A Very Different Kind of Populism
Posted on January 22, 2017
Both supporters and critics of President Donald Trump’s political philosophy, to the extent that he consciously embraces one, refer to it as populism and invoke the name of that early American populist, President Andrew Jackson, for a comparison. President Trump’s populism was evident in his inauguration address, and therefore it might be interesting to consider it in light of Andrew Jackson’s own March 4, 1829 inaugural address.
President Jackson immediately invoked the U.S. Constitution that he took his oath to withhold. He felt bound by the Constitution and consequently must work closely with Congress:
As the instrument of the Federal Constitution it will devolve on me for a stated period to execute the laws of the United States, to superintend their foreign and their confederate relations, to manage their revenue, to command their forces, and, by communications to the Legislature, to watch over and to promote their interests generally. And the principles of action by which I shall endeavor to accomplish this circle of duties it is now proper for me briefly to explain.
Jackson knew that his power was limited by the Constitution and was committed to avoid violating those Constitutional limitations:
In administering the laws of Congress I shall keep steadily in view the limitations as well as the extent of the Executive power trusting thereby to discharge the functions of my office without transcending its authority.
Jackson was a firm believer in states’ rights. He was careful about arrogating to the federal government the prerogatives that the Constitution grants the states:
In such measures as I may be called on to pursue in regard to the rights of the separate States I hope to be animated by a proper respect for those sovereign members of our Union, taking care not to confound the powers they have reserved to themselves with those they have granted to the Confederacy [federal government].
Jackson knew that deficit spending by the federal government is dangerous, that a debtor nation threatens its own independence, and that careful spending will protect against bad economic habits, both in private and public lives:
The management of the public revenue — that searching operation in all governments — is among the most delicate and important trusts in ours, and it will, of course, demand no inconsiderable share of my official solicitude. Under every aspect in which it can be considered it would appear that advantage must result from the observance of a strict and faithful economy. This I shall aim at the more anxiously both because it will facilitate the extinguishment of the national debt, the unnecessary duration of which is incompatible with real independence, and because it will counteract that tendency to public and private profligacy which a profuse expenditure of money by the Government is but too apt to engender. Powerful auxiliaries to the attainment of this desirable end are to be found in the regulations provided by the wisdom of Congress for the specific appropriation of public money and the prompt accountability of public officers.
Jackson (a military hero) knew that while a national army is necessary, it should not be enlarged in a time of peace and, in any case, the most effective protection against foreign invasion is a large, well-equipped and -trained militia:
Considering standing armies as dangerous to free governments in time of peace, I shall not seek to enlarge our present establishment, nor disregard that salutary lesson of political experience which teaches that the military should be held subordinate to the civil power. The gradual increase of our Navy, whose flag has displayed in distant climes our skill in navigation and our fame in arms; the preservation of our forts, arsenals, and dockyards, and the introduction of progressive improvements in the discipline and science of both branches of our military service are so plainly prescribed by prudence that I should be excused for omitting their mention sooner than for enlarging on their importance. But the bulwark of our defense is the national militia, which in the present state of our intelligence and population must render us invincible. As long as our Government is administered for the good of the people, and is regulated by their will; as long as it secures to us the rights of person and of property, liberty of conscience and of the press, it will be worth defending; and so long as it is worth defending a patriotic militia will cover it with an impenetrable aegis. Partial injuries and occasional mortifications we may be subjected to, but a million of armed freemen, possessed of the means of war, can never be conquered by a foreign foe. To any just system, therefore, calculated to strengthen this natural safeguard of the country I shall cheerfully lend all the aid in my power.
Most importantly, Jackson did not consider himself particularly wise or brilliant, but looked to his predecessors and, in particular, the Founders of the United States for guidance. Above all, he craved God’s blessing in undertaking his herculean task as President:
A diffidence, perhaps too just, in my own qualifications will teach me to look with reverence to the examples of public virtue left by my illustrious predecessors, and with veneration to the lights that flow from the mind that founded and the mind that reformed our system. The same diffidence induces me to hope for instruction and aid from the coordinate branches of the Government, and for the indulgence and support of my fellow-citizens generally. And a firm reliance on the goodness of that Power whose providence mercifully protected our national infancy, and has since upheld our liberties in various vicissitudes, encourages me to offer up my ardent supplications that He will continue to make our beloved country the object of His divine care and gracious benediction.
As much as historians might refer to Jackson as populist, his speech from our historical vantage point looks a great deal like an iteration of the republican philosophy of the Founders. The uncompromising notes of Constitutional fidelity, checks and balances, states’ rights, cautious economics, a modest military, historic precedence, and Christian devotion would be just the notes — and were the notes — rung by Washington and Jefferson.
Today’s populism of both Right (Trump) and Left (Bernie Sanders) could learn a great deal from Jackson’s populism — and that of the Founders.