In a scene likened by appalled observers to the worst excesses of the French Revolution, supporters of Andrew Jackson celebrated his inauguration in such numbers and such a rambunctious fashion that the White House suffered damage and the new President had to be spirited away from the premises. It’s a safe bet to say that nothing like it was seen before—and, thankfully, nothing like it since.
Well, almost. A college professor of mine, in his American Presidency seminar, noted that Ronald Reagan was the first White House occupant since Jackson who had been elected to reverse the course of history. In many ways, the analogy is imperfect: Jackson represented democratizing forces in his growing nation, and he invoked Presidential powers in ways his predecessors never dreamed of.
But Reagan and the broad new coalition that swept him into office, like Jackson and his, annoyed, even unnerved, observers who belonged to the opposite political party. The flaunting of conspicuous wealth by a number of Reagan supporters led humorist Calvin Trillin to term the 1981 inaugural ball “the Night of the Minks.”
“Old Hickory” had the opposite problem. There had never been so many people gathered into the capital since the seat of government had moved there nearly 30 years before. Most were well-behaved, but they had been kept a long time outside on that cold day. Once inside the unexpectedly crowded and stuffy interior, they congregated in such numbers that the wooden floor threatened to give way.
Margaret Bayard Smith, an author and fixture of Washington society for the past three decades, typified the general reaction when she wrote:
“But what a scene did we witness! The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros [sic], women, children, scrambling fighting, romping. What a pity what a pity! No arrangements had been made no police officers placed on duty and the whole house had been inundated by the rabble mob.”
There is some question whether the criticism was fully deserved. Most contemporary witnesses and newspapers reported only minimal damage, and one common anecdote—about cheese ground into the White House carpets by visitors’ boots—appears to be a distortion of an event that occurred at the end of Jackson’s second term, according to a blog post by Scott Bomboy of the National Constitution Center.
But there was at least some truth to it. In the oval drawing room, the general-turned-politician was so hard-pressed by admirers that he began to gasp for air. His closest advisers managed to get him away before he got hurt. (Even washtubs full of punch, placed outside the house to lure people away, weren’t completely successful in that regard.)
The reaction to the events among Washington’s reigning establishment reflected lingering ill-feelings about Jackson’s character and intellect, an extraordinarily nasty Presidential campaign, and a sea-change in the electorate that would transform the nation’s political culture over the next three decades. Much the same thing happened with Reagan in 1981:
*A powerful personality but faulty intellect. Jackson, hardly a scholar, couldn’t spell. In fact, according to legend, he didn’t even see the need for it (“It is a damn poor mind who can't think of at least two ways to spell any word”.) Reagan was excoriated for a lack of curiosity and an attachment to odd “facts” that dissolved when scrutinized (e.g., that trees cause most pollution).
*Aftereffects of bitter campaigns. If the 1824 election, which ended up in the House of Representatives, didn’t end James Monroe’s “Era of Good Feelings,” the next Presidential campaign did. Jackson’s followers, when they weren’t flaying John Quincy Adams for a “corrupt bargain” that secured him the Presidency and made Clay his Secretary of State, charged the incumbent with “pimping” for the Czar of Russia during one of his many diplomatic posts. Adams’ supporters called Jackson an ignoramus, a murderer (for killing a man in a duel), and—in the charge with the most collateral damage—an adulterer. He and wife Rachel found out after the fact that her abusive first husband had not filed for divorce, as expected, but only permission to get one, and that thus—at least initially invalid--she was still technically married to her first husband, and the first husband spitefully charged her with adultery before the divorce decree was granted. Jackson blamed her death just after the 1828 election on the stress caused by the mudslinging, and, holding Adams personally responsible, he refused to meet with him in the pre-inaugural transition. Though the 1980 election didn’t approach 1828 in bitterness, Jimmy Carter saw Reagan, in the words of historian Douglas Brinkley, as “an unprincipled but telegenic B-grade Hollywood cowboy who had ridden into the White House on such ‘patriotic’ themes as abhorrence of government, xenophobia, and massive tax cuts.” For his part, Reagan resented Carter’s charge that his opponent would divide the nation by pitting whites against blacks and the rich against the poor.
*Disgruntled, depressed predecessors. Jackson and Reagan succeeded men of intelligence and industry (Adams and Carter) whose stiff-necked ways hobbled them when they sought to advance their legislative program in Congress. Both Adams and Carter found it difficult to accept that their own failings as politicians contributed to their massive defeats. Adams, like his father, didn’t stick around to watch the new President inaugurated. Once out of office, Carter criticized his successor repeatedly.
*New presidents who broke with the past. Jackson, the first trans-Allegheny President, broke the line of men who held the nation’s highest office who had hailed from Virginia and Massachusetts. Reagan, a former actor who made his home in California, represented a new breed in politics: someone who had gained fame without being a lawyer, politician, or professional soldier.
*Agents of change. With his stiff delivery, Jackson didn’t express himself memorably, but he didn’t have anything memorable to express anyway. (See the inaugural address here.) Reagan had a different problem: a pre-political career as sports radio announcer, actor, TV anthology host and corporate (GE) representative made him adept at wringing nuance from every single sentence, but a glittering delivery that led him to be nicknamed “The Great Communicator” couldn’t disguise the fact that his speeches often couldn’t get past banalities. (See his address here.) But it didn’t matter, because their image overrode everything. Both Jackson and Reagan came from the West, vowing to Change Washington. Jackson heralded an age of “reform” (his word) now at hand; Reagan proclaimed that big government wasn’t the solution, but part of the problem.
*Changing economic directions. The Reaganauts chafed under the label given to their program by Democrats: “trickle-down economics.” Had any of them been so inclined, I suspect they would have been much more comfortable with a phrase from Richard Hofstadter’s classic The American Political Tradition about the Jacksonian economic program: “a phase in the expansion of liberated capitalism.” It sounds fine indeed, wrenched out of Hofstadter’s trenchant analysis. Another historian, Bray Hammond, spelled out what followed in the 1830s. The same trends held true in the 1980s: “Liberty became transformed into laisser faire. A violent, aggressive economic individualism became established. The democracy became greedy, intolerant, imperialistic, and lawless. It opened economic advantages to those who had not previously had them. . . . Wealth was won and lost, lost and won. Patient accumulation was condemned.” Yes, “impatient capitalism” might be a better description of what came to pass in both eras.
*Consolidation of coalitions and dawn of new political eras. By 1828, with property requirements and other restrictions increasingly eliminated, universal male suffrage had become the norm in virtually all the states. The age of deference, which had benefited the aristocratic Virginia and Adams dynasties, was over. A rough-hewn man, as one might expect from someone that Hofstadter termed a “one-generation aristocrat,” Jackson benefited from these tendencies, then gave it a decided push forward. Martin Van Buren, the “Little Magician” of Jackson’s Cabinet, welded Jackson's base in the Southwest, the slaveholding states of the Southeast and Northeast urban strongholds such as New York into the modern Democratic Party. Similarly, the Reagan coalition put in the driver’s seat disaffected blue-collar conservative Democrats, neo-conservatives, traditional Main Street conservatives and a “New Right” of evangelical Christians motivated by social issues.