Good Witch or Bad Witch: Andrew Jackson

In addition to being the subject of the most morally abominable statement I’ve ever heard made on television, Andrew Jackson was the 7th President of the United States and a staunch defender of slavery.

A populist, Jackson was nonetheless very much an advocate of the status quo: he opposed many SCOTUS decisions that had the potential to create change and consistently sided with those who wanted to keep social structures locked in the same forms they had taken in preceding decades. He did antagonize many with power, but from my rough reading of history that appears to be because of his autocratic tendencies: his policy outlines were similar to those of others of his party, but by acting unilaterally he was effectively reducing the opportunities for other office holders to exercise their powers in legislative and other governmental processes. Jackson favored a “strong presidency”, which just happened to benefit his autocratic hunger for power. Justifying this publicly, he insisted that Congress was corrupt and vesting king-like power in the executive was the only effective check on congressional corruption. While in office, Jackson preserved the status quo not least by rejecting new legislation: he exercised his veto more than all previous presidents combined. And yet, Newt Gingrich thinks that Jackson was a huge “change agent”. Listen to Gingrich speak of Trump (from CBS This Morning):

I think Trump is a remarkable figure. I think he’s a historic figure. He’s certainly probably the biggest change agent since Andrew Jackson in the 1820s and 1830s.


Now, many people would object to the idea that Donald Trump is a bigger “change agent” than, say, Lincoln who declared US slaves to be free and citizens. That would, after all, seem to be a fairly big change – certainly the South saw it as a big enough change to justify treason and war. But okay, he didn’t actually get slavery legally repealed: a proclamation is not legislation. So what about Andrew Johnson, who oversaw the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments and the beginning of Reconstruction? In addition to completely upending the economy of the South for generations to come, the 14th amendment has dramatically impacted the lives of all US citizens from poor Chinese-Americans running laundries in San Francisco to rich white guys running corporate chains that sell hobby supplies all over the US. Andrew Johnson wasn’t an agent for change at least as big as Donald Trump? What about FDR, the New Deal, and his campaign to remake the Supreme Court and the federal government through a dramatically enlarged role for the Commerce Clause in expanding the reach of federal powers and a dramatically diminished view of the protections the Free Association clause provides to employers?

But this misses an important point. Not only would Trump have to be a bigger “change agent” than FDR or Johnson or Lincoln, but Andrew Jackson would have to be a bigger agent for change than those three presidents or, if Trump could be said to be a bigger change agent than FDR, Johnson & Lincoln, Jackson would become irrelevant to the comparison. A Trump that could out-change Johnson would then also easily out-change Jackson, and thus Jackson would not deserve a mention.

So what the hell is Jackson even doing in this comparison, if history professor Newt Gingrich knows anything about US history and about change? It’s hard to say, but it is true that Jackson was a stronger supporter of Autocratic rule than the vast majority of Presidents (not themselves persons who shrank from accumulating power). It’s also true that the country had been founded on anti-autocratic ideals. So, I suppose if Jackson had managed to implement his megalomanic vision of presidential power as a new norm that would have been a pretty big change. But Marbury v Madison still helps define the extent of executive powers in the US, and Jackson’s autocratic view … doesn’t. Given that there was always a great deal of power and discretion built into the Presidency, I’d argue that even if Jacksonian ideals of presidential power had become the norm, that would not have been as large a change as the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments proved to be. So he wasn’t merely a lesser agent of change than Johnson by virtue of lesser success in implementing his vision. He actually advocated less change than Johnson.

Ultimately, then, the history of federal powers has little to say about Andrew Jackson. It has much more to say about Jackson in relation to war and land policies and genocide than about any transformations of power he might have achieved or sough as President. So it comes down to this: there is no reason to single out Jackson as a particularly effective agent of change. He’s not needed (or appropriate) in Gingrich’s talking points if the message is truly about change. But that’s not the message. The message is not that US society should change and a Jacksonian presidency gives us useful ideas about how US society should change. The message is that Jackson is a Good Witch, and that Trump is a Good Witch too.

But if Jackson’s largest achievement before being elected president was killing a bunch of British troops in and around New Orleans (and it was), and if his longest-lasting achievements after being elected were campaigns of genocide, a rejection of any need for the US to act in accordance with the treaties the country had signed, and a large series of land thefts (and they are), then Jackson is a Really Bad Witch.

The similarities to Trump should not be taken as praise. They should be understood by Republicans to be a warning that their current President will be remembered by history as badly as the first Democratic president is remembered.

It’s bad enough your history professors don’t know any history. It’s worse if you can’t even figure out who is a good witch and who is a bad witch. Of course, we knew that Republicans have been having that problem for a while now.


  1. says

    Gingrich is right about one thing – Donald is a historic figure. When the historians are writing about the fall of the American empire, I’m pretty sure he’s going to get prominent mention.

  2. says

    Was Johnson really all that responsible for the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendment? I’ll have to look when I have the time.
    He was impeached by the Radical Republicans.
    Johnson opposed the 14th Amendment, so there is that.

  3. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    No, he wasn’t all that responsible. I was clumsily going with Gingrich’s best case: if it happens during a president’s term, that president gets credit.

    I should have been clear that I don’t actually agree that with that theory of crediting presidents, and that Johnson was a conservative democrat who favored a very different 14th amendment. Mea maxima culpa, and thank you for pointing out the problems with my post.

    Nonetheless, Johnson did believe in the 13th amendment, which on its own creates a very different constitution and a very different United States: before the 13th, the constitution could not regulate a relationship to which the federal government was not a party. It could give power to the federal government. it could limit powers of the federal government with respect to the states. It could limit powers of the federal government with respect to the people. But it could not limit the powers of the states with respect to the people: that was the province of state constitutions.

    This massive change to how the constitution was seen and how it was allowed to operate is present in all 3 reconstruction amendments. Thus whether or not he was in favor of the 14th, he was in favor of a very different view of the power of the federal constitution, and that view did prevail.

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