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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A little party history about Old Hickory’s Ghost: How Andrew Jackson's legacy haunted both North and South on the eve of the Civil War.


A portrait of President Andrew Jackson, along with his famous quotation from the Nullification Crisis, “The Union must and shall be preserved.”

Russell McClintock writes in The New York Times:

Americans have always obsessed over their nation’s history, even when there wasn’t much to obsess over. The founding generation had barely passed on before politicians began scrambling to claim their legacy – and at no time was that more true than during the Secession Crisis. Secessionists claimed to be emulating the revolutionaries’ struggle for liberty against a tyrannical central government, while Northerners were determined not to let disloyal rebels tear down the noble republic the founders had created.

But the dynamics of secession also drew attention to a more recent historical event – the Nullification Crisis of 1833 – and brought back to the center of debate that most controversial of early Americans, Andrew Jackson. Conflicting interpretations of his legacy tell a lot about how the North and South – and Democrats and Republicans within the North – saw the crisis.

The tumult of the Jacksonian era was still fresh in America’s collective mind. He was the last president to serve two terms, and much had changed during his 13 years on the national political scene. When he first ran for president in 1824, there was only one national party, and Americans, taught by the founders to distrust parties as the tools of ambitious demagogues, relished the absence of partisan conflict. By the time Jackson left office in 1837, national politics was dominated by a thriving two-party system. The underlying reasons for this change were numerous, but the immediate catalyst was the impulsive, provocative Indian- and British-fighter from Tennessee.

To his supporters, “Old Hickory” was the quintessential Washington outsider: a tough, bold Westerner with patience for neither political maneuvering nor legalistic hairsplitting, a triumphant warrior who pursued corrupt politicians and elite bankers and industrialists with the same grim-faced resolve which had brought him victory over Indians, the Spanish and the British. To these “Democrats,” as his new party was called, Jackson was the champion of the common man, and they followed him into battle against powerful centralized government and the would-be aristocrats who sought to profit from it.

His enemies said Jackson was a loose cannon, a hot-tempered demagogue who shamelessly courted the masses with no thought to constitutional principles or the rule of law. They denounced him as an aspiring “King Andrew I” and styled themselves “Whigs” in emulation of the American Revolutionaries, who in their own fight for liberty had labeled themselves after the British opponents of absolute monarchy.

Muddying the Democratic purity of Jackson’s memory was the Nullification Crisis of 1832 and ‘33, in which the explosive executive displayed the unyielding decisiveness that his followers admired but also revealed the limits of his support for state rights. When the South Carolina legislature responded to a new protective tariff by “nullifying” it (that is, declaring it unconstitutional and therefore void), Jackson issued a blistering proclamation in which he condemned nullification as a treasonous attack on the Union. Privately vowing to lead an army into South Carolina himself and hang the nullifiers, he sent arms to local unionist military forces, reinforced the navy detachment at Charleston Harbor, made arrangements to collect import taxes at the harbor’s forts and requested that Congress give him whatever authority he needed to make South Carolina back down.

Jackson also worked behind the scenes for compromise (although in the end it was legislation negotiated by his rivals Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun that enabled South Carolina to stand down without losing face). Nevertheless, it was his resolute public stance for the Union that frustrated, resentful Northerners seized upon during the Secession Crisis. Ironically, Republicans, most of them former Whigs, were vociferous in their call for a strong Jacksonian response to secession, while most Northern Democrats – citing Jacksonian ideals of respect for local government and condemnation of antislavery agitation – called for compromise.

Northerners likewise summoned Jackson’s memory as a standard which their own president was failing miserably to meet. In the wake of Major Robert Anderson’s daring transfer to Fort Sumter, James Buchanan’s comparative impotence led Northerners to moan, “Oh, for an hour of Old Hickory!”

