I prepared a version of this blog entry two months ago with the assistance of, and in collaboration with, a long time friend, Dr. John Tantillo, "the Marketing Doctor", who is an expert on branding and offered significant marketing and branding insights on my basically political history take; John is the author of the book, "People Buy Brands, Not Companies".
Political pundits and some historians always try to match current presidential candidates with past political figures. The matches are never exact, but knowledge of history can help prepare us for what might be. 2016 presents what the media presents as a Trump phenomena—a nationwide celebrity defeating the establishment of a major political party and securing the nomination of that party for president. Trump faces a former secretary of state (and US senator and first lady) in a general election that has become nasty and divisive and possibly close.
Almost 200 years ago, as the “the Era of Good Feeling” drew to a close, the political establishment proceeded to choose a new president. The secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, by birth (his father was the Revolutionary icon and second president, John Adams) and tradition, was the obvious choice. The Congressional Caucus, which in those days nominated the candidates, met and endorsed Secretary of Treasury William Crawford. Speaker of the House Henry Clay saw an opportunity with multiple candidates if the Electoral College failed to produce a majority and the House had to choose from amongst the top-three candidates.
There came forth an outsider, a Westerner, and a national celebrity. Andrew Jackson was known popularly for his victory at the Battle of New Orleans and by many as the victor of the War of 1812. Jackson was also known for his battles against Native Americans (the Indians) in Alabama and then the occupation of Florida; Andrew Jackson was in his day a national celebrity perhaps better known across the country than any other public figure since Washington and Franklin. He became the candidate supported by those on the outside—poor farmers, workingmen, and mechanics of the cities, politicos from the new states, and the entrepreneurs fueling the growing economy known as the “men on the make.”
For the first time in presidential elections, most states allowed the people to vote to choose the electors from that state; and, Andrew Jackson amassed the most popular votes followed by Adams. In the Electoral College, Crawford (the candidate of the NY/VA Democratic–Republican establishment) edged out Clay for third place, which threw the election into the House with the Speaker not in contention. Jackson and his supporters claimed the moral right to win due to receipt of the most popular votes and the most electoral votes. Adams supporters cited the lack of anyone receiving a majority and the rules in the Constitution specifying what should then happen. Adams was elected by the House with Clay’s support, and, when the latter was made Secretary of State, Jackson called it a corrupt bargain and began a four-year campaign to win the presidency.
Jackson was considered by his opponents as brash, uncultured by Eastern Seaboard standards, a racist, a philanderer and bigamist, a murderer, and a hot-tempered man ill-suited to be the nation’s chief executive. Sound familiar? (And we think today’s political rhetoric is rough!) He had little if any support from the nation’s political establishment. In fact, his predecessors (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe), though publicly supporting Crawford in 1824, in private correspondence expressed sympathy for the aspirations of John Quincy Adams.
Jackson’s opponents, the political elite and the money establishment of New York and Philadelphia, used arguments against him, which in fact may have gained him votes.
Jackson was not yet president, so he had no record to stand on; furthermore, it was only during his second term that his most controversial actions took place. The opposition to Jackson used what they considered his personality flaws to try to defeat him. They ridiculed his poor spelling (he evidently spelled Congress with a K). But this was at a time when even the most literate Americans spelled phonetically. Because he had married his wife Rachel assuming her husband had gotten a divorce, when in fact he had only applied for one, Jackson was accused of bigamy -- at a time when, outside Eastern cities, record-keeping, to say the least, was sporadic. He was accused of murder, having slain a man in a duel who had slandered Jackson’s wife; this attack at a time when men thought it their duty to protect the honor of their wives. And in a “swift boat-style attack,” Jacksons’ opponents issued the “coffin circular,” which pictured six coffins representing soldiers he had executed for disobedience and desertion. But the men who belonged to militias and had heard the stories of their fathers from the Revolutionary War accepted the concept that you had to execute those in your ranks whose actions endangered all.
Though Jackson as president was a divisive character, he was loved by the people enough to win three popular votes for president and elect his successor; his name has been used to denote the era in American history before the Civil War: the Age of Jackson. Hatred by his opponents caused the coalescing of the opposition groups into the Whig Party. He was a fierce nationalist and a believer in a strong presidency. His policies divided the three branches of the federal government, but in most cases the position of the executive prevailed. Among the nineteenth-century presidents, only Lincoln surpassed him in national homage.
Is Donald Trump the twenty-first-century incarnation of Andrew Jackson? Certainly there are similarities in temper and his possible rise to the highest office. Jackson, like Trump, could be civil and polite in society. He also could be stubborn and even sometimes cruel. Once he determined on a course of action, nothing stopped him. When he declared war on a political enemy, it was total.
While there are similarities between the two candidates there are even more in the reaction to the candidates. Jackson’s opponents attempted to turn his strengths into weaknesses and may, in fact, have merely enhanced the repute of his strengths. In 2016, Trump’s opponents might do well to study the failure of Jackson’s opposition and develop a better strategy to stop him. They should recall Santayana’s dictum: “those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it.” Jackson ultimately won the presidency in a wave of popular dissatisfaction against the establishment, the effete elite, and the big money interests who allegedly owned Washington DC politicians.
The intent herein is neither to denigrate Andrew Jackson nor to elevate Donald Trump. America has been graced with much good luck throughout its history. Jackson, who followed some disastrous economic policies and a horrific Indian removal policy, nevertheless ushered America safely into a new era and created a popular attachment to the union that bolstered Lincoln as he won the Civil War. Should Donald Trump be elected president, let us hope that America’s luck has not run out!
Andrew Jackson was an American original. Donald Trump is likewise -- whether one likes him or not. The inside-the-beltway bureaucracy, along with the historical elite, have decided to remove Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill. It would be ironic if the people now send a 21st century version of Jackson to the White House.
9 Aug 2016