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.

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 Papers of Martin Van Buren Gets More Funding

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The Papers of Martin Van Buren at Cumberland University just received a $198,000 grant from the Waston-Brown Foundation.  You may recall that in June this relatively new presidential papers project received a $60,752 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commissions.  Congratulations!

Here is a taste of the press release:

Cumberland University’s Papers of Martin Van Buren (PMVB) project recently received a grant of $198,000 from the Watson-Brown Foundation.

The PMVB project is a joint digital and print project directed by Dr. Mark Cheathem, professor of history at Cumberland University. The project will make accessible approximately 13,000 documents belonging to the eighth president via the vanburenpapers.org website and a print edition of Van Buren’s most important political documents.
 
While the grant will provide funding to hire an assistant editor and an associate editor, a significant percentage of the grant will also fund student scholarships, increasing the number of students involved in the project. From the project’s beginning, students have been the primary transcribers of the often difficult-to-decipher nineteenth-century handwriting.

“Through its funding of additional full-time staff and student workers, this gift will greatly increase the speed at which we can make Van Buren’s nationally significant papers accessible to the public,” Cheathem said. “Using the Watson-Brown Foundation gift to make scholarships available to students who want to work on the project is another indication of Cumberland University’s commitment to providing its students with a contemporary liberal arts education.”

Congratulations to the Papers of Martin Van Buren Project

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The Papers of Martin Van Buren at Cumberland University just received a hefty grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to continue its work.. Nice work and congratulations to project director Mark Cheathem and his team.

Here is a taste of the press release:

Cumberland University received a grant for $60,752 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for the Papers of Martin Van Buren (PMVB) project. The funds will support the creation of the digital version of the papers of Martin Van Buren, which will make accessible approximately 13,000 documents belonging to the eighth president.

Mark Cheathem, PMVB project director and CU history professor, involves students with transcribing and annotating the difficult-to-decipher papers written in 19th-century script, which are freely accessible via a website hosted at VanBurenPapers.org. While the project is ongoing, the editors will periodically update the website with new documents so that users will not have to wait until the project is completed to utilize Van Buren’s papers.

Cumberland University is one of the smallest universities to receive the NHPRC grant in the category of publishing historical records. Stanford University, Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Tennessee are examples of other institutions to receive a grant from the NHPRC in this category.

“The NHPRC’s endorsement and commitment of funds is an important step forward for the Papers of Martin Van Buren project here at Cumberland University. It is an honor to have the NHPRC to recognize our importance as one of the few presidential papers projects in existence and one of three currently located in the state of Tennessee.  We hope that this grant opens the door for other funding that will help us make significant progress on providing access to President Van Buren’s papers,” said Cheathem.

The PMVB project is significant not only for Cumberland University but to United States history. By transcribing and annotating Van Buren’s papers, including his letters, speeches, notes, and miscellaneous material, this project will provide fresh insight into the founding of the Democratic party, the evolution of formal politics between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, and the changes in political culture that occurred during Van Buren’s lifetime. Additionally, it will help scholars, students, and the public understand the maturation of United States politics during its early development.

Dr. Harry Watson, PMVB advisory board member, Atlanta Alumni Distinguished Professor of Southern Culture, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said: “Far more than many of us realize today, President Martin Van Buren was an innovative and influential figure with deep influence on political development, public finance, western expansion, and anti-slavery politics in pre-Civil War America. The publication of his papers will open an enormous trove of under-explored information about our early national life to scholars and the public alike.”

Dr. John L. Brooke, PMVB advisory board member, Humanities Distinguished Professor of History at Ohio State University, stresses the importance of the eighth president whose contributions to our modern-day political system often are overlooked.

“Martin Van Buren was the first American to rise to the presidency from an ordinary background, and he is credited with helping to construct mass party politics on roughly the model that we still have today.  His career encompassed local and state politics in New York during the early republic, and a great swath of highly controversial national struggles from 1820 to 1848. His papers are a gold mine of advice, opinion, and information coming from all quarters of his society. They are available on microfilm, but bringing out a well-edited collection in print and online would be a major asset for students and scholars, especially those at smaller institutions with limited budgets, and to the general public. The Papers of Martin Van Buren Project, ably directed by Mark Cheathem, is poised to do a great service to American historians of all walks of life.”

Jennifer Stertzer, senior editor of the Washington Papers and interim director of the Center for Digital Editing at the University of Virginia said: “Since its inception, the Center for Digital Editing has sought partnerships with projects that share a vision of strong editorial standards, a desire for wide-ranging and meaningful accessibility, and an interest in engagement with students, whose experiences with all aspects of developing a documentary edition, from transcription work to platform development, benefits all involved.  The Papers of Martin Van Buren project not only exemplifies these important goals, which will help advance the field of documentary and digital editing, but also will make Van Buren’s papers accessible.”

