Courage and directness the people admire in any man, and a sordid or usurping nature they are apt to discover. Jackson had the Midas touch, which could transmute whatever he handled, if not into solid gold, at least into a substance of popularity. And yet no servant of the ballot-box felt less the need of courting popularity, or of waiting for public opinion to bear his plans forward. Lesser statesmen might be exponents, but he led on, leaving the public to comment as it might.

We have intimated more than once in our narrative that Jackson was neither so frank nor so chivalrous as he passed for, nor yet so little of a politician. Was there ever a great general who did not employ strategy? Jackson could dissimulate, and in his very maladies he gained some crafty advantage. One of his warmest admirers has pronounced him a consummate actor, whose art often imposed the policy of rashness. Van Buren found him a man guarded and self-controlled where he had seemed impetuous. He could put off an inconvenient friendship so as to make his friend appear the wrong-doer. Of darker duplicity signs, though inconclusive, are not wanting. But his blunt perceptions of right and wrong, his brutal obstinacy and the tail-wagging subservience which he exacted from those about him did the country he meant to honor an irreparable mischief. While President his irascibility forced those who would influence him to take to tortuous methods. Cabinet officers, men far better versed in affairs than himself, had to fall in with his opinions and seem to yield; overreaching, if they might, when executing his orders, or bringing the subject up again. This, and his preference for the kitchen advisers, had something to do with his frequent cabinet changes. All had to pay court to get on. Van Buren earned most from his intimacy, playing the faithful hound, and it cost him dearly in the end. The circle surrounding the old man fed him with gross flattery. All this gave soon the smirch to decent self-respect. Personalism came to tincture all politics, all policies, all politicians, under his arbitrary and exacting administration; and the painted Jezebel of party patronage seized upon the public trusts for her favorites. Such a state of things was sure to breed corruption sooner or later. Prætorian bands showed the first symptom of Rome’s decay; bands of office-holders, united by the necessity of keeping the spoils and salaries from other bands equally ravenous, may prove an early symptom of our own, if the people submit to it. Personally honest and unstained by bribery, Jackson played nevertheless into the hands of others who traded upon his violence; greedy followers milked the offices they had gained by partisan service. Even the battery of the National Bank, in which he led off, had its pugilistic aspect: money put up against money, and monopoly fighting monopoly.

Jackson’s illiteracy is admitted by his admirers; but opponents of his day made too much of it, as though administrations were a matter of mere scholarship. Longer experience in popular self-government has dispelled that illusion. It was of greater note that his strong personal feelings mingled in all he said or did, and that opponents were colored by his temperament. In conversation he interested, whether he convinced or not, being clear, earnest, and straight to the point both in thought and expression; and while no question admitted of two sides to his mind, his own was fearlessly grasped. As his speech was sagacious and incisive, in spite of slips in grammar or mispronunciation, so he could write with powerful effect, though no scholar in the true sense, and in personal controversy he was one to be feared. His state papers engaged able minds in and out of his cabinet, yet the direction of thought, the statement of policy, the temper of the document, were his own. Others might elaborate the argument for him or polish and arrange the composition, but, after all, his was the central thought; and he would flourish over the paper with a rapid pen, and a huge one, until sheet after sheet lay before him glistening with ink and glowing with expression as though it were written in his heart’s blood. That there were misspelt words to be corrected, or awkward sentences to be trussed up afterwards by his secretary, is not to be denied. In short, Andrew Jackson fed little upon books and much upon experience with unconventional life and human nature; but he had what is essential to eminence in either case, a vigorous intellect and a strong will. In the conduct of affairs he took advice wherever he saw fit, and like a commander secretive of his own plans, tested the views of his council and then made up his own mind.

