“MONUMENTS WITHOUT INSCRIPTIONS”–OUR WWII VETERANS

The World War Two Memorial

I was back in Washington, D.C. last week and had the privilege of visiting the World War Two Memorial there.  If you haven’t visited it before, it’s an impressive site, although I had the kind of mixed feelings that regularly plague me on such locations.  I can’t help but think we should visit such places in quietness and contemplation.  One of the prominent inscriptions on the memorial is from one of my sailor father’s heroes, Admiral Chester Nimitz:

They fought together as brothers-in-arms.  They died together and now they sleep side by side.  To them we have a solemn obligation.

And yet there was very little solemnity around me as I walked around the memorial.  The memorial is ringed by two semi-circular walls on which the names of the major battles of the European and Pacific theaters are inscribed, and when I got to the two words “LEYTE GULF”–the battle in which my father’s destroyer was sunk by Japanese suicide bombers–I found it hard to swallow, and for a moment, difficult to see.  And yet all around me there were children laughing and playing, teenagers eating hot dogs and taking selfies, and tired parents resting on the names of battles at which Americans had died.  If an experience can be inspiring and depressing simultaneously, this one was.

“Monuments Without Inscriptions”

All of which has got me to thinking about a different kind of WWII memorial, namely the dwindling number of surviving WWII veterans.  Roughly 97 percent of those who served our country during World War Two are now gone.  Many who are still with us are past sharing about their experiences, and many never wished to.

In writing this I am reminded of one my favorite books by one of my favorite authors: Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry, the prolific Kentucky novelist, poet, and essayist.  Like many of Berry’s novels, Hannah Coulter is set in the tiny fictional hamlet of Port William, Kentucky.  Narrated through the reminiscences of an aged farm wife, the novel spans the period from the Great Depression through the close of the twentieth century, but the emotional heart of the novel grapples with the personal effects of the Second World War.

HannahCoulter

Toward the end of her recollections, Hannah relates that she “married the war twice, you might say, once in ignorance, once in knowledge.” She married her first true love, Virgil Feltner, just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Virgil entered the army in 1942 but didn’t come home, falling at the Battle of the Bulge. In 1948 she married another local GI, Nathan Coulter.  Nathan came home physically unscathed, but forever marked by what he had experienced.

Hannah’s reflections about her second husband remind me of my own father’s unwillingness—or inability—to share about his wartime experiences. As I have noted before, my dad saw extensive action in the South Pacific from 1942-1944. On the third anniversary of Pearl Harbor, his destroyer, the U.S.S. Mahan, was hit by three Japanese Kamikaze suicide bombers off the coast of the Philippines and sunk. Dad has always been willing to share this much, but no more. What he felt when he heard the crash of the Kamikazes, what he thought when the forward magazine on the Mahan exploded, what he saw as he headed toward the side, what went through his mind when he jumped into the oil-coated bay, what, perhaps, he prayed as he bobbed in the water while the battle continued to rage—these are things that Dad never once offered to share.

And so I was deeply moved to read Hannah’s reflections on Nathan’s half-century-long silence:

He did not talk about it, I understood, because it was painful to remember; and for the same reason I did not ask him about it. . . . Nathan was not the only one who was in it, who survived it and came home from it and did not talk about it. There were several from Port William who went and fought and came home and lived to be old men here, whose memories contained in silence the farthest distances of the world, terrible sights, terrible sufferings. Some of them were heroes. And they said not a word. They stood among us like monuments without inscriptions. They said nothing or said little because we have barely a language for what they knew, and they could not bear the pain of talking of their knowledge in even so poor a language as we have.

Are there “monuments without inscriptions” in your life today?  Reach out to them while you can.

DOES ANY OF THIS STILL APPLY?

Deja Vu All Over Again?

I’ve been spending a lot of time this spring with Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

Tocqueville wrote this classic at a time when democracy was still a novel experiment in the world. Its future was uncertain. Its impact was unclear. And although he was writing about democracy in a very specific historical context (he arrived in the United States at the midpoint of Andrew Jackson’s first term as president), his investigation was driven by questions as relevant today as they were in the 1830s.