The NHPRC grant announcement can be found at www.archives.gov/nhprc/awards/awards-5-17. The Papers of Martin Van Buren project can be accessed at vanburenpapers.org.

Show Your Support for the Papers of Martin Van Buren

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A little over a year ago, Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee launched the Papers of Martin Van Buren.

Mark Cheathem, one of the directors of the project, informs us that the Tennessee legislature is considering funding this effort and you can help make it happen.

Cheathem explains it all in a post at his blog Jacksonian America:

As regular readers know, Cumberland University launched the Papers of Martin Van Buren project last February. We have spent the last 13 months working hard to organize the project and begin transcribing Series 1 documents.

In an effort to move the project forward, our state representative has introduced Amendment #59 to the Tennessee Higher Education funding bill (House Bill #0511; Senate Bill #0483), which seeks to provide $250,000 in non-recurring funding for the project. Among other things, these funds will allow us to hire full-time editors and pay students to work on the project.

If you are a Tennessee resident and you think this project is worth supporting with taxpayer money, you can help by calling or emailing your state representative and senator and expressing your support for Amendment #59 to the Tennessee Higher Education funding bill (House Bill #0511; Senate Bill #0483). You can easily find both state representatives and senators at this link.

If you are out of state, your voice likely will not count as much, but the project could still use your support. You can contact Rep. Mark Pody’s office (Rep.Mark.Pody@capitol.tn.gov or 615-741-7086) or Sen. Mae Beavers’ office (Sen.Mae.Beavers@capitol.tn.gov or 615-741-2421), and express your support for Amendment #59 to the Tennessee Higher Education funding bill (House Bill #0511; Senate Bill #0483).

Projects such as the Van Buren Papers usually cannot survive solely on university funding, so federal or state money is crucial to helping them exist. For a new project such as ours, it’s imperative that we receive some kind of external funding. Your support would be very beneficial, and I would be grateful if you would take a few minutes out of your day to make a phone call or send an email.

Is Trump the New Andrew Jackson?

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Yesterday Steve Inskeep, the host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” argued that Donald Trump is channeling Andrew Jackson.  When I read Inskeep’s piece at The New York Times I wondered what Mark Cheathem thought about it

Cheathem has had a busy week.  The Martin Van Buren Papers Project, which he is editing, was launched on Monday at Cumberland University.  But I had a hunch that Cheathem would be unable to resist responding to Inskeep’s op-ed.  I was right.

Here is a taste of his response as his blog, Jacksonian America:

What makes me uncomfortable about these comparisons of modern-day politicians with those from nearly two centuries ago is the shoehorning that has to take place to find parallels. Yes, Trump is bombastic and temperamental, but he’s not quite Jackson because the latter actually got his hands dirty killing people. Yes, Trump styles himself a populist, but as Inskeep points out, the Donald didn’t quite have the same upbringing as Jackson, who, whatever you might think about how he acquired his wealth, didn’t exactly start from the same place as Trump. Most politicians style themselves champions of the people, so Trump’s populist rhetoric isn’t even new or fresh. (By the way, Bernie Sanders’ hair is just as wild, if less luxurious, than Trump’s and his rhetoric is certainly as populist, if a different flavor, as his “Republican” counterpart’s, but no one is comparing the Vermont senator to Jackson.)

What I’ve concluded is that the real question isn’t “is Trump is a modern-day Jackson”; it’s actually “what leads U.S. voters to support a (mostly) successful businessman who wants to build a wall to keep out immigrants, speaks disparagingly about women, feigns religious piety to court voters, and shows no self-awareness that he can be wrong?” That’s the real historical parallel that needs to be drawn, in my opinion. I think commentators would be better served by looking at other politicians in U.S. history who more closely resembled Trump’s true ideology and perspective and explain why people were attracted to them. Or, compare the zeitgeist of different eras, which may offer a better explanation even than personalities. Or, focus on groups, such as the Populist party, the Dixiecrats, and the Birchers, that used anger toward, and resentment of, the government in order to make sense of Trump and his supporters.

Read the entire post here.

The Launching of the Martin Van Buren Papers

Alternative title: “We at The Way of Improvement Leads Home are not the Only Historians With Presidential Pez Dispensers” (Fast forward to the 18:00 mark in the video below).

But seriously, I am very happy for Mark Cheathem and Cumberland University.  I am also impressed that the administration of Cumberland is so supportive of this project.  An announcement for the project is now featured in the most prominent spot on the university’s website.

Read all about it here.

And here is the video of the launch ceremony of the Martin Van Buren Papers Project: