He was vain, brash, intolerant, impulsive, an unrepentant speculator, a literal slave driver and eager warmonger. And now, according to Trump’s White House advisers and President Trump himself, he’s the role model for what they hope a Trump presidency will be like.
News arrived Wednesday that Trump had a portrait of Andrew Jackson hung in the Oval Office. In his first televised address from the office on Wednesday, Trump compared his election to Jackson’s. That followed Trump’s boasts to 500 GOP donors last week: “There hasn’t been anything like this since Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson! What year was Andrew Jackson? That was a long time ago!”
Right-wingers in Trump’s orbit, from chief strategist Stephen Bannon to ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich have been talking up the seventh president to Trump and the press for months, emphasizing Jackson’s anti-establishment populism that is best known for his breaking up northeast bank cartels in his day.
“Like Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” Bannon declared in November. “The only president remotely like Trump is Andrew Jackson,” Gingrich told Breitbart last March, adding that Trump had the mental fitness for office. “Sure. I mean, he is at least as reliable as Andrew Jackson, who was one of the most decisive presidents in American history.”
“What Mr. Trump borrows from Jackson is not an issue, but a way of thinking about the world,” wrote Steve Inskeep, NPR’s “Morning Edition” host and author of Jacksonland, in The New York Times. “Mr. Trump promises to fix his supporters’ problems, no matter who else is hurt. He’s a wealthy celebrity always ready for a fight, a superpatriot who says he will make America great again. He vows to attack government corruption and defend the common man. All this could be said of Jackson.”
There’s quite a bit more that could be said of Jackson. To hear suggestions that he is the role model for the Trump White House’s internal compass, political instincts and willful aggressions is revolting. Trump’s populism, pulled from this century’s shadows of racism, sexism, economic jealousies and grievance politics, is ugly enough. Are the new president’s men also aglow about Jackson’s less-known traits — perhaps as the only president who drove trains of naked slaves shackled by their necks? The frontier soldier whose ethnic cleansing emptied the south of Native Americans and launched the era of plantation slavery?
In their book “The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry,” authors Ned and Constance Sublette offer unvarnished portraits of Jackson, the only slave driver to be president, the wily businessman who sought war to profit, whose 1813 call to wipe out the Creeks — “to carry a campaign into the heart of the Creek nation and exterminate them” — sounds eerily close to Trump’s exhortation last Saturday for the CIA to do the same to ISIS, the Islamic State (without comparing the Creek people to ISIS).
”We have not used the real abilities that we have. We’ve been restrained,” Trump told the militarized intelligence agency. “We have to get rid of ISIS. Have to get rid of ISIS. We have no choice. Radical Islamic terrorism. And I said it yesterday — it has to be eradicated just off the face of the Earth. This is evil. This is evil.”
What follows are some excerpts from “The American Slave Coast” that describe these facets of the life of Andrew Jackson, the purported role model for the 45th president.
Not slaveholder — slave driver
This is not just any get-rich quick story. “Young men in the South wanted to get rich now, before they died of some fever or distemper, so they went into cotton, plunging into debt to buy as many slave laborers, plant as much acreage, and get as fast a return as possible, then plow the profits into more land and slaves,” the authors wrote, setting up the background. “But cotton acreage could only expand as fast as labor could be acquired to clear and cultivate it.”
“As a young man, Jackson relocated to the western part of North Carolina, which was now being called Tennessee and was where many veterans of the war with the British were settling. Jackson set up shop as a lawyer in the frontier town of Nashville, which was becoming a business center for the settlers who were pouring into the area. By 1789, he was traveling down the hazardous Wilderness Road — a 450-mile forest path through Native American territory plagued by ‘land pirates’ — to do business in Natchez [Mississippi] . . . Like other merchants, he bought and sold slaves as part of his commercial activity. He was also a horse breeder and a racing enthusiast; a lawyer, land speculator and plantation owner; a pathological hater of English, Spanish, Creek Indians and anyone who crossed him; and a master of intimidation — all of which was consonant with being a slave trader.”
When one of his cotton deals failed, Jackson’s business partner took slaves to Mississippi to sell, but got nowhere — partly because the British, a year before the War of 1812, were blockading cotton exports via New Orleans. “Failing to sell the slaves himself, Jackson drove the unsold slaves back to Nashville, taking the unheard-of step of driving a coffle [chained train] of slaves from the destination back to the point of origin, through Choctaw and Chickasaw territory . . . Given the documentation of this episode that exists, it appears safe to say that Andrew Jackson is the only U.S. president that we know of who personally drove a slave coffle. But then, Jackson was also the first president to have been a merchant.”
Southern ethnic cleansing
Jackson rose to military prominence as part of the system of locally armed militias — protected under the Second Amendment — that sought to violently rule the frontier. When the War of 1812 broke out, he used the war as the start of a years-long campaign to drive Native Americans and any slavery opponents out, starting with stretches of southern territory east of the Mississippi River.
“Jackson under cover of the War of 1812 . . . [created] the land-and-slaves boom remembered as ‘Alabama Fever,’” the authors write. “Jackson’s subsequent taking of Florida by military conquest and removing the South’s remaining Native Americans from their ancestral lands — we now call it ‘ethnic cleansing’ — made the entire Deep South safe for plantation slavery and further increased the demand for slave labor.”
The Alabama massacres are generally not mentioned in War of 1812 histories, because they do not entail fighting with the British. But it was a deliberate ethnic cleansing and land grab “under cover of war,” the Sublettes note. “The United States — in the person of the most effective general in the U.S. Army, Andrew Jackson — grabbed a vast area of Native American land in Georgia and Alabama; and the Gulf South, whose seaports of New Orleans, Mobile and Pensacola were essential for control of trade with the interior. Here the British were vanquished . . . a tremendous victory for Southern slaveowners against the power that had dared to offer freedom to their property.”
Petty, vindictive, vengeful
Whether dealing with slaves, soldiers or politicians, Jackson was an authoritarian leader who, another historian noted, “could hate with a biblical fury and would resort to petty and vindictive acts to nurture his hatred and keep it bright and strong and ferocious.” In 1804, “he advertised in the Tennessee Gazette for the return of a runaway slave, he made the extraordinarily vicious offer of ‘ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.’” Jackson also relished killing a man who owed him money from a gambling debt, who wounded him in a duel. “After Jackson’s pistol jammed and did not reset during the rest of the exchange, he was allowed to recock his pistol and fire a second shot . . . Streaming blood from his chest wound, Jackson took aim and shot Charles Dickinson in cold blood from a distance of 24 feet.”
Jackson gained political power because, as the Sublettes write, he “spoke the plain language of a warrior, wanted a weak federal government that would distribute as much former Indian land and as much specie as possible to individuals in an expanding slave society.” His faithful created what became the Democratic Party, and he was elected president in 1828 — his second run for that office — and again in 1832.
Trump channels Jackson?
It says something quite dark that Trump and his supporters see themselves as Jackson’s heirs in modern America. While Trump clearly shares Jackson’s crude, coarse, selfish, racist leanings — as evidenced from endless remarks — Trump never served in the military, never fought in a war and seems to have absolutely none of Jackson’s mythic ability to endure pain. Trump cannot stop feeling aggrieved toward those who point out anything critical, including the trivial fact that his inauguration was not the best-attended ever, for example.
However, the notion that Trump and his top advisers see Jackson, a populist whose bonafides rest in being a racist, rapacious warmonger, as a role model for 21st-century America is as twisted as it is repugnant. With vain fantasies like that, one can only wonder what they are capable of doing while they hold power.