Andrew Jackson vs. peer pressure
History | The seventh president often went against the tide. The second in a series of “stump speeches”
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 5/02/20, 01:04 pm
The Houston-based Terry Foundation is the largest private scholarship provider in the state of Texas. Here’s a history talk with current applications I gave at the 1997 celebration of Terry scholars at the University of Texas at Austin. See last month’s “stump speech” about how concerns over corrupt Anglicanism helped spur American colonists to revolt.
It’s a great pleasure to be here tonight and to meet Mr. and Mrs. [Howard and Nancy] Terry, coach [Darrell] Royal, and the Terry scholars. We read news reports all the time about low achievement among American students and then attempts to adjust the standards to disguise failure. Here we have success, people who have worked hard, sometimes fought against peer pressure to slack off, and are now receiving recognition. That’s the way things should be.
I’d like to talk briefly tonight about peer pressure, not only as it affects students, but as it affects political leaders and all of us.
Don’t we all have a tendency at times to run with the crowd? Don’t we all, in our gut, want to do what will make us popular rather than what we know is right? To use a contemporary expression, don’t we all feel some pressure to do what is politically correct?
It’s a good thing most of us don’t have the money to commission public opinion polls before we take action, or else we’d probably go with the flow even more than we do. A lot of supposed political leaders in both major parties these days look to the polls and let the numbers lead; they follow.
If some men and women of the Bible had been into polling the way we tend to be now, Moses would have followed the crowd and worshipped the golden calf. David would have offered to play his harp for Goliath. Elijah would have become associate pastor at the church of Baal. But they all chose to do what was right.
How can we resist the pressure to follow the polls, if we are a politician, or merely succumb to peer pressure, when we’re here at this university? Well, one of the great charms of our campus is that you can learn about history not only in the classrooms but even by walking around. When you head south down the mall from the tower, you’ve probably all seen the seven statues along the way.
I suspect most of you heard about Gov. [Jim] Hogg and his daughter Ima. (And no, he did not have a second daughter names Ura.) You’ve seen the statues of George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and others who risked their lives by going against the flow—sometimes they met with success, sometimes not. There will soon be another statue on campus of a man who gave his life fighting the prejudices of his time: Martin Luther King Jr.
I’m writing a book now about some of these American leaders, and I want to share with you several vignettes from the life of one who has become my favorite: Andrew Jackson.
Since more people at UT these days know about Jesse Jackson than about the seventh president, let me provide some quick background information. Jackson was born in 1767 and spent some time in politics when he was young. By his mid-30s he had pretty much settled down to running some businesses, racing horses, and being a local judge when his neighbors in Tennessee elected him.
But he also had made some enemies, including a fellow named Charles Dickinson. Dickinson was known as the best marksman in Tennessee, and he had killed many. Jackson would not accept being bullied, so Dickinson challenged him to a duel.
This was a customary practice in Tennessee, and when faced with an assassin like Dickinson, the typical practice was to find a way out of the duel. Jackson, though, said that someone had to stand up to Dickinson, and he would do it.
But Jackson was not suicidal, either. Before the shooting began, he used his head to survive. Here’s what Jackson did: He removed the buttons from his overcoat and sewed them back on three inches below their normal position.
When the duel began, he stood straight, awaiting Dickinson’s shot. The bullet hit exactly where Dickinson thought Jackson’s heart was. But since the buttons were changed, the bullet struck three inches below Jackson’s heart.
The bullet broke two ribs. It lodged in Jackson’s chest cavity. But Jackson steadied himself, aimed straight, and shot and killed Dickinson. Episodes like that showed that Jackson was not a person who gave up, but also not a person who readily gave up his life—he became a living legend in Tennessee.
Jackson acted unusually again almost a decade later, at the end of the War of 1812. He was assigned to another mission that also seemed impossible: leading American volunteers fighting against top-notch British regulars, the best soldiers in the world, the victors over Napoleon, in the Battle of New Orleans.
His men were close to panic, but Jackson did two things. First, he talked with them about God’s sovereignty, about how God was in charge of the battle and everything else in life. Second, he enlisted men other generals would not touch. He brought in black soldiers and made sure they were paid. He brought in pirates lead by Jean Lafitte, who was part-Haitian, part-Jewish, and (according to reputation) all-trouble. But Jackson learned that Lafitte really wanted a home and citizenship—he wanted to be an American, and Jackson honored that desire.
Prayer, faith, and the extra soldiers from despised races and backgrounds, made a huge difference.
