Statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park on June 23, 2020. Photo credit: Erik Cox Photography / Shutterstock.com.
In today’s moment of Black Lives Matter and peaceful protests over racial injustice, more Americans than ever are tearing down statues across the country: Confederate heroes, dismantled; icons of Jim Crow, removed. Now, even former presidents aren’t immune.
Consider Andrew Jackson — one of President Trump’s personal models, who is also commemorated with a monumental statue that stands in Lafayette Park across from the White House.
Just as many people spoke out against Jackson and his policies during his lifetime, protestors today are making their voices heard. An abortive attempt to pull down the Lafayette Park statue led Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) to call the protestors a “mob” and remind them that they were destroying a statue that “commemorates the military service of Andrew Jackson.” Trump himself retweeted a mugshot, posted by the United States Park Police, of one of the alleged perpetrators: a masked Black man, wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt.
For Americans like Cotton and Trump, Old Hickory represents the best of the United States. Before becoming president, Jackson famously led the United States to victory over the British in 1815, earning him the nickname “the Hero of New Orleans.” Once in the White House, Jackson stood up to South Carolina’s efforts to ignore federal laws regarding tariffs and its threat of secession. He also defended working-class Americans against the national bank, calling legislation to extend that institution’s operations the work of “the rich and powerful” to use “our Government to the advancement of the few at the expense of the many.”
He also removed federal officeholders whom he believed saw the government bureaucracy “as a means of promoting individual interests” instead of “an instrument created solely for the service of the people.” Most Americans would consider Jackson’s actions and words in these instances to embody the nation’s ideal of democracy.
But if Jackson epitomized these positive American values, he also represented the darker side of the United States in which he lived.
He actively participated in the removal of Indigenous peoples, both as a general during the War of 1812 and the First Seminole War (1816-1819) and as president at the time of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Jackson perpetrated these removals in the name of national security and the improvement of relations between white Americans and Indigenous groups such as the Cherokee. The result was America’s distinctive contribution to the art of ethnic cleansing.
Jackson also owned a plantation. When he died in 1845, his estate listed 161 enslaved people; he owned approximately 300 over the course of his life. His treatment of the people he held in bondage was typical of slavers. In one instance, Jackson offered extra reward money if Tom Gid, one of his enslaved men who had run away, was given extra lashes upon capture; in another instance, he ordered Betty, an enslaved woman, whipped for washing clothes for neighbors “without the express permission of her Mistress,” meaning Jackson’s wife Rachel.
Jackson’s involvement in protecting slavery was not simply personal, however. While president, he ordered Postmaster General Amos Kendall to suppress the circulation of abolitionist material via the U.S. mail, and also ordered him to post publicly the names of white Southerners who subscribed to this abolitionist material, in order to shame them as supporters of “this wicked plan of exciting the negroes to insurrection and to massacre.” He had no interest in protecting the free speech of those he disagreed with.
Taken as a whole, Jackson’s words and actions might lead one to argue that his legacy is “complicated.” In many ways, he was America’s first champion of the forgotten man, its first icon of democracy.
Still, for many Indigenous and Black Americans — and, indeed, for many white Americans who know the whole story of his life — Jackson does not represent complexity. Instead, he represents America at its worst: intolerant, cruel, murderous.
And that is why Andrew Jackson is a fitting target for protesters today.
Mark R. Cheathem is professor of history and project director of the Papers of Martin Van Buren at Cumberland University and the author of the award-winning books Andrew Jackson, Southerner and The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson.