Whatever historians might claim, Andrew Jackson feared and despised imperialism as the inevitable death of the republic. He cherished expansion as normal, but he considered imperialism a perversion of expansion and republicanism. To our modern ears, this might sound like a very fine distinction, but to Jackson and the frontier settlers of his day, the distinction proved immense. Equally important, Jackson harbored suspicions about the United States employing a standing army throughout the entirety of his adult life. When a choice must be made, he defended the right of militias against standing armies. Even the experiences of the War of 1812—which confirmed for many Americans the ineffectiveness of militias—did not change his mind. A standing army was a waste of a country’s resources, and even more so, a danger to the liberties of its people. Even during Jackson’s first inaugural, he refused to allow the military to participate while graciously welcoming militias.
While such a view might seem odd to the modern mind, especially in an age that tends to see militias as weird organizations of dangerous anti-government hicks in the woods and mountains of the Pacific Northwest, Jackson’s views had deep roots in the Anglo-Saxon Common Law tradition as well as among most revolutionaries in the American colonies of the 1760s and among the anti-Federalists of the 1780s and 90s. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that what Americans in the Revolutionary period feared most, was the standing army. Traditionally, the standing army had fought vehemently for the sovereign will of the king, thus violating the Anglo-Saxon norms of localities, local charters, and the organic or common law. No matter their intention, standing armies become playthings for the executive, thereby upsetting the delicate balance found in republics. Not atypical was the American revolutionary pamphlet of Demophilus: “The Militia is the natural support of a government, founded on the authority of the people only.” Or, again: “But what shall I say of a standing army? Under the best discipline they are a nuisance to society; and serve to introduce a system of laws repugnant to civil liberty. Are they not rendered useless by a navy? Are they not a doubtful good, which may either establish or overturn the constitution of the country?”
As Andrew Jackson saw it, the army existed for two reasons. First, domestically, it must enforce the treaties and laws dealing with the American Indians. Second, it must protect the United States from the imperial misadventures of any foreign country, but especially from the British, the Spanish, the French, or the Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Anything beyond these two activities, he thought unconstitutional, dangerous, and immoral. If an individual, a family, or a community, privately and voluntarily, decided to move west, it had every right in the world to do so. Just as it had to break the soil on its own, it had to protect itself on its own as well. If the Boones, for example, trespassed on Shawnee land, then the Boones and the Shawnees would have to work out their differences, violently or not, but without the formal military assistance of the U.S. government. Once the U.S. government signed a treaty with any tribe, it had the duty to uphold that treaty in the name of protecting Indian as well as white, though with important exceptions. Ideally, though, real frontier communities would learn to protect themselves. If they failed, they failed. If they succeeded, as Jackson and his allies had done in Nashville, they succeeded. Clearly, they had not only made the land sustainable for civilization, but they had, time and time again, proven superiority in terms of arms, thus securing the community from outside intrusion. The difference between a frontier and an empire is slight, but in the slightness is an extremely important point. For Jackson, the best business was privately operated. Violence, too, as seen in his many duels, was no different. It was a matter of choice, with the consequences dependent upon chance, will, skill, and circumstance. Always, though, it should be freely chosen and freely manifested.
While Andrew Jackson is a particular type of American, he is very much that type, the definition and embodiment of that type. In the twentieth century, he would become Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). In the twenty-first century, he would become Malcolm Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion, in Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002). “You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once,” Reynolds says to a new member of his crew. “If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.” Honest and earnest to a fault, this type of American republican knows that nothing matters more in the world than one’s honor. Once this is lost, life is no longer worth living, and it can be regained only through extreme self-sacrifice.
Bradley J. Birzer is the author of In Defense of Andrew Jackson.