“Back to Jackson” by Richard Sale


I promised Pat I would do another ramble on Andrew Jackson. I think that the best book on Jackson was written by Arthur Schlesinger. “The Age of Jackson.” I recommend it to anyone as the most thorough analysis of Jackson, his personality, political trends of his time, the bank war, and Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet, etc.

Jackson’s election is usually described as an expansion of democracy, but it is more accurate to say it was an expansion of opportunities for the small capitalist. The bulk of these felt that the door or avenues of advancement had been blocked or compromised.

America was still a nation of small towns and farms. Only one out of fifteen Americans lived in a city. Factories had sprung up but only in small numbers. The bulk of small capitalists believed that the door to economic fulfillment should be nudged open. The growth of the railroads opened up vast tracts to anyone who wanted to make money. The small capitalists were hardworking and ambitious and obtaining economic success was a bedrock belief of theirs. This class included workers, shopkeepers, craftsmen, and small business men.

James J. Grund, an immigrant who had come to America in 1836, wrote: "Business is the very soul of the American…business is the source of all human facility. It was as if all America was one gigantic workshop over the entrance of which was the blazing inscription, No admission Here, Except on Business.” This inclination was, in many cases, corrupt. Many American of the day were more interested in the speculative value of the land rather than their agricultural yield. Many of their ventures were financed by wild cat banks that used their money recklessly and stiffed their debtors.

In the East, there were sound, safe state banks that bitterly resented the U.S. National Bank of Nicolas Biddle who wielded his power in Philadelphia.

President Franklin Roosevelt had called GOP capitalists of his day, “economic royalists,” and he wanted to restore opportunities that had been snuffed out by their corrupt preponderance. This meant creating a government that would be an equivalent in force and power them.

To Jackson’s age, it was felt that business opportunities had been stifled by the National Bank which blocked the way to success for many humbler Americans. They turned to the states to obtain charters for newer banks better able to meet their needs, but the banking charters issued by state legislature ended up little monopolies themselves. Individual parties whose capital was deemed too small were denied entrance to strategic avenues of advancement offered by banks, ferries, turnpikes, bridges and railroads.

The Bank of the United States was the largest of thee privileged monopolies. One of the major forces propelling Jackson was the belief that the bank had denied many genuine opportunity and the ability to compete. As a man, Jackson loathed unfair privilege. To his mind, one of the worst defects of Biddle’s bank was that it was immune from government control. He intensely disliked the fact that a quarter of the bank’s shares were held by foreigners.

Jackson harbored a real feeling for the underdog. He had an obsession with fairness, in my view. In one of his speeches, he denounced any political structure that acted to make the powerful more powerful; he was aware, he said, that the gifts of nature, talent, wealth, etc were unevenly distributed. He didn’t want to try to abolish such uneven gifts of nature. What he wanted above all, was equality before the law because that would enable the humbler members of society a fair chance at success in life.

Toppling Biddle

The turning point in the war against Biddle’s bank came when Jackson withdrew all of its deposits and gave them to supposedly sound state banks which promptly used their new resources to start a credit boom which collapsed in 1837, ruining their clients. Jackson had always been leery of wildcat banks. By destroying Biddle’s bank, the wildcatters were now free to act as they pleased, which was not Jackson’s intent. He hadn’t dethroned Biddle only to release the restraints on the wildcatters, but the truth dawned on him that he hadn’t established any federal control of credit.

By opening the gates to anybody who could meet state requirements for banking, little by little, the corporate idea of business was separated from its unhappy connection to corrupt monopolies. That was Jackson’s great contribution to American capitalism, but it was a triumph that didn’t last.


As I wrote earlier, it is unmistakable except to the blind that the key to power in America is money and the possession of huge amounts of it. After the Civil War, money was the key to ascending the social ladder, and getting a fortune was not a matter of polite duels between nimble rapiers but of brass knuckles. It was a high stakes game. Success meant glory; failure, bankruptcy and oblivion. Respect for the rule of law was ignored as irrelevant. When Jay Fiske and JP Morgan found themselves in control of the two ends of the Susquehanna railroad, they resolved the conflict by mounting locomotives at each end and then ramming them headfirst into each other. And even when one party lost, it retaliated as best as it could by ripping up tracks and destroying trestles as they went.

Competition between companies meant no quarter given and none asked. In one case, a persistent opponent of Standard Oil was blown up by dynamite. Some organizations resorted to kidnapping. There were other incidents of moral charm as well. When a great blizzard blew down telephone poles in New York, Jay Gould, a ruthless master of money markets, was forced to send his financial dispatches by messenger. His competitors kidnapped the boy, substituted a look-alike, and for days, Gould was dismayed to find his moves were known days in advance.

Not only were these titans of industry ruthless and implacable, they were vulgar and flagrantly arrogant, boasting openly about their immorality. At no time did they treat the American public with any reverence. Commodore Vanderbilt, the king of shipping and commerce, once said, “What do I care about the law? Haint I got the power?” J. Pierpont Morgan was no better. When an associate of his, Judge Gary, challenged him, he said, “I don’t want some lawyer telling me what I cannot do. I hired him to tell me how to do what I want to do.”

Finding an honest financier in those days was as rare as finding a jewel in the head of a toad. The historian Robert Heilbroner once said that the rich in the 19th century ran the country as one big casino, but what he didn’t say was that the game was almost entirely rigged. Today, we know it is. Heilbroner, Hofstadter, Josephson, and many others abound with incidents that make you turn away in moral disgust. These robber barons were alas simply ordinary men, simple, sentimental, and unimaginative and not very well educated. Some like Carnegie turned to philanthropy later in life, but they were very old by then had already spent their vital force.

Over time, after the Civil War, embraced a doctrine of a debased, heartless form of Darwinism that proclaimed that those that had emerged at the top of the conniving heap were the best fitted to survive. They claimed to be choicest flower of civilization. When the philosopher Herbert Spencer visited New York, it was almost a state occasion. Spencer, of course, was a close friend of Andrew Carnegie.

Huge financial success has a strange effect. When any one of us begins his career, little notice is taken of him or her. When a businessman becomes a captain of industry owning billions in junk bonds, your fame somehow results in his being seen as a gifted person with extraordinary skills, superior diligence and superior insight. Soon an ideology springs up around him, based on cowed servility, that embraces his poisonous practices which are all based on the maximization of profits, the minimization of risks — as if such things were the real source of the American greatness. Hofstadter said, “Assured by intellectuals of the progressive and civilizing value of their work, encouraged by their status exemplars of the order of opportunity, exhilarated by the thought that their energies were making the country rich, industrial millionaires felt safe in their exploitation and justified their dominion.”

Every other measurement of merit was discarded as trivial or eccentric.

The long trials of reform — the passage of child labor laws, the Factory Acts, the struggle for Social Security — meant nothing for Big Business. The fact that economic life for the masses was intolerable meant nothing at all. For Big Business, power to compel was the grim idol it worshiped and adored. And worse, the famed barons were an incredibly crass bunch who smoked cigars wrapped in one hundred dollar bills. They were vulgar and pedestrian souls.

It is therefore a trial of forbearance to hear the descendents of such men preach to the country about “moral values.” Admiration by reflex is no admiration at all. It is not an achievement when the leg flies out when you hit the right sinew of the knee. The genuine threat to the current worship of Big Business, portraying it as the embodiment of all that is noble and generous in the American spirit, has in fact been overwhelmed by the march of events. The current array of mental defectives called Republican candidates doesn’t seem to realize their ideology has long ago become obsolete.

Men like Carnegie and Fisk compromised contaminated or ruined everything they touched, James Blaine, Roscoe Conkling — they didn’t give, they took. They subtracted, they didn’t add. They amassed, they didn’t build. They were full of crafty self-glorification, self-exultation, a cruelty of spirit and, most of all, the blind desire to rule. Morality to them was just a pose. They were the “higher” spirits of the day; the rest of us were merely insignificant and mediocre. In the end, they were semi-barbaric in body and desire.

As “The Big Short” shows, their descendants have done everything possible to help ruin the country and cause the sufferings of thousands of ordinary people who were blameless except that they were born ordinary. The American dream, formulated by President Lincoln, said that you could rise in life if you were honest, unsparing and worked hard. Such lines seem to be musingly quaint today. The vast system of corrupt connivance, called capitalism, takes success out of our hands. The rich rig the game in their favor, their language is always vague, and it conceals and misleads. No wonder that so many average Americans are outraged. Their needs, their aspirations, and desires for success have been scorned. Most of all us who work hard are basically not rewarded. We are left behind fenced off from the wealthy while the barriers of wealth grow taller. The world today is run only by people who harbor low aims, and no relief is in sight.

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39 Responses to “Back to Jackson” by Richard Sale

  1. Haralambos says:

    Thank you once again, Mr. Sale, for an insightful, thought-provoking piece of special relevance in our times.

  2. Jackson is reputed to have said “It is not the job of government to make men rich”!
    Perhaps, some now equate governance with the opposite of Jackson’s view.

  3. Matthew says:

    Harold Livesay has a great turn of phrase on Andrew Carnegie: the lies to get the contracts and the brutality to make them pay.

  4. ex-PFC Chuck says:

    re the robber barrons, then and now, the old saying goes: “They earned their money the old-fashioned way. They stole it.”
    Paging Dr. Michael Hudson.

  5. Ishmael Zechariah says:

    Mr. Sale,
    In your opinion, what definition Hofstader had in mind for “intellectuals” in the paragraph you quote? If these “intellectuals” provided propaganda cover and praise for these robbers, why should Hofstader feel unhappy with “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”?
    Similar paeans are also written by current “intellectuals” to their new overlords: “What is more relevant to our times, though, is that the rich of today are also different from the rich of yesterday. Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly” (Chrystia Freeland, The Atlantic, January/February 2011 Issue)
    Seems that, then, as now, possession of an ivy “diploma” did not necessarily make one an educated intellect, but merely a “trained” humanoid. Perhaps, instead of “intellectuals” Hofstader should have used more pedestrian terms like “courtier”, “lackey”, “sycophant”, usw. The term “parasitic elite” (Paglia, 1995) seems also apt. But, maybe, “intellectuals” are such folks. The Turkish variants supported tayyip in the first decade and are now changing their minds…
    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
    Ishmael Zechariah

  6. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Richard Sale:
    Evidently, Jackson’s “… real feeling for the underdog…” was rather skin-deep; not extending to the Cherokee Nation.
    Did he not also have financial interests in the dispossession of the those unfortunate people; did not his friends and associates covet that land?

  7. ambrit says:

    To the average American, indeed European, of Jackson’s day, the Aboriginals of America were not fully ‘human.’ As to the Cherokees; they had generally backed the English in the War of 1812. The Crown, cannily, had cultivated the Southeastern tribes. In return for certain promises, the tribes fought against the Americans, before, during, and after the War of 1812 proper. Second, the Cherokee of then were adopting “Western” ways, albeit slowly. A Cherokee alphabet was introduced, by a Cherokee, Sequoyah, after the War of 1812. Permanent villages had been standard for long before then. As the history of the Cherokee in Oklahoma shows, these Natives were adopting “Western” ways and thriving. All this directly challenged the European concept of racial superiority. Without that idea, the ideology of Exceptionalism collapses.
    As someone above asserted; the more things change…

  8. rjj says:

    Thanks for the Grund quote. Wondered “Who’s he and what did he really say?” so followed it. Can’t tell if he was an early prototype for what later became a “booster,” an enthusiast, a self-promoter, or in The Aristocrats, taking the piss by proxy. Only read about a hundred or so pages but based on that can say he’s funny, informative, and a VERY easy read. He seems better than fiction as a quick dip >> shallow wade in early 19th century America for people who are not already immersed in the period.
    Aristocracy in America : from the sketch-book of a German nobleman
    The source of the quote on business.
    The Americans, in their moral, social, and political relations

  9. Walter R. Moore says:

    The Creeks certainly sided with the British, but the Cherokee fought *on the side of the US* – under Andrew Jackson (do a search on the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, 1814). Jackson apologists will find nothing in the War of 1812 to excuse his betrayal of the Cherokee.

  10. steveg says:

    Todays version of robber barons have given little
    if anything back. An exception would be the Gates
    Foundation but most goes to third world peoples
    rather than those communities most in need USA.
    Carnegie gave us public libraries while others
    scholarships. What have the Clintons done for
    America? The Soros and Sabans and Adelesons
    have contributed to political causes. At least the
    Koch brothers sponser PBS programs.
    Have I missed any good works?

  11. Richard Sale says:

    I agree. Didn’t Balzac once say that behind every fortune is a crime?

  12. Richard Sale says:

    That attitude reminds of the multitudes who think that Moslems are not fully human.

  13. Bill Herschel says:

    I hope he did. Proudhon, who with Albert the Worker sat in the Assembly with Victor Hugo, said, “Property is theft,” a statement whose truth appears to be proportional to wealth. The more you have, the more you stole.
    Gates who is mentioned elsewhere in the comments did only one thing to get his fortune, protecting the copyright (and trade secrecy) of the DOS operating system. Patenting the paper clip would have required more intellectual effort. Which is not to say he is a thief, but only to say he was lucky, and certainly no more deserving of his fortune than anyone else, which may be what Proudhon had in mind.

  14. LeaNder says:

    I’ll take your recommendation, Richard, and never mind that other orders no doubt may arrive first, will read yours first. Makes sense in context. 😉

  15. Babak Makkinejad says:

    You cannot compare Gates with the robber barons; from whom has he stolen his wealth?
    He has been the man, who like Jobs, Wozniack, Kapoor, Fairchid, Grove and many many others created wealth out of the thin tissue of human vision and ingenuity.
    It is because of Gates and Win-Tel duopoly that all those Indians in India can compute in their own scripts.

  16. Tyler says:

    Good grief, can we have one Jackson thread where the same five people don’t run in and start virtue signaling about the f-cking Indians?
    WE KNOW. You don’t have to signal so hard you make dogs bark and interfere with amateur radio transmissions to let everyone know you’re the Best Good Thinker ffs.

  17. jsn says:

    A good essay, thank you! This extends some of the same themes:

  18. GlennF says:

    Mr. Sale,
    You ignored the main source of capital for half the country during up until 1861 – slaves. I today’s dollars they were worth trillions with a T. It is the main reason the south didn’t invest in manufacturing – which would require “dollars”. Because Jackson was a slave owner and his cabinet and social circle were slave owners, they had every reason to close the National Bank as it served them no useful purpose.
    Along with GW, Jackson was the worst president this country ever had and furthered the continuation of slavery.
    The best book written about the slave industry – it spends many pages on Jackson and his disastrous policies – is the current 2015 masterpiece by Ned and Constance Sublette “The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry”.

  19. Kassandra says:

    There is a good movie about this time: Kris Kristofferson: Heaven’s Gate.

  20. Stonevendor says:

    Balzac quote: “Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.”
    A translation: “The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed.” I leave to the francophiles to judge the accuracy of the translation.

  21. Fred says:

    Yes, Jackson really should have bought the Shawnee lands, you know the land the Cherokee forced them out a hundred years earlier in an unprovoked war. Then it would have been a straight forward land deal. I wonder if the Great King did the same kind of thing to those virtuous native peoples a couple thousand years earlier in the regions he wanted?

  22. Fred says:

    This comment and steveg’s comment as well miss the point entirely of the political power wielded by Bill and Melinda Gates and their “tax exempt” foundation to name just one NGO.

  23. steveg says:

    Some critics maintain he bought or
    eliminated the competition. Not
    unlike a baron. Did he not??

  24. Bill Herschel says:

    Colonel Lang’s French is infinitely better than mine, but I think in this case “fortunes” means monetary fortunes. There is an enormous amount of French literature that I haven’t read, in translation because I can’t read it in French,, (i.e. nearly all French literature) and that I wish I could read but now doubt that I ever will.

  25. turcopolier says:

    Bill Herschel
    I confess to being a Francophile. pl

  26. rjj says:

    Happy Easter!

  27. Babak Makkinejad says:

    This sentiment is shared, I should think, by all pre-industrial people.
    A famous line in Persian states:
    He whose silver and gold has increased,
    Himself or his father was a thief.
    This sentiment informs, to this day, large numbers of people in Iran and colors their views of the market economy.

  28. Babak Makkinejad says:

    No, I disagree.
    You can look at the period in which Microsoft, Borland, and Lotus each had a Spreadsheet product; with Lotus being the market leader.
    The Lotus CEO at that time, an idiot no doubt, hated Microsoft and forbid the development of a version of Lotus 123 for Windows. That was an opening for Excel.

