Andrew Jackson versus John Tyler: Pairing Presidents XIX

Andrew Jackson versus John Tyler:

The election of 2016 is nearly upon us. Candidate Donald Trump repeatedly promises —H. Ross Perot-like—that he would lead by kicking butts until his will is done. Such swagger sounds good, but history suggests it’s a losing strategy unless the president possesses the political skill to bend or isolate countervailing powers like the legislative and judicial branches. Let’s look at two of the most pigheaded individuals to hold the presidency, Andrew Jackson (1829-37) and John Tyler (1841-45). The first was one of the nation’s most powerful presidents; the second one of its least successful.

How they were similar:

Neither man liked to be told “no.” Jackson was so stubborn that cartoonist Thomas Nast drew his face on the body of a jackass, which backfired when Jackson appropriated the image and it became the symbol of the Democratic Party. Jackson also promptly packaged himself as a poorly educated rough-and-tumble Indian fighter and Tennessee frontiersman (accurate) who was the “workingman’s friend” (a whopper). He left behind terminology that has confused students for nearly 180 years. Textbooks speak of “Jacksonian Democracy,” which should not be confused with lower case democracy. Upper-case “Democracy” was an alternative way of referencing the Democratic Party. Jackson, the seventh president, was the first not born in either Virginia or Massachusetts. In that sense, Democracy implied appeals to Americans moving west of the Appalachian Mountains, especially a coalition of hardscrabble farmers, woodsmen, and pioneers. Technically, Thomas Jefferson founded the Democratic Party (then called Democratic-Republicans). Jackson so reshaped the party in his own image that some scholars credit him as the first “Democratic” POTUS, but that’s open to interpretation. Aside from inviting commoners to attend his inaugural ball—where they wrecked a parlor room—and his call to dismantle the Electoral College, Jackson was no great lover of lower-case democracy, and his alliance with the urban working class seldom went deeper than shared humble roots. The term “workingman” was chosen strategically; from the late 1820s to around 1837, scores of independent reformers vied for state and local power—many of them trade unionists—and were dubbed by newspapers as the “Workingmen’s movement.” That’s also a misnomer; there was no single movement. Call Jackson the first “modern” candidate in that his campaign packaged him as more of an Everyman than he was. (Not many commoners owned 150 slaves!)

John Tyler took over when Whig victor William Henry Harrison died one month into his term. Tyler was dubbed “His Accidency” because he wasn’t really a Whig--in temperament and in his unflagging support for slavery and territorial expansion, he was quite a lot like Jackson. As president, Tyler’s own Whig Party sought to impeach him and blocked all four candidates he put forth to fill two vacant Supreme Court vacancies. Whigs failed to impeach him, but dragged it out and successfully argued his successor should get to appoint the new justices. In 2016, Republicans invoked Tyler to block Barack Obama’s SCOTUS nomination—failing to mention the context of Tyler’s situation. Warning: Whigs thought their man, Henry Clay, would win in 1844. Tyler had the last laugh when Democrat James Polk won. By then, Tyler had quit the Whigs and returned to the “Democracy.” He remained pigheaded to the end; he died (1862) as a member of the House of Representatives for the Confederate States of America.

Both men were ardent supporters of states’ rights and espoused theories of the negative state. The latter term refers to the belief that central government ought to be relatively weak; it should serve as a guarantor of basic liberties outlined in the Bill of Rights but should leave decisions about economics, property, Indian policy, education, patronage, or social reform to individuals and/or state and local government. This was often expressed as a debate between federalism and republicanism, sometimes shorthanded as a dispute over whether citizens lived in the United States or these United States. Jackson’s negative state ideals got a boost by a SCOTUS decision originating in Massachusetts: the 1837 Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge case settled competing bridge-building lawsuits by deferring to the state’s right to mediate property matters.

Jackson was the very architect of the spoils system that roiled 19th century patronage politics. He admired Julius Caesar’s adage “to the victor go the spoils” and stuffed government bureaucracy with his friends and allies.

Both men launched Indian wars, Jackson the Second Seminole War, which Tyler ended. In between, Martin Van Buren oversaw Indian removal from western Georgia and surrounding states. Part of the forced relocation was the infamous Trail of Tears that decimated the Cherokee, Creek, and three other tribes. Tyler favored the forced assimilation of Natives to white society, apparently unaware that many within the relocated peoples had already done so.

Both men were slave owners and their presidencies can be viewed as direct antecedents of the Civil War. Each set a no-compromise policy on slavery that hardened positions for or against it. Jackson’s Congressional allies enforced an infamous gag rule that ruled out-of-order any attempt even to discuss slavery. Tyler’s obsession with the annexation of Texas assured the gag would fall. Consider that before Texas, Congress actually debated slavery just twice: when it hammered out clauses in the Constitutional convention agreeing eventually to phase out importation of slaves from abroad; and again during the 1820 Missouri Compromise. After Texas, virtually every issue before Congress—from railroads to homesteading to Manifest Destiny—opened heated debates over chattel labor.  

How they were different:

The two could have been considered twins separated at both were it not that Jackson was politically astute and Tyler couldn’t have sold water to a man dying of thirst.   

Important lesson: If you’re going to be obnoxious, supplement by becoming the most popular man in America, and season with the appearance of having been cheated. Jackson became a national hero for his victory over the British during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815—never mind that it was meaningless because, unbeknown to combatants, a peace treaty had been signed several weeks earlier. Jackson should have been POTUS in 1824. He easily won the popular vote, but his own party split five ways and a backroom deal shifted electoral votes to John Quincy Adams. Jackson launched a four-year program to undermine Adams at every turn, the crowning achievement of which was to disassociate with something he actually supported: a high tariff. Adams signed said tariff into law, Jackson feigned outrage, and it was so unpopular in the South that it was labeled the Tariff of Abominations. Adams’ own VP, John C. Calhoun, defected to run with Jackson in 1828. They trounced Adams.

Upon taking the presidency, Jackson told Calhoun to accept the tariff, which led Calhoun to bolt again and (eventually) join the new Whig Party. Jackson did just enough to keep the lid on: he threatened to hang Calhoun for treason, passed a Force Bill to compel South Carolina to accept the tariff, but then ‘magnanimously’ offered a lower “compromise” tariff.

He showed his mettle again over Indian removal. An 1832 SCOTUS decision, Worcester v. Georgia, found in favor of Native-Americans seeking to avoid ouster from lands ceded to them by treaty. Jackson simply ignored the decision. He probably never said, “(Chief Justice) John Marshall made the decision, let him enforce it,” but Jackson certainly knew that Congress wasn't going to impeach the most popular man in America for violating the rights of Indians; in 1832, Jackson’s action was exactly what most voters thought should happen.

He used personal clout again in his destruction of the Bank of the United States. When B.U.S. President Nicholas Biddle enlisted Jackson’s (many) political opponents to call for early reauthorization of the B.U.S. and embarrass Jackson, he vetoed the bill, thereby killing the bank when Congress couldn’t override him. Jackson then dispersed federal funds among state banks.

He was also smart enough to know which battles he couldn’t win and that included Texas—then the independent Lone Star Republic after seceding from Mexico in 1836. Jackson favored its admission into the Union as a slave state, but realized it would never muster the two-thirds vote necessary in the Senate. He quietly stepped away.

Jackson’s most surprising act was his vigorous defense of Secretary of War John Eaton’s marriage to a woman whom many said had been a prostitute. Jackson once fought a duel when his wife’s honor was impugned and this probably played a role in his defense of Peggy Eaton. Whether or not it was intended, this seldom remembered event is viewed by suffrage scholars as a trigger for the women’s rights movement.

Tyler wore his proslavery sentiments on his sleeve and was obsessed by desire to annex Texas. He was able to ramrod an annexation resolution in 1844 but, predictably, Congress failed to ratify it. (His more skillful successor, James Polk, used a political ploy to annex Texas in December of 1845.)  Tyler did himself no favors when Rhode Island underwent a popular democracy upsurge during 1841-42 called the Dorr Rebellion. Tyler considered sending federal troops, but backed down when it appeared to Northerners he was anti-worker and to Southerners that such matters should be disposed of by states.

Tyler had a penchant for making enemies rather than building alliances. He didn’t do much to reverse the course of the Panic of 1837 either. His one triumph came in 1843 when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty amicably settled a border dispute between Maine and Canada, though Secretary of State Daniel Webster soon resigned with the rest of the Cabinet when he grew disgusted by Tyler’s antics. Democrats never considered nominating Tyler in 1844, though he had left the Whigs and was the incumbent president. By trying to go solo, Tyler found himself alone.   


Tyler s ranked #37 and very few would argue he deserves better. Jackson, though, is currently ranked # 8. I disagree rather vehemently, though I’d certainly concede that his was an important presidency.

In my estimation, Jackson’s reputation is inflated by his personal popularity, his influence over the Democratic Party, and his role in evolving negative state ideals. These were significant, but wisdom is another matter. For instance, economic historians now blame Jackson’s battle with the B.U.S. for precipitating the Panic of 1837. He issued an 1836 executive order on specie that led to a bank run. In his day, property loans were rare and land was purchased by cash; banks simply ran out of money. The Panic of 1837 was long and deep—lingering into Tyler’s term.

Jackson’s intransigent defense of slavery was such that it became imaginable that the North and South were psychically different nations before they became so politically. One could/should date the coming of the Civil War from Jackson’s ascension to the White House. Let’s not forget that he appointed Roger Taney as Chief Justice of the SCOTUS; Taney wrote the majority opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott decision that unleashed the hounds of war. For deeds rather than impressions, Jackson deserves a much lower ranking.

Rob Weir 

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