Guest Essayist: Professor William Morrisey


1828: The General and the Presidency

Americans remember Andrew Jackson’s victory over John Quincy Adams in 1828 as the General’s revenge for his narrow loss to Adams four years earlier, when no candidate received a majority in the Electoral College, the election devolved to Congress, and Henry Clay threw his support to the man most likely to endorse his “American System”—the network of public works or “internal improvements” Clay fought for throughout his career. In accepting the grateful president-elect’s offer of the Secretary of State, Clay opened himself and his ally to the charge of a  “corrupt bargain”—a charge Andrew Jackson fervently believed true, and one he and his political allies kept alive for the next four years.

But the 1828 campaign also saw an interesting and important Constitutional dispute. No one doubted Jackson’s right to run for the presidency; he was fully eligible, legally speaking. More than that, his spectacular record as a military commander in several wars against Indian nations and in the War of 1812 evidently fitted him for the role of Commander in Chief. While the nickname “Old Hickory” is the one that has lasted, in his own lifetime he was equally known simply as “The Hero”: the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, redeemer of American pride at the end of a mostly ignominious war against our still-detested former imperial oppressors, the British, whom the adolescent Jackson had fought, suffering wounds and imprisonment, during the War of Independence. “Bloodied, but unbowed,” the phrase made by a British poet later in the nineteenth century, already described Jackson, how Americans felt about their country, and about him.

John Quincy Adams came from a line of decidedly unmilitary sorts—great men, too, but great civilians. His partisans in 1828 needed somehow to turn the Hero-General’s record against him, and in his years of soldiering Jackson had in fact left behind some ammunition for their use.

Adams’s partisans began by citing the Constitution. As with many of its important features, the Constitution’s laws for civilian-military relations leave room for interpretation and controversy. Having experienced the difficulties associated with citizen militia—those sunshine soldiers and summer patriots Thomas Paine decried—the Framers had come around to seeing the necessity as well as the danger of a standing army. They permitted one, controlled by biannual appropriations, which would keep ambitious officers on a short leash—or rather purse-string. Further, Article I, section 8 gives Congress “Power to… make rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and sea forces.” This ensures that military men will be tried in military courts under military law, but also that military law will be written by Congress, not by the military. It was John Adams, John Quincy’s father, who wrote America’s first military code, years before the Constitution, and it endured largely unaltered until the First World War.

Similarly, the Constitution places civilian control of the military in its actual operations firmly in civilian hands—those of the President. Article II, Section 2 states, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States,” and of the militia, too. Controversy continues to this day over the question of whether it is the President or the Congress who may initiate a war, but this is a question of which civilian branch has that authority, not one of military independence.

By 1828, Andrew Jackson had served his country not only as a military officer but as a member of the House of Representatives and as a United States Senator. Although his admirers and detractors united in calling him “General” Jackson, he was long decommissioned. What possible problem could there be in a Jackson presidency, then?

The difficulty lay not in his eligibility but in his temperament, as shown by his record. Andrew Jackson was a warrior spirit. Like all such spirits, he chafed under the governance of unmilitary souls. After the Battle of New Orleans he had suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the city as a precaution against civil disorder. A few years later, infuriated by the Treaty of Ghent’s restoration of Indian lands taken in the War of 1812, he challenged the authority of President Madison and Secretary of War William H. Crawford, inducing them to renegotiate with the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees, re-taking their lands, and effectively driving many of them into Florida, where they renamed themselves “Seminoles.”

That wasn’t enough for Jackson. He wanted Florida and, for that matter, Cuba too, for his country, having no more love for Indians and Spaniards (then Florida’s nominal rulers) than he had for the British. Stretching the limits of his instructions, he proceeded to take Florida, along the way trying and hanging a couple of Brits who had encouraged the Seminoles to fight. As with so many such expeditions before and since, the record shows an ambitious military officer doing rather more than he was told to do, with possible winks and nods from his civilian superiors. The Madison Administration grumbled but did not prosecute. And it did retain Florida for the United States.

A decade later, Adams’s partisans hoped they had an issue. Jackson’s longtime rival Henry Clay had once intoned, “Rome had her Caesar, England her Cromwell, France her Napoleon…. Let us be wiser than those nations.” He was quoted more than once in the campaign; against the charge of corruption, supporters of Adams and Clay charged insubordination and the danger of an elected military dictatorship.

The argument didn’t work in the election campaign because Jackson’s strongest defender in Madison’s cabinet had been none other than Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who had argued that if Spain could not control the Seminoles (and they couldn’t), the America military commander on the spot had not only the right but the obligation to fight. As for the Indians themselves, Adams had cited the law of nations, as enunciated by such well-known authorities as Hugo Grotius and Emer de Vattel, which stipulated that a civilized nation had every right to punish nations or other groups that do not themselves respect the rules of just war. This teaching had been echoed by the Declaration of Independence, which defined “savagery” among some of the Indian tribes as the indiscriminate slaughter of women and children. Whatever the merits of Adams’s argument, the fact remained that he had made it, and published it at the time. The ammunition Jackson had left for his political opponents was overwhelmed by the ammunition left behind by their own candidate.

Electioneering notwithstanding, the complaints about Jackson in 1828 illustrate an important political principle, one that remains current in the United States today and in every political regime around the world, to one extent or another. The dilemma is easily stated: If you are for the people, for `the many,’ and against the aristocrats, the oligarchs, `the few,’ how shall you proceed? Although the many, being many, outnumber the few, the few, being few, are often better organized and better positioned for self-defense than the many. That being the case, do the many not need a champion? Do they not need one who will stand up for them, defeat the few in alliance with the many? But having done so, will `the one’ keep his promises? Or will he tyrannize over the many after defeating the few—the only group strong enough to resist the one?

Americans in 1848 remembered Napoleon, the real winner of the French Revolution. Thirty years dead, Napoleon lived on in the minds of republicans everywhere. And during Jackson’s own presidency his aggrieved opponents caricatured him as “King Andrew the First” (as a famous cartoon of the day portrayed him). They also called themselves “Whigs,” after the opponents of British monarchs, and after the American founders themselves, who had appropriated the same good old name. At the end of Jackson’s second term, the French political writer and parliamentarian Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States and worried that increased democratization of civil society could lead to despotism, as democrats (effectively if not intentionally) gave more and more of their sovereignty to their political heroes, duly elected to the central government in Washington.  As a staunch unionist and defender of states’ rights under the Constitution, Jackson himself maintained a balance between democratic society and republican institutions, but a century later, as a result of subsequent presidential elections, Americans would begin to lose their good fortune.

Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.

2 replies
  1. Ron
    Ron says:

    Good food for thought in the second last paragraph regarding the many vs. the few and role of “the One” for short-term gain without thought given to a possible long-term loss.

  2. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    A lot of food for thought.

    I agree the 2nd to last paragraph is thought provoking.

    I did not know John Adams wrote the 1st military code.

    Also, how that military law is written by the civilian government. I wonder who, if anybody controls the NSA. I’ve that the NSA director has said that they have their own constitution and write their own laws. Let us hope that is not the case.

    Thankfully Jackson “maintained a balance between democratic society and republican institutions” and nor any other President tried to become a military dictator.



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