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The mob in the White House: Jacksonian populism

Recall that I placed Andrew Jackson near the “populist” (as opposed to “elitist”) pole in the spectrum. Here, from Jon Meacham’s excellent biography of Jackson, is a little anecdote that shows how easily such populism veers into mob rule.

I) Background

The seventh president, six foot one but only 140 pounds — “gaunt but striking, with a formidable head of white hair, a nearly constant cough, a bullet lodged in his chest,” according to Meacham — was orphaned at 14 and never knew his father (rather, if not quite, like Hamilton,  Obama/McCainClinton/NewsomVillaraigosa and other presidents).

He also never had biological children of his own. In this respect, he was similar to George Washington. Both Jackson and Washington, in the popular mind, made good “fathers of the nation” because, childless, they regarded the people as their children.

But above all, Jackson was the first president to come from “the common people,” from what we would call the lower classes. The six presidents before him had all been members of an educated, classically trained elite. This contrast became Jackson’s salient feature. He would spend his two terms fighting against what he perceived as elites.

As Meacham puts it (emphasis mine):

Before Jackson, power tended toward the elites, whether political or financial. After Jackson, power was more diffuse, and government, for better and worse, was more attuned to the popular will….

The [debates among the Founders had] largely concerned how the new nation might most effectively check the popular will. Hence the Electoral College, the election of senators by state legislatures, and limited suffrage. The prevailing term for America’s governing philosophy was republicanism–an elegant Enlightenment-era system of balances and counterweights that tended to put decisive power in the hands of elites elected, at least in theory, by a country of landowning yeomen. The people, broadly defined, were not to be trusted with too much power. This creed, best articulated by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, lay at the heart of presidential politics in the first decades of the nineteenth century, years in which a small establishment in the capital essentially decided on its own who would have the chance to live in the White House.

Jackson had reason to regard this elitism as his personal enemy. In the election of 1824 he won the popular vote but was tied in the electoral college and lost in the House of Representatives. In his mind, the people had chosen him, but the elites had robbed him of the office. So in the next two rounds, which he won, he took his fight directly to the people, even going on the first presidential campaign tour.

Meacham:

The force driving Jackson after 1824: a belief in the primacy of the will of the people over the whim of the powerful, with himself as the chief interpreter and enactor of that will…. “the republic is safe, and its main pillars — virtue, religion and morality — will be fostered by a majority of the people”… Democracy was in; elitism was out.

(Notice his explicit mention of virtue as residing in the common people — that, ie the putative location of virtue, was what I attempted to trace across time in that diagram post.)

II) Inauguration Day

On the day in 1829 he was sworn in, Jackson (apparently without prior planning) opened the White House to “the people”. They gladly obliged by piling in. As one contemporary lady of letters described it:

no police officers placed on duty and the whole house [was] inundated by the rabble mob…. The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negroes, women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping [replaced it] …. the carpets and furniture are ruined …. The armies of democracy were pitching their tents in Andrew Jackson’s White House. …

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, who was at the White House that day, declared the “the reign of King Mob.”

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. And since then, the mob has been replaced by the Mob.

    September 18, 2011
  2. Jackson’s electoral races were truly mud-slinging fights that we would be horrified to witness in these days of wishing for clean races and bi-partisanship. And he was also a wonderful friend to the indigenous people (our American Indians, I observe sarcastically. But, yes, he was a populist and had sufficient reason to hold that political position as strongly as he did. but based on his slave-owning and a few other points, I’d say he would be violently opposed to the government of today and probably side with the Libertarians.

    September 18, 2011
    • Originally, this little post was huge, and encompassing all those fascinating contradictions in Jackson. Then I cut it down to just this. But you made me think I should post the rest. We’d have a fascinating discussion about the point in your last sentence.

      September 19, 2011
    • We often forget the prevailing morality and social consciousness when we look at historical figures. What he did with the Native Americans (actually “First Americans” is more accurate) was pretty popular and slavery had not yet been outlawed (merely the importation of same). But I do believe that Jackson would not be a Democrat and would have been very sympathetic to Libertarian ideals. It shows how much our political parties have deviated from their beginnings.

      September 19, 2011
    • What he did with Native Americans highlights the eternal tension in any professed wish for “liberty”: WHOSE liberty?

      In Jackson’s case, it was liberty of his folk, of white Americans (with a special sentimentalism for poor white folk). It was not the liberty of red or brown folk.

      So, as Meacham, has put it: He was a champion of freedom for THE people even while taking away freedom from A people.

      Such paradoxes play themselves out again and again and again in history.

      September 20, 2011
  3. I remember some story about Jackson having a giant block of cheese in the White House for all the guests. Does Meacham mention anything about that?

    September 20, 2011
    • A block of cheese? Seriously. No, I don’t recall that. I think I would have remembered it. But you never know.

      September 21, 2011
  4. Aha! I found it. Haha it was on a West Wing episode, but apparently it has a basis in history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crackpots_and_These_Women

    September 21, 2011

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