Andrew Jackson is one of the most controversial figures in American history.
His ownership of slaves and advocacy of the slave system, his sectionalism, his violently noteworthy temper (he participated in and won a few duels), and his treatment of Native Americans is often contrasted with his championing of the common man and quest to end corruption by the so-called elites.
He ran for president in 1824 to combat what he perceived as corruption in the Monroe Presidency, and won a plurality of both the Electoral College and popular votes. Under the parameters of the Constitution, however, if no one wins a majority of the Electoral College, the House of Representatives chooses the president. In what Jackson called a “Corrupt Bargain,” Speaker Henry Clay (who himself was formerly a candidate for president) threw his support behind Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and secured Adams’s election to the White House.
When the Democratic-Republican Party split in two, Jackson and his allies formed the Democratic Party, the party of the common man. Among other things, this new party believed that a strong central government was antithetical to individual liberty, and thus favored stronger local and state governments.
Very early into Jackson’s presidency, that belief was challenged.
As a general rule of thumb in the 19th century, tariffs were opposed by the agricultural southern states more so than the industrial north. In 1828 and 1832, tariffs were passed by the United States Congress. South Carolina, in particular, thought that these two tariffs crossed a legal line and declared them to be unconstitutional, and therefore null and void within the state.
South Carolina suffered an economic crisis in the 1820s, and many in the state blamed the Tariff of 1828. They expected that Jackson’s election to the presidency that year would result in the reduction or end of that tariff, but the Jackson Administration failed to take action. Even worse for South Carolinians, Jackson — the leader of the new party that defended states’ rights — signed the Tariff of 1832 into law.
Andrew Jackson, in his position as President of the United States, made a choice. He certainly entered office with a mandate, given his landslide victory of his predecessor, and that mandate included the disintegration of the nationalism of the Era of Good Feelings, and a return to the sectionalism (aka state sovereignty) that concentrated power in the states rather than the federal government. But for the greater good, Jackson took a different route.
This division between the federal government and South Carolina was perhaps best encapsulated in two carefully-worded toasts at the traditional Democratic Party dinner that celebrated Thomas Jefferson’s birthday each year. President Jackson toasted to “Our Federal Union: It must be preserved.” Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina toasted to: “The Union. Next to our liberty, the most dear.”
Though the skeptic may point at Jackson’s defense of the a preserved union as a matter of convenience (given that he was president of that union at the time), his support for an issue that ran counter to the beliefs of his most ardent supporters is notable.
There comes a point in the professional careers of many executives where they have to choose between what they want and believe for themselves, and what is best for their company and their employees. As an organization, companies are often also faced with a similar decision.
In recent weeks, for example, as the world deals with COVID-19, businesses have had to make tough decisions.
There are many stories of businesses having to shutter, or at the very least lay off some of their employees. Others (mind you, the ones that can afford it) have taken a different route. They are sacrificing their bottom line in order to keep their employees afloat. Or, perhaps the CEOs themselves are taking a pay cut or no salary at all in order to keep the business functioning and their people employed.
Jackson, for all his faults, knew when it was time to put his country before his party and himself. The people of South Carolina — a significant part of Jackson’s Democratic coalition — demanded that their hero personify and live out their goals. Instead, Old Hickory’s allegiance to a unified country won the day.
Let’s hope most of America’s CEOs will go the same route as our seventh president in this regard. Hopefully they will put the needs of our country and our world first — namely, putting people ahead of profits and their own pocketbooks.