Hamilton vs. Jackson: A Hamiltonian Looks at the Strengths–and the Weaknesses–of Jacksonianism

Hamilton vs. Jackson: A Hamiltonian Looks at the Strengths–and the Weaknesses–of Jacksonianism

Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) was a great patriot and a great war hero, and that’s saying plenty.   

Yet effective statecraft–steering the ship of state past the shoals, toward the safe harbor–requires more than love of country and physical courage. Jackson was both an heroic soldier and a superb general, but, nonetheless, he was not a successful president.   

Thus we can see the strengths, and the weaknesses, of the Jacksonian tradition as it has played out in U.S. history over the last two centuries. When it comes to fighting wars, the Jacksonians can’t be beat. But on the issue of actually winning wars–including, of course, winning the peace–the Jacksonians are less effective.  Much less. And in overall leadership of the nation, the Jacksonians are even less effective.   

So that’s where the Hamiltonians–that is, those who follow in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)–prove so valuable. Starting with Hamilton himself, the Hamiltonians have shown plenty of physical courage in combat, but it’s on the homefront that they have shone; it’s the Hamiltonians who built the Arsenal of Democracy that ultimately powered the US to military and economic greatness. Determination and bravery are admirable and essential virtues, but from “Old Ironsides,” to the Colt .45, to the B-17, to the A-bomb, to the cruise missile–it’s the superiority of weaponry that makes the decisive difference over the long term.  

Yet because both traditions, Jacksonian and Hamiltonian, have much to offer us, it’s fitting that Breitbart News would seek to pair up the pseudonymous “Jackson” and “Hamilton” for an ongoing exchange on the issues of today–and yesterday, and tomorrow.  

As “Jackson” observed in his most recent Breitbart piece, the real Jackson said in 1815, “Leaving to others the task of declaiming about constitutional rights, we are content for having fought for them.” And so Jackson led the Americans to a great victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans. If you want to see what leadership in battle looks like, click here; a century-and-a-half later, Jackson’s victory was the subject of a hit song.  

Alexander Hamilton was brave, too, in the battles of the Revolutionary War. As noted here, after years as General George Washington’s aide-de-camp, Hamilton led a victorious attack against British defenses at Yorktown.  However, we can still say that Jackson was much more of a natural warrior, a greater war commander, and certainly a better duelist; Jackson fought in many duels, and survived them all, to live to be 78 and die in bed, while Hamilton was killed by a duelist at age 49. 

So again, Jackson’s place in the national heart is permanently enshrined. Some will hold it against Jackson, of course, that he was an indomitable Indian fighter, and yes, that’s true. However, “Manifest Destiny” was the national policy of the time, a policy that united both Jacksonians and Hamiltonians.  

As an aside, we might note that if the US had not pushed westward, some other power would have filled the vacuum on this continent. America would be a much different place today if, say, the Russians or the Japanese–or even the Canadians–had gained control of the West.  

However, the continuing influence of Jackson’s ideas–the intellectual legacy of Jacksonianism–is more problematic. In his mistrust of cities, finance, and industry, Jackson embodied the attitudes of his core rural supporters, and yet, as history has shown, it’s not possible to build a superpower on the basis of an agrarian economy.  

For example, after American independence was secured in 1783, if the new United States had followed the free-trade principles of Adam Smith, the country would have continued to focus on its “comparative advantage” in the international economy, which at the time consisted of non-industrial products: cotton, tobacco, lumber, and furs. Such low-tech trading was the policy favored by the Jacksonians and many others who idealized decentralized agrarianism.   

However, others believed that the United States could not survive without industry. Among those believers was President Washington, who went against the interests of his fellow Virginia planters in order to support the Yankee idea of factories and modernization. Washington chose Hamilton as his Treasury Secretary, and the US launched on a course toward industrial might.  

The federal government protected “infant industries” behind a tariff wall, and used those resulting revenues for “internal improvements,” or infrastructure, for the betterment of commerce and communication.  

We might note, for instance, that Article One, Section Eight, Clause Seven of the US Constitution includes specific federal authority to “establish Post Offices and post Roads.” The Post Office might not seem like such a good idea today, having long been superseded by better mechanisms.  

But at the time, back in 1789, the Post Office was the state-of-the-art communications tool. It was the 18th century equivalent of the telegraph, the telephone, and the Internet; it was the only communications system we had. A mail service, and the roads that the mail would travel on, was so obviously essential to a nation that the Founders–James Madison and all the rest–etched it into the Constitution itself.  

