There are at least three ways to respond to the student’s question: 1) We should not compare the Democratic and Republican Parties of the nineteenth century to today because so much has changed over time; 2) the evolution of party ideology and electoral realignment is complex but in essence, the two parties have switched roles since the nineteenth century; or 3) the Democrats of the nineteenth century are essentially the same as the Democrats of today, which is another way of saying that Republicans have always promoted civil rights. The point of this blog series is to analyze the merits of each response.
Is there a persuasive case for Response #1? Maybe.
Andrew Jackson is sometimes called the father of the Democratic Party. His supporters were initially known as “Jackson men” or “Jacksonians,” and by 1834 they were more consistently calling themselves “Jacksonian Democrats,” or just “Democrats." In the 1820s and 30s, the leading issues of the day over which the two parties battled were Indian Removal, tariffs, federal funding for internal improvements, Sunday mail delivery, rotation of office, slavery, and the national bank, which is the subject of my book. It goes without saying that we do not debate these issues today. The issues were handled, sometimes wisely, sometimes poorly, or sometimes neither. Eventually we moved on. Many issues of today, including human-caused climate change, various refugee crises, America’s rivalry with China, nuclear proliferation, equal pay for women playing professional sports, and how to avoid the constant distraction of the digital world, have almost no analog in the antebellum era. Thus, any direct parallels between the 1830s and today would be tenuous at best.
The Definition of Liberalism Has Changed
Liberalism in the early-19th century had a very different meaning than it does today in the United States. Modern liberalism now means that the federal government has a responsibility to provide a safety net for its citizens through social insurance programs, environmental protection, civil rights, and international law. A series of Democratic presidents—Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, JFK, and LBJ—gave liberalism its modern flavor. But in Jackson’s time, liberalism was best understood as a set of ideas that resembled modern-day libertarianism or what we might call classical liberalism. Limited government, self-interest, the protection of private property and other individual rights, free from governmental interference, were among the characteristics that defined classical liberalism.
Conservatism—defined broadly as the willingness to “conserve” the status quo in the face of more sweeping radical change—can differ widely depending on the time and context. A conservative in eighteenth century Europe may have been a staunch advocate of monarchy. A conservative in Mexico in the 1830s may have favored state sponsorship of the Catholic Church and autocracy while American conservatives in the very same period would have found these ideas distasteful. However much American conservatives in the twenty-first century cherish the tradition of established institutions like the church and military just as their early-19th century counterparts did, there is no doubt that these institutions have changed over time. The Catholic Church, Yale University, and the United States Army existed and thrived in the nineteenth century, but they are very different creatures today. The same might be said of the Democratic or Republican Parties.
Then there is classical republicanism, a belief in civic duty, self-sacrifice, the common good, equal rights, and the common good that drew upon ancient concepts of liberty and corruption, which seems to have fell out of the lexicon some time in the Long Nineteenth Century but whose core ideas may have been integrated in some form or another into modern liberalism and/or conservatism.
So was Andrew Jackson a liberal, conservative, or republican? One might make the case for all three. It is probably best to say that he was a liberal, though again, only in the classical sense. Modern-day liberals may find a few things to appreciate in Old Hickory, though they might find just as many, if not more, admirable characteristics in Jackson’s opponents, the Whigs, whose northern adherents often resisted the expansion of slavery and favored governmental sponsorship of economic development at the federal level.
The Country has Changed Radically Over Time
If you’re an American historian, as opposed to an ancient or medieval historian, it is relatively easy to draw parallels between past and present. Some of the most important themes in my book—state-sanctioned monopoly, an overbearing president that challenges checks and balances and violates norms, governmental regulation in the economy, favoritism in hiring public officials, corporate lobbying, the factors that shape social advancement, monetary policy, equal opportunity, and economic inequality wrought by larger forces—continue to elicit lively debates today. For scholars of the Vietnam War or Civil Rights Movement, the line between past and present is fairly straight. They do not need to try hard to read our current predicaments into the past if only because many of the historical actors alive at that time are still with us today. The further back in time we go, however, the more apparent the differences become. The lines begin to zig-zag or sometimes they end abruptly.
It is more difficult, and yet at the same time crucial for the job of an American historian, to highlight important differences the past and present. To do otherwise would be to sacrifice the complexity of the antebellum era and today. In the 190 years that have transpired since the Jacksonian period, the United States has undergone nothing less than a radical sea-change in the ethnic composition of its citizenry, its political economy, the relationship between the individual and federal government, its global and imperial presence, and the size and character of its economy.