I thought I’d share just a few quotes that are going into my commonplace book.   Democracy in America is so rich that I could share quotes from it for months and still not get to all the good ones, but here are a few of my favorites.  They come from the 2004 edition translated by Arthur Goldhammer of the University of Virginia.

I give them below without further comment, except to share my opinion that Tocqueville’s insights strike me as timeless.  I’d welcome hearing your thoughts.

* “Generally speaking, only simple conceptions can grip the mind of a nation.  An idea that is clear and precise even though false will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true but complex.”

* “Man firmly believes a thing because he accepts it without looking deeply into it.  He begins to doubt when objections are raised.  In many cases he succeeds in laying all his doubts to rest and begins to believe again.  Then he no longer clings to a truth plucked at random from the darkness but stares truth in the face and marches directly toward its light. . . . We can be sure that the majority of men will remain in one of these two states: they will either believe without knowing why, or not know precisely what they ought to believe.”

* “But nothing is harder than the apprenticeship of liberty.  This is not true of despotism.  Despotism often presents itself as the remedy for all ills suffered in the past.  It is the upholder of justice, the champion of the oppressed, and the founder of order.  Nations are lulled to sleep by the temporary prosperity to which it gives rise, and when they are awake, they are miserable.”

* “Americans do not converse; they argue.”

* “In America centralization is not popular, and there is no cleverer way to court the majority than to rail against the alleged encroachments of the central government.”  

* “Now, what has to be said in order to please the voters is not always what would best serve the political opinion they profess.”

* “It is astonishing to see how few, how weak, and how unworthy are the hands into which a great people can fall.”

And My All-Time Favorite . . .

* “When the past is no longer capable of shedding light on the future, the mind can only proceed in darkness.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

PRESIDENT TRUMP AND THE CAUSE OF THE CIVIL WAR

Had Trump been President in 1860, Would He have Prevented the Civil War, or Caused It?

Although I’ve been doing my best to take a break from this blog (as much as I enjoy it) while on sabbatical at Wheaton, the headlines announcing that President Trump had speculated about the causes of the Civil War in a recent interview were too much to ignore.  If you missed it, here is what Trump had to say in an interview with the Washington Examiner released just this morning:

“I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.  He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War.  He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’  People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?  People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?  Why could that one not have been worked out?”

The president’s liberal critics have been quick to jump on his remarks, extracting his rhetorical question about why the Civil War occurred as evidence that he is utterly clueless about it.  (You can read a sampling here.)  There have been countless condescending tweets suggesting that the president should read up on something called slavery and figure out what the rest of the world already knows.

I’m convinced that President Trump is largely clueless about U. S. history (ask Frederick Douglass, if you don’t believe me), but these particular jibes are unfair.  In context, what the president was really getting at was the question not of the causes of the Civil War but of its inevitability.  Might the war have been avoided?  Could more effective political leadership have addressed the national blight of slavery while avoiding the bloodiest war in the nation’s history?  This is a much harder question to answer, and one that academic experts on the conflict continue to debate to this day.  It’s not a stupid question.

Having defended President Trump on this point, I have to say that his observations about Andrew Jackson’s concern for “what was happening with regard to the Civil War” are just ridiculous.  As others have pointed out, Jackson died sixteen years before the war erupted.  Less patently absurd is the president’s speculation that, had Jackson served as president some years later, he might have successfully averted the war during his administration, at least.

“Counterfactual” History

This is what historians call a counterfactual hypothesis–speculation about the likely consequences of a set of historical circumstances that never existed.  By definition, a counterfactual hypothesis cannot be proved correct, so academic historians almost always avoid them, but they can be intriguing, and they sometimes can lead to fruitful insight.

Not in this case, however.

While southern politicians were convinced that Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 posed a direct threat to the preservation of slavery–and so responded by advocating disunion–slaveholders had nothing to fear from a Jackson presidency.  While Lincoln’s Republican Party denounced slavery as a moral wrong and called for its eventual demise, Jackson’s party took the position that it was no business of the federal government to interfere with slavery.  While Lincoln denounced slavery as a “moral, social, and political wrong,” the slaveholding Jackson was outspoken in his condemnation of northern abolitionists and, as president, even allowed southern postmasters to confiscate and destroy abolitionist literature.  In sum, it seems highly unlikely that the South would  have attempted to secede under Andrew Jackson’s watch, but not because of Jackson’s strong leadership or skill at negotiation.