Here was the result: London’s best were left with 700 dead and twice that number wounded; American losses were seven killed, six wounded.
The numbers read like the U.S. victory in the Gulf War vs. Iraq, but imagine that the Iraqi forces had had the reputation as the best in the world, and you can imagine how sensational was the news of Jackson’s victory
Results like that could go to a leader’s head. But Jackson publicly and frequently gave all the glory to God.
A third time Jackson did not go with the flow came 14 years later, just after he was elected to the presidency at age 61.
Here is the heartbreak: A month after he won the election, Rachel Jackson, his wife of 37 years, died. Some people, even those with strong beliefs, fall into a rage against God when a husband or wife dies after a long marriage.
But Jackson wrote, “We who are frequently visited by this chastening rod, have the consolation to read in the Scriptures that whomever He chastens He loves, and does it for their good to make them mindful … that this earth is not our abiding place.”
God afflicts us, Jackson wrote, to discipline us for work in this life “and to prepare [us] for a better world, a happy immortality.”
Rachel had urged her husband to greater piety over the years. Had his faith been more in her than in Christ, this was the time to turn away. Jackson did not. He continued his pattern of Bible reading and prayer, although he did it in a way that remembered Rachel as well as God.
One night, Jackson’s private secretary, Nicholas Trist, needed guidance for a letter. Trist knocked at Jackson’s bedroom door. Jackson said, come, in, and Trist found Jackson partly undressed and sitting at a table, reading his nightly chapters from Scripture.
Jackson had a miniature portrait of Rachel, the one that he usually wore over his heart, propped up before him, next to the Bible.
But Jackson, despite his grief, still had to lead a nation. The fourth way he went against the flow concerns the most dramatic incident of his presidency, the battle over the Second Bank of the United States.
The bank was a public-private partnership, with vast government-backed financial power in the hands of a few. It was a monopoly, the repository for all deposits of U.S. government revenues—deposits that did not draw interest. The bank bought influence through bribes and payments to congressional leaders like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, and through favoritism in making loans.
Jackson knew the political danger in taking on the bank and its well-oiled supporters. Nevertheless, he said, “Until I can strangle this hydra of corruption, the Bank, I will not shrink from my duty.” In 1832, he vetoed a bill to recharter the bank that had slid through a greased Congress. His veto message laid out the principle that “In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruit of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law.” He argued that government should “confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rain, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor.”
The bank, he went on to argue, proceeded on a different principle: It did not help some people to become wealthy by “natural and just advantages” but lobbied for “exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful.” Jackson also emphasized the constitutional framework: “Some of the powers and privileges possessed by the existing bank are unauthorized by the Constitution, subversive of the rights of the States, and dangerous to the liberties of the people.” The goal of statesmen, Jackson argued, should not be to increase their own power, but to “leave individuals and States as much as possible to themselves.”
Nicholas Biddle, the president of the bank, then pioneered in what federally funded bureaucrats under pressure have done ever since: make sure that ordinary folks hurt. Biddle did not call in loans to his friends or to those who could readily afford to pay back the money. Instead, he demanded funds from those who would scream the loudest and tell the world that the financial sky was falling. He told associates he planned to produce and publicize “evidence of suffering.” He said he would destroy the economy to make his point: “All the merchants may break, but the Bank of the United States shall not break.”
As loans to small businesses were called in, some businesses failed. Unemployment increased. Congressmen pleaded that the deposits be returned to Biddle. Here’s where Jackson’s Bible-based firmness became so crucial: In response to all protests, Jackson replied that, regardless of the clamor, he would do what is “just and right.”
Day after day, visiting delegations of businessmen besieged him. So intense did he become in a conversation with a group of Biddle-backers that he started speaking in the third person, “Andrew Jackson will never restore the deposits! Andrew Jackson will never recharter that monster of corruption!”
Partisans of the bank gave orations about “helpless widows … unclad and unfed orphans.” The U.S. Senate voted 26 to 20 to censure Jackson. Anyone without a strong Biblical base would have caved, but Jackson told one and all, “Go to the monster. Go to Nicholas Biddle. I will not bow down to the golden calf.”
Then Biddle squeezed credit further. The impasse went on for over a year. Jackson was seemingly alone; even his own secretary of the treasury resigned. But Jackson held firm. Once, writing a letter to a friend on a Sunday morning, he almost seemed to be wavering, but then he noted, “I must stop. The church bells are ringing and I must attend.”
