Monday, November 2, 2009

Jacksonian Conservatism?

It's rare to find a conservative positively quoting Andrew Jackson. After all, he's the first president who wielded his office with supreme authority, an American Caesar who was derided as "King Andrew" by his opponents (and proto-Republicans) the Whigs. Yet a few days ago at Jersey Conservative, Dominick G. Spadea concluded a Tea Party-esque rant against the Federal Reserve by quoting Andrew Jackson's veto of the Second Bank of America:

"It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society-the farmers, mechanics, and laborers-who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing. In the act before me there seems to be a wide and unnecessary departure from these just principles."

As Damon Root pointed out at Reason last year:

On the bank issue, Jackson was something of a libertarian, arguing that the institution granted monopoly powers to politically connected elites. Yet when it came to South Carolina's talk of secession, Jackson was a ferocious nationalist, threatening to unleash steel and fire to preserve the union.

His politics, in other words, were all over the place, held together only by his considerable belief in his own righteousness. But why would anyone accept that as a reason to trust a single, fallible human being with unilateral war making authority?

Andrew Jackson was the closest thing to a despot this nation had ever known, and the fact that he was a populist shouldn't make him any more loveable to conservatives. Yes, I know that Americans of all stripes trivialize history, but there's a certain breed of conservatives who do something very dangerous; they value the past without truly valuing history. It's easy to do. In fact, I constantly struggle with it myself, but I now understand that knowledge doesn't come from memorizing a Patrick Henry quote, or citing Thomas Jefferson. The key, for me at least, was the recognition that the Founders were a diverse group, even during the War of Independence, and not all of them are rightfully called conservative.

Thomas Paine, as I've previously mentioned, wasn't the slightest bit conservative... but now plenty of conservatives (including me until relatively recently) see him as a forgotten Founding Father. Franklin wasn't particularly conservative, and would likely be labeled a RINO if he even felt at home in the Republican Party. Jefferson is a fascinating case. His quote, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants" is as far from conservatism as Marx's "Revolutions are the locomotives of history." Yet the Tea Party movement seems to love Jefferson because of his professed belief in a limited federal government. The reality of his administration is quite different, but what he said is apparently far more important than what he did.

It is the same mistake Mr. Spadea makes in regards to Andrew Jackson. He quotes Jackson approvingly, but fails to see that Jackson was very much like our current president: Old Hickory knew that gaining popular support inevitably requires giving the people what they want, and that if the people are placated, enormous power can we wielded with little public consternation. Jackson could be both a man of the people, and an autocrat... kinda like Hugo Chavez today.

For the record, while it may very much have been in the nation's interest to shut down the 2nd Bank of the United States, the nation still went through an economic panic and 5-year depression beginning in 1837... the year after Jackson issued his quotable veto message.

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