Such was the remarkable man whose shaping influence in national affairs made him the transcendent figure of these times; in him of all Americans the Union, for thirty years prior to the eventful 1860, was personified. In faults and merits alike he was so great, and he produced so much that was good and so much that was vicious, that the historian may well be perplexed to trace the blending line. This warrior first entered office with an easier task before him than any of his predecessors, and twice when he took the official oath he might have shaped his course peacefully to the popular predisposition which was to reward a veteran soldier with the highest mark of honor. Twice, however, as we have seen, did he surprise expectation, both by the vitality of his rule and his peculiar aptitude for fighting out some new political policy. He fought well, as he had always done, and was as pertinacious in returning to the attack and mortifying the foes who had wounded his friends. Quarrels and bad blood made the large component of these eight years’ policy; the fight of factions made the spoils of office, for the first time, a national principle; the fight with the Bank, originating, most likely, in personal offence, was a personal one to the close; and but for his personal rupture with Calhoun one may well doubt whether nullification would ever have raised its reptile head. Jackson’s best act was to trample down that heresy, though the snake was only scotched, and his worst was to debauch the public service. In the one, as in the other, his example long outlived him. But most pernicious of all, in quick results, he initiated the treacherous policy of Mexican dismemberment and annexation for the sake of slavery; from a motive pseudo-patriotic, however, to preserve the equilibrium of the Union, and with a responsibility quite indirect for the worst that followed after he had set the ball in motion. As for the rest, his foreign policy was brilliant and sagacious; his stand on the tariff and internal improvements judicious for the times; his course to the Indians, though harsh, not without justifying reasons. He paid off the national debt, like the punctilious planter he was, who abhorred all debt, public and private, and with real opportunity might have left to his country some plan for disposing of a national surplus instead of leaving himself on record as a censurer of all plans. Upon his financial policy our narrative has dwelt already, and the full effect of that glorious folly, the transfer of the deposits, will soon be shown. With all his fervent zeal, there were limitations to his theory of public banking, limitations to his theory of a fraternal Union.

No President ever ruled these United States in times of peace with a personal supremacy so absolute as the two great chieftains of our democracy, Jackson and Jefferson, though in methods and character they were so little alike. The one was a born manager of men, the other a stern dictator; the one philanthropic to the socially oppressed, the other a hater rather of the social oppressor; each, however, influenced by a love of country which was a ruling passion, by constitutional restraints somewhat independently interpreted, and, in later life at least, by an unconscious bias to the side of the South whenever slavery was threatened with violence by Northern agitators. This last in Jefferson weakened his practical efforts in the anti-slavery cause, though he was anti-slavery in sentiment to the end; in Jackson, who thought himself no worse for being a master, if a kind one, it stimulated the determination to make his section strong enough to hold out against the abolitionists, for abolitionists and nullifiers were all hell-hounds of disunion. Jefferson had gently manipulated Congress; Jackson ruled in defiance of it, and by arraying the people, or rather a party majority on his side, against it, until the tone of his messages, if not really insolent, was that of conscious infallibility. Congress is elastic, however, and easily rallies, being naturally the encroaching power under our coördinate system. But as for the people, the danger grew that their will in elections would be fettered by machinery and machine managers. In these years the democracy made rapid strides, and the nation, too, advanced in power. Self-confidence increased, and a domineering disposition. There was a vigorous vulgarity about this administration at every point, resolution and a passionate love of danger. And yet at home, factions and mob violence were always on the increase; and though the principles of national institutions and of fundamental authority were discussed as never before nor since, there never was a time short of civil war when lawlessness gained so nearly the upper hand in the community. The most dangerous infractions of the constitution are those not violent enough to provoke the governed to open resistance, and of such there were many. Jackson’s school of philosophy was not tolerant and reconciling. There were too many friends to reward, too many foes to punish. Class was inflamed against class, the poor showed their teeth at the rich; and while the Union was constantly held up for reverence, and even idolatry, the joints were strained, the fraternal bonds parted, and men of both sections began to feel themselves less unionists at heart than before. And thus, though decked out with glory, did Jackson’s iron rule plough long furrows in the back of the republic whose scars are still visible.