Thursday, April 26, 2012

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2012, April 25 (a day late!): Andrew Jackson and slavery

As I've stated on various occasions, I use the image of Andrew Jackson for this blog because he represents the second half of the "Jefferson-Jackson" duo that the Democratic Party considers its founders, and rightly so. Both genuinely represented the cutting-edge democratic tendencies of their time.

Jackson also faced two major issues as President in which his own personal and class interests, narrowly conceived, would seem to have dictated that he should take a different position. Jackson was a wealthy planter and slaveowner. But in his fight against the Bank of the United States, he waged a political war against the most prominent instrument and symbol of the power of concentrated wealth, the Money Power as the Jacksonians called it. In the case of the Nullification Controversy, even though it was nominally about tariffs, Jackson and his chief opponent in it, John Calhoun, new that the underlying issue was the power of slave states to nullify federal law in defense of slavery. And Jackson very clearly sided with the interests of democracy and national patriotism in successfully opposing nullification.

I've written here about Jackson's Indian policy, which was bad. The best one could say about it in a brief way is that it wasn't as bad as the approach some others took.

Jackson's flawed and contradictory aspects as a political figure are what make him a kind of epic figure for me. Rightwingers have no problem these days making up their own fanciful versions of history. I think it's important for liberals and progressives to keep the democratic traditions of American history in memory. Jackson is no plaster-saint model for 21st-century people. But he's not some 19th-century Ron Paul, either, though the goldbug sorts might want to see in Jackson's fight with the Bank some early version of anti-Federal Reserve sentiment. Jackson would have no problem seeing the legacy of John Calhoun in today's Republican Party, including the John Birch Society/Ron Paul portions.

Jackson's most important biographer to date, Robert Remini, deals with Jackson's position on slavery in his book The Legacy of Andrew Jackson: Essay on Democracy, Indian Removal, and Slavery (1988). Remini discusses how the anti-slavery movement played out in the party context of the time. When Jackson and John Quincy Adams fought it out for the Presidency in 1824 and 1828, that was a fight within the Democratic Party. The Federalist Party still existed, but was fading away, reduced largely to a New England regional party whose most prominent figure was Daniel Webster, a supporter of the Bank. During the 1830s, the Whig Party grew as the main second-party competition to the Democrats.

During his Presidency, Jackson viewed the growing popular abolitionist activity with partisan suspicion. Remini writes:

The fact that the Jacksonians noted that some of Henry Clay's friends, like Redwood Fisher, had focused on the slavery question was not surprising. In view of the alliance between Calhoun and Clay during the Nullification Controversy and continuing thereafter during the removal of the government's deposits in the Bank War, the Jacksonians naturally suspected some kind of working conspiracy between the nullifiers of the South and Clay's Whig friends in the North. And whereas the nullifiers wished to disrupt the Union to create a southern confederacy, the Democrats reasoned, the Whigs hoped to discredit democracy and return the government to elitist rule. The "moneyed power" in the country hated the idea of majority rule, which had been ushered in by Jackson, and they sought any and all means by which to annihilate the concept of democratic rule in order to restore federalism with its aristocratic conceits. "The sole object of the agitators has been to make sectional parties north and south," argued the Globe, "to SEVER the democracy, and defeat that unity of action in support of the popular cause which can alone prevent the triumph of the coalition of federalism working for the cause of corruption-for the moneyed power seeking to command the Chief Magistracy and the Government through the election by States in the House against the will of the majority of the people."
It's easy now to see that abolitionism was very much a part of the popular democracy that Jacksonianism represented. (How politicians like Henry Clay or John Quincy Adams may have instrumentalized the issue is a related but different matter.) One could argue that John Brown became the ultimate Jacksonian. But, as Remini reminds us, slavery was very much an established institution recognized in the Constitution - though in embarrassed language. Jackson himself was not anti-slavery. As Remini explains (italics his):

Jackson's position on the question, and the position of the other leaders of the Democratic party, was quite clear and unambiguous. He held that the Constitution expressly recognized slavery in the South and made provisions about representation in Congress to accommodate that fact of life. "Has it ever been pretended," asked the Washington Globe, Jackson's mouthpiece after his break with Calhoun and Duff Green, "that Congress has any power to subvert the basis on which the Constitution itself was founded? Has any statesman ever suggested the idea that the general government has authority to subvert not only the rights guaranteed to individuals by the Constitution [namely their right to private property] but rights recognized as appurtenant to the state institutions, and on which their ratio of representation is made to depend?" The argument of the Iacksonians, therefore, was that the slave question had been closed by the Constitution: "There is no debatable ground left upon the subject," editorialized the Globe. ...

Simply put, slavery and racism were deeply embedded in Jacksonian society, as deeply as they were in the society that produced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
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