July 2017 Spotlight On: Revolutions

Dark Side of Jacksonian Democracy: Revolution and Racist Oppression

President Jackson and Trump’s particular brands of democracy share a streak of racist oppression and both inspired especially personal resistance movements.

by Rebecca Brenner

President Trump proudly displays in the Oval Office a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, for whom he has repeatedly declared admiration.[1] In May 2017, Trump posited that Jackson could have prevented the Civil War and added that nobody had considered why the Civil War began.[2] Of course, historians have debated this question since the war’s end, and Trump likely meant that he had not yet considered it.[3] Nevertheless, Trump is much like his hero Andrew Jackson, and this should be deeply concerning. Both men’s bureaucratic inefficiencies in pursuit of populist agendas resulted in chaos. Their democratic revolutions were rooted in white supremacy. President Jackson and Trump’s particular brands of democracy share a streak of racist oppression and both inspired especially personal resistance movements.[4]

The year 1830 featured Congressional and popular debate over the land claims of Native Americans. Supporters of the Indian Removal Act, many of whom had supported Jackson, argued that this legislation was vital to ensure the safety of white settlers. They neglected to mention that these settlers encroached upon historically Native lands. Some Congressmen even claimed a moral obligation to protect the Native Americans from the damage that white settlers would inevitably inflict upon their way of life.[5]

Trump is much like his hero Andrew Jackson, and this should be deeply concerning. Both men’s bureaucratic inefficiencies in pursuit of populist agendas resulted in chaos.

The federal government under President Jackson, however, was ultimately responsible for a bureaucratically inefficient, tragic Indian Removal saga. Government officials did not effectively communicate or plan the operation. Congress allocated inadequate funding, which caused a severe shortage of resources on the ground. Inefficient communication likewise resulted in ad hoc discretion among the federal employees who were forcibly relocating Native Americans.[6] In one instance, a pregnant Cherokee woman collapsed on the route. Rather than providing the resources to survive, a low-level American government official beat her and her unborn child to death using a bayonet.[7] This brutality was a hallmark of President Trump’s favorite president, the very administration that President Trump claims inspires his own.

Trail of Tears Map
Map of the Trail of Tears, Public Domain. Courtesy Wikimedia.

Barely a week after President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, his administration issued an executive order for a “temporary” immigration ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East. Notably absent from the list was Saudi Arabia, possibly owing to Trump’s business interests there.[8] Still, opponents quickly dubbed this a “Muslim ban.”[9] Among those affected were scholars and students attempting to return to the United States for the start of spring semester.[10] More ominously, the ban affected Syrian refugee families who had patiently undergone US immigration procedures for years and had been counting down the days until they could begin a new, safe life. After the implementation of the Muslim Ban, chaos ensued. Bureaucratic procedures seemed underprepared. Likewise, Trump’s fusion of incompetence and malice was devastating.[11]

President Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and President Trump’s Muslim Ban each aimed to appease and “protect” the masses of predominantly white Americans who felt unsafe. In November 1830, the US reelected President Jackson in what was essentially a referendum on Indian Removal.[12] This was only the second American presidential election with nearly universal white male suffrage.[13] Many Jacksonian Democrats, therefore, were white men without land who hoped to gain more assets and influence. This is not to say that universal white male suffrage was wrong, but rather that its exclusion of women and racial minorities enabled a fundamentally racist, populist Jacksonian democracy.[14] The term populism also appears in commentators’ analyses of the Trump phenomenon because his campaign garnered the support of predominantly white, sometimes working-class Americans.[15] While Hillary Clinton technically won the working-class vote, Trump won the working-class states. His campaign inspired the support of groups who felt that growing diversity across the country had stifled their influence.[16] These people voted to “make America great again.” They remain indifferent to Trump’s idolization of the populist President Jackson whose policies massacred thousands of people.

Due to racist undertones, populist revolutions too often disenfranchise minorities.

President Jackson reigned in an age of majoritarianism, in which the majority disregarded underrepresented groups. Due to racist undertones, populist revolutions too often disenfranchise minorities. President Trump seemingly hopes to disempower and penalize immigrants, Muslims, Hispanics, and other minority groups. His “law and order” campaign paradoxically enabled white-collar criminals by eliminating ethics guidelines and strengthening racist law enforcement. Jacksonian America likewise repressed African Americans, Native Americans, and women. Evangelical Protestants, particularly from New England, tried to protect minority groups during the age of majoritarianism. These “moral minorities,” as historian Kyle Volk has termed them, resisted the Jackson administration through legal activism, congressional petitions, and grassroots organizing.[17] They promoted abolitionism, temperance, and the end of Sabbath mail. Although they did not meet their objectives during Jackson’s administration, they shaped American democracy and transformed conversations around key issues. Contrary to President Trump’s claim, Jackson could not have prevented the Civil War. In fact, his opposition to abolitionist groups and insistence on relocating Native Americans for westward expansion likely hastened its inevitability.

Evangelical Protestants set precedent for grassroots activism through their bottom-up legal cases and congressional petition drives. Disenfranchised people, particularly women, were central to these efforts.[18] President Jackson’s populist platform opposed all of the evangelicals’ main issues. White populist men either owned or aspired to own slaves. Populists used alcohol to cope with their daily realities.[19] They supported mail on Sundays to communicate about potential fugitive slaves and because they were non-religious. At the core of President Jackson’s base was a commitment to the forced relocation of Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi River. Evangelicals resisted this because they came to know Natives through decades of missionary efforts.[20] Jacksonian policy and politics, therefore, not only promoted racism, but also countered evangelical Protestants.

Jon Ward Tweet
Tweet by Jon Ward, reporter for Yahoo News, 21 June 2016.

In a summer 2016 tweet, Yahoo News reporter Jon Ward stated that Trump’s rambling to an evangelical audience about Bible passages resembled someone using Rosetta stone for the first time.[21] Trump needed evangelical support to win the election because they comprised the GOP’s Tea Party base.[22] For this reason, he abandoned his pro-choice stance and selected an aggressively socially conservative Vice Presidential candidate, Mike Pence.[23] Furthermore, President Trump opted out of the Paris Agreement partially because evangelicals believe that only the divine is powerful enough to cause global warming.[24] His peculiar relationship to evangelicals does not change his brands of democracy, populism, or racism. President Trump diverges from his hero Jackson regarding evangelicals simply because evangelicals occupy a more prominent role in American politics today.

Trump Jackson image
President Trump in the Oval Office with President Jackson’s portrait. Courtesy Politico.

The racism embedded within populist revolutions in the US is a central theme for analyzing either President Jackson or President Trump. Both took advantage of discriminatory ideologies and violence during their campaigns to build support, then each populist President delivered an agenda that created chaos due less to malice than incompetence. Trump seems to like the seventh President, but this has proved a more astute comparison than he intended.

Rebecca BrennerRebecca Brenner is a PhD student in History at American University in Washington, DC, studying federal, political, religious, intellectual, public, and oral history. Her fields are Early US, Recent US, and Public History. She is writing her dissertation proposal on the Sabbath mail controversy beyond church and state from 1810 through 1912. Rebecca double majored in History and Philosophy at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 2015. She earned her Masters with a concentration in Public History at American University in 2017, while on track for her doctorate. Follow her on Twitter at @rebeccabbrenner.

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[1] Max Greenwood, “Trump Hangs Portrait of Andrew Jackson in Oval Office,” The Hill, 25 January 2017, http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/316115-trump-hangs-portrait-of-andrew-jackson-in-oval-office

[2] Jonah Engel Bromwich, “Trump on the Civil War: ‘Why Could That One Not Have Been Worked Out?’” The New York Times, 1 May 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/01/us/politics/trump-andrew-jackson-fact-check.html.

[3] David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard University Press, 2001).

[4] See The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln by historian Sean Wilentz (New York: W. W. & Norton, 2005) regarding expansion of the franchise, as well as The Wages of Whiteness by historian David Roediger (New York: Verso Press, 1991) for a more cultural perspective.

[5] Congressional Debates on the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Library of Congress Digital Collections, https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/Indian.html

[6] Ethan Davis, “An Administrative Trail of Tears: Indian Removal,” The American Journal of Legal History, Volume 50, Number 1 (January 2008-2010) 49-100.

[7] Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears (New York: Penguin Group, 2007), 128.

[8] Krishnadev Calamur, “What Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration Does – And Doesn’t Do,” The Atlantic, 30 January 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2017/01/trump-immigration-order-muslims/514844/.

[9] William Saletan, “Of Course It’s A Muslim Ban,” Slate, 31 January 2017, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2017/01/trump_s_executive_order_on_immigration_is_a_muslim_ban.html.

[10] Elizabeth Redden, “Stranded and Stuck,” Inside Higher Ed, 30 January 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/01/30/students-and-scholars-are-stranded-after-trump-bars-travel-nationals-7-countries.

