The Blog

The Godfather of Democracy

What today's leaders can learn from Andrew Jackson.

11:00 PM, Feb 16, 2006 • By DEAN BARNETT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

As a General, Jackson enjoyed spectacular success battling both Indians and the British. He became famous (and infamous) for the level of discipline he demanded. When he faced a mass desertion of his troops in late 1813, no one doubted his word when he stood before his assembled army and vowed to have artillery troops (whose loyalty to Jackson was unquestioned) cut them all--including himself--to shreds if they were intent on mutiny. A short while later, Jackson pitilessly ordered the execution of an 18-year-old soldier who had briefly defied orders, telling the rest of his army, "An army cannot exist where order and subordination are wholly disregarded." Soon after he noted that "a strict obedience afterwards characterized the army."

When he became president, Jackson's manner did not change appreciably. As Brands observes, "Jackson was a Unionist first and last." So when South Carolina passed its Nullification Act which arrogated to the state the right to nullify for its purposes any federal law not to its liking, Jackson understood that this posed an existential threat to the Union.

The president responded in typical Jacksonian fashion. Speaking to a South Carolina congressman, he suggested that the law-maker convey the following message to his statesmen: "Say to them that if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct upon the first tree I can reach." Jackson buttressed this message by making plans to march on South Carolina with an enormous army of federal troops. The Union was preserved.

EVEN IN HIS OWN TIME, Jackson was often dismissed as a crude ruffian. John Quincy Adams almost became apoplectic when his alma mater Harvard consented to give Jackson an honorary degree, lamenting, "I could not be present to see my darling Harvard disgrace herself by conferring a Doctor's degree upon a barbarian and savage who could scarcely spell his own name."

The temptation in our own time to dismiss Jackson in similar terms is powerful. He was, after all, a killer, an Indian fighter and a slave-holder. But at the same time, his strengths paved the way for the country to transition from a republic governed by aristocrats to a democracy ruled by the people.

Jackson's life has a profound relevance today. As Robert Kaplan points out in Imperial Grunts, American soldiers serving in dangerous foreign outposts ranging from Colombia to the Philippines to Afghanistan refer to their locales as "Injun Country." This is a tribute to the kind of fighting Jackson pioneered. The troops view their tasks in the same way Jackson viewed his own--taming hostile environments and hostile indigenous peoples so America can be safe and prosper.

While honoring Indian fighting may seem offensive to some modern-day political sensibilities, there is no denying Jackson's accomplishments. He is the Godfather of our democracy as surely as Washington is the father of our country. Jackson's life is perhaps best summed up by a famous George Orwell quote that modern day Marines cherish: "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."

Dean Barnett writes on politics at