Wilentz: “We can honor–and dishonor–American leaders of previous eras without turning history into a simplistic tale of good versus evil”

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Statue of Andrew Jackson, New Orleans

Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz addresses monuments to our complicated past.

Here is a taste of his piece at the The Wall Street Journal:

 

Given history’s complexities and contradictions, though, where should we draw the line?

In the starkest contradiction, Thomas Jefferson, the revolutionary who pronounced the American democratic ideal as the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal,’’ also bought, sold and exploited human beings his entire adult life. On one occasion, he wrote racist speculations about the inferiority of Africans at the same time that he denounced enslaving blacks as an indefensible offense to the Almighty. Should Jefferson’s image therefore be spray painted and trashed, as it was last week in Portland, Ore., as an embodiment of racist evil, little different from Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee? Or should the spirit of democratic equality that his image proclaims be taken seriously, as Martin Luther King did when he quoted the Declaration of Independence at length at the March on Washington in 1963?

Intentions as well as history help to clarify these matters of memory. There can be no doubt that statues of Davis, Lee, John C. Calhoun and others are tributes to slavery, secession and racial domination. They were built for precisely those reasons. They have no other possible meaning, apart from transparent euphemisms about states’ rights and federal tyranny.

But the same is not true of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., with its paeans to universal enlightenment, equality and religious freedom. It is not true of the Lincoln Memorial, a living monument that for decades has been a touchstone for the nation’s freedom struggles.

Ulysses S. Grant, for his part, was raised in an abolitionist family; when he received a slave from his slaveholding father-in-law, Grant immediately released him from bondage. Those who know little about Grant hold this against him. Instead, we should honor him for crushing the Confederacy and then, as president, breaking up the Ku Klux Klan, advancing the 15th Amendment and signing the Civil Rights Act of 1875—the first of its kind and the forerunner of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Andrew Jackson is heavily and accurately criticized for his Indian removal policies, although historians still dispute how much those policies arose from tragedy, intention or previous federal policies. But no monument to Jackson celebrates the Trail of Tears or the fact that he owned slaves. He is honored for two lasting accomplishments. As a general, he repelled a massive British invasion at New Orleans in 1815; and as president, he secured the Union by standing up to Calhoun and his militant proslavery supporters, the forerunners of the secessionist slavocracy, during the Nullification Crisis in 1832-33. Somewhere, Calhoun’s shade, embittered by the decision to remove his monument in Charleston, S.C., is smiling grimly at the attacks on his greatest antagonist.

Unless we can learn from history the difference between persons who preach and practice evil and those who at best imperfectly extricate themselves from evil yet achieve great good, we might as well cease building monuments to anyone or anything, and cease teaching history except as dogma. Unless we can outgrow the conception of history as a simplistic battle between darkness and light—unless we can seek understanding of what those in the past struggled with, as we hope posterity will afford to us—we will be the captives of arrogant self-delusions and false innocence.

Read the entire piece here.

How should we deal with monuments to flawed individuals?

Lee Monument

Eliot Cohen, the dean of The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, offers his take on the removal of monuments. Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic:

A good place to begin is by asking whether the evil a man or woman did is the most important fact of his or her life. With regard to the Confederate generals, that is unquestionably the case. Robert E. Lee would have been a footnote in the history books had he not foresworn his allegiance to the Constitution and done his formidable best not only to rend the Union asunder, but to defend the system of chattel slavery. As Lincoln once wrote, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” The sheer, murderous wickedness of the Confederate cause, long lost in mythologizing and willful ignorance, is unambiguous.

But of other radically flawed individuals, a different judgment should be made. John F. Kennedy was a sexual predator, as we now know. We should not, however, take his name off the Kennedy Center, and we should not fail to be moved by the clarion call of his inaugural address. Thomas Jefferson was not merely a slaveholder, but a particularly callous one. He was willing to inflict suffering, preying on vulnerable enslaved women and breaking up families. But he also gave America the Declaration of Independence and its principles, which transcend the deeply flawed mortal who wrote them down. We can similarly recognize and wrestle with the flaws—some of them considerable—of the likes of Roosevelt, Grant, and Churchill without losing sight of their accomplishments.

And there are difficult judgments to be made. What of Andrew Jackson, the victor of the Battle of New Orleans, a democrat rebelling against the rule of established, moneyed elites—but also the political leader principally responsible for the genocidal Trail of Tears?

There are two other principles here. One is that there is one kind of conversation when a person is about to be memorialized; quite another when the monument already exists and its obliteration is intended to remove painful memories of a past that was real. For that reason, there is a higher bar for the removal of Confederate statues than for putting new ones up—yet even so, that higher bar is easily met. But if it’s perfectly reasonable to say that we should not be naming something new after Woodrow Wilson, a bigot throughout his career, whether we should strip his name off a school and a research center that already exist is much less clear.

Read the entire piece here.

What does Jacksonian America have to do with Disney World?

American Adventure

Not much.

That is, until history professor David Head of the University of Central Florida in Orlando asked his students to design a Jackson-era vignette for Epcot Center’s American Adventure attraction.

Here is a taste of Head’s piece at The Panorama:

I ask students to create their own vignette that could be added to the American Adventure as representative of the Age of Jackson. (Here’s the full assignment sheet.) Students can choose anything. Something about Jackson himself, his policies, or legacy is fair game, but also anything else: the Second Great Awakening, reform movements, Manifest Destiny, the Mexican War. It’s wide open.

I break down how the vignettes work for students and require that they describe each element of their proposed new story. They must have a visual sequence with pictures and music; an animatronic scene with characters, dialogue, and action; and narrations to introduce and conclude each part. It’s important to note that I don’t require any actual art or music. Just description. The creative part of the assignment is fun, but it’s also challenging. How do you communicate complicated ideas in a visual way?

At the same time, I ask students to explain the significance of each element with an eye toward showing how each choice communicates something important to the audience. Here I want students to also reflect on the numerous constraints on how they might like to tell the story. For example, Disney attracts people from all over the world, many of whom have no background in American history, and some of whom have limited (or no) English. How do you get your message across to such a diverse audience?

Similarly, many children will be watching. How do you make sure the material is age-appropriate? Or, how do you address politically sensitive topics? Disruptions accompanied the debut of a Donald Trump addition to the Hall of Presidents. Disney wants everyone’s money, so attractions must have mass appeal.

However, I caution students that a dumbed-down approach isn’t the answer. There comes a point at which material is so simplified it’s no longer true. But where is that line? How do you preserve quality while accounting for all the other factors an attraction must meet? I created a vignette of my own to show students how it can be done.

Read the entire piece here.

Should the Government Promote Prayer During a Pandemic?: The Case of Andrew Jackson

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Over at The Washington Post, Harvard historian Joyce Chaplin reflects on how Andrew Jackson handled the the arrival of cholera on American shores.  Here is a taste:

At the time, it was a standard and orthodox belief that any disease was divine punishment. Cholera was supposedly “a rod in the hand of God,” smiting the atheist, the sinner and the non-Protestant immigrant. The suffering was a rebuke and a call to repent. Individuals and communities were, accordingly, told to fast and pray. City officials and state governors received petitions from churches and citizens’ groups to enact days for public prayer and fasting, and many places complied, including at least 11 states.

Despite attempts to convince Jackson to declare a national day of fasting and prayer, he refused. In a widely reprinted letter of June 12, 1832, he agreed with “the efficacy of prayer” but stated that for the United States to have a national day devoted in any way to religion was “transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the president,” a violation of the constitutional protection of freedom of religious belief, including lack of belief.

This was unorthodox. Three previous presidents, George Washington, John Adams and James Madison had, by contrast, recommended fast days during earlier crises. Jackson was by no means an atheist. He was raised in a Presbyterian household and became a member of that denomination later in life. He also understood the dangers of contagious disease. His mother had died, in her early 40s, while nursing Revolutionary War soldiers, having caught “ship fever” from them, probably typhus.

But as a populist and anti-establishment politician, “Old Hickory” distrusted and opposed the college-educated clergy, who were established figures of authority in the 1830s. Jackson and his supporters in the Democratic Party caricatured them as the equivalent of the Catholic clergy ousted (temporarily) by the French revolutionaries: medieval, superstitious remnants who undermined modern democracy. To the Jacksonians, the clergy must, by definition, always be trying to unite church and state, against the clear admonition of the Constitution.

Jackson defied them, and because of that, encouraged growing public support for alternative solutions to epidemics. These included, for example, creating civic boards of health that, with doctors’ advice, would track contagion, disinfect public areas and declare and uphold quarantines. Not all these measures were appropriate against cholera, whose transmission was not yet well understood. But the shift toward secular and civic solutions to epidemics represented a trend that would eventually protect public health.

Here is Chaplin’s conclusion:

Whatever Jackson’s reasons for deriding college-educated clergymen, he endorsed the view that human governance of material forces is a secular business and requires action. President Trump may have made a point of hanging a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office, but his recent actions make him more like Clay. He lacks personal piety but has called for prayer as a response to covid-19. Against the advice of public health experts, he stated a goal to “have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” as if a Christian holiday ought to mark time throughout the nation, before backing away in past few days. Old Hickory is on record as opposing pulling religion into the handling of a pandemic like this. It was an admirable example of how a national leader ought to address a public health crisis — way back in 1832.