In 1830, the size of the US economy was $1 billion, equivalent to about $50 billion in today's money. Today’s economy at $20 trillion is several hundred times larger even though the nation's population has only gone up by about 25 times. In Jackson’s time about 77% of all workers were engaged in agriculture. Today it is about 1%. There was no income tax in Jackson’s time and the federal government obtained about 90% of its revenue from tariffs. Today we have federally guaranteed deposit insurance to prevent bank runs, a central bank tasked with ensuring price and employment stability through aggressive open-market operations that does not require a renewal of its charter every 20 years, a public-debt-to-GDP ratio around 100% (it was zero in 1835). The overwhelming majority of academic economists now accept that the US dollar does not need to be “backed” by any commodity since confidence and the ability to pay taxes with a currency are what really matter, to say nothing of the fact that the years in which the United States operated under a gold or specie standard were often years of crippling deflation and wild swings in prices and employment. Television, electricity, the automobile, air conditioning, and air travel have radically reshaped our lives. In 1832, a worldwide cholera epidemic engulfed the United States. It took two weeks to deliver a newspaper from the East Coast to St. Louis whereas news is now available to us instantaneously via the Internet. If one were to hop in a magical telephone booth that could transport you back in time to meet a character like Andrew Jackson ala Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, one would encounter something resembling a foreign country. For these reasons scholars must continually remind the public at large that any comparisons between today and the nineteenth century are bound to be imprecise and sticky.
According to one school of thought, every 20-50 years the country experiences a “critical realignment” election where the constituencies, key issues, political ideology, and regional performance of a political party shift significantly. The elections that typically meet the criteria of a critical realignment occurred in 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, 1968, and 1980, though some of these years can be debated. This is why we differentiate between a “First Party System” of Republicans and Federalists, and a “Second Party System” of Democrats and Whigs. Many broad philosophical ideas about the role of government in the economy transcend the party systems to be sure, but experts looking at the granular detail remind us that the Second Party System was no repeat of the first. There were many former Federalists who appreciated Jackson’s embodiment of a strong executive. And similarly, many Whigs had been former Jeffersonians. The Democrats of the 1850s, with their penchant for imperialism and the unapologetic expansion of slavery, differed in significant ways from the Jacksonian Democrats of the 1830s, who were often consumed with issues of monetary policy. The Republican Party of William McKinley was a different creature than the Party of Lincoln. In the 1910s and 20s, there were conflicts between Progressive and pro-business Republicans that pointed to a certain level of ideological heterogeneity that does not exist among the relative homogeneity of today’s Republicans. If there have been five different party systems, it does not make sense to compare the Democrats of today with the Democrats of the 19th century, let alone the Democrats of 1960. Democrats today may admire JFK but even the briefest glance at the electoral map of 1960 will show the Democratic Party’s strangely southern orientation.
The current White House occupant, encouraged by white nationalist Steve Bannon, fashions himself as a modern-day Andrew Jackson. Numerous media reports in the 2016 campaign season amplified this comparison and Trump, apparently oblivious to any potential for offense or irony, infamously met with current-day Native Americans while standing underneath a portrait of the seventh president.
Are these comparisons valid? Perhaps, but only in the broadest sense. Both men ran as populist outsiders railing against a corrupt “elite” or “establishment.” Both ascended to the White House not because of their political experience, but because of their larger-than-life, hyper-masculine personas. Both were accused by their opponents of behaving like dictators and demagogues and indeed both have shown a tendency to concentrate power in the executive branch while minimizing the role of Congress. Both maintained a voting base of white working-class voters in the North and white southerners. Both invoked nostalgia in their campaign messages. In addition, racial animus toward non-whites excited the voting bases of Jackson and Trump. In Jackson’s time the victims were African Americans and Native Americans while African Americans, along with immigrants, Hispanics, and Muslims, similarly bear the brunt of Trump’s bullying. Both have presided over a “spoils system” of sorts that often rewards the party faithful over the most qualified and meritorious. The two men are easily prone to anger and often seek revenge to settle personal conflicts. Old Hickory famously got into fist fights and fought at least one duel while today’s unruly president fights his duels on Twitter, much to delight of his rabid followers.
Upon first glance the similarities between Jackson (a Democrat) and Trump (a Republican) would seem to validate the narrative that the parties have switched. Yet a number of experts in antebellum era politics—including Mark Cheathem, myself, Dan Feller, Manisha Sinha, and James Roger Sharp—have expressed serious reservations over the utility of these comparisons. Here are some of the important differences between the two men that we have observed:
* Religion: In Jackson’s time, evangelical Christians were more likely to be Whig. Today they are among Trump’s most stalwart followers.
