But it says a lot—and not all of it good—that progressives have so completely sworn off the political legacy of Andrew Jackson. As Steve Inskeep—whose own book pulls no punches on how Jackson stole the American South away from its native peoples—argued in these pages, “Jackson’s greatest political achievement was the widening of democratic space. He brought new groups of voters into the political system.”
Inskeep was making that argument to demonstrate a key difference between Jackson and Trump, who largely failed to widen the electorate in 2016. Jackson, Inskeep noted, brought new voters into the American democratic experiment and gave a political voice to those who had previously been voiceless. But if Trump failed to do the same, he seems to have understood lessons about Jackson’s success that progressives, to their detriment, have largely forgotten.
As Meacham argued, the great political tragedy of Jackson was that “a man dedicated to freedom failed to see liberty as a universal … gift.” He did not, in other words, see fit to extend political liberties to those other classes of people—women, African Americans, native peoples—who were denied a voice in the early days of the Republic. But Meacham was also quick to remind his reader that Jackson’s triumph was that he “held together a country whose experiment in liberty ultimately extended its protections and promises to all.”
This is why Trump is not wholly wrong, albeit in his rambling way, when he speaks of Jackson saving the Union—not during the Civil War, of course, but three decades earlier. That was no small achievement. It was, indeed, the ultimate achievement of the founding fathers and the generation that followed them. Contemporary progressives, however, apparently see little to celebrate in such achievements. And if Jackson has fallen out of popular favor among the elites, well, the University of Virginia among others should be growing uneasy, because it’s only a matter of time before Jefferson, Madison, and many others also fall from grace.
At the same time Democrats have abandoned Jackson politically, they have embraced a new hero, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton—who kept his place on the $10 bill thanks in part to a hit musical bearing his name—may be the founding father contemporary progressives are most likely to admire. Hamilton, unlike Jackson, was on the right side of the key issues—most notably abolition—from the start. Unlike his arch-nemesis, Jefferson, he also understood that a strong federal government might be the best guarantor of civil liberties in a country whose history goes on to teach us that state and local governments can be just as tyrannical as the federal government.
(And it is here, for the sake of a neat argument, that I will note but quickly skip past Hamilton’s championing of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Or the fact that we would likely classify Hamilton—unlike that godless heathen, Jefferson—as an evangelical Christian were he alive today.)