Read the entire piece here.

Presidential Censure in Historical Context

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Democrats in the Senate believe that Trump should be removed from office.  They will vote along these lines tomorrow.  But they only have 47 votes.  This is well below the 67 votes needed to remove the president from office.  In all likelihood, the Senate will acquit Trump.

But several GOP Senators have noted that Donald Trump acted inappropriately when he asked the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden.  Marco Rubio even suggested that when Trump withheld American aid to Ukraine until he got an investigation into his political opponent the president was committing an impeachable offense.

While some Senators will defend the president at all costs, it seems that others–Lamar Alexander, Rubio, Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney–may want to send a message of rebuke to the president for his corrupt behavior. A censure might be an appropriate way to do this.

I don’t think Joe Manchin will get many Democrats to support a presidential censure.  Most Democrats want Trump out of office. Censure will look like a compromise.  But what if the Republicans pushed for censure?  If they really think that Trump committed unethical or impeachable offenses, perhaps they would want to remind the president that his call to Ukraine was not “perfect.” By calling for a censure of Trump, Manchin appears to be calling their bluff.

If the Senate did pass a censure resolution against Trump it would not be the first time this has happened in American history.  As historian Mark Cheathem reminds us, the Senate censured Andrew Jackson in 1834.  Here is a taste of his post at his blog Jacksonian America:

In 1834, the Senate passed a censure resolution against President Andrew Jackson. The decision to rebuke Jackson stemmed from his actions during the Bank War. Suspicious of the 2nd Bank of the U.S., Old Hickory had waged a battle against the financial institution since his first term. In 1832, he vetoed a congressional bill that would have granted the Bank a new contract four years earlier than expected. The following year, in an attempt to permanently weaken the Bank, Jackson ordered Secretary of the Treasury William J. Duane to remove the government’s deposits. When he refused, the president fired Duane. Jackson replaced him with Roger B. Taney, who implemented the removal policy. Bank president Nicholas Biddle responded by instigating a recession. “This worthy President thinks that because he has scalped Indians and imprisoned Judges, he is to have his way with the Bank,” Biddle said. “He is mistaken.”

Jackson’s opponents, led by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, also took action. When Jackson refused to give the Senate a document on the removal of government deposits that he had submitted to his cabinet, Clay introduced censure resolutions against both Jackson and Taney. “We are in the midst of a revolution, hitherto bloodless, but rapidly tending toward a total change of the pure republican character of the government, and to the concentration of all power in the hands of one man,” Clay said in a speech on the Senate floor. He compared Jackson to a tyrant and warned his fellow senators that if they did not stand up to him, then the nation would collapse. “We shall die—ignobly die! base, mean and abject slaves— the scorn and contempt of mankind—unpitied, unwept, unmourned!” he concluded dramatically. In a decidedly partisan vote, in March 1834, the Senate passed censure resolutions against both Jackson and Taney. Senators also rejected Taney’s recess appointment as Treasury secretary.

Read the entire piece here.

What to Expect at the “Evangelicals for Trump” Rally. (Or the People are Always Right).

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Trump will be at a Hispanic Pentecostal megachurch in Miami tomorrow afternoon for an “Evangelicals for Trump” rally.  There has not been a whole lot of details released about who will be present at the event or what Trump will say, but I think we can expect a lot of contractual language.  In other words, Trump will remind evangelicals about his Supreme Court nominations, his pro-life views on abortion, his defense of religious liberty, and his support for Israel and then he will ask evangelicals to vote for him in 2020.  I am expecting that there will be some digs at the Democratic candidates and Christianity Today magazine.

I will be on NBC News Now (live stream) with Alison Morris around 3:15pm tomorrow (January 3rd) to talk about the event.  Trump is scheduled to speak in Miami at 5:00pm.

Court evangelical Robert Jeffress will be in Miami for the event.  He talked about his appearance earlier today on the Todd Starnes Radio Show.  Jeffress makes no bones about the fact that the “Evangelicals for Trump” event is a response to Mark Galli’s Christianity Today editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office.

Starnes mentions “a couple of professors from Oklahoma Baptist University who have been bashing President Trump and his supporters.” (I am guessing that this is a reference Matt Arbo and Alan Noble).  Starnes also references Wayne Grudem’s response to Christianity Today and calls is “terrific.”  He also brings up Beth Moore’s criticism of Trump.  Here is Jeffress’s response: “[Sarcastic laugh] These people are losing such credibility and its very obvious one motivating reason as to why they are against Trump is that they were wrong about Trump and their pride won’t allow them to admit that.”  Jeffress goes on: “It’s those ivory tower elites that just don’t get it….”

