Jacksonian America

Americans, on a whole, are ahistorical thinkers. Despite our professions of love for the past, most of us have little knowledge of the traditions, competing ideologies, and causal factors that formed the world we live in. Where we invoke the past, we typically do so in shallow, presentist terms. This tendency leads us to make a lot of false assumptions about the motivations of both our allies and opponents in our public discourse. The way we talk about our political traditions is a great example of this.

We are preprogrammed to think in binary terms– liberal or conservative; Democrat or Republican. Media members, social scientists, political leaders, and the wider public tend to chalk it up to tribalism; a natural consequence of the two-party system of government that we accidentally developed during the Federalist/Anti-Federalist schism in the earliest days under this Constitution. And while we are largely locked into a two-party approach to state and federal elections, the notion that there are only two traditions of political thought in this country couldn’t be further from the truth. Both parties are coalitions. These coalitions have competing interests. What ties the coalitions together are cultural traditions. This is how a party can hold diametrically opposed positions without collapsing under the weight of their cognitive dissonance– like having the party of limited government and individual freedom also be the party of huge military spending and legislating religious morality.

These traditions can best be understood by examining the way politicians appeal to voters and how these voters react to what they represent, both today and in the past. Few historians or political scientists have outlined these traditions. The simplest outline, and in my opinion the most effective, was crafted by famed American foreign policy historian Walter Russell Mead in his book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World. While Mead was writing specifically about foreign policy, the schools of thought he described are domestic in nature and effectively illustrate the competing worldviews Americans hold. He describes four main traditions: Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, and Wilsonian. The names given to these traditions are representative and not tied to the origination of the view– Wilsonians existed long before the 20th century for example.

So what do these traditions represent? Each has a core value, a question that they tend to ask during any debate, and a particular view on how to use the federal government. I’ll briefly go over each school, their views, and my examples of them below.


Hamiltonians: The stability and growth of commerce reigns supreme. They ask “how will this effect the economy?” The federal government should invest in infrastructure that promotes commerce, craft trade policies (occasionally protectionist, but more often free trade) that are advantageous to American businesses, and use the military to ensure the sort of stability global capitalism requires. They favor a strong, centralized government that can enforce rules and project power anywhere. Examples: Federalists (Washington and Adams), Imperialists (McKinley), Neoliberals/Neocons (Nixon, Reagan’s foreign policy, Clinton, both Bush presidencies, and Obama’s foreign policy).


Jeffersonians: Concerned with protecting American democracy from threats, home and abroad– chiefly oppressive governments. They ask “how will this impact individual or local freedom?” The federal government should be used for national defense and to protect individual rights, but should be deployed sparingly abroad (only when under direct threat) and even more sparingly at home. They favor a small, decentralized government. Examples: Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson and Monroe), Confederates/Jim Crow supporters (Davis and Wallace), Libertarians (the Pauls).


Wilsonians: Motivated by the principles of the Enlightenment philosophy outlined in our founding documents. They ask “does this live up to the words of our Declaration of Independence?” The federal government should aggressively promote the ideas of democracy, equality, and human rights throughout the world (note: they often have very different ideas on who equality and rights are for). They favor a large, centralized government that can remake the world in Olympia’s image. Examples: Reconstructionists (Lincoln and Grant), Progressives and New Dealers (Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Carter, Obama’s domestic policy), Cold Warriors (Truman, Kennedy, LBJ).


Jacksonians: Obsessed with notions of American honor and maintaining the “real America.” They ask “how does this make America look?” The federal government is to be viewed with suspicion, but it should also be used to smite our enemies and promote Jacksonian group interests (effects on others be damned). They favor a small domestic government with a federal government that keeps foreigners out and makes sure America is feared and respected globally by a large and powerful military. Examples: Age of Jackson (Jackson, Van Bueren, and Polk), Tea Party (Ted Cruz and Donald Trump).

It is important to note that few politicians or policies fit squarely into one box– most show a mixture of several. An example Mead put forward illustrates this. After the end of the Cold War in 1989 Hamiltonians and Wilsonians saw the opportunity to mold the economy and morality of the world in the U.S. image– if we simply projected our power abroad and brought the wonders of American culture (read: commercial goods) to the world they would follow our lead. Jeffersonian’s doubted that foreign action in places like Bosnia and Iraq could Americanize these nations or areas while Jacksonian’s alternatively expressed a desire to withdraw from global affairs due to suspicions of organizations like the WTO while also clamoring to “put a boot in your ass” to anyone who disagreed with, attacked, or insulted the United States.

Keeping that in mind, I’d like to turn to NPR’s Steve Inskeep and his op-ed for the New York Times today. In it, Inskeep claims that the key to understanding Donald Trump’s popularity is to look at the populism and practices of Andrew Jackson. 

