By their own lights, Jacksonians are populists (and “profoundly suspicious of elites,” according to Mead); unselfconsciously patriotic or nationalistic; and deeply religious, with a tendency toward fundamentalism and its emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God. Country music is their quintessential cultural expression.
They admire self-sufficiency, but unlike Jeffersonian libertarians, Jacksonians are not averse to finding a positive role for government as long as it fights on the right side of the cultural divide. “Jacksonians believe that government should do everything in its power to promote the well-being â€“ political, moral, economic â€“ of the folk community,” Mead writes. The military is part of that community: “When it comes to Big Government, Jeffersonians worry more about the military than about anything else. But for Jacksonians, spending money on the military is one of the best things governments do.” ~Daniel McCarthy
Mr. McCarthy does a fine job in this article explaining Mead’s idea of foreign policy “Jacksonians” and the foreign policy “Age of Jackson” we seem to be in, and I have no argument with Mr. McCarthy’s presentation of Mead’s idea. But, as I have in the past, I am perplexed by the use of the term Jacksonian to describe the foreign policy or indeed overall political view under discussion. I don’t pretend to have special insight into the career or presidency of Andrew Jackson, but it puzzles me that he has been associated with the aggressive, militant sort of foreign policy that he has been. Perhaps the trouble I am having with the distinction between Jeffersonians and Jacksonians is that, historically, these were in many cases the same people or the latter were the sons of the former.
Rude democratisation, the rise of the Democracy and the disappearance of the old Democratic-Republicans introduced obvious changes, but in most things Jackson was committed to roughly the same persuasion as the Jeffersonians before him and he governed in many respects as Jefferson did (whether or not that style of government contradicted clear principles of republicanism). Ascribing a more militant attitude to the Jacksonians seems to fit the administration of Young Hickory (James Polk) rather than Old Hickory, so we might call them Polkians. But even that is not quite right.
Some might argue that Polk only flourished in the political atmosphere that Jackson’s politics created, and that may be true, but we see in Polk not the aggressive and nationalistic demagogue who might be associated with Mead’s idea of Jacksonian populist nationalism but instead a retiring realist who pursued diplomatic solutions before resorting to force and someone who went to war only to achieve tangible and vital objectives in the national interest. If Jackson was a military man and personally combative, and even if he sympathised with his fellow Tennesseans in old Texico, his policy was generally and wisely irenic, as was that of his successor. The president properly associated with this stuff, for good or ill, is probably Lincoln or TR. Don’t lay it at Jackson’s feet.
Update: Going a bit more into the presentation of modern-day “Jacksonians,” I find the label less and less compelling. For instance, in the pull-quote above there are two claims: in the modern “Jacksonian” view, the government should do everything in its power to promote the well-being of the “folk community” and money is no object when it comes to military spending. The contrast is supposed to be with a limited Jeffersonian state, but historic Jacksonians likewise wanted a small, constrained constitutional government that did very little.
The modern “Jacksonians” are really Sam Francis’ Middle American Radicals, with whom the actual Jacksonians of the 1830s and 1840s would have much less in common than this theory holds. Do these two attitudes towards the government have any basis in Jackson’s policies, or those of his successors? The man who inflated the size of the standing army to gigantic proportions was Lincoln. By contrast, military spending in the antebellum period was, of course, extremely limited.
The proponents of an activist government that would work for “internal improvements” were Jackson’s bitter enemies. Jackson used his power as president to break the Bank, because the Bank was a source of tremendous power for precisely those interests that believed in a more active and involved federal government. Arguably, it might ultimately be in the best interests of the MARs to adopt the real Jacksonian politics, but that is not the sort of politics they have adopted. I implore everyone, don’t lay the preferences of the New Right, whatever their merits or flaws, at Jackson’s door. It’s simply not true.