I am continually amazed at how this has now turned into a class-based war on “elites.” The assumption is that what “the people” want is always morally correct.  There is some truth to this idea.  This is why many of our founding fathers feared the growth of democracy.  After all, in a democracy 51% becomes the highest moral good.

Let’s remember that the opponents of slavery were “out of touch” with the majority of people of the South in the 1850s.  Martin Luther King was also “out of touch” with the majority of people living in the South in the 1950s and 1960s.  And Andrew Jackson was “in touch” with the people (white males Democratic voters who wanted to settle on Indian lands) when he sent the Cherokee on the “Trail of Tears.”

This morning I was reading Alexander Hamilton’s June 1787 speech at the Constitutional Convention as recorded by Robert Yates.  A taste:

The voice of the people has been said to  be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact.  The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.  Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government.  They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.  Can a democratic assembly, who annually revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily  to pursue the public good?   Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy.  Their turbulent  and uncontrouling disposition requires checks.

Sometimes I wonder if Hamilton may have been right.

The Author’s Corner With Matthew Clavin

ClavinMatthew Clavin is Professor of History at the University of Houston.  This interview is based on his new book The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community (New York University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: I am captivated by stories of extraordinary slave resistance that have for a variety of reasons been largely forgotten. Historians have known about Negro Fort for a long time, but I wanted to bring the story of its rise and fall to a wide audience. More than ever, it is vitally important for professional historians to communicate directly with the general public, especially regarding the long and complicated history of race and racism both in the United States and the world.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: The Battle of Negro Fort marked a significant moment in early American history. By destroying a fugitive slave community in a foreign territory for the first and only time in its history, the United States government accelerated its transformation into a white republic, which served both the interests and the ideology of an emerging Slave Power.

JF: Why do we need to read The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: The demonization of people of color on the opposite side of the United States’ southern border is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, American citizens and officials have long referred to these people as murderers, savages, and the like to score political points and secure what they considered important public policy. Following the War of 1812, slavery’s proponents depicted Negro Fort as an existential threat to the southern frontier. Eventually, they were able to convince the federal government to launch an illegal invasion of Spanish Florida to kill or capture the fort’s black inhabitants. The Battle of Negro Fort illuminates how—and why—in the four decades since the Declaration of Independence, much of the American republic’s ambivalence over the institution of slavery had disappeared.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MC: Since I was little, I have always been fascinated with the history of race and racism. While writing my senior thesis in college on nonviolent direct action and the Civil Rights Movement, I first considered the idea of research and writing history professionally. It wasn’t long after turning in that paper that I decided that I had to become an historian. A lot of people told me that I could never be a historian. I am so glad I did not listen to them.  

JF: What is your next project?

MC: I am currently writing a book that examines the intersection of slavery, anti-slavery, and nationalism in the United States in the decades before the Civil War. The goal is to show just how much love of the American nation justified and inspired revolutionary slave resistance.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

Meacham: Trump is Now Tied With Andrew Johnson as Most Racist President in U.S. History

Here is presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Meacham on MSNBC:

I’m not sure how you measure this, but Trump would certainly be high on the list.  Johnson was pretty racist.  So was Andrew Jackson. (Meacham’s biography of Jackson won the Pulitzer).

Trump’s remarks were made at a time when racism in America is less overt and more subtle. His comments were also made at a time when we might expect our leaders to have learned lessons from America’s racist past.  Perhaps this all makes Trump’s remarks even more egregious than Johnson or Jackson.

Moral Capitalism

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Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin points us toward a better way:

What kind of economy do Democrats believe in? Joe Biden calls for “stronger labor laws and a tax code that rewards [the] middle class.” Bernie Sanders wants to raise taxes on the rich and guarantee every adult a job. Elizabeth Warren has a slew of plans that include giving employees seats on corporate boards and breaking up giant firms like Facebook and Amazon. Kamala Harris urges a big tax cut for ordinary families and “stricter penalties for companies that cheat their workers.”

Recent polls show that the public is increasingly supportive of proposals like these. Yet no one who hopes to become the nominee has yet come up with a larger vision that would animate such worthy ideas. And without an inspiring way to tie them together, they may come across to voters like items on a mediocre takeout menu: tasty enough but forgettable.

So let one loyal, if anxious, Democrat offer a solution: “moral capitalism,” a system that, in the words of Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, would be “judged not by how much it produces, but how broadly it empowers, backed by a government unafraid to set the conditions for fair and just markets.”

It is a goal that, by different names, national Democratic leaders have articulated since the party first emerged almost two centuries ago. They understood that most voters liked the general idea of a market economy in which they would have a fair chance to rise, but also resented an economy that failed to live up to the rosy promises of its defenders in business and government.

