Backcountry Power Ways: The Politics of Personal Government

This system of order gave rise to a special style of backcountry politics which was far removed from classical ideas of democracy and aristocracy. It was a highly distinctive type of polity which Charles Lee appropriately called "macocracy" that is, "rule by the race of Macs."160 This system of macocracy was a structure of highly personal politics without deference to social rank. In that respect it was very different from Virginia. In the early eighteenth century, William Byrd observed of the back settlements, "They are rarely guilty of flattering or making any court to their governors, but treat them with all the excesses of freedom and familiarity."161 It was also a polity without strong political institutions, and in that regard very far removed from New England. There was comparatively little formal structure to local government no town meetings, no vestries, no commissions, and courts of uncertain authority. But within the same broad tradition of self-government common to all English-speaking people, the borderers of North Britain easily improvised their own politics....

Men who rose to positions of leadership in this culture comrnonly did so by bold and decisive acts. An example comes from the life of Andrew Jackson. In the late eighteenth century, Jackson was in the backcountry hamlet of Jonesboro, Tennessee, for a court day. At midnight, fire suddenly broke out in a stable, and ignited a large quantity of hay. An eyewitness recalled:

The alarm filled the streets with lawyers, judges, ladies in their nightdresses, and a concourse of strangers and citizens. Gene. Jackson no sooner entered the street than he assumed the command. It seemed to be conceded to him. He shouted for buckets,and formed two lines of men reaching from the fire to a stream that ran through the town; one line to pass the empty buckets to the stream, and the other to return them full to the fire. He ordered the roofs of the tavern and of the houses most exposed to be covered with wet blankets, and stationed men on the roofs to keep them wet. Amidst the shrieks of the women, and the frightful neighing of the burning horses, every order was distinctly heard and obeyed. In the line up which the buckets passed, the bank of the stream soon became so slippery that it was difficult to stand. While General Jackson was strengthening that part of the line, a drunken coppersmith, named Boyd, who said he had seen fires at Baltimore, began to give orders and annoy persons in the line.

"Fall into line!" shouted the General.

The man continued jabbering. Jackson seized a bucket by the handle, knocked him down, and walked along the line giving his orders as coolly as before. He saved the town.162

The politics of the backcountry consisted mainly of charismatic leaders and personal followings, cemented by strong and forceful acts such as Jackson's behavior at Jonesboro. The rhetoric that these leaders used sometimes sounded democratic, but it was easily misunderstood by those who were not part of this folk culture. The Jacksonian movement was a case in point. To easterners, Andrew Jackson looked and sounded like a Democrat. But in his own culture, his rhetoric had a very different function. Historian Thomas Abernethy observes that Andrew Jackson never championed the cause of the people; he merely invited the people to champion him. This was a style of politics which placed a heavy premium upon personal loyalty. In the American backcountry, as on the British borders, loyalty was the most powerful cement of political relationships. Disloyalty was the primary political sin.

Andrew Jackson's political style was explicitly drawn from the borders of North Britain. He required his wards to read the history of the Scottish chieftains whom he deeply admired and made the models for his own acts. The memory of the great border captains continued to inspire leaders in the backcountry for many generations. This system of politics was nourished on its members. Andrew Jackson always remembered the stories that his mother told him about aristocratic oppression and the cruelties of rack-renting landlords in the old country. The result was a very strong tradition which John Roche has called "retrospective radicalism." The folk memory operated as a powerful political amplifier when triggrered by symbolic events.

Natural Liberty
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