Tired of the onslaught of negative news articles? Worried about the concept of Presidential power and how it can be misused? Perhaps you are wondering how bad things will get or if it has ever been this bad before. The good-ish news is that like a good legal brief we have some precedents. We’ve had a President so out of control the press called him “King” and the people cheered as he broke law after law. His life story is a testimony that it has happened before and it could happen again. I speak of course of President Andrew Jackson.
In order to understand Jackson’s Presidency you need to understand how he got the job in the first place. Jackson was a military man through and through, he even fought in the American Revolution when he was only 13 years old. That war unfortunately also led to the deaths of his immediate family, either from battle wounds or smallpox. After a middling career as a small town lawyer Jackson found his true professional calling, which was killing people. Jackson became a leading frontier fighter in the battles against Native American tribes. He was so successful that he was given command of the city of New Orleans in the War of 1812. This is the point where his road to the Presidency definitely started.
Despite what you might have learned the War of 1812 was probably the first war that America lost. Our soldiers were defeated time and time again, our invasions of Canada were embarrassing, the British conquered Washington D.C., and they burned down the Capitol Building and the White House just to rub the ashes in our faces. Years later the war would be re-invented in our textbooks with the alternative fact storyline that we really won or at best we fought to a heroic draw. But the people living at that time knew we got our rear ends kicked. Then, from out of the blue Andrew Jackson walks onto the national stage with an amazing victory that lifted the spirits of the depressed country.
Now, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Battle of New Orleans is probably one of the most amazing stories you probably never heard anything about. The real story is so bonkers and so incredible that this small discussion here won’t really do it justice. But I’ll give you the outline. Basically, two weeks after the humiliating treaty to end the war had already been signed the British attacked New Orleans because telephones weren’t invented yet and the messages got there too late to stop them. The British troops were veterans and they were led by a commander who was known to be an excellent leader. But, after three years of defeating poorly-led American troops over and over again the British had a bad case of overconfidence.
Jackson meanwhile was tasked with building the most amazing military alliance in American History. Jackson’s core soldiers were troops raised from Southern states and many of his officers were slave owners. Despite their prejudices he was able to get them to fight alongside the local New Orleans militia which included contingents of freed Black soldiers and even some runaway slaves. In order to get cannons Jackson cut a deal with the local pirate leader, Jean Lafitte, whose ships were locked in port by the British blockade. (Amazingly, Jean Lafitte was likely Jewish and descended from Spanish Jews who fled the inquisition.) The guns were lifted off the ships and used as army artillery. And to cap it all off Jackson got the local Choctaw Indians to help him even though his reputation was mostly for battling Native American tribes. Oh and Jackson was outnumbered two to one in soldiers. So when Jackson destroyed the British army in an amazing underdog victory the country naturally anointed him their hero. Jackson began to symbolize how great America was even though most Americans were ignorant about his personal character or how he would behave as President.
You would think that Jackson would take advantage of his newfound popularity to run for President but he didn’t. Jackson stayed in the army and build a cadre of loyal supporters and officers around him. The next time we meet him he was dragging the country into an invasion of a foreign territory, or by its other name, “how the U.S. acquired the state of Florida.” Florida at the time was Spanish territory and was poorly governed. It was a haven for smugglers, pirates, Native American refugees fleeing American attacks (attacks led by Andrew Jackson), and foreign business traders. President Monroe gave Jackson the responsibility of patrolling the border and preventing Native Americans from carrying out raids. However, Jackson liberally interpreted his orders to secure the border and decided the best course of action should be a full-on invasion. Without approval of either Congress or President Monroe, Jackson invaded a foreign country, massacred the Seminole and Creek Indians who lived there, and even executed two British traders without legal jurisdiction.
The murder of two British citizens did not go unnoticed by the way. If not for the timely negotiations of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams these executions by Jackson could have plunged the country into an unnecessary war with Britain. As for the Spanish they were too weak to defend their own territory and the U.S. essentially forced them to sell us Florida. However, Jackson’s conduct during this period was questioned by Congress with Jackson claiming his actions were only in self-defense and that he had “secret authorization” from President Monroe, which Monroe publicly denied. Responsible members of Congress wanted to censure Jackson with resolutions condemning his actions but Jackson’s popularity with the people was too great. A majority of Congress were too scared of Jackson’s popularity, or scared of Jackson’s threat to “cut off the ears” of any politician who opposed him, to openly question his actions and the resolutions condemning him failed.
By this time Jackson was a Teflon politician, even literal murder would not diminish his popularity or political power. The next step logically would be a run for the Presidency which he did in 1824. But in perhaps the least democratic election in our nation’s history Jackson lost even though he had both more popular votes and more Electoral College votes. To understand how such a thing could happen you need to really understand how our Founding Fathers perceived government and democracy. And I am not talking about the nonsense of how we often filter early American history through our own modern political biases. I’m talking about the real Founding Fathers.
You see, the signers of our Constitution had all read philosophers like Plato and Thomas Hobbes. And from them they gained a healthy fear of the masses having political power. For philosophers like Thomas Jefferson the only people who should be allowed to vote were educated upper class citizens or at worst middle class property owners. People who could devote some time to having an education or at least knowledge about political matters. Even poor white male citizens were banned from voting because it was believed that ignorance and poverty would lead to fear-based voting and the likely rise of a demagogue or tyrant politician who promised them “everything” in exchange for political power. So the Founders set up a democratic republic rather than a true democracy. This is where the Electoral College comes from. There would be the form and style of a democracy, but one where political elites could check the power of a tyrant politician.
This is what happened to Jackson in the election of 1824. Even though he won a majority of the popular vote Congress used the powers of the Electoral College to award John Quincy Adams the Presidency over Jackson. Because the election of 1824 was a four person race. Unlike our normal two person election it was sometimes quite hard to get the outright majority that you need to win the Electoral College. Long story short is that Henry Clay used his influence to sabotage Jackson and help his political ally Adams. Perhaps because Clay saw the clear danger of someone like Jackson becoming President.
Jackson claimed he had been sold out by a “corrupt bargain”, something he repeated over the next four years, but there has never been any evidence to suggest that was true. But in the eyes of the voters Jackson’s claim became fact. He then got his supporters in Congress to change the voting rights in the country for his benefit. For the first time poor white males were allowed to vote as these were seen as likely to support Jackson. This had the effect not only of helping Jackson but also it gutted the system put in place by the Founding Fathers. Thus when the election of 1828 came around the voting system elected Jackson. Andrew Jackson was allowed to begin his Presidency with political triumph but in truth the craziness had only just begun.
To be continued in part II……..