The Presidency of Andrew Jackson constituted a significant change in American politics. Never before had a president claimed so much power, and never before had a president claimed to be a true representative of all classes of people. An accurate portrayal of this historical figure has been debated since 1857, when the first historical narrative of the Jacksonian era was published by George Tucker (Cave). There does not seem to be a time in the foreseeable future when the matter will be resolved.
That being said, it is worth considering all the evidence which either suggests that the seventh President of the United States was a President of the Common Man or a dictatorial ruler. One of the actions that Jackson has taken that supports Jackson’s virtuosity is his expansion of the electorate. The president worked and pushed for voting reform, and so the percentage of eligible voters in America who participated in the Presidential election increased from 57. 6% in 1828 to 80. 2% in 1840 (Woolley).
One can see it obvious that expanding the participation of government to those who were too poor to own land, and these increasings rates of participation among those who were eligible brings America closer to the democratic ideal which made the United States such a distinct state. However, Historian James Parton commented on how those who voted for Jackson, “could see, but not think, listen to triumph orations, but not read… who could be wheedled and flattered and drilled by any man who was quite devoid of public spirit, principle and shame, but could be influenced by no man of honor” (qtd. n Cave 3).
While this criticism may seem a bit radial, Parton brings up a valuable point. Though on the surface expanding democracy to (typically) the lower classes seems like a good thing, Jackson also stands to benefit from their new participation. One can argue that Jackson pushed for voting reform knowing that those who were previously excluded would be easily persuaded by Jackson’s heated rhetoric and simplicity of thought. Therefore his main reason for the expansion of the vote was to secure his own place in Washington for another term.
Also, Jackson would claim that “as the only federal official elected by ‘the great body of the people,’ [he is] the sole and rightful representative of majority power” (Watson 98). With this logic Jackson id basically saying that he is the true representative of the people, but his real interests lie in his power, which could only be preserved by identifying with (or at least say he is) the electorate. Jackson’s use of the veto, though common practice now, was not at all present before his presidency.
Prior to Jackson, the veto was exercised strictly on constitutional grounds. However, 12 vetoes were dished out during Jackson’s term, strictly for political reasons (Bomboy). The largest example of this behavior is in Jackson’s vetoing of the National Bank’s recharter on July 10, 1832. Jackson stressed in his veto statement of the “great evils to our country and its institutions [which] might flow from such from such a concentration of power in the hands of a few men irresponsible to the people” (Schlesinger 91).
Jackson created an ingroup, comprised of himself and “the humble members of society” – the farmers and laborers and producers — and an outgroup, made up of the rich and powerful, the wealthy businessmen of the northeast who were capitalising on and taking advantage of these producers. As far as the common man was concerned, Jackson’s executive actions were aimed to further his protection from the exploitation he was experiencing from the upper class. Thus, he “responded enthusiastically to his leader’s appeal” (Schlesinger 91). Many argue, however, that Jackson’s argument is incorrect all together.
Professor William Graham Sumner said, with regard to Jackson’s veto, that he, “unjustly, passionately, ignorantly and without regard to the truth, assailed a great financial institution” (qtd. in Cave 8). It can be argued that Jackson created and promoted this animosity between the upper and lower class in order to secure his popularity, which would allow him some forgiveness among the masses for his subsequent questionable acts as president. Those in favor of pinning Jackson as an autocrat have a substantial amount of weight of their argument resting on Jackson’s handling of the Supreme court ruling of Worcester vs Georgia.
While the Supreme Court argued that States lack constitutional power to deal with Indian nations at all, and thus, Georgia could not pass the license law and convict Worcester for violation of that law, the Supreme Court’s ruling was neither followed by Georgia nor enforced by the U. S. government. President Andrew Jackson had no interest in enforcing the Court’s decree (McBride).
In fact, Jackson was openly hostile to the Court, saying “John Marshall has made his decision: now let him enforce it! This blatant disobedience of the court can be pointed to in order to establish Jackson as a dictator, as he clearly seems to be overstepping his bounds as president. The common Georgian, however, was not calling for the removal of the Jackson, because he was in agreement with the president. Like Jackson, the government of Georgia was not going to enforce the ruling, and so the blatant disrespect for the balance of powers within the government was completely ignored, and once again Jackson seems to be on the side of the people.
Jackson’s administration was well known for the notorious spoils system, a political technique used by the president where officeholders were replaced with loyal Jacksonians, the President’s version of “cleansing the ‘augean stables’ (Watson 98). Earlier historians saw Jackson’s spoils system as disastrous and contradictory to the Republican ideal, for obvious reasons (Cave 28). The systematic replacement of officers with friends is a behavior linked to dangerous leaders looking to amass their support, and increase their influence within the government.
Twentieth century historian John Bach McMaster refutes this point by saying the spoils system was “essential in shattering the rule of the old aristocracy which had used the federal patronage to carry elections and the federal treasury to reward its followers” (qtd. in Cave 28). Once again it can be argued that the spoils system, though dictatorial in nature, was in the best interest of democracy, and therefore this transgression of executive overreach can be forgiven. Reflecting on the actions of Jackson during his presidency shows that often times Jackson’s actions seemed not to match his words, or completely contradict each other.
Jackson abused the power of the executive branch, this is clear, but because he said his actions were \ for the protection of the common man, and because the masses, which Jackson had successfully added to the democratic process, believed this rhetoric were Jackson did abuse the power of the executive branch, he was able to do as he pleased without punishment. A dictator, according to Merriam-Webster, is “one holding complete autocratic control,” and “one who rules absolutely and often oppressively.
Yes, Jackson did somewhat rule without regard for the other parts of the government, and with the interest of maintaining his power, but he does not fit the definition completely, because his actions were in line with the wants of the people, so his rule cannot necessarily be considered oppressive. Really, Andrew Jackson is the People’s dictator. The people were ultimately satisfied with Jackson as a leader, and the people turned a blind eye to the techniques Jackson used to satisfy their needs and wants. If the role of government is to serve the people, the methods used to obtain this service become irrelevant.