Why you should care
Because there are parallels between the 1830s and today.
Invading Spanish-held Florida and securing that prized territory for America in 1818 proved hugely popular with the public. But Gen. Andrew Jackson’s maneuver also earned him a lifelong enemy: Henry Clay. Then the speaker of the House, Clay was infuriated by Jackson’s brash move — undertaken without congressional consent — and compared the military leader to a tyrant, unsuccessfully asking for his formal censure.
“Beware how you give a fatal sanction … to military insubordination,” Clay warned then-President James Monroe. Clay later apologized, but Jackson snubbed his attempt to make things right, writing to a friend in Tennessee: “The hypocrisy and baseness of Clay makes me despise the villain. I hope … you will see him skinned here [in Washington] and I hope you will roast him in the West.”
The two men hated each other’s guts.
Fergus Bordewich, historian
Both men hailed from the West, which, at the time, meant the frontier areas of Kentucky and Tennessee. Each was ambitious enough to think he should run the country. But that’s where the similarities ended. Where Jackson, aka Old Hickory, had an authoritarian streak, the Great Compromiser lived up to his moniker: When Jackson reached the White House rallying for the common man, Clay was a larger-than-life senator. “The two men hated each other’s guts,” says historian Fergus Bordewich, author of America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas and the Compromise That Preserved the Union.
Donald Trump has expressed admiration for Jackson, putting his portrait in the Oval Office and touring Jackson’s Hermitage mansion in Nashville. Much has been made of their shared populist streak. And while Trump spars with Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, or fellow Republicans like Gov. John Kasich and House Speaker Paul Ryan, he does not yet have a rival on par with Clay.
If Florida was the spark, the election of 1824 doused Jackson and Clay’s rivalry with kerosene. No candidate drew a majority of electoral votes, so the election was decided in the House of Representatives. Clay, the speaker and a presidential candidate himself, helped deliver the presidency to John Quincy Adams over Jackson, who had more electoral votes. Clay was later named secretary of state, in what Jackson and his backers alleged was a “corrupt bargain.” Feud on.
In 1828, Jackson, a former senator and war hero, triumphed over Adams with a campaign fueled by populism and with nary a mention of the national bank. The Second Bank of the United States, chartered by Congress and set to expire in 1836, was controversial but had become critical to financing national roads, railroad and canal projects. “There was some reason to believe Jackson actually supported the bank initially,” says Sam Haynes, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington. But Jackson changed direction, Haynes adds, when he realized that “Clay and the president of the bank, Nicholas Biddle, are close and that Clay supports the decision to reauthorize the bank.” In that sense, Jackson is almost the inverse of Trump, who inveighed against Wall Street on the campaign trail and then stuffed his administration with Goldman Sachs alumni. The “Bank War” stretched on for Jackson’s entire first term, pitting him against Congress, which generally favored the bank. Jackson stripped its funds in 1833 without congressional assent, drawing accusations of abuse of power.
The beef was personal, but closing the bank also made political sense: Jackson’s base was composed of the forgotten masses who distrusted East Coast elites. And they didn’t like financiers, even though the bank did finance infrastructure desperately needed in frontier states. The battle over “internal improvements” was fought on similar fault lines as the bank kerfuffle, with rhetoric about an overreaching federal government that echoes today’s conservatives. Jackson vetoed a bill to finance the Maysville Road, saying it was better left to the states. The road just happened to go through Clay’s home state of Kentucky.
The foils were also on the opposite side of a heated debate over tariffs. In the reverse of today’s positions, Clay and the establishment supported high tariffs to protect heavy industry, then concentrated in the Northeast. Jackson generally took the position of Southerners and Westerners who wanted lower tariffs so they could purchase cheaper imports. Clay got his way at first with high tariffs, but it sparked a constitutional crisis when South Carolina threatened to secede. For once, the feud with Clay did not define Jackson’s actions: Preserving the Union was more vital. So he sent in the military, rejecting the idea of “nullification” and challenging another rival — John C. Calhoun, Jackson’s former vice president. Clay and Calhoun eventually agreed to a compromise on a reduced tariff, and South Carolina held off seceding for another three decades.
For Jackson, it proved to be great politics: He won re-election in 1832 and birthed the Democratic Party in his populist image. But at what cost? “What Clay was striving to do with the bank, tariffs, internal improvements and so on was to establish a more creative and forward-looking federal government,” says Bordewich. But he was defeated. As current White House strategist Steve Bannon sets his sights on the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” he’s hoping Trump enjoys Jackson’s success.