But as long as we’re playing the counterfactual game, let’s not stop here.  President Trump has repeatedly compared himself with Andrew Jackson (whose portrait he had installed in the Oval Office), and his suggestion that Jackson could have avoided the Civil War is, in this sense, a backhanded self-compliment, i.e., “the president who most resembles me is the one who could have saved the nation’s from its bloodiest war.”  Is there any reason to think that the nation might have fared better in 1861 with Donald Trump, and not Abraham Lincoln, in the White House?

Lincoln Would have Seen Donald Trump as Part of the Problem

Although it is inconceivable to imagine the Civil War occurring had the institution of slavery not existed on American soil, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Civil War was inevitable or that, even if it was inevitable, that it had to break out at the time and in the manner that it did.  The Civil War, if it signified anything, was a blaring testimony to the failure of the American political system.  Historians believe that the system failed, in large part, because of a massive crisis of popular confidence in the nation’s political institutions.

One of the great ironies of the Civil War is that both the North and the South believed that they were under attack by the other.  As I stress to students when we wrestle with the coming of the Civil War, by the close of the 1850s common folk in both regions could ironically agree on two things: 1) the other region was committed to an agenda that would undermine their way of life, and 2) the political process was powerless to protect them from the threat.  The moral controversy over slavery had something to do with this, but so did politicians on both sides who regularly exaggerated the threat posed by the other region because of the partisan benefits that resulted when their constituents were afraid.

Nearly a quarter-century before the first cannon boomed at Fort Sumter, a young Abraham Lincoln had warned about precisely this kind of political danger.  In his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln, then an Illinois state congressman, told his audience that the most serious threat to America’s political institutions did not come from a foreign invader.  “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?” he asked.  “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln warned, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

Lincoln went on to make three key points: First, the “strongest bulwark” of our democratic form of government is “the attachment of the People.”  Second, free government is never more vulnerable than when the public has concluded it cannot, or will not, protect them and champion their interests.  In such an environment, the majority may eventually conclude—recklessly, emotionally—that any change is better than no change since “they imagine they have nothing to lose.”  And third, what should we look for when a people driven by passion lose faith in their government?  Danger.

What is the solution?  Key to Lincoln’s prescription was his realization that popular attachment to the government is not just something that happens when government does its job.  Lincoln insisted instead that attachment to the government is a political quality that the American people must constantly, consciously cultivate.  “How shall we fortify against” the loss of faith in government, Lincoln asked?  We do so, he maintained, by promoting respect for the rule of law and by replacing passion in the public square with reason.

How would a President Trump have acted during the run-up to the American Civil War?  We’ll never know, of course, but anyone who listened to his speech in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania just two days ago heard a president who excels in doing precisely what Lincoln warned against: fueling popular contempt for government while channeling our darkest passions.

GOOD FRIDAY, 1865

Today marks the 151st anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater in Washington, D. C. Since that time more than 16,000 books have been written about Lincoln—one for every three and a half days since his death—and so I’m not going to try to dash out anything new about Lincoln’s role in the preservation of the Union or his proper place in American history more broadly, but I do want to share a thought about how Lincoln’s death was commemorated in the immediate aftermath of the assassination.

I started this blog because I wanted to be in conversation with thinking Christians about what it means to think Christianly about American history. At its best, our engagement with the past should be a precious resource to us, but it can also be a snare, especially because of the temptation that we face to allow our thinking about history to distort our identity as followers of Christ. That temptation, in turn, is but a reflection of a more basic temptation to idolatry that has been a constant theme in the human story. The subtle seduction of idolatry can take innumerable forms, but one of these surely for American Christians over the past two and a half centuries has been the temptation to conflate God’s Church with the American nation.

I’m especially mindful of this today because Lincoln’s assassination instantaneously triggered across the grieving northern states a response that should make us wince, if not shudder. Northerners hardly spoke with one voice, but a common response from northern pulpits was to speak in terms of the president’s “sacrifice” and “martyrdom,” both terms fraught with religious significance. Almost no one missed the symbolism of the timing of Lincoln’s death. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses Grant on Palm Sunday—in an event that seemed to signal at long last a northern triumph—and now the nation’s leader was killed on Good Friday. It was child’s play, if childishly foolish, to connect the dots and begin to speak of Lincoln as the nation’s savior and messiah.

Two days later, pastors across the North would mount their pulpits and begin to do so.  So, for example, the Reverend Henry Bellows of New York City informed his congregation that “Heaven rejoices this Easter morning in the resurrection of our lost leader . . . dying on the anniversary of our Lord’s great sacrifice, a mighty sacrifice himself for the sins of a whole people.” In Philadelphia, minister Phillips Brooks assured his flock that, “If there were one day on which one could rejoice to echo the martyrdom of Christ, it would be that on which the martyrdom was perfected.”

But not all analogies were between Lincoln and Christ. The day after Lincoln’s death, a Philadelphia newspaper editorialized, “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. So the blood of the noble martyr to the cause of freedom will be the seed to the great blessing of this nation.” Here the central analogy was not between Christ and Lincoln, but between Christ’s church and Lincoln’s nation.

Such conflation of the sacred and the secular continued in the days following, as the nation mourned and the slain president’s funeral procession made its way slowly from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. When the procession finally arrived at the grave site in early May, the assembled throng joined their voices in a hymn composed for the occasion:

This consecrated spot shall be
To Freedom ever dear
And Freedom’s son of every race
Shall weep and worship here.

What does it mean to “worship” at the tomb of a departed president?

“Washington and Lincoln (Apotheosis),” J. A. Arthur, 1865

The Christ analogy was also popularized in a series of prints showing what was labeled as the “apotheosis” of Lincoln after his death. One definition of “apotheosis” is “ascension into heaven,” and these prints do regularly show Lincoln being received into the heavenly realm. But another synonym for “apotheosis” is “deification” or “elevation to divine status,” and this definition may apply as well. Significantly, Lincoln is regularly shown being met and embraced by George Washington, who may serve as the gatekeeper into heaven, but might also be effectively a proxy for God the Father. (In the image above, Washington seems to be bestowing on Lincoln a martyr’s crown.)  Indeed, banners during Lincoln’s funeral procession were seen to proclaim “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior.” Given the common symbolism of Washington as the Founder of the country and Lincoln as its martyred messiah, it’s not much of a stretch to see these images as symbolizing the ascension of the Son (Lincoln) into heaven where he will be seated on the right hand of the Father (Washington).

I admire Abraham Lincoln a great deal, almost as much as any public figure in our nation’s past. But however well intended these images may have been, they can only be described as “patriotic heresy.”

ANDREW JACKSON AND DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN

I recently finished reading Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, by Michael Chevalier.  Don’t feel too bad if you haven’t read it (or even heard of it)–it’s current ranking on Amazon is #2,875,870.

Chevalier was a twenty-eight-year old Frenchman sent to the US by the French government in 1833, two years after the far more famous mission of his fellow countrymen Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont.   An engineer, Chevalier’s assignment was to study the American transportation and communications systems, which he did diligently and systematically over the next two years.  During his travels, he periodically sent back lengthy letters (thirty-two in all) that were published at the time in a French journal, and then compiled and released in book form after his return.  The first English translation appeared in 1839.

Chevalier paid greatest attention to railroads, steamboats, and canals, but he was interested in economic development generally (he discussed American banking at length) and also discussed U. S. politics extensively as it intersected with and influenced the nation’s economic life.  It was in that context that I came across the quote below with regard to Andrew Jackson.  I’ve previously written about some of the parallels between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump (a comparison that the latter actively invites), but the quote below was so striking that I had to pass it along.

Chevalier begins with a compliment of sorts: “General Jackson possesses in the highest degree the qualities necessary for conducting partisan warfare,” he observes.  The president is “bold, indefatigable, always alert, quick-sighted . . . harsh and terrible to his enemies.”  But then he elaborates:

For reasons of domestic policy . . . many enlightened men who had at first treated the idea of supporting him for the presidency with ridicule gave in to the plan, trusting that they should be able to exercise a salutary influence over him.  His fiery temper seemed in fact to be calmed by his elevation; the recollection of his oath of office which, at the moment it was made, was made in good faith, was yet fresh.  He conscientiously resolved . . . to be moderate, patient, and calm. . . . But this state of constraint was insupportable to him; it is too late to reform at the age of sixty years.

Sound familiar?

This drawing by Matt Chase first appeared in the New York Times, February 17, 2016.

ANDREW JACKSON: ROLE MODEL?

A few more thoughts about Andrew Jackson:

If you were following his itinerary last week, you will know that President Trump visited the grave of the nation’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson, on the way to a political rally in Nashville.  Mr. Trump counts himself “a fan” of Old Hickory, almost certainly not because of anything he has read about the Tennessean, but because adviser Stephen Bannon has convinced his boss that Jackson was an 1830s version of himself.  When Bannon lauds Mr. Trump as “Jacksonian,” he is expressing his wish/hope/vision/agenda that history will remember Trump as a “populist” leader who gave birth to an entirely new and permanent political party.

President Trump pauses after laying a wreath at the Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

History will show whether he was right.  But in the meantime, I can’t help worrying about other aspects of the Trump-Jackson analogy.  In his regular column in the Washington Post last Thursday, Wheaton alum Michael Gerson lamented that the president had chosen “a deeply disturbing hero.”  I agree.

I should say at the outset that I am not an expert on Jackson.  The only real archival research I have done that even touches on Jackson remotely was decades ago.  During the summer of my first year in graduate school (not long after fire was invented), Chalmette National Historical Park hired me to conduct research in Tennessee on the role of the Tennessee militia in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans.  I spent much of that summer at the Tennessee State Archives and the Hermitage (Jackson’s middle Tennessee plantation), poring over military records and copying—by hand—the muster rolls of Tennesseans who served in the Louisiana campaign.  (FYI: It was no picnic.  Only a handful of Tennessee soldiers became battlefield casualties, but over 10 percent died of disease during the few brief months of their service.  I digress.)

Having confessed this limitation, I’ll say on the other hand that I have been teaching on both Jackson and Jacksonian democracy for thirty years, and on balance I have found Jackson to be more scary than admirable.  Over the weekend my view was reinforced as I read H. W. Brands’ biography Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (Anchor Books, 2005).  Brands is a distinguished historian at the University of Texas, author of twenty-five books, and twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  His take on Jackson is deeply researched, engagingly written, and largely sympathetic.  And yet Jackson’s character flaws leap off the page.

Without doubt, Brands reminds us that Jackson had admirable qualities.  He was unquestionably courageous, had an iron constitution, an indomitable will, and an almost mystical attachment to the nation.  Yet as Brands sketches him, Jackson was also a man of great passion and monumental self-confidence, and throughout his life he found it impossible to believe that anyone who disagreed with him could be motivated by honorable convictions.  Any opposition to his will was always evidence of corruption or cowardice or both.  For example, when his hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, was defeated in the presidential election of 1840, Jackson concluded, without evidence, that “Corruption, bribery and fraud has been extended over the whole Union.”  Yes, Jackson was a stalwart champion of popular democracy, but he was also utterly convinced that the people, unless they were misled by dishonest demagogues, would always agree with him.  As Brands puts it, “Jackson never had trouble detecting the authority in the voice of the people when they agreed with him, but when they disagreed . . . he concluded that they had been deceived by the ‘machinations’ and conspiracy’ of the enemies of democracy.”

Just as troubling is Brands’ blunt conclusion that “Jackson rarely respected authority per se.”  Twice during the War of 1812 Jackson, then a general of Tennessee militia, directly disobeyed orders from the Secretary of War.  After the War of 1812 had been concluded, Jackson again ignored express instructions from the War Department and led troops into Florida—which was then part of the Spanish Empire—provoking an international incident with both Spain and England that might easily have led to war.  Jackson captured Pensacola, after first threatening the Spanish governor that if he resisted he would kill every last Spanish soldier.  “I am informed that you have orders to fire on my troops entering the city,” Jackson informed the governor in a note.  “I wish you to understand distinctly that if such orders are carried into effect, I will put to death every man found in arms.”  Back in Washington, Jackson’s superiors recognized his widespread popularity and political utility, and the administration of President James Madison tried to control Jackson’s insubordination without openly rebuking him.  For his part, Jackson claimed to care less about the opinion of the “intermeddling pimps and spies of the War Department.”

Andrew Jackson, in an 1824 portrait by artist Thomas Scully

There is much more that I could add that is troubling, for example:

* Jackson’s enduring admiration of Napoleon Bonaparte, not only when the Corsican was leader of Republican France, but even after he had made himself Emperor;

* the duels Jackson fought and the resulting bullets that he carried in his chest and shoulder for much of his adult life;

* his extensive speculation in real estate and penchant for making what would be, in today’s money, six-figure bets on his race horses;

* his advertisement offering a $50 reward for a runaway slave and promise of “ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred” (a punishment that would have almost certainly ended in the fugitive’s death); and

* his advice to his nephew, then a cadet at West Point, that if a superior should ever attempt “either to strike or kick you, put him to instant death.”

I could go on, but I think you get the point.  Mr. Trump could find a better role model.

DONALD TRUMP AND ANDREW JACKSON

[Since I am currently on leave, I am taking a temporary break from crafting new essays on faith and American history but re-posting past essays from time to time.  When I read that President Trump visited Andrew Jackson’s home before speaking at a rally last night in Nashville, I thought it made sense to re-post a piece I wrote last summer on our seventh president.  Although I am skeptical that Mr. Trump actually knows much about Jackson, he has described himself as “a fan” of our seventh president and has put a picture of him in the oval office.  I’ve taught on Jackson for nearly thirty years, and with all due respect to President Trump, I find little reason to admire his presidency.  You can read my summary assessment below.]

To the degree that history has remembered Andrew Jackson kindly, it has done so for two main reasons.  First, Jackson responded forcefully to the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833, when South Carolina attempted to nullify federal tariff legislation and threatened disunion if Jackson insisted on enforcing the objectionable laws.  Second, Jackson seemingly embodied a new democratic ethos that exalted the nobility of the “common man” and the moral authority of the majority.  As a rude frontiersman elevated to the nation’s highest office, Jackson became the face of Jacksonian Democracy and the “symbol for an age.”

In truth, Jackson received too much credit in both respects.  Jackson’s “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina”—a vigorous argument for federal supremacy and the perpetuity of the Union—was in fact ghost-written by Senator Edward Livingston of Louisiana.  What is more, Jackson’s approach to federal authority was far from consistent.  At the same time that he was threatening to hang “nullifiers” to the closest tree he could find, this champion of the Union was effectively inviting the state of Georgia to abrogate federal treaties with the Cherokee and encouraging them to defy the U. S. Supreme Court.  And when it comes to Jackson’s relation to the rise of American democracy, it is hard not to see that correlation as almost entirely coincidental.  Jackson’s political leadership was too personal, too impetuous, too erratic to credit him with a purposeful contribution to a more democratic public square.

Although the Whigs could be guilty of exaggerating Jackson’s political sins for partisan purposes, and they were not above duplicating them for partisan gain, their fundamental indictment of Jackson was pretty much on target.  Jackson too often functioned as a reckless, anti-intellectual populist.  His knowledge of, and respect for the Constitution was suspect.  And he had a knack for framing issues in a way that made the people feel aggrieved and willing to accord him more power so that he could protect them from the powerful.  Let me unpack this seemingly harsh assessment.

First, when I say that Jackson was reckless, I mean that he was motivated more by instinct, emotion, and personal feeling than by any systematic political philosophy or vision.  His temper was legendary, he chafed at restraint, and he always took disagreement personally.  He was involved in multiple duels.  He killed a man for insulting his wife.  He exceeded his authority as a military commander after the War of 1812, very nearly embroiling the United States in a war with Spain and prompting Secretary of War John C. Calhoun to recommend his removal.  Once in the White House, he very nearly brought his administration to a grinding halt because the wives of some of his cabinet members refused to socialize with the wife of his Secretary of War.