Indeed, as we look back on the early years of the Republic, we all know now that industry and infrastructure were vital components to an advancing economy; only the Greens of today would seriously dispute that point. Yet in those early years, the Hamiltonians took the lead in thinking unsentimentally about where the building blocks of economic advancement actually come from.   

Jackson, the seventh president, a slave-holding Southerner and a member of the Democratic Party, is often lumped in with Thomas Jefferson, the third president, also a slave-holding Southerner–and the founder of the Democratic Party. Indeed, to this day, most Democratic Party organizations celebrate Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinners, whereas Republicans generally celebrate Lincoln Day

On one key issue however, “Old Hickory,” as he was known, was out of step with most Democrats of his day–and that issue was secession. Perhaps Jackson’s most famous quote comes from a toast he delivered on April 13, 1830, at a dinner to commemorate the 87th birthday of Jefferson, who had died four years earlier. Quoth Jackson: “Our Union: It must be preserved.”    

Whereupon, Jackson’s own Vice President, John C. Calhoun, rose to offer a counter-toast, “The Union, next to our liberty, most dear.” And that was the essence of the split between unionists and anti-unionists. To Jackson, the union had to be preserved, no matter what. To Calhoun, states’ rights–in particular, the right to hold slaves–took precedence over all else.  

However, Jackson would have none of that, and Calhoun was frozen out of any role in the Jackson administration. Calhoun later resigned his post in frustration–the first vice president ever to do so.  

Meanwhile, Jackson’s presidency was not, overall, a success; his signature domestic “achievement” was the closure of the Hamilton-inspired Bank of the United States. At that time, Jackson thought he was fighting the money interests, and yet instead, he was collapsing the banking system. The ultimate result of Jackson’s deed was the Panic of 1837, which began just as Old Hickory was leaving his second term in office. The subsequent depression lasted nearly a decade.  

Still, even Hamiltonians have a soft spot for Jackson, because he was a Union man. That is, the Union of the United States, which grew from 24 to 26 states during Jackson’s time in the White House.  

Indeed, on the plinth of the heroic equestrian statue of Jackson in DC’s Lafayette Park, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, we see that famous quote in stone: “Our Union: It must be preserved.” No wonder Jackson is mostly ignored in pro-Confederate history books.    

In other words, Jackson always charted his own course. He was relentless, if sometimes rigid, in his determination to do what he thought needed doing.  

So Jackson will always stand for popular mistrust of elites, both governmental and financial, and for the celebration of rural ways over city ways. In other words, his message resonates with many today, from constitutional conservatives to libertarians to tea partiers–even if those folks don’t always have a firm handle on who Andy Jackson actually was.   

Alas, General-turned President Jackson has been obscured by so many other Jacksons–Stonewall, Shoeless Joe, Jesse, Reggie, Michael, Peter–that it’s more than a little hard to keep his legacy distinct. Perhaps that’s why Jacksonianism, as an umbrella term, has yielded to other terms that cover much of the same mental-historical territory, such as Jeffersonianism.  

Yes, the legacy of Thomas Jefferson is alive and well. Indeed, in our time, Jeffersonianism has separated into two distinct and powerful streams: first, a conservative-libertarian stream that includes, for example, the Cato Institute, which makes heavy use of Jefferson iconography; and second, a liberal-libertarian river that includes ACLU types who revere Jefferson’s defense of free speech, religious liberty, and decentralization–the last of which the left has sneakily redefined into anti-growth NIMBYism.  

Meanwhile, Jackson, buried near Nashville, drifts into increasing obscurity.   

Oh, except for one significant revival of pro-Jackson thinking–a revival that didn’t work out so well.  

Back in 1999, the historian Walter Russell Mead did his part to immortalize Jackson in an essay for The National Interest, entitled “The Jacksonian Tradition.”  The tradition that Mead described was–not to put too fine a point on things–a propensity for warfare.  As Mead wrote: 

The key to this warlike disposition, and to other important features of American foreign policy, is to be found in what I shall call its Jacksonian tradition, in honor of the [seventh] president of the United States.

