Last month, the national newspaper-cum-multi media endeavor Indian Country Today released its list of the worst five U.S. presidents vis a vis American Indians. As a professor of American Indian history, I was immediately curious about what they had come up with. The list, in order, reads:
George W. Bush, Jr.
A list like this is designed to be debated, and I could make a case here or there. But quibles aside, there’s no debating the man at the top of the list: Andrew Jackson. Frankly, I would have been shocked if they had picked anyone other than Old Hickory. And indeed, few historians would disagree that he was the worst president for American Indians, and maybe by a longshot.
However, for a number of years now, I’ve been cantankerously telling anyone who will listen that Jackson wasn’t just the worst president vis a vis Indians; I think he’s actually the worst U.S. president of all time, period. And now seems like as good a time as any to make my case, which boils down to three major factors: his forementioned Indian policy; his economic policies; and his political legacy.
Indian Policies- When it comes to Indian affairs, there has been no shortage of presidential scoundrels. From George Washington to Zachary Taylor, a number of commanders-in-chief (including Jackson) literally killed Indians on their way to the nation’s highest elected office. Indeed, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nickname for Washington was “Town Destroyer.” Though the moniker dated back to at least the 1750s, Washington eventually lived up to it by ordering a campaign of total warfare against the Haudenosaunee during the Revolution. At his behest, Major General John Sullivan and the Continental Army destroyed no fewer than forty Haudenosaunee towns in 1779, spurring a horrific wave of disease, famine, and death. Father of the nation? To the Haudenosaunee, Washington was more like Darth Vader. And he was not alone. During the nation’s first century, a parade of presidents presided over a shockingly violent colonial conquest of the continent . So what sets Andrew Jackson apart?
Though the term “ethnic cleansing” wasn’t coined until the Yugoslavian civil war of the 1990s, the practice is of course an old one. Jackson’s so-called Removal policy of the 1830s was a textbook example: the forced depopulation of an indigenous ethnic group from a region (the American South) and the subsequent repopulation of that region with your constituents (EuroAmeicans). And while other presidents, such as Thomas Jefferson, preceded him in designing and advocating ethnic cleansing polices, and even implemented them on a smaller scale, it was Jackson who pushed hardest and manifested it on the largest scale.
Expelling Indians from the South and opening their lands to EuroAmerican settlement was part of Jackson’s first presidential campaign platform when he lost to John Quincy Adams in 1824, as well as his victorious campaigns in 1828 and 1832. Once in office, ethnic cleansing was the focus of Jackson’s first-ever address to Congress in 1829. The speech is a classic piece of lying propaganda.
“Toward the aborigines of the country no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself,” Jackson asserted, “or would go further in attempting to reclaim them from their wandering habits and make them a happy, prosperous people.”
That one sentence alone is fairly mind boggling. For starters, Jackson’s rise to political stardom was partly predicated on framing himself as an Indian-killer. And indeed, he was a prolific one, personally leading several military expeditions against Native nations. But far more insidious is his comment about Indians’ supposed “wandering habits.” Jackson was consciously playing to the false stereotype of Indians as aimless nomads squandering a virgin wilderness. Since first arriving in North America, that lie had been central to Europeans' justification for the ongoing theft of Indian lands. And it was a lie, plain and simple. Very, very few of the Indian peoples east of the Mississippi were nomadic.
Nearly all Indian societies south of northern New England and the upper Great Lakes farmed. In fact, Indian agronomy was a fair bit more sophisticated than European agronomy in many ways. What’s more, the powerful Indian nations of the American South that Jackson was referring to, the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Seminoles,and Muskogees (also known as Creeks), were not only farming, but had adapted quite well to American expansion. The Cherokees are the most famous example. They had developed a constitutional republic, invented their own alphabet, published a bi-lingual newspaper called the Cherokee Phoenix, and a higher percentage of Cherokees were literate than their American counterparts by the time of Jackson’s election. And unfortunately, like the Americans, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Muskogee societies also now featured a small, wealthy class of elites who owned large cotton plantations and black slaves.
