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Five lessons 1828 holds for a Trump presidency

Finding the patterns

The election of 1828 was a shock to America's political and commercial establishment of its day. Five lessons from Andrew Jackson's raucous presidency.

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Andrew Jackson, shown in this engraving riding a white horse in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, because a war hero and president. But he – and the onetime holiday commemorating the victory – have been largely forgotten.

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In a highly personal and nasty campaign, an improbable candidate rides widespread anger with the establishment to victory and the White House.

Election 2016? No, 1828. Much like Donald Trump is doing today, President-elect Andrew Jackson ushered in an era of populist backlash. His election initiated a more powerful (and more modern) presidency and the political realignment that eventually led to the creation of the United States two-party system. Many see parallels with today.

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“This is like Andrew Jackson's victory,” former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said on MSNBC Wednesday morning after Donald Trump’s victory. “This is the people beating the establishment.”

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The parallels only go so far. Jackson was a Democrat; Mr. Trump is a Republican. Jackson’s victory was expected; Trump’s was a surprise. Jackson had experience in elective office; Trump does not. Still, the Jackson presidency offers insights into the pros and cons of populist movements. Among them:

1. Personal popularity is a powerful political force. Born poor in North or South Carolina (it’s not clear which) and spotty formal education, Jackson nevertheless read law and became a successful attorney, US representative, senator, and war hero. Jackson was immensely popular with his supporters in his eight years in office. When he left, Jacksonian Democrats ensured that his vice president, Martin van Buren, would take over.

2. Antiestablishment candidates generate intense opposition. “His presidency was personally divisive, as many Americans were appalled by him,” Henry Brands, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times,” writes in an email. “But it didn't take immediately partisan form, because there were not two distinct parties. Eventually his opponents congealed as the Whigs.”

3. Political realignments can take years. Jackson’s election in 1828 started the realignment by becoming the lightning rod for opposition. But his foes didn’t coalesce into a strong party – the Whigs, precursors to the GOP – until the 1840 election.

4. Populism is a two-edged sword. “Popular democracy is central to America’s identity, mission, and well-being, but it is also highly vulnerable to racism and irrationality,” Harry Watson, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of “Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America.” He was an unapologetic slave owner and allowed the forcible removal of Cherokees (the so-called Trail of Tears) so Georgia could claim millions of acres that the federal government had guaranteed to the Cherokees. His policies were sometimes irrational, such as opposing building roads and canals that were transforming the young nation. The forcible removal of native Americans from their land has since tarnished Jackson's image. 

5. Integrity is key. Jackson had a strong commitment to direct democracy as an antidote to entrenched privilege. He opposed canals and road-building because he worried that shared public-private investments would give advantages to insiders. He also opposed renewing the charter of the Bank of the United States (an early version of today’s Federal Reserve) because it had no government oversight. “The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes,” he said. But some of his solutions were less than honorable. He packed government positions with his friends and supporters, inaugurating the spoils system in federal government. When Congress wouldn’t closed the Bank of the United States, he pulled all government funds out of the bank – an overreaching move that got him censured by Congress.