The tradition began in the 1830s when Andrew Jackson vetoed a renewed charter for the Second Bank of the United States, declaring, “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” Grover Cleveland renewed the offensive in his attack on the protective tariff in the 1880s, as did William Jennings Bryan in his crusade against the “money power” at the end of the 19th century, and Franklin D. Roosevelt in his assault on “economic royalists” in the 1930s.

For all these Democratic leaders, moral capitalism was an aspiration for a system that would balance protection for the rights of Americans to accumulate property and start businesses with an abiding concern for the welfare of men and women of little or modest means who increasingly worked for somebody else.

Read the rest at The New York Times.

19th Century Conspiracy Theories

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According to historian Mark Cheathem, “rumors of secret alliance, bank deals, and double-crossings were rampant in early American elections.”  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Smithsonian.com:

From claims that NASA faked the moon landing to suspicions about the U.S. government’s complicity in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Americans love conspiracy theories. Conspiratorial rhetoric in presidential campaigns and its distracting impact on the body politic have been a fixture in American elections from the beginning, but conspiracies flourished in the 1820s and 1830s, when modern-day American political parties developed, and the expansion of white male suffrage increased the nation’s voting base. These new parties, which included the Democrats, the National Republicans, the Anti-Masons, and the Whigs, frequently used conspiracy accusations as a political tool to capture new voters—ultimately bringing about a recession and a collapse of public trust in the democratic process.

During the early decades of the American republic, the Federalist and Jeffersonian Republican Parties engaged in conspiratorial rhetoric on a regular basis. Following the War of 1812, the Federalist Party faded from the political landscape, leaving the Republicans as the predominant national party. Their hold was so great that in 1816 and 1820, James Monroe, the Republican presidential candidate, ran virtually unopposed, but in 1824, the Republicans splintered into multiple and disparate factions. Five viable candidates ran in that election cycle, and John Quincy Adams won the presidency.

The controversy around Adams’s victory quickly fueled suspicions: Tennessean Andrew Jackson had won the most electoral and popular votes and the most regions and states, but because he did not win the majority of electoral votes, the U.S. House of Representatives was constitutionally required to choose the president in a runoff of the top three vote-getters. Jackson’s supporters believed that House Speaker Henry Clay, who had placed fourth in the regular election, helped Adams win the House election in return for being appointed secretary of state. The Jacksonians’ charges of a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay ensured that the 1828 election would, in part, be fought over this conspiracy theory.

Read the rest here.

What Did Trump Mean by Capitalizing the Word “TRAIL” in a Tweet About Elizabeth Warren?: Some Historical Context

Donald Trump tweeted this today:

Thoughts:

  1.  Trump is definitely worried about Warren’s candidacy.
  2.  Why did Trump capitalize the word “trail?” As an American historian, one thing comes to mind when I see the word “trail” emphasized in a tweet about native Americans.  That is the “Trail of Tears.” Perhaps you are unfamiliar with this tragic event in our history.  Learn more here.
  3.  Andrew Jackson initiated the Trail of Tears.  He believed native Americans were racially inferior and an impediment to the advancement of white settlement across the continent.
  4.  Jackson called Indian removal a “just, humane, liberal policy towards the Indians.”  This reminds me of Trump’s statements about his “humane” border wall. He has said on numerous occasions that the wall will protect both American citizens and the immigrants.
  5.  Jackson understood the removal of these Indian groups in the context of democracy.  In the 1830s, of course, democracy was white.  The white men who voted Jackson into office wanted Indian land.  Jackson heard their voice and gave then what they wanted by forcibly moving native Americans to present-day Oklahoma.
  6. Andrew Jackson’s portrait hangs prominently in Trump’s Oval Office.
  7. Is Trump really smart enough to know that capitalizing the word “trail” would send such a message?  If he is, this is blatantly racist and yet another appeal to one of America’s darkest moments.  (I mention other such appeals in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump).  If he does not know what this tweet implies, then it is just another example of the anti-intellectual clown we have in the Oval Office right now–a man who is completely unaware of the national story to which he has entered as president.

Can a Presidential Administration Run on Loyalty Alone?

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Over at The Washington Post column “Made by History, Cumberland University history professor Mark Cheathem reflects historically on the idea of “loyalty” in presidential administrations.  Here is a taste of his piece on Andrew Jackson’s presidency:

Chaos seems to dominate President Trump’s White House. From Omarosa Manigault Newman’s secret audio recordings to the anonymous New York Times op-ed, reports from White House officials highlight the dysfunction that has plagued the Trump administration in its first 20 months.