Jackson was also the first populist U. S. president.  A populist sees (or claims to see) the world as a struggle between the people—always clothed in robes of moral righteousness—and a powerful minority who would subvert the people’s welfare for their own selfish gain.  A populist politician routinely portrays himself as the hero of this drama, a noble champion charged with defending a helpless populace against the insidious forces that threaten them.

There was little in Jackson’s public life prior to 1824 to predict that he would become a populist.  Born in poverty, he parlayed influential connections and a knack for land speculation into a fortune that made him one of the largest land- and slave-owners in Tennessee.  During the War of 1812 he exploited a political appointment as general of the Tennessee state militia into a series of important military assignments, but he quickly built the reputation of a harsh disciplinarian not averse to putting deserters in front of a firing squad.

Then in 1824 the Tennessee General Assembly nominated Jackson as a candidate for president and support for his candidacy began to grow, particularly in what was then “the west.”  This growing support was not due to his political experience, of which he had very little, but rather a tribute to his military success in defeating Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and then the British army at the Battle of New Orleans.

Jackson took approximately 40 percent of both the popular and electoral vote in the four-man presidential election that followed, which is another way of saying that three-fifths of voters wanted someone else to be president.  It was then that Jackson discovered the moral authority of majority rule—or plurality rule, to be more precise—because when John Quincy Adams won the run-off in the House of Representatives, Jackson insisted that the system was rigged and that he had been robbed of the presidency.  In private letters, Jackson lashed out at Speaker of the House Henry Clay, a rival for the presidency who had actively worked against him in the run-off.  The Kentuckian Clay became the “Judas of the West,” a metaphor that could only hold if Jackson was analogous to Christ.

Publicly, Jackson lamented that the authority of the people had been disregarded and the wishes of the Founding Fathers had been trampled.  Ignoring the inconvenient truth that the Framers of the Constitution had feared unfettered majority rule, as well as the fact that the Constitution does not require that there be any direct popular involvement in the election of the president, Jackson pronounced that his defeat was unconstitutional.  The Constitution’s authors, he insisted without a scrap of evidence, would have condemned the election of John Quincy Adams as a violation of the people’s rights.

Jackson3In 1824 Jackson’s campaign managers had primarily portrayed their candidate as “General Jackson,” the hero of New Orleans who deserved their vote because of his patriotism and self-sacrifice.  In 1828 the campaign shifted to a full-throttled populism, denouncing the supposed “Corrupt Bargain” that had stolen the presidency from the people’s choice and handed it to John Quincy Adams.

Demonstrating the anti-intellectualism that so often accompanies populism, the Jackson campaign argued fantastically that Adams’s education and extensive political experience disqualified him from the nation’s highest office.  While Jackson had barely a year of formal schooling and minimal political experience, Adams, after graduating from Harvard, had served as a congressman, senator, ambassador, Secretary of State, and now president.  According to his political lieutenants, Jackson was the more qualified.

John Quincy Adams

Without openly discussing the size of Jackson’s hands, they portrayed their candidate as a man’s man and Adams as an effeminate intellectual.  Who do you want as president, they asked voters: “Jackson who can fight, or Adams who can write?”  And Adams’ extensive political experience was no more an advantage than his education, for political experience undermined, rather than enhanced, a candidate’s ability to serve the public.  Jackson would drive home the point in his first annual message after claiming the presidency on his second try. “There are, perhaps, few men who can for any great length of time enjoy office and power without being more or less under the influence of feelings unfavorable to the faithful discharge of their public duties,” Jackson opined.

The solution was what Jackson called “rotation in office,” or what Americans in more recent times have known as term limits.  To prevent their corruption, make sure that American office holders are always novices.  Nothing would be lost in terms of effectiveness, Jackson assured the nation, because “the duties of all public officers are . . . so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance.”  Who needs experience?

Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, PA

Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, PA

During the eight years that Jackson was in the White House, the episode that best exemplified Jackson’s populism was the so-called Bank War of 1832-1833.  In 1832 the supporters of the Second Bank of the United States—including the “Judas of the West” Henry Clay—had maneuvered a measure through Congress to extend the charter of the bank for another twenty years.  The descendant of an entity originally proposed by Alexander Hamilton, the bank had been chartered by Congress in 1816 in the hope that it would provide a circulating medium for the nation’s economy and bring greater stability and soundness to the country’s often turbulent financial sector.  The bank’s defenders were correct in saying that the bank was largely fulfilling these objectives.  The bank’s detractors were also surely right that this private agency wielded considerable power with minimal accountability.

Jackson, who knew almost nothing about how banks actually function, did know this: the bank’s strongest champions were among his most outspoken critics, and that made the effort to renew the charter a personal attack.  In the summer of 1832 he vetoed the measure on multiple grounds, two of which deserve special attention.  First, Jackson portrayed the struggle over the Bank in classic populist tones.  The proposal to extend the life of the Bank was nothing more than an effort of rich men to make themselves richer.  “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes,” Jackson lamented.  Fortunately, the victims of such injustice—“the humble members of society”—could look to him for protection.

To use current terminology, Jackson portrayed the Bank War as a scheme to use government to enrich the 1 percent at the expense of 99-percenters.  In actuality, among the chief opponents of the Bank of the United States were other bankers—financiers who resented the competition of the B.U.S. and expected their profits to rise if their rival could be eliminated.  There is little evidence that common folk were better off because of the demise of the Bank of the United States, and historians have long speculated that Jackson’s assault on the Bank may have contributed to a severe economic recession at the close of his second term.  That is debatable, but this much is not: when Jackson removed all federal deposits from the Bank of the United States, he divvied them up among state banks—Whigs called them “pet banks”—that were run by his political allies.

This contemporary cartoon depicts Jackson bringing down the pillars of power and privilege through his war against the bank. Near the center of the picture, fleeing Jackson’s righteous wrath, is the president of the Bank of the United States, sporting horns and cloven hooves.

In addition to denouncing the bill to re-charter the Bank as an effort to make the rich richer, Jackson further justified his veto by condemning it as unconstitutional.  The problem here is that the Supreme Court had explicitly defended its constitutionality in the 1818 case McCullough v. Maryland.  The Court’s ruling was utterly irrelevant, Jackson announced in his veto message.  That is because “each public officer who takes an oath to support the Constitution swears that he will support it as he understands it, and not as it is understood by others. . . . The opinion of the judges has no more authority over Congress than the opinion of Congress has over the judges, and on that point the President is independent of both.”

Boiled down, to the degree that the Constitution placed any restrictions on his actions as president, Jackson alone would determine what they were.  The Constitution would mean what he said it meant.  With this comforting philosophy, Jackson would go on to veto more measures than his six predecessors combined.  Whatever else it meant, Jackson’s zeal for the public welfare meant an expansion of the power of the presidency.

This caricature of Andrew Jackson, by an unknown artist, likely appeared in the fall of 1833. Jackson stands on a shredded copy of the Constitution.

When the Treasury Department announced earlier this spring that it would be removing Jackson from the front of the twenty-dollar bill, I applauded, although I found much of the online exultation after the announcement off-putting.  Most of the voices raised in support of the decision emphasized Jackson’s support for two practices—slavery and Indian removal—supported or at least accepted by the vast majority of white Americans at the time.  While condemnation of these practices is the morally correct position for us to hold, it is also a morally cheap position, in that it demands absolutely nothing of us.  Who in 2016 would stand up to defend either practice?  What courage is required to denounce them?

What troubles me most about Jackson is not the ways in which he was a man of his time, but the ways in which he anticipated our day and age.  In his elevation to the presidency almost two hundred years ago, we see a foreshadowing of the emotional, frequently irrational politics of 2016.  And in Jackson, we see the combination of reckless, anti-intellectual, populist bravado that the current “presumptive nominee” of the Republican Party has so wonderfully perfected.  If Jackson’s presidency teaches us anything, however, it is that successful populist politicians don’t always bring more power to the people.  Sometimes they just amass more power for themselves.

This drawing by Matt Chase first appeared in the New York Times, February 17, 2016.

**********

(First other essays comparing Jackson and Trump, check out here and here.)