* Political experience: Jackson had been a representative, senator, and lawyer. Trump had no political experience prior to running for president.
* Military experience: Jackson was the famous Hero of the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 and had also fought the British as a child during the American Revolution. Trump avoided the draft in Vietnam, allegedly because of bone spurs.
* Social Background: Jackson had humble beginnings and became wealthy later in life. Trump was born into wealth and privilege. The latter relied on his father’s wealth to bail him out from a series of poor business decisions.
* Appointees: Jackson consistently appointed white men of ordinary means to public office. Sometimes these appointments evinced corruption and incompetence. Trump’s appointments are CEOs, corrupt lobbyists, climate denying oil executives, bank magnates, and plutocrats who oppose the worldview of the executive departments they are managing. Steve Mnuchin, Gary Cohn, Scott Pruitt, Rex Tillerson, Wilbur Ross, Tom Price, and Betsy DeVos are just a few examples.
* Popular Mandate: Jackson scored impressive victories in both the electoral college and popular vote. Trump lost the popular vote by over 2% and 2.87 million votes.
* Fiscal Policy: Jackson wanted to pay off the national debt and did so in 1835. Trump has made the debt worse through tax cuts and costly military spending. There are now trillion dollar deficits, which is somewhat troubling in that they are occurring during times of relative prosperity (when the next recession hits, presumably deficits will only increase since tax revenue will decrease--less people will have jobs--and social spending will either stay the same or even increase).
* Approach to Voting: While higher voter turnout preceded Jackson’s election in 1828, Jackson himself is historically linked with more people voting and more democracy. Trump and the GOP, on the other hand, are notorious for erecting onerous obstacles to voting through racially discriminatory Voter ID laws, hyping bogus and exaggerated claims of voter fraud, cutting early voting, and defending felon disenfranchisement laws.
* Gender: Jackson stood up for Peggy Eaton. Trump has had three wives and has faced credible allegations of having sexually assaulted some 15-20 women.
* Money in politics: One of the most consistent criticisms of the Second Bank of the United States was that it could use its vast financial resources to bribe members of Congress and the press. Trump has very likely engaged in money laundering and he is the leader of a party that defends unlimited and anonymous corporate donations on free speech grounds as shown in the Citizens’ United Supreme Court decision.
* Respect for Institutions: Jackson attacked the Bank on constitutional grounds and worked with his cabinet to edit the presidential addresses before he delivered them. Based on his tweets and public statements, Trump may not even know the basics of what is contained in the Constitution. His ceaseless attacks of the FBI, judges, and the media demonstrate a vicious contempt for American institutions.
* National unity: Jackson had supporters in Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and virtually every southern state. During the nullification crisis, Jackson stood for union. Trump has made little effort to unify the country and instead relies on highly divisive and inflammatory rhetoric that aggravates his opponents while whipping up his base into a frenzy.
* Claim to the presidency: Jackson’s experience in politics and the military gave him a legitimate claim to run for national office. Trump’s sole selling point for the presidency was that he was a shrewd businessman. Like so many facets of Trump’s life and career, this was a fraud and scam. Trump declared bankruptcy several times. Between 1985 and 1994, according to tax information obtained by the New York Times, Trump’s casino, hotel, and apartment building businesses lost $1.17 billion, perhaps more than any individual American taxpayer during the period.
* Campaigning: The Trump campaign welcomed help from a foreign adversary, Russia, to help defeat Hillary Clinton and most likely obstructed an investigation into this conspiracy on numerous occasions. The equivalent in Jackson’s time would be working with Great Britain to steal private information from John Quincy Adams and then weaponizing this information through a concerted media campaign of misinformation. This most assuredly did not happen in 1828.
* Lying: According to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker Database, Trump has told over 10,000 lies since Inauguration Day, despite not having served one full term. There is a level of dishonesty, mendacity, distraction, gaslighting, and obfuscation of reality that has no equivalent during the Age of Jackson.
Lest one accuse me of being a Jackson apologist, I am not. I merely want historical comparisons to be precise and to discard ones that are not. Many scholars, students, and the larger public often clamor for a connection between past and present because this is one of the easiest ways to make history meaningful and relevant for their lives. The Trump-Jackson comparison does more to obscure than illuminate. It is not one that I would employ in my scholarly work. If we must have a historical analog to Trump, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, or George Wallace would make far better candidates than Jackson. Or better yet, it might be best to recognize that Trump is an anomaly and sui generis case in American politics.
Does this mean that the larger project of comparing 19th-century politics with today is a fool’s errand? Not necessarily. In the next post I will show that there is abundant evidence of a party shift between Democrats and Republicans over time.