The Jacksonian Tradition in American Domestic Policy


Nearly 15 years ago, Walter Russell Meade wrote a famous essay about the Jacksonian Tradition in American Foreign Policy. A key point in it is that much if the American electorate views foreign policy primarily as a matter of honor. Those countries who comport themselves honorably are to be left alone, or worked with as appropriate. Trade agreements and peace treaties are all wonderful things, and even wars are not necessarily bad — honest disagreements require a frank airing of the issues — but in the end, honorable nations shake hands, sign the peace, and live by it. Dishonorable nations are to be left alone to rot unless they directly threaten us, at which point they are to be obliterated. As Meade put it:

Once the United States extends a security guarantee or makes a promise, we are required to honor that promise come what may. Jacksonian opinion, which in the nature of things had little faith that South Vietnam could build democracy or that there was anything concrete there of interest to the average American, was steadfast in support of the war — though not of the strategy — because we had given our word to defend South Vietnam. During this year’s war in Kosovo, Jacksonian opinion was resolutely against it to begin with. However, once U.S. honor was engaged, Jacksonians began to urge a stronger warfighting strategy including the use of ground troops. It is a bad thing to fight an unnecessary war, but it is inexcusable and dishonorable to lose one once it has begun.

Honor codes come in two basic varieties: those based on the duel, and those based on the vendetta. Most of Northern Europe had a dueling code, as did, for example, Japan. Honor in these cultures is about demonstrating courage in the face of danger. If someone questions your honor — by slighting you or by diminishing your station — you demonstrate your courage to them by challenging them to a duel (the modern expression “say that to my face” has effectively the same meaning). The purpose of the duel is to receive fire, which is why some traditions considered it insulting to fire your pistol into the air. Once completed, however, honor was restored and both parties were free to go about their lives and even reconcile.

Vendettas, on the other hand, characterized Southern Europe and Scotland. Vendettas are about avenging wrongs. Someone can insult you to their heart’s content, but if they harm or wrong you, then you must destroy them completely, by any available means. Ambushes, assassins, or even more indirect methods are perfectly acceptable.

The Jacksonians, descendents of both English and Scottish honor codes, have a strange mix of the two, perhaps best exemplified by Jackson’s duel with Dickinson. Jackson deliberately held his fire, allowing Dickinson to wound Jackson, who then took careful aim and fired. The gun misfired, so Jackson recocked the pistol and plugged Dickinson square in the heart. Jackson was willing to face fire — and willing to die honorably — but he intended to kill Dickinson one way or the other, even if it cost him his own life.

In this week’s G-File, Jonah Goldberg elaborates on his Special Report rant that there is a populist revolt brewing in response to the misbehavior of the government, specifically, the revelations regarding Jonathan Gruber. Jacksonians expect government to be corrupt, but they require that it not be perverse; it may line its pockets, but it may not harm the people to do so. If it does, Meade is sanguine: the Jacksonians will revolt and elect a hero, as they did previously with Jackson himself, both Roosevelts, and Ronald Reagan.

I am less sure. The Jacksonian response to corruption has historically been to withdraw, first to the frontier, then into their churches and towns. Their antagonists follow until their train of insults culminates in harm, at which point the Jacksonians become bloodyminded. Meade skips over it in his discussion of Jacksonian heroes, but Lincoln can also be seen as of that mold, elected to punish the Southern states for insulting their Northern brethren by forcing the Fugitive Slave Act on them, violating both the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, as well as the implicit the agreement of the Founding to contain slavery and allow it to die (all brought about by the Louisiana Purchase, itself a dubiously legal executive act).

Jacksonians are honorable people. They will put up with much, and will withdraw into their enclaves rather than get sucked into a vendetta. Executive encroachments, legislative flimflam, judicial arrogance… the Jacksonians won’t respond to any of it. Until they do.

Their predecessors in England launched both the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution.

I do not want to repeat that experience.

Image Credit: Scott Ableman.

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There are 6 comments.

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  1. Guruforhire Inactive

    I highly enjoyed reading this.  Thanks.

    • #1
  2. user_358258 Member

    The feds aren’t leaving many enclaves to withdraw into, are they?

    • #2
  3. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT

    I think we are going to be forced into reacting and retaliating. Just a matter of time. I’m so tired of our government giving us the one finger salute from both sides.

    • #3
  4. user_428379 Thatcher

    While not thinking in terms of duels and vendettas, I do think the country is ripping itself apart. Phyllis Schafley, now in her nineties, is comparing Obama’s recent executive order on immigration to Fort Sumter (which she delineated from Pearl Harbor). It took about a year for the Civil War to ramp up after that. I expect that it will take a generation for this to percolate up to full fledged succession, which hopefully will be peaceful.

    Of course, all this could be prevented by going back to true constitutional federalism.

    • #4
  5. user_75648 Thatcher

    Excellent Post.

    • #5
  6. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy

    If nothing else, a revival of the Jacksonian tradition would enable us to understand our Islamist enemies better. If we insist on always behaving as a post-honor society, then our engagement with the honor societies of the Islamic world will continue to be fraught.

    • #6
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