Tuesday, August 11, 2015

AltHistory Scenario #2: Andrew Jackson is Never President of the United States

Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) provides the start of a very interesting era in the early history of the United States, one that eclipsed the early fight between Federalists and “Jeffersonian Democracy” of the size and role of government to a broader, more populist idea pushed by Andrew Jackson. Elected in 1828 and again in 1832, his influence was felt in America for decades after, right up until the Civil War. Coming from an area that hadn’t even been properly surveyed in modern North and South Carolina, his backwoods upbringing, service in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, abilities as a lawyer, infamous temper and resort to duelling to avenge any attack on his honor makes him one of the most interesting personalities to occupy the White House until at least Teddy Roosevelt. His policies, especially in the forced removal of American Indians, have since fallen under scrutiny and are debated today. Yet, he’s still on the $20 bill.

And what did TR get? A mountain with his face carved in it?

So what if Jackson never became President? How big of a hole would he leave in American history? Well, here’s a possible scenario.

Point of Divergence:

The POD is something I’ve had to think a lot about. While originally the POD I wanted to set up was if he was elected in 1828 as in our history, but had been assassinated in office, possibly in 1835, that wouldn’t result in a major change in history as most of the major reforms and policies would have already been enacted. The Election of 1828 is also a possible POD, where he lost to John Qunicy Adams (who Jackson believed had stolen the four way tie of the 1824 Election from him), but I think this is unlikely as well. Therefore, let’s just say that either in the Battle of New Orleans that established his fame or in a duelling incident after, that he was killed, removing him from history.

Jackson, get yourself down from there! You'll be shot by those damned Redcoats!

Consequences:

There are four major things I would like to focus on here, if Jackson was never president, and his populist policies that founded the modern Democratic Party were never enacted. This is not to say that a future President could have eventually done many of the things that Jackson did, but for the purposes of this article, we are just looking at if the policies that Jackson put in place were never implemented.

First, and the most controversial of all, was the Indian Removal Act that lead to the displacement and death of thousands during the "Trail of Tears" and the Seminole War in southern Florida that stretched into the Presidency of Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren. In this timeline, without this policy, the Indian’s that remained in the Deep south in places like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida would remain where they are. For decades, as European and American settlement advanced into their traditional lands, groups like the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw and Seminole had adapted, adopting the settler’s culture and earning the nickname the “Five Civilized Tribes.”

And then they would have ended up in... Oklahoma. 

Since these tribes remained, they would be able to integrate into the society of the South, a policy that later presidents could use with the more “wild” tribes of the West and North. While I wouldn’t go far as to say that the relations between White and Native American’s would be perfect, I’d think without major antagonism, such as their forced removal from ancient homelands, maybe the Indian Wars, and battles like Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee would never occur. Maybe a bit wishful thinking, but I don’t see how attacks like real history could have happened without the Indian Removal Acts.

The second major thing of Jackson’s presidency was to the civil service and bureaucracy, the rotation and “spoils” system. To put it simply, the rotation system was to prevent offices from becoming hereditary, solely for elites, passed down from father to son like titles and offices in European monarchies. This was to make it easier to prevent corruption and encourage more outsiders, especially those without a good education or background to assume office.
Man, Thomas Nast was mean...

However, the second part, the spoils system, created the corruption Jackson was trying to eliminate. When a new president comes to power, with the spoils system he can remove those who follows his opponent, while rewarding his loyalists with powerful, high paying federal appointments. While the really bad cases of the spoils system didn’t come to light until after Jackson’s term, if the spoils system was never brought in, then maybe a bigger disconnect between the wealthy, educated elites and the average farmer and worker would widen and grow. However, I feel that eventually a “Spoils System” of government would be firmly entrenched until major, full scale education and civil service reform was performed later in the 19th and 20th centuries are undertaken.

Third, the economy. Jackson, for all the things he did, basically destroyed the US economy with a few measures he believed was to eliminate the power of wealthy bankers. First, he vetoed the charter of the Second Bank of the United States, which was a private bank that served more or less as a central bank to the US (a role that the Federal Reserve plays today), and was authorized to hold the financial accounts of the government and print paper money. Jackson, who disliked the power of the President of the Second Bank, Nicholas Biddle, fought to dissolve the bank. By first withdrawing all of the government’s reserves into state banks, who now basically had the license to print money, it severally impacted the ability of the Second Bank to actually function, and it finally collapsed in 1841. Without a larger bank to control the smaller banks, speculation ran rampant and inflation skyrocketed, especially in land as western expansion continued, fuelled partially by the suddenly available land from the Indian Removals. In one of his last acts of office, Jackson signed an executive order known as the Specie Circular where all federal lands had to be paid for in gold or silver, nominally to actually slow down the speculation.

Then again, Nicholas Biddle totally looks like a "fat cat," so really, can you blame Jackson?


Since the banks that printed the money didn’t have enough gold and silver to trade, many of them collapsed, sparking the Depression of 1837 that lasted for five years, and doomed Martin Van Buren’s presidency. If the Second Bank of the United States lasted longer, maybe eventually being made part of the government, I feel that the US would have had a more stable banking system. The vicious cycle of boom and bust that would define the history of the US until at least 1914 when the Federal Reserve was created, the US economy would have seen more steady, if maybe slower, growth than was the case in our history. Recession and Depression would still happen, but I think with a stronger central bank to control the money supply, the effects wouldn’t be as harsh.

Finally, we have the Nullification Crisis. In 1828, Congress passed tariffs that severely effected states like South Carolina and the south with more expensive Northern machinery and products, with a fall of cotton and other agriculture prices. This “Tariff of Abominations” as it was called, gave South Carolina the chance to try to “nullify” a federal law that the state felt was against it’s interested, and even raised the possibility of succession over 30 years before the Civil War. Jackson, though sympathetic to the plight of the South, responded by threatening to personally lead an army into South Carolina to enforce federal law, saying that the central government needed to be strong, even if it went against what states believed was in their interests. This became a huge point, one that would be brought up later in the Civil War, and still used today, of what rights the states have in comparison to the federal government.

For example: the right for states to have really boring flags... I'm looking at you, Montana!

This could be the most important effect in American history if Jackson was not in office. Without such a forceful defender of the Union, and if South Carolina successfully nullified the Tariff, what would have the rest of the states done had another, much bigger states right issue came along, such as slavery? I have a feeling that in this case, the US would have split into at least two, if not more countries, and possibly without an effort by a weaker, less powerful federal government to maintain the union. While there wouldn’t be a Civil War, these new nations, driven by ideology and economics, would remain rivals, and possibly come to blows, making it even bloodier.

Conclusion:

Andrew Jackson was an important President of the US for a lot of reasons. He was one of the first populist presidents, one that did things that he thought would benefit the common man, even though many of those things, such as the Indian Removal Act and the destruction of the Second Bank of the United States caused more harm than good in the long run. But he was strong supporter of the union, a nation indivisible. This belief would run all the way to Abraham Lincoln and today, even if Jackson and Lincoln were in opposite parties. If Jackson was never President, I don’t know how Lincoln could have held the United States together in a Civil War by adamantly standing up for the union if Jackson hadn't done it as forcefully. This is to say, even if the Union survived long enough with states nullifying Washington’s policies or simply seceding from the Union.

I'm sure these guys would have liked that...


I feel that in the long run, if Jackson wasn’t President, the US could be better in some areas, namely in relations with Native American’s and the economy, but worse in others, in a lack of a strong union. Issues like the spoils system would come up eventually anyway; States rights and nullification could have been handled, but not in such a forceful way; the Second Bank may have lasted longer; and the policy of “don’t do anything” about the Native Americans could have lasted until they were more or less like the rest of their neighbors, just not of the same cultural background.

I think this scenario where Andrew Jackson was never President is also a good time to lay out my major, overriding personal idea when it comes to Alternate History: if you change something, I don't necessarily think that it's always a case where the world is better or worse because of these changes, just... different. In general, I feel that when you draw up these scenarios, maybe the winners of our history are now the losers, but that doesn't always mean that now everything is going to be remarkably better or disastrously worse. Well, in most cases: plagues and nuclear wars pretty much ensure making everything a lot worse for a long time. But in general, I feel changes like removing Jackson as seventh President of the US may change some things, like relations with Native Americans, for the better, but also change other things, such as the possible survival of the United States for the worse. Are the equal? Depends on how you look at it. All I know is that history without this event (and the many, many other scenarios I will be talking about for the next who knows how long) is going to be different.

1 comment:

  1. Great exploration of a complicated President! I grew up despising Jackson because of his indifference to the Supreme Court. However, I began to develop a more nuanced appreciation of his presidency when I researched him more thoroughly (ironically enough) for an alternate history scenario of my own (impeachment over his handling of Worcester v. Georgia). He really represents the new American character: a mixture of both higher aspirations and human frailty, passionate, insistent, and controversial.

    I'll quibble a bit with your thoughts on the Indian Removal Act. While Jackson certainly wanted the Native Americans out (he vowed to do so with as much zeal as destroying the bank when he came to office), he was also responding to a situation that was steadily going downhill in the Appalachian mountains of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. These states were invading reservation territory, passing their own laws to justify taking land and resources.

    One could argue the Indian Removal Act only served to provide a unified federal policy over what was already happening. Without it, I see the so-called "civilized" tribes eventually coming to blows with their neighbors in any case, especially when their appeals to the Supreme Court are not heard. Remember, the Worcester decision was about white missionaries, not the Cherokee; their court case was dismissed. Short of sending in troops to defend the Native Americans to enforce federal treaties with the nations (something NO president during this time, of whichever party, would even consider), I don't see any scenario where these tribes aren't eventually pushed out and/or destroyed.

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