Walter Russel Mead’s Jacksonian Tradition discusses a major foundation of American foreign policy.

Mead, in Special Providence, notes that there are four broad foreign-policy traditions in American culture. He names them after their principle political figureheads – Wilsonian, Jacksonian, Hamiltonian, and Jeffersonian.

The Jacksonian Tradition represents the bellicose individualism and honor of America.

Much of the educated classes in America fall into three camps: The Wilsonians seek to promote liberal democracies and international organizations and law. Hamiltonians are realpolitik pragmatists who promote commercial ties with the world. Jeffersonians are relatively isolationist and more concerned with improving American democracy.

Mead writes that each has changed somewhat since its origins. Hamiltonians were originally economic protectionists but have since become free traders. Yet the driving principle is the same – commercial pragmatism to serve American interests.

The Jacksonian Tradition is less well understood because it is not represented in the American elite. It’s a culture that came from the Scots-Irish frontier traditions and is still today seen as a “redneck” culture. However, America is a democracy, and the Jacksonians are more numerous than all the other traditions combined.


Nevertheless, the American war record should make us think. An observer who thinks of American foreign policy only in terms of the commercial realism of the Hamiltonians, the crusading moralism of Wilsonian transcendentalists, and the supple pacifism of the principled but slippery Jeffersonians would be at a loss to account for American ruthlessness at war.

Those who prefer to believe that the present global hegemony of the United States emerged through a process of immaculate conception avert their eyes from many distressing moments in the American ascension. Yet students of American power cannot ignore one of the chief elements in American success. The United States over its history has consistently summoned the will and the means to compel its enemies to yield to its demands.

This military power comes from Jacksonianism. As Mead says, the United States is the most devastating and remorseless military force to have roamed the Earth since the Mongolians.

Yet it is a strange type of militarism. Jacksonians are realists – perhaps even moreso than the European elite realists. They are wary of foreign interventions, utopian international projects and laws, and they are often almost as isolationist as the Jeffersonians.

The American “warrior culture” is associated with Jacksonian populism. Unlike the other traditions, it is not a specific set of intellectual policies. It is a folk culture that reflects the social values of many Americans. Every so often an educated Jacksonian phrases their folk-ideology in more rationalist terms for others to understand, but this is unnecessary for the movement.

The Jacksonians were originally the Scots-Irish immigrants who settled the frontier regions of the Appalachia. This was a clan-based frontier culture that lived the ideal of rugged individualism. This tradition turned into a populist political movement, resulting in the election of President Andrew Jackson.

The Jacksonian culture spread to encompass a large portion of blue-collar Americans over time. Many new immigrants, like the weak communal-oriented European Catholics, were converted to the firebrand populist individualism of Jacksonian America. Jacksonians are deeply religious and maintain a family-based honor code. Upholding your reputation and giving others the respect they deserve is a critical value for Jacksonian Americans.

The Jeffersonians and Jacksonians made up the bulk of the Democratic Party for almost two centuries. In some ways, they share a political outlook – like their suspicion of foreign entanglements.

One way to grasp the difference between the two schools is to see that both Jeffersonians and Jacksonians are civil libertarians, passionately attached to the Constitution and especially to the Bill of Rights, and deeply concerned to preserve the liberties of ordinary Americans. But while the Jeffersonians are most profoundly devoted to the First Amendment, protecting the freedom of speech and prohibiting a federal establishment of religion, Jacksonians see the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, as the citadel of liberty.

The two traditions compliment one another. The first amendment permits free speech, and the second amendment enforces the first.

Honor. Although few Americans today use this anachronistic word, honor remains a core value for tens of millions of middle-class Americans, women as well as men.

The first principle of this code is self-reliance…
The second principle of the code is equality…
The third principle is individualism…
The fourth pillar in the financial esprit…
Finally, courage is the crowning and indispensable part of the code.

The Jacksonian politics follows from this honor code.

Jacksonians are suspicious of unlimited government power and the notions of social-democracy. They are doubtful of the government’s ability to do-good at home or in the world through welfare and utopian projects.

The Jacksonians are rugged individualists. They have a “daring and entrepreneurial spirit.” One only earns respect and equal rights if your prove yourself through good hard work and uphold the code of honor. And they are hyper-democratic compared to the other traditions. When the Jeffersonians worry about the “mob” they are talking about the unruly Jacksonians.

A Jacksonian foreign policy looks out only for the national interest.

To begin with, although the other schools often congratulate themselves on their superior sophistication and appreciation for complexity, Jacksonianism provides the basis in American life for what many scholars and practitioners would consider the most sophisticated of all approaches to foreign affairs: realism. In this it stands with Jeffersonianism, while being deeply suspicious of the “global meliorist” elements found, in different forms, in both Wilsonian and Hamiltonian foreign policy ideas. Often, Jeffersonians and Jacksonians will stand together in opposition to humanitarian interventions, or interventions made in support of Wilsonian or Hamiltonian world order initiatives…Jacksonians approach foreign policy in a very different spirit – one in which honor, concern for reputation, and faith in military institutions play a much greater role.

The Jacksonians understand that only fools trust other states. Some people are good and some are not. You have to approach strangers with caution until you know them and accept them as members of your tribe. Those outside your tribe do not share the same interests as you.

There is no such thing as morality in international affairs. No utopian schemes for international organizations will ever work based on fictional notions of justice, morality, and legalism.

Jacksonian honor requires reciprocation. If you trade with me, I’ll trade with you. If you leave me alone, I’ll leave you alone. If you attack me, I will hunt you down to the ends of the Earth, kill you, and destroy everything you ever built.

The last part frightens non-Americans. So don’t attack us. That’s the point.

Indeed, of all the major currents in American society, Jacksonians have the least regard for international law and international institutions. They prefer the rule of custom to the written law, and that is as true in the international sphere as it is in personal relations at home. Jacksonians believe that there is an honor code in international life – as there was in clan warfare in the borderlands of England – and those who live by the code will be treated under it. But those who violate the code – who commit terrorist acts in peacetime, for example – forfeit its protection and deserve no consideration.

Many students of American foreign policy, both here and abroad, dismiss Jacksonians as ignorant isolationists and vulgar patriots, but, again, the reality is more complex, and their approach to the world and to war is more closely grounded in classical realism than many recognize. Jacksonians do not believe that the United States must have an unambiguously moral reason for fighting. In fact, they tend to separate the issues of morality and war more clearly than many members of the foreign policy establishment.

In the absence of a clearly defined threat to the national interest, Jacksonian opinion is much less aggressive.

American interests are enforced by American power – nothing else.

Jacksonians understand that the rule of law needs enforcement like police and legal courts. International organizations lack these enforcement mechanisms – everyone must defend their own position. Jacksonians know laws will not work out of morality, good-will and magical thinking. They know that human nature cannot be perfected – that it is a flawed creature and violence will always be with us. We maintain a police force to deter and minimize crime, and so we maintain a military to deter and minimize war. But both the police and military stand ready to fight when crime and war occur. In this respect, the Jacksonians are the supreme realists in the American foreign policy traditions.

The honor code works, but Jacksonians know all to well that many others are dishonorable. Those who are dishonorable should be punished without moral interference.

The only way to stop dishonorable parties is to crush them without mercy. When Mead cited the casualty statistics of American attacks on Germany and Japan – this is what he meant. Japan and Germany were dishonorable opponents. Jacksonians waged total war to annihilate them or force an unconditional surrender. Peace was only restored by military occupation. This is not an anomaly in American history.

Importantly,to take Mead’s analogy, Jacksonians view warfare as a light switch – it’s either on or off. There’s no in-between. If you attack us, we destroy you.

Interestingly, what makes American so militarily powerful also makes America anti-imperialists and wary of intervening in world affairs. The Jacksonians are easily disgusted with the Wilsonian international interventionism to promote democracy or lofty ideals. Nor do they want to get involved in conflicts across the world for “moralistic” reasons. American military men are mostly Jacksonians, and they are the ones who bleed for these causes. Such wars better be in defense of American interests.

Personally, I am a blend of Hamiltonianism and Jacksonianism. I cannot accept Jacksonian looney-toons view on credit and international commerce. The rest fits together.