What Mr. Trump borrows from Jackson is not an issue, but a way of thinking about the world. Mr. Trump promises to fix his supporters’ problems, no matter who else is hurt. He’s a wealthy celebrity always ready for a fight, a superpatriot who says he will make America great again. He vows to attack government corruption and defend the common man. All this could be said of Jackson.

Inskeep is right. The Trump political movement, from the birther controversy to today, is fundamentally Jacksonian. It is bellicose and aggressive, itching for a fight. It proclaims a deep love for America, while bemoaning everything America is. It eschews bureaucracy and a merit-based civil service for the cult of personality and spoils system. It is anti-intellectual in nature, promising to take America back from the pointy-headed intellectual and greedy economic elites and return it to the honorable, hard-working, common man. They are sick of the Hamiltonians, like Rubio and Clinton, who only seem to work for the wealthiest Americans. They despise Wilsonians for telling them that America has problems with racial discrimination, gender equality, and sexuality. They sneer at the timid Jeffersonians, like Rand Paul, who would make America weak in the face of the international community. Trump’s vision of who America is and should be is classic Jackson. America is a white, Christian nation and we must be vigilant to keep it that way. Trump is Jackson, right down to the ridiculous hair.

So what, you might say. He’s just saying what so many Americans long to hear. What is wrong with this Jacksonian worldview?

Perhaps it is instructive to look at who Jackson was and the vision of America he represented.

Andrew Jackson rose to prominence  with his military victory in the Battle of New Orleans. Though this battle took place after the War of 1812 had already ended, it was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal showing (the British marched into Washington D.C. and burnt down the capital, including the White House). Jackson made his fortune in land speculation and running an enormous slave plantation. His strategy was literally to buy land reserved for Indians by treaties with the US government by coercion and corrupt dealings. He would buy land at deep discount that the government had given to Indians as compensation for being displaced from their earlier lands, stealing from both the nation and the Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes. His Tennessee plantation, The Hermitage, grew to be over 1000 acres large, and at its height was worked by over 150 slaves. 

Running against the unpopular John Quincy Adams, who he had accused of making a “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay to win the election of 1824, Jackson’s supporters campaigned around the idea that he was a common man as opposed to the elitist son of a President. They framed it as the political outsider (this claim was farcical, since Jackson had served in both the House and Senate along with the Tennessee Supreme Court) and valiant war hero against the weak and corrupt career politician. The Adams campaign accused Jackson of being an adulterer (true, but largely a clerical error and a huge political miscalculation by the Adams team), an overly harsh and violent commander (he unflinchingly used execution to enforce order in his force and to compel cooperation out of his enemies), and a slave trader (he was). In many ways, the choice was between which sort of America you believed in: a rugged, rural, independent America or a cosmopolitan, urban, interdependent America. Jackson handily defeated Adams.

As President, Jackson filled his administration with people personally loyal to him rather than people fit for the job. Continuing an approach he had established in private business, Jackson initiated the armed removal of Indians from lands east of the Mississippi, clearing the way for the expansion of the southern slave society. He opposed the national bank, painting it as the tool of the financial elite (which Jackson clearly meant as the northeastern elite) and removed funds from federal banks, leading to a financial crisis and depression. He allowed southern postmasters to limit the 1st Amendment rights of abolitionists, seeking to protect the sanctity of slavery and supported the creation of a gag rule in Congress that prevented the discussion of abolition or limiting slavery. In short, Jackson represented a violent, aggressive, rural, white vision of America.

Andrew Jackson’s world was reality in 1828. The United States had more Jacksonian Americans than any other group. The identities they represented, particularly white and rural, carried the day. Inskeep is correct in saying that this dynamic is no longer true in national elections– there appears to be no all white road to victory for Trump in a national election. But what Inskeep undersells is the damage wrought by the Jacksonian worldview in the GOP, our legislature, and our state and local government. The GOP’s own corrupt bargain means that the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians in the coalition have to constantly cow-tow to their rowdy, rabble-rousing fringe. The Freedom Caucus highjacks the legislative process, refusing to do the business of governing unless it conforms to their Jacksonian vision. And our state and local governments, long dominated by Jacksonian figures, remain free to impose lopsided and discriminatory policies on an unprotected public.

How we view the world matters. The Jacksonian school, from inception to present, has been a morally odious, intellectually dishonest, and selfishly oriented worldview. It is insufficient to shrug our shoulders and accept this as a valid way to approach governance in a democratic society. The sooner it is brushed into the dustpan of history the better.


One thought on “Jacksonian America

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s