Symposium | What Compares to Trump

The Democratic Autocrat

By Nancy Isenberg Andrew Burstein

Tagged Andrew Jackson

It was James Parton, America’s most prolific “great man” biographer of the nineteenth century, who convincingly captured the unsettling appeal of Andrew Jackson. The two-term President was, he stated, a “democratic autocrat.” This wasn’t the only one of Parton’s paradoxes. His Jackson was at once a “patriot and a traitor”; he was among the “greatest generals” in history and yet “wholly ignorant of the art of war.” The “first of statesmen” who had “never devised” a piece of legislation. To his rowdy followers, Jackson was the common man’s hero; to his outraged, outspoken enemies, he was an imperious imposter—“King Andrew I.”

Parton’s 1860 retrospective on the imperfect Andrew Jackson is a foreshadowing of our current dilemma in having to abide by “King Donald I.” Because few of us know how concerned this nation’s founders were with what they called an “elective monarch,” and a “monarchical republic,” we don’t register their hesitancy to grant the chief expansive powers to veto legislation, make high-level appointments, and wield authority as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Many trappings of royalty were immediately attached to the presidency. George Washington’s birthday was celebrated in the manner of the British monarchs. He was serenaded to the tune of “God Save the King.” He rode in a lavishly equipped carriage and held courtly receptions. His portraiture imitated the grandeur of European sovereigns. Thomas Jefferson rejected such pageantry and fancy dress, yet his own Democratic-Republicans rallied around his personhood, too. If he was our anti-royalist philosopher king, the Jameses, Madison and Monroe, were nonetheless styled as Jefferson’s legitimate “heirs.”

Jackson, however, was no heir to Jefferson. After his loss to John Quincy Adams in 1824, a good friend of Jefferson’s reported that during Jackson’s revenge run for office in 1828, the recently deceased ex-President had considered Jackson a bad joke, ill-bred for an elevated office, a man without either the intellect or temperament to head the country. Jackson’s critics caricatured him as William Shakespeare’s greatest royal villain, Richard III. Even close friends admitted that the orthographically challenged Tennessean was prone to furious outbursts. The most famous image associated with the 1828 campaign was the so-called coffin handbill, which graphically depicted Jackson’s numerous victims: honorable soldiers he’d had executed. He himself carried a bullet next to his heart from a duel in which he shot a man dead; his walking cane, ordinarily a sign of gentility, concealed a sword. Brute force, not calm reasoning, was the measure of the man. One of his many enemies put it bluntly: He “made up in oaths [i.e., obscenities] what he lacked in arguments.”

Jackson wasn’t the heir of the beloved Washington either, though the faithful tried to convince history this was so. Between the first and seventh Presidents, only one represented dignified authority—Washington, who at one point in his career had the chance to become a dictator, and said no. In 1828, incumbent President Adams was called “professor.” (He’d taught at Harvard.) No one had more experience in diplomacy. Adams represented U.S. interests in foreign capitals before serving as Monroe’s secretary of state. He was the epitome of effeminate expertise and the ultimate political insider. It should sound familiar. Adams was Hillary Clinton to Jackson’s Trump.

What Jackson had in his favor was the first authorized campaign biography, John Henry Eaton’s The Life of Andrew Jackson, which created a public fascination with the private man and flowered into a cult of personality. Those who loved or hated him were equally obsessed with him. He was the first President to personally claim to embody the will of the people, sweeping aside Congress and the Court. In The Passions of Andrew Jackson, published 15 years before Trump’s win, Andrew Burstein summed up Jackson’s presidential persona as “a savior who blusters.”

As celebrants raised their glasses to toast him for bloodying and beating up opponents, Jackson tapped into the democratic id. Impetuous, crude, and uncensored, this proto-Trump vowed to sweep clean the “stables” (read: swamp) in Washington, expelling elite politicians. He liked yes-men and brought partisan editors into his inner circle. Despite brief appearances as a state-appointed U.S. senator, Jackson was a self-styled outsider, unwilling to play by the rules. He promised to “kill the bank,” regardless of the financial havoc it could (and did) unleash. Similarly, Trump promises to kill Obamacare, regardless of the tens of thousands likely to die without it.

Jackson. Trump. Dragon slayers or savage bullies? Jackson’s cronies praised him as the nation’s redeemer for his defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans. After the unavailing War of 1812 had made America’s military look “low energy,” General Jackson came in (before word of the negotiated peace had reached him), and he made America great again at New Orleans.

American democracy has never been pretty. John Adams was called a “hermaphrodite” in print, and Aaron Burr was portrayed as a seducer of men.

So, forget what you’ve been told. American democracy has never been pretty. The first two political parties tossed around accusations of treason, sedition, madness, and atheism. Sex and implicit sexism were never off the table. John Adams was actually called a “hermaphrodite” in print, and Aaron Burr was repeatedly portrayed as a dandyish seducer of young men, a sodomite. We all know about Jefferson’s “wenching.” Campaigns have only ever been psychological warfare, all common sense drowned out by crude forms of temptation that encourage smug superiority among true believers, while willfully heightening fear, envy, and hatred. The candidate who connects with the public, identifies their soft spots, and plays to their secret wishes is the one who ultimately satisfies an atavistic longing for a monarch (which we prefer to couch in euphemistic terms like “popular champion”). The founding generation knew what obedience to a monarch felt like. They weren’t shy about warning against an “elective” one.

Yet the words of Socrates and Plato may also be prescient here: They compared statesmen to doctors, and politicians to chefs. The first gave people the harsh medicine they needed, the other merely indulged popular appetites. Trump’s tweets and every other outrageous thing he does may give much of the country indigestion. Yet our circus-like campaign culture (which, for Trump, continues ad nauseam) is an unhealthy, irresistible fast food smorgasbord. The Reality TV star fights on. Only if he loses viewers will the show be cancelled. “Whatever it takes,” he mulls. Raw impulse. The show is a window onto an American id that revels in violence, feigns shock at rudeness, mocks weakness, and begs for a dark knight to slay the imagined enemies who would “steal” America.

Millions of Americans were enraptured by Barack Obama’s winning smile and cool moves, and before that the sailboat suaveness of JFK and his Camelot. Yet, although Trump’s stuck-up golf resorts may say “moneybags” rather than class, his defenders insist he is also our most “genuine” President. His lewd temper tantrums are meant to make him more democratic, an unfiltered expression of the American mean (note the double entendre here).

We’re stuck. Our system of checks and balances supposedly makes ours a “government of laws, not men.” But, again, that’s simply not true. Today’s news is personality and spectacle, and the President is our celebrity-in-chief, now more than ever. We expect statesmen to adhere to rules of decorum; but restraint went out the window on the two occasions when voters catapulted popular personalities Jackson and Trump into office. Under-informed, policy-weak autocrats who believe they speak in the name of the people don’t need to apologize for who they are. “People love me,” they tell themselves over and over.

There’s a reason why Andrew Jackson’s portrait now hangs in the Oval Office. The democratic autocrat is not exactly the anomaly we imagine.

From the Symposium

What Compares to Trump


"Civilization in the Highest?"

By Brandon R. Byrd


See All

Read more about Andrew Jackson

Nancy Isenberg is T. Harry Williams Professor of History at Louisiana State University, the author of the New York Times bestseller White Trash, and coauthor, with Andrew Burstein, of Madison and Jefferson.

Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at Louisiana State University, the author of nine books on U.S. History, as well as coauthor, with Nancy Isenberg, of Madison and Jefferson.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus