From boyhood, Harry Truman idolized Andrew Jackson, displaying the same toughness and courage in fighting for the American people.
Growing up, one of Truman’s American heros was Andrew Jackson. Truman’s Scotch-Irish ancestors and their likewise neighbors were mainly Jacksonian in politics. They named the county they settled in western Missouri after him. They even behaved like Jackson, who was also Scotch-Irish: tough, courageous, touchy, blunt, quarrelsome, intolerant, according to historian David McCullough. It was no wonder that Truman took on the qualities of Jackson in his political career.
Old Hickory and Give ’em Hell Harry
One of those qualities- toughness- was, for starters, reflected in their nicknames. Jackson was “Old Hickory” to his soldiers- a general who was hard to break, like a hickory branch, fighting against indians and the British. Truman earned his nickname, “Give ’em Hell Harry,” on the stump. His comment to Senator Alben Barkley, before hitting the 1948 election campaign trail, that he was going to “give’ em hell” spread. As Truman tore into Republicans in his speeches, the people yelled, “give ’em hell Harry!”
Young Harry must have read about Jackson’s toughness in his battle with the Bank of the United States- the Bank War. Jackson vetoed the recharter of the B.U.S., a powerful semi private/public institution that Jackson believed could become corrupt, influencing the cogs of government and threatening the common people and democracy.
Perhaps taking Jackson’s cue, Senator Truman took on the corruption and waste concerning defense contracts in America’s preparation for war. The Truman committee investigated various charges from faulty equipment in planes to the falsified quality of steel. In his questioning, Truman pummelled corporate executives involved in these defense contracts and took offense to the “doller-a-year men” interested more in profits.
Nullification and Civil Rights
Another of those traits- courage- was also exemplified by both. Along with the Bank War, young Harry must have studied the Nullification Crisis of 1833. President Jackson, at the risk of antagonizing his native state of South Carolina and his fellow southerners, threatened military force to put down South Carolina’s attempt to nullify (reject) the high protective tariff in order to preserve the union.
Truman also rose above his background to attain a higher goal. Despite his southern ties, President Truman pursued civil rights for African-Americans. In March of 1947, Truman delivered a speech at the Lincoln Memorial championing an end to lynching, the poll tax, the racial caste system in the south, and inequality in education and employment. According to McCullough, that someone with Truman’s background from western Missouri could be standing at the shrine of the Great Emancipator saying these things was almost inconceivable.
In addition, as Jackson threatened the Nullifiers by personally hanging them to the nearest tree, Truman, on another issue, threatened to draft into the armed forces coal and railroad workers who were on strike. Certainly courage, toughness, bluntness, and intolerance were all rolled into one with these threats.
Also, young Harry must have made note of Jackson’s Spoils System. Upon becoming president, “to the victor belong the spoils” became the Jacksonians’ motto. Jackson’s loyal supporters were awarded government jobs at the expense of long-serving employees who happened not to be Jacksonians. Old Hickory also gathered an informal group of close associates to advise him in what became known as the “Kitchen Cabinet.”
Truman must have accepted this feature in politcs. As part of a three man Jackson County judge committee in 1923, Judge Truman’s vote enabled his Democratic faction, the Goats, to acquire every county job, breaking the 50-50 agreement with the Rabbits. Then, upon becoming president, Truman ushered in his own Kitchen Cabinet of Missouri friends, led by press secretary Charlie Ross and military aid Harry Vaughn. Press aid Eben Ayers wrote, “Missourians are most in evidence, and there is a feeling of an attempt by the ‘gang’ to move in.”
These are a few of the ways that Andrew Jackson influenced Harry Truman’s political career. McCullough saw Truman as the modern Jacksonian, “It was exactly in the spirit of vehement backcountry politics he loved, and where he knew he belonged, the tradition of Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan, alive and full of fight.”
- McCullough, David, Truman, Simon and Schuster: New York, 1992.