Mead–like Jackson, a native of South Carolina–went on to further describe Jacksonian culture, highlighting not only the Jacksonians’ affinity for weapons, but also their eagerness to use those weapons:   

Jacksonian culture values firearms, and the freedom to own and use them. The right to bear arms is a mark of civic and social equality, and knowing how to care for firearms is an important part of life.  Jacksonians are armed for defense: of the home and person against robbers; against usurpations of the federal government; and of the United States against its enemies. In one war after another, Jacksonians have flocked to the colors. Independent and difficult to discipline, they have nevertheless demonstrated magnificent fighting qualities in every corner of the world. Jacksonian America views military service as a sacred duty.

Mead’s essay appeared just as the US was wrapping up, if that’s the right word, various military operations in the Balkans. And, of course, bigger military operations were soon to come.  

In 2001, the year of 9-11, George W. Bush discovered his own inner Jacksonian. Critics pointed out, to be sure, that whereas Jackson volunteered for combat duty, many more times than once, 43 was, shall we say, more retiring during the Vietnam War.  Yet most Americans gave Bush a pass on the “h”-word, hypocrisy, as the US gave vent to its Jacksonianism impulses in Afghanistan and Iraq; Mead himself emerged as a major neoconservative supporter of those wars.

Yet soon enough, we saw the practical limits of Jacksonianism. Yes, the US could win a fight against the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, but could Uncle Sam win Afghan and Iraqi hearts and minds? Could we win the peace? That was harder–which is to say, impossible.  

As the Prussian military philosopher Clausewitz reminds us, a war is won only when the other side gives up.   

In other words, inflicting casualties, achieving battlefield victories–that’s not enough. The enemy has either to disappear completely, or else to lose all resolve to achieve his own aims.   

In Jackson’s time, that wasn’t a problem: Jackson was perfectly capable of killing all his enemies, or else driving them all the way to Oklahoma. But in the modern era, with TV cameras and all, such tough tactics aren’t an option–at least not for the US.  

That’s why we lost the Vietnam War, in the end. No matter how astronomical the casualties suffered by the North Vietnamese, they wouldn’t stop fighting; they reasoned, correctly, that we would eventually have enough of jungle warfare.   

And when we left, they stayed–of course they did, it was their country. Bruce Springsteen summed up the geopolitics: “I had a brother at Khe Sahn/  Fighting off the Viet Cong/ They’re still there, he’s all gone.” Once again, the winner of a war is the one who wins in the end.   

The same difficult reality has held true for Iraq and Afghanistan. If Jackson had been alive earlier in this decade, he would have cheered–hell, he probably would have led–American troops as they poured into Kabul and Baghdad.   

And it was evident, even without Jackson at the vanguard, that the spearhead of US forces was mostly volunteers from Jacksonian precincts–that is, warriors drawn from the broad swathe of country & western America, from the Carolinas to the Rockies. And oh yes, let’s not forget Alaska, where the Mama Grizzly herself, Sarah Palin, sent one of her cubs to fight for God and Country. Not too many other American political leaders over the last few years could make the same proud claim.   

Yet we soon enough learned that strategic victory–that is, success in shaping the outcome of the struggle, as opposed to tactical victories that meant strewing the battlefield with enemy dead–was beyond the reach of the Jacksonians. It must be said, of course, that the skill-set of shooting up a battlefield is not the same skill-set as pacifying a population. The US military always follows orders, but the Pentagon was more eager to follow the orders for “kinetic action” than the orders to “learn Pashto or Arabic.”   

After a while, as we all remember, American public opinion would no longer support continued heavy fighting, or even much in the way of occupation. Indeed, at the presidential level, the voters have had two chances–in 2008 and 2012–to elect a hawkish commander-in-chief, and yet instead they chose the mostly dovish Barack Obama.   

In other words, the folks from Jacksonian America were tricked again. As in Vietnam a few decades earlier, the Jacksonians of our time bore the brunt of the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, only to find themselves abandoned–that’s not too strong a word–by the nation that sent them into harm’s way.  

Today, as the Jacksonians tend their wounded, and tend the graves of heroes, we shouldn’t be surprised if they prove to be more than a little bit bitter. It’s a safe bet that the questions of “Who lost Iraq?” and “Who lost Afghanistan?” will be heard on the presidential campaign trail of 2016. Most likely, the Democrats will be on the defensive, just as they were after the fall of Saigon in 1975.  

But here’s another safe bet: Nobody will say, in 2016, “Let’s go back in.”  

Meanwhile, the big challenges to American national security remain, including Iran, Russia, and, most of all, China.  

Enter the Hamiltonians: They have a different way of thinking about wars, and how to win them. We’ll take that up in the next installment.  


Next: The Hamiltonian Way of War  


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