Truth v. Myth: Andrew Jackson
Part 2 of my analysis of the History International show on Andrew Jackson. In part 1, I mentioned the depressing rationales for admiring Jackson given by two of the “experts” giving commentary during the series. Let’s look at them in depth here.
First up, H.W. Brands, author of Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times. Brands’ first egregious comment came in the analysis of the Indian Removal and the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Here’s what Brands had to say about it:
“Jackson’s policy was at peace with the policies of adminstrations before and after his. It’s easy to pin the label [of genocidal monster] on Jackson because he took a more visible position. But Jackson probably would have said, this was not merely my policy but the policy of the United States government, for better or worse.”
Hm. The show had earlier claimed that Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and J. Q. Adams had all wanted Native Americans removed from their lands. This, apparently, clears Jackson of the shame of actually doing it. It’s the “he’s just doing what everyone else was thinking” argument.
But there’s a reason why none of those presidents actually did it: it was so inhuman they could not see how to do it and retain any integrity at all.
Let’s examine Brands’ “it’s not Jackson’s policy, it’s the policy of the U.S. government” line. First of all, the U.S. government had multiple treaties with the southeastern Native Americans saying they could stay on their land. Second, the U.S. Supreme Court had just struck down a move to void those treaties and remove the rightful inhabitants of the southeast. Jackson famously ignored the Supreme Court ruling, thus in two ways trampling rather than helplessly going along with the “policy of the U.S. government.”
Brands is joined in his benediction of the Indian Removal Act by Andrew Burstein, author of The Passions of Andrew Jackson:
“It’s easy for us to attack Jackson for his lack of humanity… he should have known better. But it’s too easy for us to do that because we didn’t live in their world. And their world, Jackson’s world, was a very brutal world.”
I remember a friend of mine once reacting to this kind of reasoning; someone had said people in the antebellum period just didn’t understand that slavery was wrong, they couldn’t have known that because slavery had always existed. And my friend said, Really? Do you think in 200 years people will say about us, ‘Oh, people in 1995 didn’t understand that racism was wrong because it had always existed. They just weren’t able to see a different reality”?
I didn’t live in the Nazis’ world, so am I unable to say that killing Jewish people is wrong? Of course not. I know it’s wrong, and so did those Nazis during their own time. Americans in the 1830s knew lying to people and putting them on a deadly forced march was wrong.
If Jackson’s “world” was a “very brutal world,” maybe it was because men like Jackson did terrible, brutal things in the name of money, power, and land, and not because people back then were just different than we are and didn’t understand that people could live in peace. We “don’t live in Jackson’s world” because we have made strenuous efforts to outlaw the kind of brutality that people have always known is wrong. We’ve tried to rid the world of it, and especially to rid America of it because America is supposed to be better than that, and not because something changed in the genetic makeup of humanity between 1830 and 2008.
Finally, it’s back to Brands, who says this about Jacksonian democracy: “Jacksonion democracy sums up the idea that power belongs in the hands of the people, that ordinary people should run this [America's] government.”
I think Jacksonian democracy shows us that power belongs in the hands of those who uphold the founding principles of representative democracy and natural rights that this nation was founded on, and if someone like Jackson, who tramples those principles, takes power, terrible things happen. If “ordinary people” uphold our founding principles, then by all means give them power. If “unordinary people” (whom I take to mean the rich, the educated, or the thoughtful and cosmopolitan) uphold those principles, then give them power.
Brands’ statement is simply another airing of the tired idea that the (ideally western frontier) outsider is The Common Man, decent and straightforward, independent and tough, uneducated and honest. Jackson was straightforward and tough, but that’s about it.
This myth that headstrong people who won’t listen to anyone else and never admit they’re wrong about anything are Real Americans, and the kind of leaders we need to preserve Americanness, is so dangerous. An egomanianc who won’t be told when he’s going off the rails is not a good leader. From Jackson to Bush, we have seen the terrible results when someone like this holds the presidency.
Now is not the time to idolize Andrew Jackson, but to learn a lesson from his terrible example.