I picked this book up the day after the presidential election because I had heard that Jackson was the closest simulacrum in American history to Trump—and I realized I knew nothing about Jackson. Antebellum nineteenth century was a big, blank map in my understanding of American history (the intellectual equivalent of “here be dragons”).
Jon Meacham’s book, published in 2008, does show some interesting parallels. Like Trump, Jackson was the consummate outsider. Considered by Washington’s elite to be an uncouth frontiersman, he came to a city that was full of trepidation. The Washingtonians’ fears were not unfounded—Jackson was the first chief executive to make significant use of the power of patronage. Where preceding presidents had turned over fewer than twenty federal appointments each upon taking office, Jackson turned out almost a thousand men from federal jobs, replacing them with his own. This was considered scandalous.
Jackson viewed himself as a tribune of the common man, wrapping himself in public support (even though he had been seated indirectly, by the Electoral College). He was the first candidate to openly campaign, feeding on the energy of crowds. Like Trump, he was deeply dependent on his family, emotionally and politically. For him there were no boundaries between the work his family did and the work of the nation.
Jackson was an absolutist in some terms. He stared down South Carolina in 1833 when that state seemed determined to secede over a punitive tariff. Jackson was entirely prepared to send in troops to enforce the tariff. He won a staredown with the state and kept the lid on a simmering situation that would erupt two decades later into the Civil War. He grounded his position in his assertion of federal authority over states’ rights. But he was not a man of principle; when South Carolina later suppressed the delivery of abolitionist pamphlets through the federal mails, Jackson supported that suppression—even though it was a direct contravention of the principle of federal superiority over states’ rights. Jackson, you see, was a slaveholder. He found a way to make sure that what was good for him was good for the country.
This is where the parallels to Trump, if you want to see them, get interesting. Will Trump, like Jackson, let his own predilections lead the course of the nation? Or will he develop a coherent philosophy that rises above personal consideration?
Where the breakdown occurs in the comparison is with experience. Jackson may have been new to Washington, but he was not new to leadership or patriotism. He was a hero from the war of 1812, and had experience as a judge, state legislator, and U.S. Senator. He knew how to pull the levers of power and how the system worked—even if he was determined to overturn aspects of it. Trump, too, is determined to overturn aspects of the system, but comes to the task without Jackson’s resumé.
Meacham paints a rich portrait of the man and his immediate circle. Unlike some biographers he lets the reader see the brushstrokes—that is, we can discern his individual sources: Congressional record, newspaper, personal letters, letters of others. A more skilled biographer may have blended these together to form a smoother portrait of the man and his times. (Reading works like this, I wonder what the biographers who study our day will have to work with, lacking handwritten letters and journals.) Nevertheless, this book is worth the read, especially in this moment in American history.