Tag Archives: Andrew Jackson

A Matter of Principles

Conscience matters

Jeff Flake’s speech to the US Senate yesterday seemed historic to many… a principled stand against Donald Trump’s attempts to destroy the time-honored traditions of the Presidency.

  “Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as “telling it like it is,”       when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified.”

Flake wants nothing to do with a party that is complicit in a charlatan… determined to undermine our republic and its virtues.

“Because politics can make us silent when we should speak, and silence can equal complicity.  I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit.”

Usually right

The ghost of Henry Clay must have been smiling on Senator Flake… for he too took a stand against an unprincipled buffoon- Andrew Jackson.  Clay never regretted his decisions because history has vindicated his actions.  Jackson can only muster the “spirit of the day.”  Clay’s policies actually had real historic impact.  He said it best in 1838…

“I’d rather be right than be President.” 


 Indeed.  Hurrah!  Senator Flake



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Book Review

Andrew Burstein, The Passions of Andrew Jackson, Knopf Publishers, 2003, ISBN 0-375-41428-2

Before the recent renaissance of Andrew Jackson scholarship brought on by HW Brands’s 2005 biography, cultural historian Andrew Burstein( America’s Jubilee) tackled Old Hickory’s impulsive nature in a slender but effective volume.  Heavier biographies  like Jon Meachem’s American Lion, borrow extensively from Burstein’s unflinching look at the 7th President, a historically tragic figure: “Every tragic figure requires a flaw rooted in good intentions, and Jackson’s was his incessant pursuit of virtue in the political realm, where virtue, so greatly desired, can scarcely exist.”


According to Burstein, Jackson’s life was defined by conflict, much of it his own doing.  Jackson suffered from a “corrosive vanity” that demanded utter loyalty from those around him.  Jackson’s burning pride, rooted in the harsh realities on the Tennessee frontier, caused him to place a “defiant honor” above all other virtues.  Burstein explains how honor and an “incessant need for redress” nearly ruined Jackson’s public career following the murder of Charles Dickinson.  The book adeptly displays Jackson’s varied understanding of loyalty and how it caused him to make questionable, if not dangerous relationships; for example, his misguided defense of John Eaton and the nefarious negotiations with Aaron Burr, expose the darker side of Jackson’s character.  Jackson’s impassioned virtues produced two rocky terms as President- the raucous persona of “Old Hickory” was popular with the newly enfranchised “common man,” but his careless policy decisions were ultimately  destructive.


Recent attempts at comparing Jackson to Washington are quickly negated by Burstein’s incisive summation of Jackson’s place in our history, “Washington appointed to his cabinet the greatest talent he could find; Jackson appointed men whom he expected to think like him and do what he said. Washington knew his intellectual limitations and took considerable time to reach decisions, while the more impulsive Jackson made it appear…that he was somehow the recipient of a pure light of inspiration.”   Driven by the desires of honor, loyalty, and redress, Andrew Jackson cut a jagged path through the formidable years of our republic.  Burstein’s analysis provides valuable new insight into the mind of a man shrouded in democratic mythology.



Gordon Sheaffer

James Madison Preparatory School

Tempe, Arizona.






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The Speaker has Arrived

Henry Clay was first elected Speaker of the House… on November 4, 1811.  America was on the verge of war with Britain and the new Speaker(and freshman House member) immediately set the agenda.  No previous Speaker had used the gavel in such a way.  Henry Clay was not only pushing his country into war, he was revolutionizing policy making in the People’s House:

Henry Clay of Kentucky

“What are we to gain by war, has been emphatically asked?  In reply, he would ask, what are we not to lose by peace?—commerce, character, a nation’s best treasure, honor!  Let those who contend for this humiliating doctrine, read its refutation in the history of the very man against whose insatiable thirst of dominion we are warned.  Let us come home to our own history. It was not by submission that our fathers achieved our independence.”

Clay’s silky smooth delivery in a deep baritone that commanded attention… made  floor debates his stage.  But, the Speaker’s conference room was where Clay was able to hammer out deals to guide difficult policies through the House.  The War of 1812 was his first great accomplishment.  Ever the gambler, Clay felt the struggle was worth the risk:

“But it is said that we are not prepared for war, and ought therefore not to declare it. This is an idle objection, which can have weight with the timid and pusillanimous only. The fact is otherwise. Our preparations are adequate to every essential object. Do we apprehend danger to ourselves? From what quarter will it assail us? From England, and by invasion? The idea is too absurd to merit a moment’s consideration.” –Henry Clay, 1811

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Jacksonian Misconceptions

Proponents of Andrew Jackson’s policies cite his… veto of the rechartering of the Second National Bank as a victory for the ‘little guy.’  Old Hickory was defending the interests of  States and the common man against the wicked monopoly held by the ‘monstrous’ bank.  A closer examination of his storied veto message reveals  inconsistencies in Jackson’s motive.

“these polices(of the Second US Bank) created of bond of union among the banking establishments of the nation erecting them into an interest separate from that of the people.” 

Trivializing the momentous

Trivializing the momentous

Was Jackson opposed to the Second National Bank… or banks in general? The veto message is not clear, and his advisers didn’t discriminate in their policy making.  It is difficult to imagine that educated politicians of any era could have such a rudimentary understanding of finance-  cash is good, credit is bad…. The political motivations for killing the Second National Bank far outweighed any economic or egalitarian rhetoric put forward by Jackson and his cronies.

Jackson's nemesis was a banker- Nicholas Biddle

Jackson’s nemesis was a banker- Nicholas Biddle

The antebellum economy was built upon credit… 80% of all transactions and transfer of goods involved extensions of credit- banks were vital to this financial system.  Jackson’s political gamble to win reelection was that the reduction of available credit would not have much effect on American commerce.  The Second National Bank was at the center of a complicated web of notes, loans, credit, and specie… Jackson’s policies were about to tear it apart.




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Old Hickory’s Axe

Andrew Jackson nearly lost everything in 1795… He had worked tirelessly to build himself up from frontier orphan to respected lawyer and public servant.  Jackson was the epitome of the self-made man, a true American success story.  By 1795, Jackson was one of Tennessee’s elite, acquiring the bulk of his wealth through land speculation.  Jackson’s gambles in this speculation laid the foundation for his war on the National Bank.


Looking to acquire a trading post on the Cumberland river… Jackson accepted bank notes for payment on land he sold in Philadelphia.  When the creditor went bankrupt in 1795, Jackson was libel for the notes- a debt he could not afford.  For the next two years Jackson scrambled to pay the debt- selling large tracts of his estate to satisfy the banks.  Old Hickory blamed the banks and their paper money for his troubles- a simplistic view of the complex financial game that had made him rich.


Jackson’s views on finance were largely unique to the frontier… westerners historically were in favor of paper currency due to shortages of coin in the wilderness.  Jackson was able to fuse his own prejudices to the western tradition of distrusting eastern elites.  The Second National Bank would serve as a suitable target for Jackson’s rage.  It stands as one of the great political maneuvers in US history- convincing westerners to go along with his policies despite of their own economic interests.  The people loved Old Hickory, not necessarily his policies.

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False Equivalence

Andrew Jackson was furious with the results of the election of 1824… but never doubted American democracy or the electoral process- he blamed his opponents.  Jackson accepted the outcome and promised to right the wrong in 1828.  Trump threatens litigation and possibly violence in his disregard for our process.

There can be only one Great Orator

There can be only one Great Orator

Clay and Calhoun were thorns in Jackson’s side… and so-called enemies of the “common man.”  Jackson stood against his mortal enemy Clay in the election of 1832 and Calhoun resigned as his Vice President the same year.  Neither man was arrested or charged with any alleged crimes.  Old Hickory waited until the inauguration of Martin Van Buren before finally expressing disgust with his long-time rivals.  Trump threatened to arrest and prosecute his opponent before the election.

Hard to find sizzle in Trump Steaks

Hard to find sizzle in Trump Steaks

There is no comparison between Trump and Jackson… for his many faults, Jackson was a war hero, public servant, and self-made man.  Trump is nothing more than a womanizing, racially divisive demagogue.

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Stretched to the Limit

History serves as a convenient political tool…  for pundits and candidates alike- ham-handed comparisons to historical figures are an easy diversion fed to the media.  Former Speaker of the House and Presidential Candidate, Newt Gingrich, must be jockeying for favorable treatment from current front-runner, Donald Trump.

Surely, you jest...

Surely, you jest…

He recently told The Hill  that Trump reminded of him of Andrew Jackson… Considering Jackson’s place in our pantheon of leaders, this is a comparison that requires a reasonable defense.  Gingrich loosely associates Trump’s credentials as an anti-establishment candidate with Jackson’s wave of populism in 1824.  The comparisons stop there….cold.

Bold leadership

Bold leadership

Jackson and Trump could not be more different… one a frontier orphan born in obscurity– the other a silver spoon in his mouth.  A self-made man who helped blaze a trail into uncharted land– the other, utilizing inherited wealth to build useless hotels and casinos.  Jackson proved himself on the battlefield and the political arena; Trump talks tough on TV and is proving to be very thin-skinned when scrutinized.   A true man of action vs. a Television warrior….


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