CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Andrew Jackson, the president whose divisive political instincts would shape the Democratic Party for generations, was born less than 20 miles from here, in the Waxhaw region between the Carolinas.
Until the 1980s, "Old Hickory" was considered a near-great president, just a few notches below Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, by the academics who are surveyed on such things, according to Curt Nichols, a leading expert on presidential rankings.
Now, with progressives rather than populists dominating presidential popularity polls, Jackson’s reputation has taken a tumble, Nichols said: "Jackson is now commonly regarded as our 13th or 14th greatest president, right about where experts place James Polk and Bill Clinton."
Jackson’s fall is not related to new information being discovered about him; the good, the bad and the ugly in his record have been readily apparent.
In fact, Jackson — who famously quipped that "I was born for the storm, and a calm does not suit me" — always was a controversial figure.
Jackson was a son of Scots-Irish immigrant parents who came to America two years before his birth. He was orphaned by age 14, losing his father three months before he was born and his mother and two brothers during the Revolutionary War — making him, unlike the six well-born presidents who preceded him, America’s first self-made man elected to the White House.
To many of his generation, Jackson embodied the American dream. He was a hardworking man of the people, a straight shooter whose values and rough-hewn manner were shaped by tough frontier experiences — a man who advanced based on his abilities as a back-country lawyer, a successful businessman, a plantation owner, an early leader in Tennessee politics.
"It was his crushing victory over the British as commanding general during the War of 1812’s climaxing battle of New Orleans that brought him national fame and subsequently propelled him to the presidency in 1828," said Nichols.
Jackson’s election ushered America into the age of participatory politics: Before him, only 20 to 30 percent of the eligible population voted; after him — and for the next 70 years — 70 to 80 percent of the electorate often turned out, Nichols explained.
In fact, the Democratic Party was created to help Jackson gain the presidency.
With Jackson in the White House, politics would never be the same in America, much to the chagrin of his well-bred opponents.
Jackson brought to the presidency the fierce, liberty-loving values of those who settled Appalachia. He preferred to allow state governments to handle many public affairs, rather than expanding the size and scope of the federal government.
As a pragmatist, however, he simultaneously felt the federal government could play a constructive — if limited — role in mediating conflict between the people and the moneyed classes, Nichols said.
Jackson concluded that the federal government could be a force for good, serving as a counterweight to men of great wealth, as long as it paid for its expenses as it went, did not play favorites or pick winners, and equally spread its blessings upon all.
A frugal man, he practiced what he preached: He was the last American president to ensure that the country paid off its national debt.
Yet, there has always been a darker side to Jackson and his style of populist leadership. As a charismatic leader, Jackson inspired, almost cult-like, many thousands to attend his inauguration and open house, said Nichols, and "the White House was literally trashed by a mob."
Modern evaluators now hold him to progressive standards, though, devaluing his legacy because he did not share the credentials, manners or values of today’s elite.
The fact that Americans conceive of the United States as a democracy and not as a republic (as it was conceived) attests to the import of Jackson’s democratization of American politics. His role in creating modern, mass political parties and influencing the development of presidential power further marks him as one of our most influential presidents.
To understand the decline of President Jackson’s legacy, we don’t have to look at the tawdry episodes of his life that have, basically, always been known.
All we need do is to note that today’s progressives have abandoned their admiration for rough-hewn Jacksonian America.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter