Breitbart News is featuring an ongoing series featuring the philosophical and policy outlooks of two great American leaders, Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) and Andrew Jackson (1767-1845). This conversation is less of a debate between the modern left and right, than one based on competing sets of traditional American values. There are elements of both “Hamiltonianism” and “Jacksonianism” within modern conservatism. This is a debate between honest patriots that wish to preserve American exceptionalism.
In Hamilton’s July 1 article he discussed some of the Jacksonian characteristics and argued that while the Jacksonians were brave, ferocious fighters, and unquestionably patriotic, their policies, foreign and domestic, proved disastrous. Breitbart’s Hamilton specifically targeted Andrew Jackson’s record as president and explained how it was the Hamiltonian policies, of centralization, economic development, and industrialization that made America the Arsenal of Democracy and a world power.
It must first be said that Andrew Jackson never hated Alexander Hamilton, even though he thought Hamilton’s policies were monarchical and dangerous. In recalling his meeting with Hamilton in 1797, Jackson said of the famous New Yorker, “Personally, no gentleman could help liking Hamilton. But his political views are all English. Why, did he not urge Washington to take a crown!”
Jackson, a militant Jeffersonian in his youth, hated the centralizing, mercantilist, “English” policies of Hamilton and his political party, the Federalists.
Though Hamilton was the primary writer of the Federalist Papers, his overriding focus was in getting some kind of Constitution passed so that a “more perfect” federal union could be established to prevent the newly-independent country from tearing itself apart. Unlike James Madison, who also contributed the Federalist Papers, Hamilton cared less about the form of government and more about establishing finance capitalism in the United States. At the time, that could not be done without giving more power to the federal government than it had under the Articles of Confederation, creating a national bank, and building up a national debt to create a market economy.
Without Hamilton’s contribution, especially in establishing America’s finance, capitalism and the enterprising spirit might have died in the United States. Madison, Jefferson, John Adams, and many other Founding Fathers had little understanding of finance, and their agrarian, republican vision may have stunted the growth of this country were it not for the counterweight of Hamilton’s vision of a powerful, enterprising future America.
But Jackson was his own man and did not believe that his philosophical ancestor, Thomas Jefferson, was infallible. Jackson lamented the trying times of Jefferson’s failed second term that the Sage of Monticello was, “the best Republican in theory and the worst in practice.” When given the reins of leadership Jackson would chart his own distinct course.
The greatest challenge for Jackson’s generation, as well as our own, was dealing with the practical aspects of governance while attempting to preserve the Constitutional and philosophical legacy of the Founding Fathers. Contrary to the assertion of Breitbart’s Hamilton, Jackson’s presidential legacy was not a failure, but a tremendous success that brought the country to new heights in spite of the economic downturn that occurred a year after he left office.
Under Jackson the economy surged like never before in its history, old enemies like the British acquired newfound respect for our fledgling nation, a rebellion over prohibitively high tariffs was stopped in its tracks and the “Tariff of Abominations” was mercifully reduced. On top of these successes, a first in the history of modern nations, the United States entirely extinguished its debt in 1836.
Jackson did all this while accomplishing something almost equally rare in the advancement of nations: he intentionally decentralized the government, vetoing wasteful infrastructure projects and sending them back to the states where they belonged.
Breitbart’s Hamilton is correct that Confederates and believers in secession often loathe Jackson due to his strong unionist stance during the nullification crisis, which undergirded the arguments that Abraham Lincoln would later make for a permanent union. However, Jackson’s economic and governmental policies were highly decentralized and he absolutely believed that economic and social policies should be entirely left up to the states. The federal government would be almost entirely held to the role of maintaining national defense. Jacksonian federalism struck a balance between a strong federal government and decentralized policy – a federalist union.
Historian Harold C. Syrett rightly labeled Jackson’s time “The golden age of American individualism;” a period of incredible growth in the United States matched only by the Roaring Twenties and the Reagan boom of the late 1980’s. It was Jackson’s generation that Alexis De Tocqueville observed in his classic work, Democracy in America, which described the American character and “American exceptionalism.” The book was completed in 1831, the third year of Jackson’s presidency.
Another Jacksonian-era historian, Glyndon G. Van Duesen said,
With all its toil and trouble, this was the heyday of the entrepreneur… Gone was the era of rigorous, authoritarian control, whether by church or feudal lord or state, over the economic life of the community. In its place had come the day of Adam Smith, of Thomas Robert Malthus and David Ricardo, of Jeremy Bentham and Jean Baptiste Say… individuals in their own interest would be the maximum social good; that government governed best that which governed least.
It was the Jacksonians that carried the banner of limited government and free-market economics into the nineteenth century. The largest Jacksonian newspaper in the era, the Washington Globe, spouted the motto, “The world is governed too much.” While Hamiltonian policies provided the initial spark to produce finance capitalism in this country, it was the Jacksonians that opened up capitalism to
a surging numbers of Americans.
