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In today’s President-a-Day pick, let’s take a look at Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s faith in democracy and his efforts to open up the franchise and the political process remain his greatest achievements, but he has fallen somewhat in the presidential rankings to 10th on the list of greatest presidents. Nevertheless, political scientists consider his influence to be on a par with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR in the way he changed the political system — his was, as they say, a “realigning” election that signaled a fundamental change in American politics.
Today, I fear most people know Jackson solely as the figure who appears on the $20 bill. As those who remember Jackson will recall, this would have driven him into a rage (though many things set off his wild temper). Jackson hated banks, and succeeded in destroying the Second Bank of the United States. While recent biographers have been fascinated with Jackson’s personal story — his enlistment as a boy in the Revolutionary Army, his terrible Indian policy, his dueling, and his temper — I think he is perhaps the most independent of presidents in his attitude toward the Constitution. He unforgettably vetoed legislation renewing the Second Bank on the ground that it was unconstitutional, even though the Supreme Court had held the Bank to be constitutional — in essence, claiming a right to interpret the Constitution independently of the Justices.
Here’s a link to a paper that examines Andrew Jackson’s role in establishing the foundations of the American presidency. He is generally considered by historians to have been one of the nation’s most vigorous and powerful chief executives. He advanced a new vision of the president as the direct representative of the people. Jackson put theory into practice with the vigorous exercise of his executive powers: interpreting the Constitution and enforcing the law independently, wielding the veto power for policy as well as constitutional reasons, and re-establishing control over the executive branch. In the first of two great political conflicts of his time, the Bank War, Jackson vetoed a law that the Supreme Court and Congress both thought constitutional, removed federal deposits from the Bank, and fired cabinet secretaries who would not carry out his orders. In the second, the Nullification Crisis, Jackson again interpreted the nature of the Constitution and the Union on behalf of the people, and made clear his authority to carry out federal law, even against resisting states.
Although he was a staunch defender of limited government, Jackson would confront head-on the forces seeking a weaker union and/or a weaker executive. His achievement would be to restore and expand the presidency, within the context of a permanent Union. He would also spark resistance so strong that it would coalesce into a new political party, the Whig party, devoted to opposing concentrated executive power.