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The Root of Old Hickory

Tags U.S. History

11/23/2018Murray N. Rothbard

[Previously unpublished online; Faith and Freedom 2, no. 9 (May 1951).]

Tempestuous "Old Hickory" has been one of the great storm centers of historical controversy. The old-line historian, who flourished about the end of the nineteenth century, regarded Andrew Jackson with undisguised contempt. He considered Jackson an unwashed, wild-eyed radical who rode out of the Western hills to trample on sound finance, as embodied in the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson led his mob of poor Western farmer-debtors to the elimination of the Bank, because it represented the major bulwark against the inflation and paper money that they ardently desired. (Debtors always benefit by inflation, since they can repay their debts in "cheap" money, the purchasing-power of which has dwindled as compared to the time of the original loan). Jackson's opposition to protective tariffs was of a piece with his opposition to sound finance; both were motivated by the hostility of poor agrarians to rising industry and sound money.

This view of Jackson has now gone out of fashion and has been replaced by the New Historians with what they assert is an entirely different picture of the man and his role in American history. The New Historians, stung by the charges of their conservative opponents that the New Deal and its ideology represent a revolutionary break with the American past, have gone racing back into the history of this country to find predecessors and precedents. As  a result, they have established a complete mythology of God-like heroes. The litany runs: Paine, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, and F. D. Roosevelt. In this list of titans, Andrew Jackson ranks high in their eyes. Of all these figures, it is Jackson who is supposed to be closest to F.D.R. in ideology, temperament, and significance. Jackson led not only the poor farmers but also the urban workers in a mass movement against the privileges of monopoly capital. His war on the banks, his opposition to tariffs, and his crackdown on the Southern Nullifiers were part of his championing of human rights versus property rights. The analogy with the great Roosevelt is clear. (A recent example of this approach is the Age of Jackson, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.)

A True Liberal

It is evident that despite the seemingly startling contrasts in these two interpretations, they agree on fundamentals. Both regard Jackson as an anti-capitalistic radical fighting with mass support against the rich, against industry and wealth of all kinds. The fact that the old-liners hated Jackson for this supposed characteristic and that the moderns love him for it should not blur the basic agreement. And it is precisely in this basic agreement that both interpretations of Jackson are grievously in error. It is safe to say that Jackson would have been horrified at the image of him presented by almost all historians, old and new.

For Jackson was nothing of the kind. It is difficult to generalize about Jackson; his fiery temperament, his capacity for bitter personal hatred, his autocratic taste for personal power which blossomed in his early military campaigns, and his weak grasp of political principles led him into many inconsistent and wrong-headed acts. Underneath these weaknesses, petty whims, hatreds, and inconsistencies, however, there is clearly discernible a basic set of political and economic principles. These were, in brief, the principles of pure Jeffersonian Democracy: thorough-going "hard money," with the eradication of inflationary paper money and reliance on gold and silver; laissez-faire-strict adherence to free enterprise in a market unhampered by government subsidies, tariffs, heavy bureaucratic expenditures, special privileges, or heavy taxation; firm insistence on states' rights. In foreign policy, the guide is America first, last, and always, with no entangling alliances and an attitude of firmness, cordiality, but profound suspicion toward all foreign countries, particularly Great Britain.

The Hard Core

Such was the hard core of Andrew Jackson's principles. In sum, if Andrew Jackson were alive today, he would be generally accused of being an "extreme bitter-end reactionary" and a follower of the "Chicago Tribune line." In other words, he believed in a government limited to the prevention of violence, otherwise allowing complete individual liberty for all citizens, with no special burdens or privileges for any group.

A brief article can only cover a few high spots in the presentation of an authentic portrayal of the Jacksonian movement. In the first place, the split between the Democrats (Jackson) and the National Republicans or Whigs (Adams, Clay) was not along class or sectional lines. There were a great many rich capitalists, creditors, and substantial citizens who supported Jackson; there were a great many poor laborers and farmers who supported the Nationals. Similarly, there were a host of Easterners who supported Jackson and numerous Westerners who backed the opposition. In fact, the leaders of the Jacksonians were as wealthy and reputable as those of their opponents.

The split between the two parties was mainly ideological. Broadly, the Democrats held that "that government was best that governed least" — they were the true liberals of their day. The Nationals were the incipient Socialists of their time — they advocated a growing network of prohibitions, subsidies, taxes, and expenditures imposed by an expanding central government. They looked forward to the hobbling of states rights, to prohibitive tariffs, and huge federal expenditures on public works. After Adams became President in 1824, the Democratic movement, particularly among its informed leaders, began to take on the nature of a crusade against the emerging statist philosophy of the son of the old Federalist leader. And furthermore, too prone to follow the dictates of Great Britain to suit the Jacksonians.

In the famous Bank War, Jackson was not led by anti-capitalist, pro-inflationist motives. Exactly the contrary. Jackson, and especially the brilliant corps of economists who advised him, saw that the banks, and particularly the Bank of the United States, were the great engines of unsound inflation, leading afterwards to financial disaster. They realized that if the central bank were eliminated, the danger of inflation would be greatly diminished and the return to a truly sound currency would be consummated. Perhaps Jackson's ending of the Bank was too arbitrary and hasty. But his general position on the issue was quite correct.

And finally, if for no other act, Jackson deserves a cherished place in the hearts of all Americans: By the time Jackson left office, for the first time and the last time in the history of America, we had wiped out all of our public debt. Old Hickory's success in liquidating the national debt is one of the most glorious accomplishments in American annals. And it provides us with a vital clue to the true nature of his political philosophy.

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Cite This Article

Murray N. Rothbard, "The Root of Old Hickory," Faith and Freedom 2, no. 9 (May 1951):11–12

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