These nations were the so-called “nomads” that Jackson wanted to expel from the South, for their own good, he claimed, because they supposedly could not adapt to American society. It was the big lie, a falsehood so blatant and so outrageous that merely saying it with a straight face gave it credibility with supporters. And Jackson had many supporters clamoring for Indian land. Why? Because cotton exhausted the South’s soil, and planters like Jackson ached for fertile Indian lands, which were known as the “Black Belt,” named for region’s dark, rich topsoil. Indians weren’t savages. They were competition.
Many Northerners saw through the farce and objected. Southerners and Midwesterners pining for trans-Appalachian lands accused the Northeasterners of hypocrisy. How dare they object after their forefathers had already done the dirty work of swindling, massacring, and expelling Indians from New England.
The bill authorizing Jackson to clear the South of Indigenous people was the Indian Removal Act. It moved through the House easily and passed the Senate by one vote in 1830. The president eagerly signed it. What followed was a slew of fraudulent treaties wherein Jackson’s representatives bribed, threatened, and cajoled Indians leaders, some of them illegitimate, into signing treaties that traded their lands east of the Mississippi River for new lands in what is now Oklahoma, which of course actually belonged to other Indian nations who had no idea that the Unite States was giving their homelands away to the new refugees. The ethnic cleansing had begun in earnest.
The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830) gave the U.S. a flimsy legalistic justification for forcibly removing Choctaws from Mississippi in the Fall of 1831. Within two years, 13,000-15,000 had been expelled. Their compensation was reimbursements for transportation, a year’s worth of food and clothing, and various payments in kind, such as blackmsithing and schools.
Muskogee leaders ceded most of their land in Alabama and kept the remainder as privately owned parcels called allotments. But when corrupt land speculators defrauded many Muskogees of their allotments, tensions between landless Indians and white settlers escalated into violence. In 1836, the U.S. military forced the most of the Muskogees westward. Thousands died of starvation, hunger, disease, and the accidental sinking of a steamboat. Approximately 14,500 arrived in Oklahoma 1836-37.
The Chickasaws of northern Mississippi and Alabama, and western Kentucky and Tennessee were subjected to the Treaty of Pontotoc (1832). Despite promises of a new home out west, the federal government never acquired suitable land for the Chickasaws, and instead eventually forced the Choctaws to sell a tract of their new Oklahoma land to the Chickasaws, who in turn had to pay for the acreage. About 4,000 people were forced westward, 1837-1838.
When the Seminoles of northern Florida were faced with a fraudulent treaty, they scoffed. Jackson sent the Army in 1835, kicking off the Second Seminole War. Not coincidentally, then-General Andrew Jackson acting on behalf of President James Monroe had personally led the invading U.S. troops during the First Seminole War (1817-18). The second version was a disaster for both sides. Prior to Viet Nam, it was the longest war in U.S. history (1835-1842). The United States would eventually commit 40,000 men and spend nearly $40,000,000, or almost a billion dollars in toda's money.
The Seminole’s employed highly successful guerilla tactics as they receded into the Florida swamps. With the approval of Jackson and the War Department, the army responded with massacres, subterfuge, and treachery, such as launching attacks in the amid peace overtures. For example, in October of 1831, Americans officers used a white flag to solicit peace negotiations with Seminole leader Osceola and eighty-four of his soldiers, and then took them hostages. Imprisoned and subjected to mistreatment, Osceola died four months later. Most Seminoles were eventually rounded up and shipped as prisoners of war to Oklahoma where the federal government initially tried to merge them with the Muskogees, though both groups successfully resisted that effort.
The most infamous case was that of the Cherokees. First came the fraudulent Treaty of New Echota (1835), in which unauthorized Cherokees signed away eastern lands, a capital crime in Cherokee law. An equivalent version today would be the mayor of Chicago signing a treaty with Canada that handed over Montana. It was that bad. During the forced removal that followed, upwards of one-third of Cherokees died. Survivors dubbed it The Trail of Tears. As with the Chickasaw removal of 1837, execution of the Cherokee removal actually fell to Jackson’s handpicked successor Martin Van Buren, but it was all a result of Jackson’s relentless efforts.
Indeed, Andrew Jackson is nothing more than our very own Slobodan Milosevic. His policies are such a horrific stain on our history that assessments of him often minimize or overlook the Indian “removals” altogether. For example, Jackson’s official White House website biography doesn’t even mention his Removal policies! It’s as if the mere mention would be too much for us to bear, and so the big lie and its aftermath is now met with the big silence.