Nearly 200 years ago, Democratic President Andrew Jackson’s White House witnessed a similar situation: a president consumed by conspiratorial thinking, a Cabinet feeling the brunt of the president’s paranoia and accusations of an ambitious vice president waiting to step in for a president who failed to deliver on his promise of democratic populism.

The thread that links the chaos in both administrations is the emphasis on loyalty. Throughout his life, Jackson held positions that demanded loyalty — from the soldiers he led, the enslaved people he owned and the relatives and friends he mentored. Disloyal actions led Jackson to cast aside members of his inner circle. And the political consequences of these falling-outs were significant, helping to shape the two-party system and contributing to the regional strife that eventually produced the Civil War. Similar situations in the Trump orbit also could have serious long-term ramifications.

Read the rest here.

Also check out our recent Author’s Corner interview with Cheathem on his book The Coming Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson.

The Author’s Corner with Mark Cheathem

CoD Book Cover.jpgMark Cheathem is Professor of History and project director of the Papers of Martin Van Buren at Cumberland University. This interview is based on his new book The Coming Democracy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Coming Democracy?

MC: Originally, I started out writing a book about the 1840 election for undergraduate students. As I researched the Log Cabin and Hard Cider Campaign of 1840, however, I saw a need for a more general book on presidential campaigning in the Jacksonian period. The closest one we had was Michael J. Heale’s The Presidential Quest: Candidates and Images in American Political Culture, 1787-1852. Heale’s book is excellent, but it was published in 1982 and did not address the new scholarship on Early Republic cultural politics. Having research and written extensively on Jacksonian politics, I thought I could provide a book that provided an interpretive framework for understanding this fascinating period.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Coming Democracy?

MC: This book argues that forms of cultural politics (e.g., political cartoons, political songs, etc.) were essential to engaging voters in presidential campaigns during the Jacksonian period. Not only were these political expressions increasingly used to engage voters between 1824 and 1840, they also played a critical role in making them a permanent part of presidential campaigning.

JF: Why do we need to read The Coming Democracy?

MC: This book is immensely relevant to today’s political culture. As I argue in the conclusion, while some forms of Jacksonian-era cultural politics have changed, all of them continue to exist in some form. For example, political cartoons may not be as relevant in today’s world of disappearing newspapers, but the popular memes on social media essentially serve the same purpose: providing a visual shorthand of a politician or issue that requires some level of political literacy on the part of consumers.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MC: My undergraduate adviser, Monty Pope, knew that I wanted to teach history, and he convinced me to go to graduate school so I could teach at the college level. Monty’s course on Jacksonian Democracy and his encouragement to work at The Hermitage, Jackson’s home in Nashville, led me into the period I study.

JF: What is your next project?

MC: I am currently at work on the Papers of Martin Van Buren project, which is making the eighth president’s papers accessible in both digital and print editions. I am also writing a book on the 1844 presidential election for the University Press of Kansas’ American Presidential Elections series.

JF: Thanks, Mark!

Trump Echoed His Favorite President Last Night

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Andrew Jackson was a great defender of American democracy.  He was a president elected by the “common man.” He believed that the people gave him his mandate to rule.  “The people,” of course, were white men.  They deserved his loyalty and compassion.  They deserved Jackson’s protection.  Jackson promised to protect their access to the American dream.

One of Jackson’s most important democratic “reforms” was the The Indian Removal Act (1830).  This act gave the federal government authority to move southeastern native America groups (Choctow, Cherokee, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, among others) to a designated Indian territory in present-day Oklahoma.  Tens of thousands of native Americans were sent to Indian territory on the “Trail of Tears.”

As a champion of democracy, it was essential that Jackson got the Indians out of the way so he could open-up native American lands for the “common men” who voted for him.  Let’s remember what Jackson’s idea of democracy was all about.  Here is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel Walker Howe:

Seeking the fundamental impulse behind Jacksonian Democracy, historians have variously pointed to free enterprise, manhood suffrage, the labor movement, and resistance to the market economy. But in its origins, Jacksonian Democracy (which contemporaries understood as a synonym for Jackson’s Democratic Party) was not primarily about any of these, though it came to intersect with all of them in due course. In the the first place, it was about the extension of white supremacy across the North American continent.

I thought about Jackson as I listened to Trump’s first State of the Union Address last night.  I am not sure if Jackson ever used the phrase “American first,” but as a populist he certainly embraced the idea.  Indian removal was his attempt to put American citizens “first.”  White men needed this land and Jackson was going to make sure he prioritized their needs.

Last night Trump said:

The United States is a compassionate nation. We are proud that we do more than any other country to help the needy, the struggling, and the underprivileged all over the world. But as President of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers, and America’s forgotten communities. I want our youth to grow up to achieve great things. I want our poor to have their chance to rise.

So tonight, I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed. My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too.

White “Americans are dreamers too.” We need to protect them from the Indians immigrants who are threatening them.

As I argue briefly in Chapter Five of my forthcoming Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, the idea of “America first” has always been tied to racial division.

The Author’s Corner with William Bolt

boltWilliam Bolt is Assistant Professor of History at Francis Marion University. This interview is based on his new book, Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America (Vanderbilt University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America?

WB: I wrote Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America because the tariff had been neglected for over 100 years. Since the tariff provided the national government with ninety percent of its annual revenue, I deemed it to be an important subject that historians had ignored for too long.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America?

WB: Tariff Wars argues that the tariff needs to be a part of the narrative on antebellum politics, but it also argues that the tariff helped to spread democracy. Whenever Congress debated a tariff, scores of petitions and memorials arrived in Washington and public meetings were held regarding the tariff. Many Americans followed these debates and the tariff, in my opinion, helped to draw more Americans into the political process.

JF: Why do we need to read Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America?

WB: People should read Tariff Wars because this issue was important to the people of the era. The people understood it and closely followed all efforts either to lower or raise the tariff. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

WB: I decided to become an American historian about twenty years ago, I took a course on Jacksonian Democracy and the instructor, the late Richard E. Ellis, was having the time of his life relating studies about Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Martin Van Buren. Sitting in that classroom and watching him reenact duels and congressional debates I found my calling.

JF: What is your next project?

WB: I am currently working on two follow up projects. A long-term project and a short terms one. My labor of love is a study of the rivalry between Millard Fillmore and William H. Seward. It is tentatively titled, “Empire State Rivalry.” It examines how two men with so much in common came to be bitter enemies. Their rivalry, I argue, hastened the demise of the Whig Party and contributed to the coming of the Civil War. My short-term project is a study of the year 1841. It is tentatively titled, “Year of here Presidents.” It looks at the presidencies of Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler. This work also is relevant to today because there is an intriguing Supreme Court confirmation battle in the final days of Van Buren’s presidency, and also a replace and replace battle over the Independent Treasury and National Bank. The year 1841 also sees the fate of the Amistad captives resolved. So there is a lot going on. These projects will helpfully keep me out of trouble.

JF: Thanks, Will!

Daniel Walker Howe Goes There

trump-jackson

As most of you know, many folks are comparing Donald Trump to Andrew Jackson. Frankly, the comparisons are getting a bit tiresome. But when Pulitzer Prize-winner Daniel Walker Howe, author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848gets into the act, we should probably pay attention.

Here is a taste of Howe’s History News Network piece “The Shameful Way Donald Trump is Life Andrew Jackson:

But the congeniality of Jackson’s nationalism to Trump’s purposes goes deeper. Jackson’s was a racial form of American nationalism. To identify as an American in Jackson’s sense was to identify with the white race. Jackson rallied his followers against the American Indians by promising that the Indians’ land would be made available for white settlement once its present occupants were “Removed.” “Indian Removal,” with capital letters, proved the principal achievement of Jackson’s presidency in its first year, and defined who his supporters and opponents would be for the rest of his term. In practice, Indian Removal meant forcible expulsion of people from their historic lands, marching them under military supervision for hundreds of miles to locations that might be very different in climate and environment from what they were accustomed to. Groups might even be relocated onto lands that had already been assigned to someone else. Indian Removal betrayed earlier government assurances that Native peoples could remain in place provided they pursued the way of life of Western Civilization and assimilated. An analogy exists to Trump’s avowed policy to round up and displace millions of “illegal immigrants.” The betrayal of the promise of assimilation to the Indians seems parallel to the betrayal of the American Dream for many of today’s immigrants, especially if they are Mexican or Muslim.

The Indians were not the only racial group targeted by Andrew Jackson. Jackson not only practiced and profited from black slavery on a large scale, as President his policies consistently supported and strengthened the institution of slavery. He halted the efforts his predecessor, John Quincy Adams, had made on behalf of international cooperation in suppressing the illegal Atlantic slave trade, though all other maritime countries approved it. When Charleston, South Carolina, would jail any free black sailors who dared come ashore from Northern or foreign ships, the Monroe administration declared the practice unconstitutional. Jackson’s administration reversed the finding.