  29. Babak Makkinejad says:

    I think the ignorant, the bigoted, and the idiot are those that wield the most political power in all representative systems.
    Gates Foundation is like a waqf – how important have waqfs been in the Middle Eastern history politically? Not much.
    How important all these various foundations in US have been politically; the Rockefeller, the Ford, the Stanley, etc.? Doubt very much their importance.
    The electorate chose Ahmadinejad twice, George Bush twice, Cameroon twice, Berlusconi multiple times – to name a few.

  30. Babak Makkinejad says:

    There is no evidence of forced migration of ethno-linguistic or ethno-religious communities under the Great King.
    But the Safavids, the Timurids, and many others did exactly that.

  31. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Well, instead of complaining, may be you can contribute something.

  32. robt willmann says:

    This article by Doug Wead describes how the wife of Andrew Jackson, Rachel Jackson, was attacked during his presidential campaign, and that she was shielded from becoming aware of it. However, after the election, she did, and her health rapidly declined–
    In this one, Wead writes a little about Andrew Jackson and the present Trump campaign–
    I do not know how accurate or thorough Wead is in writing history. However, he does know a lot about the process of election campaigns. He worked with former Congressman Ron Paul during his 2012 campaign for the Republican nomination. They followed through on local and state delegate rules of the Republican Party and got delegates. But Mitt Romney and the Republican Party changed the rules, and also blocked Ron Paul’s people at the 2012 Republican convention, to stop him. Wead was one of the first people in this year’s primary elections to say that what mattered was the fine print of the rules of the Republican Party and the additional procedures required in addition to voting to get delegates.

  33. steveg says:

    “the idiot the bigoted etc”
    The root of representative government.
    The alternative is what?
    Monarchy, dictatorship,fascism, theocracy
    a combination of the above?
    Explication please.

  34. Could be wrong but believe Trump in 2016 like Jackson in 1824 winning popular vote but losing in the House of Representatives.

  35. Medicine Man says:

    I don’t know, Fred. I think in many conquests under (near) feudal systems the people living on the land were part of the spoils.

  36. Farooq says:

    Besides the compelling office products as you have mentioned, Microsoft’s development toolkit starting with Visual Basic has been widely popular. Visual Studio with dot Net platform and associated languages is gold standard in development world to this day.
    I have never been a fan of MS as they tried to kill Open Source, but reducing all their achievements to monopoly is grossly unfair. They have been made to pay for the sins of monopoly in US (child golves) and Europe(gloves off) too.

  37. Fred says:

    I think your lack of concern over NGO money from foundations like Gate’s is misplaced. How much has such NGO money has been involved in the revolving door of neocon employment for the past 2 or 3 decades? Heritage Foundation, Council on Foreign Relations, etc, amongst others. Those foundations have been a major factor in shaping US policy. The money that keeps them going doesn’t come from mom&pop in flyover country.

  38. Fred says:

    As events would have it I was returning from Nashville on Easter Sunday and took a side trip to The Hermitage.The contrast between the booming city and the world that one finds upon leaving the interstate and traveling the last 5 miles on Old Hickory Boulevard is pretty stark. Twenty minutes and a world away from that shiny downtown.

  39. Wiki Extract:
    The United States presidential election of 1824 was the tenth quadrennial presidential election, held from Tuesday, October 26, to Thursday, December 2, 1824. John Quincy Adams was elected President on February 9, 1825. The election was decided by the House of Representatives under the provisions of the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution after no candidate secured a majority of the electoral vote. It was the first presidential election in which the candidate who received the most electoral votes (Andrew Jackson) did not become President, a source of great bitterness for Jackson and his supporters, who proclaimed the election of Adams a corrupt bargain.
    Prior to the election, the Democratic-Republican Party had won the last six consecutive presidential elections. In 1824 the Democratic-Republican Party failed to agree on a choice of candidate for president, with the result that the party effectively ceased to exist and split four ways behind four separate candidates. Later, the faction led by Andrew Jackson would evolve into the modern Democratic Party, while the factions led by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay would become the National Republican Party (not related to the current Republican Party) and then the Whig Party.

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