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It’s 1828 All Over Again — Maybe

By Nathan Richendollar ’19

This election season has been replete with pundits, blustery as the Straits of Mackinac, who insist this election is unprecedented. In some ways, such as the utter political inexperience of Donald Trump and having a female candidate, it certainly is. Other prescient themes of the campaign, such as protectionism vs. free trade, populist referendums on career politicians and corruption, urban-rural divides, and cults of militaristic personality, however, are nearly as old as the republic. These central campaign issues harken back to 1828, when Andrew Jackson faced incumbent president John Quincy Adams. Quite obviously, Hillary Clinton is analogous to Adams and Trump to the conservative populist Jackson.

In Donald Trump’s press conferences, he never fails to mention one of his main gripes against his opponent: that she’s corrupt, or in the Donald’s words, “Crooked Hillary.” Although odd by the standards of 20th and 21st century niceties, this allegation against a presidential nominee is far from unprecedented. One of Andrew Jackson’s chief quibbles with John Quincy Adams was the former’s loss in the “Corrupt Bargain of 1824.”  In that year Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote and 99 electoral votes, more than any other candidate, but lost when the election was thrown to the House of Representatives, largely owing to collusion between Henry Clay and Adams. In fact, had Jackson given his opponent a catchy nickname, it may well have been, “Crooked Quincy.”

On tariffs and economic nationalism, Donald Trump is also very reminiscent of America’s seventh president. Trump has brought protectionism back into vogue within the two-party apparatus for the first time since the days of Hoover and Smoot-Hawley, promising to “make sure American companies aren’t closing down factories here and moving jobs overseas. “It’s not gonna happen, folks.” Trump has proposed a tariff as high as 45% on goods from China and a re-negotiation of NAFTA to protect American manufacturing and farming from unfair foreign competition. For this stance, Trump has taken fire from the adamantly pro-trade intellectual elite of the Republican Party. Similarly, Jackson advocated for protective tariffs during his presidential term despite being a member of Jefferson’s Democratic Party (Jefferson’s famous philosophy was “free trade and liberal intercourse with all nations”). In fact, Jackson faced such resistance from the elite, land-owning wing of his party that Vice President John C. Calhoun led a nullification challenge in South Carolina, to which Jackson is fabled to have responded, “I will hang the first man I can lay my hands on engaged in such a treasonous act, upon the first tree I can reach.”

This brings us to another Trump-Jackson similarity: their blunt speech and warlike personalities. Donald Trump said he could, “Go out on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone,” and not lose support. Andrew Jackson actually shot many people and didn’t shed support. Among Jackson’s doomed dueling detractors was Charles Dickinson, who incidentally published an anti-Jackson op-ed in National Review (not the modern National Review that has been highly critical of Trump).

Similarly, both Jackson and Trump attempted to appeal to notions of American toughness and military strength while asserting their ability to unilaterally control the armed forces. In the wake of Worcester v. Georgia, in which the Supreme Court ruled the Indian Removal Act to be unconstitutional, Andrew Jackson infamously quipped, “Chief Justice Marshall made his decision. Now let’s see him enforce it.” Jackson then sent the US army into north Georgia to compel the Cherokee’s expulsion to Indian Territory. Similarly, Donald Trump has said that top US generals would carry out interrogation tactics contrary to the 8th Amendment and widely considered war crimes, “Because I tell them to.”

Both candidates also felt a need to defend their unusual conjugal arrangements on the campaign trail. Donald Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on Heidi Cruz when a pro-Cruz super PAC uncovered photos of Melania Trump posing for GQ, intending to nettle Indiana social conservatives’ sensibilities. Similarly, Rachel Jackson’s virtue was called into question when it was revealed that her divorce was incomplete when she married Jackson.

More broadly, the 1828 election was a populist uprising, driven chiefly by support for Jackson in rural areas and the expanding Scots-Irish heavy western backcountry, against a career politician who had a presidential family legacy. John Adams occupied the presidency 24 years before his son’s victory. Hillary Clinton’s husband Bill was elected president in 1992, 24 years ago. Donald Trump, much like Jackson, is drawing his strongest support from the backcountry of Appalachia and the mid-south while his rival draws stronger support from urban areas and political elites.

Andrew Jackson rode a populist wave to the White House in 1828 against a lifelong northeastern politician, but this year’s Democrats might take solace in the candid fact that Trump is not a war hero like “Old Hickory” Jackson. But they would be remiss to forget that populist uprisings from the right, while rare, sometimes land someone in the White House, especially when the other candidate has already lived there.