Jackson even sacrificed white people’s freedom and privacy to prevent the delivery of antislavery publications in the South. Federal law required the United States Post Office to deliver mail to the addressee, but when Northern antislavery publications began to mail copies to Southern addresses, Jackson immediately told his Postmaster General how to prevent it. In those days people had to go to their local Post Office to pick up their mail. Put up a notice at the Post Office, he directed, saying that mail had arrived for so-and-so which the postmaster is sure they don’t want to receive. However, if they publicly request it, the mail will be given them, to comply with the law. Jackson well realized that, in the South, anyone known to request antislavery messages would be targeted for persecutions, maybe violent, until they had to move away. The Postmaster General followed Jackson’s plan, and it worked as intended. No one ever requested their antislavery mail.

Of course, President Trump probably doesn’t know a lot about President Jackson’s particular policies. But he is certainly aware that Jackson has fallen out of favor with many historians and public commentators—members of the elite that Trump likes to defy. Like Trump, Jackson came to the political system as an outsider, whose candidacy for President was not taken seriously at first by the political establishment. As a fellow “outsider” to respectable opinion, Jackson appeals to Trump.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Jason Opal

OpalJason Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University.  This interview is based on his new book Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Avenging the People?

JO: I had always been fascinated by Andrew Jackson and his intense following in the United States, especially in the wake of his controversial invasion of Spanish and Seminole Florida in 1818. I was also struck by the tone and vehemence of the Congressional debates that followed in early 1819. The pro-Jackson representatives talked about the “laws of nations” and the “rights of nature,” suggesting that Old Hickory symbolized a new claim to national sovereignty within the brutal world he saw.

But what made me want to dig deeper was what happened right after these debates—not the bitter controversy over slavery in Missouri, but the severe economic crisis that lasted from 1819 to 1822. Here, Jackson was an arch-conservative foe of public banks, stay laws, and other assertions of democratic sovereignty against international “laws” of commerce. Here, he rejected some of the most popular—and, in some sense, nationalistic—measures of his day. This just did not fit with the traditional view of Jackson as a patriotic champion and democratic reformer. Nor did it align with the usual critiques of Jackson, which stress his hostility to native peoples and black Americans.

So, I wanted to offer a new look at the towering enigma from Tennessee, one that stayed as close as possible to primary sources (rather than historiographical debates) and that scrutinized Jackson’s early career and political education (rather than his legendary times in the White House). I did not intend to besmirch Jackson, nor to condemn his fans. I just wanted to see what he was about, and to understand why so many Americans loved him so fiercely.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Avenging the People?

JO: I argue that Jackson led and embodied one version of American nationhood—of the American people as a nation who shared blood—that grew out of the long struggle with the British Empire and its native and black proxies during the post-Revolutionary decades. This kind of nationhood asserted American sovereignty vis-à-vis its enemies, including the right to avenge American blood around the globe, while restricting their sovereignty in times and places of peace, that is within the society they reluctantly composed.

JF: Why do we need to read Avenging the People?

JO: Especially since the United States, unlike most western democracies, still functions according to its first written Constitution (with amendments), it is always important to study the Founding era. In a way, this history is not history at all, but a kind of ongoing past.

Jackson was not one of the Founders of 1787, but he was probably the single most important figure in the later, longer rise of “democratic” models of American nationhood and popular sovereignty. Understanding that is especially important now that President Trump repeatedly and (I think) sincerely invokes Jackson’s name to authorize an “America First” course of action.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JO: I have loved history for as long as I can remember and was determined to become a history professor by the time I was in eighth or ninth grade. (One viewing of Les Misérables at the Shubert Theatre in Boston clinched it.) I honestly can’t imagine anything more compelling than the debatable record of what people have done and what it all means.

I decided to study the early United States after I took Mary Beth Norton’s class on the American Revolution at Cornell in the spring of 1996. I turned to cultural and social history after working with Jane Kamensky at Brandeis in 1999. Inspiring teachers have that effect!

JF: What is your next project?

JO: Moving to Montreal in 2009, right when I was starting this project, gave me a new vantage point on American history. It also revealed the importance of other languages, which had always been a weak point for me. I’m comfortable at last in French and am now studying Portuguese, both of which will help for my new book project, a global history of Barbados. As many early Americanists have shown, this island was the center of the early English empire and the starting point for its seventeenth-century turn to black slavery. I want to retell the island’s long ordeal by drawing in the associated histories of the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British empires and of the many African nations that later gave rise to the Bajan people.

I’m also working on two collaborative projects. The first is a collection of essays on the “Patriot” rebellions of the late 1830s along the US-Canadian border. I’m writing about the economic priorities that underlay US-British rapprochement and that helped to doom the Patriots. Maxime Dagenais of McMaster University and Julien Mauduit of Université du Québec à Montréal are editing this book, which I hope will reach people in both French and English Canada and in my native country. Second, I’m writing a history of epidemic diseases and the American people with my dad, Dr. Steven Opal of the Brown University School of Medicine.

JF: Thanks, Jason