Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


American Lion

By Shawn Healy
As the Bush years come to a close, and the Obama Administration takes shape, it is fitting to look to the past for reasons of both assessment and guidance. Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham does just this in American Lion, a compelling biography of Andrew Jackson, our nation's seventh president. The author enters waters that have been traveled many times before, but offers intimate details into "Old Hickory's" personal life that helps unravel a complicated man and consequential presidency.

Like Obama, Jackson came from humble beginnings. A self-made man and lawyer, Jackson served his country honorably, often taking orders as general and executing them beyond expectations (and defined parameters, for that matter). His military fame was forever cemented at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, a victory that came after the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812. Like Obama's opponent this past November, Senator John McCain, Jackson rode his war exploits to a lifetime in public service and elected office.

Some quarreled with the highly personal tone of the just-completed campaign, but 2008 had nothing on 1828, Jackson's second, but first successful, run for the White House, where his wife faced repeated attacks for committing polygamy by wedding Jackson before her first marriage was annulled. Jackson ultimately prevailed over the incumbent John Quincy Adams, but Rachel Jackson died shortly after the triumph, casting a melancholy tone on Jackson's eight-year tenure as president.

Jackson's enemies schemed behind his back almost immediately, as he faced fire for the alleged extramarital exploits of a cabinet member (He was the first president to rely heavily upon his so-called "Kitchen Cabinet"), not to mention the disloyalty of his Vice President, John Calhoun, who plotted a path toward his own triumph via mutiny. The scheme was ultimately foiled, but Calhoun would emerge during Jackson's second term as a Senator and the chief architect of nullification, where a state could refuse to obey federal laws they detested. If forced to comply, Calhoun's South Carolina threatened recession. Jackson ultimately called his bluff, but not without tense moments and the threat of force. Lincoln would look to Jackson's speech to Congress on the subject some 28 years later when trouble brewed once more in the Palmetto State.

Jackson was also a man of contradictions, for he saw himself as the champion of the individual citizen, yet owned slaves (roughly 150), and negotiated the violent and lethal removal of Native American tribes from the Southeastern United States. He refused to enforce a Supreme Court verdict siding with the Cherokee's, and saw no harm in congressional prohibitions of petitions to end slavery, and later the implementation of the "gag law," where abolitionist tracts were barred from the mail.

Our current financial crisis finds parallels in the Age of Jackson. He famously took on the Second Bank of the United States, removing its deposits and vetoing the renewal of its charter to the chagrin of its congressional champions. Jackson saw the Bank as an incubator of political corruption, and thus acted preemptively. For these bold actions, he was censured by the Senate, a tag he worked furiously to remove in the waning days of his presidency. Shortly after leaving office, a financial panic ensured. The causes of the crisis are the grist of historical debate, yet it goes without saying that Jackson should share at least a portion of the blame. Sound familiar?

Despite his many blemishes in the arena of race relations, at heart, Jackson was a product of the masses. Indeed, he was arguably our first popularly-elected president as his victory came on the heels of universal male suffrage. He also oversaw the evolution of our current party system, where nominees bearing competing partisan platforms actively seek the popular vote. The modern-day Democratic Party took root during this time, though its ideals and sectional reach relate more to the modern-day Republicans. Henry Clay, the venerable Kentucky statesman, was Jackson's primary opponent for re-election in 1832, and proceede to create the Whig Party, the Democrats' primary opposition for the next two decades.

Jackson was a resolute leader who acted upon his own intuition and rarely looked back upon making a decision. The current occupant of the White House is often described in similar terms, yet the two left office on entirely different terms. Jackson's hand-picked successor, Vice President Martin Van Buren, won by a narrow margin and "Old Hickory" walked into the sunset wildly popular and vindicated. George W. Bush, by comparison, was a wreath of thorns to the Republican standard-bearer in 2008 and leaves office with the lowest public approval ratings in recorded history.

Jackson presided over the expansion of presidential powers like none of his predecessors. He wielded the veto pen as a policy weapon, whereas in the past it was used sparingly when acts of Congress were deemed unconstitutional. He threatened and used military force at his own volition, and demanded compliance from Cabinet officers, making them oracles of his own preferred policies. As the only man in America elected by all of the people (through the Electoral College), Jackson saw himself as a national father, and American citizens his children. Each of these decisive power grabs was in his mind taken on behalf of them and thus justified.

Jackson was revered by many of his contemporaries, and history has vindicated him amongst his foes. His successors looked to him frequently for guidance during perilous times, including Lincoln, both Roosevelt's, and even Harry Truman, who went so far as a build a statue of Jackson outside the county courthouse in Missouri where he served as judge. Through this day, Democrats hold annual Jefferson-Jackson dinners, basking in the historical lineage of men who used the party apparatus to grow their office, and by extension, the nation. The outgoing Bush and the soon-to-arrive Obama should take note of Jackson's triumphs and travails, for the political dramas of our time tend to take greater shape across the ages.


Blogger Ender Locke said...

Dear Shawn, This was a great discussion,review,and analysis of this new work on Jackson. I truly enjoyed it. May I suggest that you organize of discussion of this book which would allow history teacher's to earn cpdu's. If you like this idea please let me know if you would need any help in organizing the event. Did I perhaps miss your discussion of Lincoln PRESIDENT ELECT, by Harold Holzer. If not I suggest that in tne near future this would also be a great work to discuss. Again thank you for as always you r great insights on the Jackson book. Ender Locke

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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