On Jan. 8, the anniversary of Jackson’s triumph at New Orleans, state and local leaders across the North ordered commemorations – a common practice, but one that took on thick political overtones in this climate. In Massachusetts the newly inaugurated governor, John Andrew, ordered 100 guns fired on Boston Common to honor both the Battle of New Orleans and Major Anderson. In Chicago, Mayor John Wentworth ordered business suspended so that people might gather to express their devotion to the Union, with cannons firing and bells tolling throughout the day. In Auburn, N.Y., home of procompromise leader William H. Seward, a hundred guns were fired “in honor of the memory of General Jackson as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, and as the defender of the Union against nullification and treason.”

Even Jackson’s bitterest opponents rallied around him. In the 1820s and ’30s, General Winfield Scott had wrangled with Jackson both professionally and politically, their feud at one point nearly resulting in a duel. But in mid-December, with South Carolina’s secession looming, Scott pointedly reminded Buchanan of Jackson’s vigorous actions in 1833, emphasizing Jackson’s view that he was merely defending the government, “but that if So. Carolina attacked [federal officials] it would be So. C. that made war upon the U. States.”

Scott was far from alone: Despite the large number of former Whigs among their ranks, it was Republicans especially who embraced Jackson’s legacy. Party newspapers reprinted the Nullification Proclamation, praising its forceful response to South Carolina’s treason. Over and again editors, speakers and correspondents urged their leaders to take “a firm Jackson stand” against secession and hoped that Lincoln would be “another Jackson.”

The president-elect himself was closely examining Jackson’s record. In the 1830s, echoing the warnings of arch-Whig Henry Clay that a “military chieftain” like Jackson had no place in a republic, the young Lincoln had warned against the rise of “an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon.” But in composing his strategy against secession, Lincoln turned to the Old Hero’s Nullification Proclamation. Its ideas would be prominent in his Inaugural Address in March, including its claim that the Union predated the states, its insistence that no nation has within its fundamental law a provision for its own destruction, its emphasis on the obligations imposed by the president’s oath of office, and its declaration that any use of federal force would represent not aggression but self-defense.

Democrats, who blamed Republicans for the crisis and urged compromise with the South, struggled to maintain a claim on their party’s founding father. Democratic newspapers pointed out that not only Jackson but Whig idol Henry Clay had sought to defuse the situation through concessions, and they tried to align Republicans, with their state-level resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, with South Carolina’s 1833 stand. “If nullification be odious in South Carolina,” demanded the Daily Ohio Statesman, “is it not equally so in Massachusetts, Michigan, and Ohio?”

The entire debate bore little, of course, on the actual question of the Secession Crisis. Few Northerners considered how closely the new crisis actually paralleled the earlier one. Indeed, there were a number of fundamental differences between the two, prominent among them three decades of mounting sectional tension, which had made Southern defensiveness stronger and more widespread while desensitizing Northerners to disunion threats.

But the most important difference stemmed from the strategy of Southern radicals. The chief reason South Carolina nullifiers backed down in 1833 was their realization that none of the other slave states supported them. But they also saw how Jackson’s forcefulness frightened and alienated those same moderate Southerners. In 1860 the radicals did not wait for cooperation among the slave states; rather, South Carolina’s secession was calculated to generate momentum that would either carry the rest of the South out of the Union along with it or pressure the federal government to carry through on the forceful response that Jackson had only threatened, thereby winning over the less-committed slave states.

It succeeded brilliantly in doing both. Over the next six weeks, despite varying levels of secession feeling, every other cotton state followed the Palmetto State’s example. And when the tidal wave of disunion broke against Unionist majorities in the Upper South, the mere existence of the seven-state Deep South Confederacy would impel Lincoln’s April decision to reinforce Fort Sumter, sparking open conflict. Once he called on the remaining states to help suppress the Deep South’s rebellion, four more slave states, including all-important Virginia, seceded and joined the new Confederacy.

In other words, it was neither Republicans nor Northern Democrats who had learned the most important lessons of Andrew Jackson and the Nullification Crisis: that honor belonged to the fire-eating radicals who controlled his erstwhile opponent, the South Carolina state government.

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