A presidential history lesson
In Andrew Jackson, Trump finds a flawed role model
By Rick Holmes
March 17, 2017
NASHVILLE – The Hermitage, the plantation home of President Andrew Jackson, was closed to the public Wednesday for a special visit from President Donald J. Trump. So I went out on Tuesday, looking for links between presidents number 7 and 45. They aren’t hard to find.
Unlike most presidents, Trump doesn’t consider himself a student of history. He’s not much of a reader, and the speech he delivered at the Hermitage Wednesday may be the closest thing to a presidential biography he’s read.
But Trump seems to have found his presidential role model. After the election, people started comparing Trump’s victory to Jackson’s populist uprising in 1828, and the president-elect warmed to the narrative. He ordered a portrait of Jackson hung prominently in the Oval Office.
At the Hermitage, Trump underlined the association, calling himself “a big fan” of Old Hickory.
Jackson “defied an arrogant elite,” Trump said. “Sound familiar?”
As the audience laughed, Trump mugged: “Oh Andrew, I feel your pain.”
The similarities between the two presidents go deeper than just populist rhetoric. Jackson and Trump both ran for office as outsiders challenging the Washington establishment, both consider themselves champions of the working man.
Both were celebrity candidates. Jackson was the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Trump built his brand through real estate deals and reality TV. Jackson invented the modern political party by building an organization around himself. Trump staged what amounted to a hostile takeover of the GOP.
Both believe in the strong executive. Jackson greatly expanded the powers of the presidency. He paid little heed to the preferences of the Congress, the rulings of the Supreme Court or the obligations of treaties with the Indians, including the ones he negotiated and signed. Trump is already clashing with the courts over his own sweeping executive orders.
Jackson was quick to perceive insult and retaliate with violence. He participated in dozens of duels, often to defend his wife’s honor against scurrilous charges. One duel left a lead slug lodged in his chest, inches from his heart, that plagued him for the rest of his life. Trump fires off tweets, not bullets, but he shares with Jackson a quickness to take offense and a tendency to hold a grudge.
“Everything about politics was, to him, personal,” according to Jackson biographer Jon Meacham. Jackson had “the biggest ego you ever saw in your life,” says historian Daniel Feller. Sound familiar?
There’s also the hair: Jackson, like Trump, was known for his flowing mane. If a bust at the Hermitage is any indication, Jackson’s hairdo could be even more elaborate than Trump’s.
As Trump toured Jackson’s home, he must have heard about the president’s 150 slaves, whose forced labor was essential to the profitability of his cotton plantation. Trump may have seen the few log houses behind the mansion where some of the slaves lived. As he laid a wreath on Jackson’s tomb, he might have seen the small stone nearby where “Uncle Alfred,” Jackson’s “faithful servant” is buried.
If Trump asked, his hosts would have explained that, while there is no evidence of unusual abuse of the slaves at the Hermitage, when the Union Army took control of Nashville in 1862, they were quick to abandon the plantation and take their shot at freedom.
Jackson expressed no regrets or moral qualms about owning slaves. The closest Trump came to acknowledging this part of Jackson’s legacy was a brief mention that Jackson “was a flawed man, a product of his time.”
I suspected Trump might use the occasion of Jackson’s 250th birthday to reverse the Obama administration’s decision to replace Jackson with Harriett Tubman on the $20 bill, which he criticized last year as political correctness. But he didn’t, choosing not to reward the slaveholder while punishing the slave – at least not this week.
Trump would have seen even less on his tour about Jackson’s treatment of Native Americans. As a general, he fought the Creeks and Seminoles. As president he proposed, and Congress approved, the Indian Removal Act, authorizing the forced relocation of all tribes to federal land west of the Mississippi.
What Jackson called Indian Removal, we’d today call ethnic cleansing – and even that is a euphemism for the suffering and deaths of thousands at his hands on what the Cherokees call the “trail of tears.” Trump might call it “deportation.”
Jackson’s presidency ended 180 years ago; history has judged him the most consequential president of the early republic. Trump’s presidency, and his history lessons, have just begun.