Jacksonian policies moved the American economic trajectory from relying on elite, powerful institutions like the Second Bank of the United States (BUS), to focusing on the small-time capitalist; from Big Business to the self-employed entrepreneur.
Jackson’s “war” on the BUS, an institution which he called a “monster,” was not a war on banks in general or on private industry as some historians have characterized it, but instead an attack on the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac of the day.
Despite the good it had often done for US finance, the BUS failed to stave off financial collapse in 1819 and the mid-1820’s, and had a number of powerful politicians that were literally in the pocket of the institution’s most imperious chairman, Nicholas Biddle, most prominently the great Massachusetts statesman Daniel Webster.
No statement comes closer to encapsulating the modern Tea Party creed than this statement from Jackson’s July 10, 1832 veto of the BUS charter:
It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth cannot be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society-the farmers, mechanics, and laborers-who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government…
Jackson then wrote of the proper, limited role for government and about preserving the principles of federalism that the country was losing.
Nor is our Government to be maintained or our Union preserved by invasions of the rights and powers of the several States. In thus attempting to make our General Government strong we make it weak. Its true strength consists in leaving individuals and States as much as possible to themselves in making itself felt, not in its power, but in its beneficence; not in its control, but in its protection; not in binding the States more closely to the center, but leaving each to move unobstructed in its proper orbit.
Jacksonians were not redistributionists or economic levelers of the modern liberal sort. For instance, when Jacksonian Democrat James K. Polk was a member of Congress he voted against a bill that would give firewood to the Georgetown poor and stopped many similar projects. Polk said that statesmen were to legislate for the “great concerns of the union, and not to give away the public property.”
Today, an abandonment of those Jacksonian principles has unleashed the monster of an overreaching federal government. Success comes for two groups, wealthy Big Businesses that can hire an army of lobbyists to carve out special favors from the government on one side, and public employee unions that raid the public trough for their own self-interest on the other. The key is that everyone depends on the government.
Jacksonians attacked crony capitalism and loathed dependence on government of any kind, a theme that former Republican Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, has made popular in our own time. She said in a 2011 Iowa speech, “Like you, I’m not for sale. I believe in the free market and that is why I detest crony capitalism. And Barack Obama has shown us cronyism on steroids. It will lead to our downfall if we don’t stop it now.”
The Jacksonians simply believed that one should get ahead in life without having to curry favors from those in power; equality of opportunity means that success can be achieved based on merit alone not how much power one has in the halls of Congress.
Through hard work, talent, a little luck, and an iron will Jackson put himself in the upper crust of society. The formerly-impoverished orphan became a successful business man, lawyer, veteran, and statesman. He was the epitome of the “self-made man.”
However, even though Jackson had moved into the elite of society, and often staggered the Washington D.C. elite with his elegant dress and gentlemanly manners, he could always relate to and in fact felt most connected to, as one of his biographers wrote, the “men in beaver skin hats.” Jackson preferred the company of rough men in dirty shirts and his simple, whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking wife Rachel to the elite of Georgetown. Most Americans understood that about Jackson and loved him for it.
Another visionary president who epitomized Jacksonian culture and the Jacksonian philosophy made a speech in front of the Tennessee legislature 137 years after Old Hickory’s death.
In his speech, Ronald Reagan spoke about having faith in the common man while describing his “New Federalism” based on limited, decentralized government:
We’ve strayed far from the path that was blazed for us by this frontier President who believed so much in the freedom and dignity of the common man… Our greatness comes from the kind of character found in the people who made their homes in the hills and fields of Tennessee, not far from the handiwork of professional spenders dispensing the Federal dole in Washington, D.C.
We’ve gone astray from our first principles. The Federal Government has, at great cost, been attempting to perform tasks that are not its proper function. Oh, those who led us down that path had good intentions; they just didn’t see how far they were taking us from the Constitution. So, today we seek to restore the 10th amendment, which says the Federal Government will do only those things called for in the Constitution and all other powers shall remain with the States or with the people.
Reagan then said that the federal government’s first responsibility is to “protect the people, not run their lives,” and should be left to do what it is “solely responsible” for, which is provide for the “national defense.”
Reagan understood, like Jackson, that the world is governed far too much. Like Jackson, he understood that it is a betrayal of American principles if one has to rely on government favors to get ahead in life. That is how China, Mexico and most countries work in this world. But for most of American history, things have been different in this country. That is why millions of immigrants flock to our shores, why America has triumphed over powerful enemy nations, and why, despite economic ups and downs, every generation has become more prosperous and more successful.
It is the result of a failure to uphold Jacksonian principles that America is failing, optimism is fading, and the suburbs of Washington D.C. continue to grow while the rest of the country flounders.
Jacksonian values will not lead to our doom but instead offer us an increasingly small chance for our country’s salvation, an old way of looking to the future.
Next up: Jacksonian economic reform–How to handle a crash and rebuild through public sector austerity.