Historians just can't seem to agree about Andrew Jackson. Some see him as a hero; others believe he was a villain. Some portray him as the common man's warrior, a president who attacked a political system that ignored the people's will. Others say that he was a political tyrant, an executive bully who disrespected the processes and institutions essential to republican government. Some celebrate his liberal defense of individual rights; others condemn his racist removal of 90,000 Indians. Some view him as a great nationalist who saved the Union by denouncing nullification. Others claim that he weakened the nation by supporting Georgia in its defiance of the Supreme Court.
The problem is that all of these conclusions are true.
Jackson ran for president in 1828 determined to restore the will of the people to politics. He believed that Washington power brokers had ignored the people's wishes in 1824 when they deprived him of the presidency despite winning a plurality of the popular vote; true democracy, he felt, would not be realized until America's political processes were significantly reformed. As a candidate, Jackson built a political organization that reached out directly to the public, and as president he attacked the institutions that he believed deepened divisions between the rich and the poor.
But Jackson also showed little patience for political processes and institutions that interfered with his "democratic" agenda. He encroached further upon the legislative process than his predecessors, advancing a theory of presidential power that many believed threatened the separation of powers essential to republican government.
Jackson showed greater respect for individual political and economic rights than any previous president. He sought to increase the number of offices directly elected by the people, and he sought to restore an economic system that protected the rights of small producers rather than corporations and the wealthy.
But when Native Americans turned to the federal government to support their territorial claims, even winning a Supreme Court ruling that affirmed those claims, Jackson turned a deaf ear. He ignored three decades of government precedent, and a clear Court ruling, while implementing a removal policy that displaced over 90,000 people.
Jackson took on the state of South Carolina, denounced its nullification theories, and threatened to bring in the United States army to enforce federal law. In doing so, he broke with his vice-president and alienated a portion of his southern political base. He accepted an alliance with politicians he did not respect and who did not respect him. And he outlined an original theory of the Union that would serve Abraham Lincoln when he faced a similar secessionist crisis thirty years later.
But Jackson also weakened national authority by siding with the states' rights arguments of Georgia in its battle over federal Indian policy. He undercut the authority of the Supreme Court, approving of Georgia's efforts to circumvent the will of the Court in its assertion of federal law.
In short, Jackson was a confusing figure. He was a democrat and a tyrant, a nationalist and a supporter of states' rights. He defended the political and economic rights of common people but ignored the territorial rights of Native Americans.
As we explore Jackson's presidency, we should consider whether these paradoxes within his performance can be reconciled. Is there a core of belief that might tie everything to together, or a character trait that might explain the seeming contradictions? Is there such a thing as the "real" or "essential" Jackson? Or, was he truly nothing more than a bundle of inconsistencies?