Eventually, the tide turned in the states, Then a little-known congressman, James K. Polk, pushed through his chamber resolutions against rechartering the bank. (Polk became known for standing against the current. A decade later, he became president and helped Texas become a state.)
In July 1834, Biddle gave up, restored normal credit, and began to plan for the bank’s closing. The financial crisis disappeared. Business picked up rapidly. Jackson’s willingness to say no—his commitment to duty—had saved the day. Had he given in, the United States would have moved toward centralized economic control much earlier than it did.
Finally, let me mention a fifth way Jackson went against the tide. He lived for eight years after leaving the White House in 1837. Lots of ex-presidents have a hard time not being in power anymore. Jackson, though, began yearning for heaven. He had worked hard, he had run the race, and he did not grumble about the physical afflictions of old age, as many do.
Shortly before he died in 1845, Jackson told visitors, “I am in the hands of a merciful God. I have full confidence in his goodness and mercy. … What are all my suffering compared to those of the Blessed Savior, who died upon that cursed tree for me? Mine are nothing.”
On the day of his death, June 8, 1845, Jackson left a political legacy: “That book,” he said, referring to the Bible, “is the Rock upon which our republic rests.” Then, speaking to the family members and servants that he had called to his bedside, he left a racial legacy: “I am my God’s. I belong to Him. I go but a short time before you. … I hope and trust to meet you all in Heaven, both white and black.”
I’ve reviewed five of Jackson’s challenges. He faced a bully in a duel. He faced the British army. He faced the death of his wife. He faced a big government power play. He faced his own death. Each time, he went against the flow. But he was a sinner, as am I and everyone in this room. He didn’t go against the flow when the states of Alabama and Georgia sought with eventual success to push out from their domains the Cherokee people, and one result was the tragedy known as the Trail of Tears.
That’s a subject for another evening, but it’s important to remember that everyone with a career fit for a statue has feet of clay—and if the only thing children learn about Jackson is that he did not stand up against that particular prejudice of his day, that’s an abuse of history. I’ve concentrated tonight on one of the uses of history. We learn about those who often went against the flow, and that makes us think of our own courage and cowardice. When are we willing to go against the flow?
When I was a college student at Yale University from 1968 through 1971, I did not go against the flow. This was an era in which professors pandered to students. I could do and write silly things and receive honors grades as long as I bowed to political correctness.
For one course, I took a black cat in a gym bag to class in the art museum. I let the cat out of the bag, explaining that I had just created a work of art showing how the Black Panthers [a radical group of the era], had freed themselves from the container into which American society placed members of their race. The cat ran away and hid among some expensive canvases, prompting a frenzied search. My grade: Honors.
This was a pandering society. Instead of elders teaching students, we students were supposed to be wiser because we were younger and supposedly not so hung up.
I am not disclaiming personal responsibility. I had opportunities to break out of falsehood. Here’s an example: During my senior year, some protesters and I went on a hunger strike. We camped out across from the administration building, right next to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. For five days, I sat and slept a few feet away from one of that library’s greatest treasures, manuscripts of the great 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards. I never took a peek at those. I was reading Karl Marx.
Again, I am not blaming Yale. The university had some good professors and many good books. I could have done better, but I would have had to fight against the current—and instead, I did what was natural. I went with it.
God brought me out of the raging current 24 years ago. He threw me a rope, placed my hands on it, and pulled me. He changed my thinking, and that change has stayed with me all these years. But look at all the people who are in the whitewater rapids today, their bodies smashing against the rocks.
Most of you Terry Foundation scholars look pretty level-headed. I doubt if you will go to the extremes I did in college. And yet, be aware of the current on this campus. Many of the professors who were college students in the 1960s still have the attitudes that characterized that decade on many campuses. There is often a current that runs against religious faith, against free enterprise, against family formation with both a father and a mother.
There is a current running against the idea that Andrew Jackson held out and Jean Lafitte grasped. Our identity does not come from race or class or ethnicity, but from that proud status won at the battle of New Orleans and other battles, both military and peaceful: We are Americans.
Be aware of those currents. You don’t always know how swift a current is until you’re in, so learn to think analytically, looking before you leap. But remember also that you have a big advantage: You are a student at the University of Texas.
This university does not belong to the forces of political correctness. It belongs to the citizens of Texas. It belongs to folks like Mr. and Mrs. Terry who make it possible for students to come here. It belongs to your mom and dad. It belongs to you. And it belongs to the writer of those words on the administration building: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.