Economic Policies- For anyone with a conscience, Jackson’s ethnic cleansings might be enough to mark him as the worst president ever. But nearly every president through the nineteenth century supported such approaches. Jackson simply had the political currency and dedication to carry it out so thoroughly and viciously. However, there are other serious critiques of his presidency to consider.
Jackson’s so-called Bank War helped wreck the American economy. Old Hickory’s personal distrust of banks and paper currency shaped his hostility towards the Second Bank of the United States. Originally chartered in 1816, the bank’s purpose had been to do much of what the Federal Reserve does today: regulate other banks and set monetary policy by influencing the flow of money. Though not an official arm of the United States, the Second Bank had tremendous leverage because the federal government deposited its revenues there.
In September of 1833, Jackson signed an executive order that ended federal deposits to the Second Bank. Without federal funds, the bank dried up and soon died. And where did all that federal money go? To smaller state banks around the country, particularly those run by supporters of Jackson and his political allies. Those banks then flushed all that money into the economy, leading to runaway inflation and rampant speculation, particularly in real estate. The bubble eventually burst, resulting in the Panic of 1837, a five-year depression that was arguably the nation’s worst until the Great Depression.
To be sure, Jackson’s misguided economic policies weren’t the only cause of the 1837 Panic, but they were the driving force. Lucky til the end, however, Jackson left office five weeks before the economy melted down, and most irate and suffering Americans ended up blaming his successor, Martin Van Buren.
Political Legacy- The final piece of Andrew Jackson’s fetid presidency is his political legacy. A serious evaluation needs to consider how he corrupted the constitution’s balance of power by strengthening the executive branch at the expense of the legislative and judicial. Rambunctious and imperious, his sense of entitlement expressed itself in numerous ways, including an unprecedented use of the veto. Previous presidents had respected Congress’ legislative duties and considered the veto an extreme measure to be reserved for extreme circumstances. Indeed, neither Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, nor John Quincy Adams had vetoed a single bill. But during his eight years in office, Jackson issued more vetoes than had all of his predecessors combined during their collective forty years.
Perhaps even more damning, however, Jackson helped introduce rank populism to American politics.
Jackson’s presidential runs came just as the individual states were doing away with property requirements for voting, effectively awarding the franchise to nearly all white men. Jackson crassly capitalized on this and set a dubious precedent by disingenuously playing the class card. All the of the previous presidents had been proud of their education, which they believed helped qualify them for public service. But when Jackson ran for president unsuccessfully in 1824 and then victoriously in 1828, he scorched a fiery political path; he courted a new wave of voters who had little money or education, but plenty of resentment towards the elite. Jackson pretended to be one of them.
True, Andrew Jackson didn’t always have it easy growing up. The son of immigrants, his father died three weeks before he was born in rural Carolina. As a young teen, Jackson was a prisoner of war during the Revolution; he almost starved, contracted small pox, and then watched his older brother Robert die of the disease. But Jackson did have an established extended family. One uncle was a plantation owner. As an adult, Jackson quickly forged successful careers in politics and commerce. He was a U.S. general and at one point the military governor of Florida. He was also Tennessee’s first elected congressman, a U.S. senator, and then a Tennessee Supreme Court Judge. He began building his vast fortune as a store-owner and then as a cotton planter. His plantation was nearly two quare miles in size, and over the course of his career, Jackson owned upwards of three-hundred slaves.
While running for office, Jackson fashioned himself a man of the people. His campaign downplayed his wealth, cast him as an everyman, emphasized his rough and tumble rural roots, and smeared his opponent as a silk panty-wearing dandy. In reality though, Jackson was one of the elite that many of his supporters despised. He was one of the richest men in Tennessee.
Of course American politics is still dominated by the filthy rich, as it always has been. But every time you see one of them testing your patience and insulting your intelligence by pretending to be a regular Joe, you can thank Andrew Jackson for showing them the way.
President Andrew Jackson: Ethnic cleanser, economy wrecker, and every day pretender. Think about that the next time an ATM spits a twenty dollar bill at you.
Akim Reinhardt blogs regularly at The Public Professor.