[11] Michael D. Shear and Ron Nixon, “How Trump’s Rush to Enact an Immigration Ban Unleashed Global Chaos,” The New York Times, 29 January 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/29/us/politics/donald-trump-rush-immigration-order-chaos.html.

[12] Harry L. Watson, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990) 112-113.

[13] Watson, 232

[14] Watson, 52; David Roedeger, The Wages of Whiteness (New York: Verso Press, 1991).

[15] Michael Lind, “Donald Trump, the Perfect Populist,” Politico Magazine, 9 March 2016, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/03/donald-trump-the-perfect-populist-213697

[16] Derek Thompson, “The Dangerous Myth That Hillary Clinton Ignored the Working Class,” The Atlantic, 5 December 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/12/hillary-clinton-working-class/509477/.

[17] Kyle G. Volk, Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2014).

[18] Mary Hershberger, “Mobilizing Women, Anticipating Abolition: The Struggle Against Indian Removal in the 1830s,” The Journal of American History (1999).

[19] Watson, 179.

[20] Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic (Cornell University Press, 2015) 211.

[21] “Evangelical in meeting with Trump says he talks to Christians like a person who just bought Rosetta stone and is practicing for first time,” Tweet by Jon Ward, Reporter for Yahoo News, 21 June 2016.

[22] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “White Evangelicals Voted Overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, Exit Polls Show,” The Washington Post, 9 November 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/09/exit-polls-show-white-evangelicals-voted-overwhelmingly-for-donald-trump/?utm_term=.1967aa73b9a1.

[23] Matthew Cooper, “Donald Trump is the Most Unlikely Anti-Abortion President Ever,” Newsweek, 27 January 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/trump-unlikely-pro-life-549375.

[24] Mahita Gajanan, “Republican Congressman Says God Will ‘Take Care Of’ Climate Change,” Time, 31 May 2017, http://time.com/4800000/tim-walberg-god-climate-change/.

3 comments on “Dark Side of Jacksonian Democracy: Revolution and Racist Oppression

  1. Another fantastic piece on the AHR. I really enjoyed your perspective. As a non-specialist in Antebellum America, I was hoping to press you for further comments on the following points.

    First of all, you seem to suggest that white populist men were, “non-religious,” that they “used alcohol to cope with their daily realities” and that they were racist. You also suggest that “Evangelical Protestants” were at the forefront of empowering “disenfranchised people, particularly women,” and that they resisted the racism of white populism because, “they came to know Natives through decades of missionary work.” This leads me to ask the following questions:

    1)Is there evidence, that when compared to the American population as a whole, white populists were non-religious in significant numbers? At any time in the Antebellum era, did non-religious Jacksonian Democrats make up a majority of his supporters?

    2)Is there evidence, that when compared to the American population as a whole, white populists consumed significantly more alcohol than other Americans?

    3) Do missionary activities preclude a racist agenda? Do they preclude cultural destruction?

    Second, when I think of Evangelical Protestants in the Antebellum era, I think of activist groups from the Northeast, but also Evangelical white Southerners who used a Biblical understanding of slavery to push a proslavery agenda. Specifically, I think of book like John Daly’s “When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War,” and articles like Larry Morrison’s “The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830” in the Journal of Religious Thought.

    Do you think we should also understand Protestant Evangelicals through that lens, or is that a bad framework?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What this article fails to mention is that that president Jackson was a Democrat. And these policies and supporters, later became prominent in the Democratic Party. Better known as” Southern Democrats”. And also gave stem to the KKK.
    It is revisionist history , not give all the information. If you don’t mention these facts or purposely omit them is intellectually dishonest.
    As for president Trump. President Trump is enforcing the laws buy a Sovereign Nation and an elected government. As an American. With Hispanic heritage, I fully support the president and his effort to enforce the rule of law.


    • William Horne

      Where does Trump stand on greenbacks, on the silver issue, or on the Mugwumps? Does he support the pre-1976 Republican “pro-choice” consensus, or its post-’76 “pro-life” position? We all know where he stands on Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” Party ideology changes over time.


      There are plenty of books about this, but historian Kevin Kruse’s Twitter feed is a great resource too: https://bit.ly/2KLmwJr. Turns out that intellectual honesty involves more than blindly shouting “Democrat!” or “Republican!” at things you don’t like.

      Your point is also completely irrelevant here since the piece isn’t about party at all, but about 1) racist articulations of democracy and 2) the role of evangelicals in society. Sorry if that was upsetting.


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