5 Years of Blogging

The fifth anniversary of this blog caught me by surprise. Other responsibilities keep me from posting as often as I used to, but I hope to get back to a more regular writing schedule this fall.

Even though I write less frequently, I appreciate those of you who read when I do find time to post. You’re the faithful few, and your commitment does not go unappreciated.

Introducing The Papers of Martin Van Buren Project

[Former President Martin Van Buren, half-length portrait, facing right]I am pleased to announce that James Bradley and I are co-editing a new scholarly edition of The Papers of Martin Van Buren (PMVB). This project has been in the works for almost a year, but I think we’ve moved far enough from the idea stage to the actual project itself that making a formal announcement is appropriate.

About eighteen months ago, James contacted me about undertaking the transcription, annotation, and publication of the eighth president’s papers. Our plan is to produce a one-volume letterpress edition of Van Buren’s most important political papers and a digital edition of all of his documents, most of which are held at the Library of Congress.

We met last summer and put together an action plan. Our first task was to assemble an advisory board, which we did last fall. At the moment, our advisory board includes:

  • Dr. John L. Brooke, Humanities Distinguished Professor of History, The Ohio State University
  • Dr. Daniel Feller, Professor of History and Chief Editor, The Papers of Andrew Jackson, University of Tennessee
  • Dr. George Franz, Pennsylvania State University Brandywine (emeritus), former Editor/Project Director, The Papers of Martin Van Buren microfilm edition
  • Dr. Reeve Huston, Associate Professor of History, Duke University
  • Dr. John F. Marszalek, Chief Editor, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Mississippi State University
  • Ms. Ruth Piwonka, Historian, Columbia County, New York
  • Dr. Harry L. Watson, Atlanta Alumni Distinguished Professor of Southern Culture, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Right now, we are primarily focusing on organizing the project office at Cumberland University and raising money through grants and donations.

I’m currently completing the Association for Documentary Editing’s Camp Edit, which has been enormously helpful in conceptualizing a number of things related to the project. As the PMVB project moves forward, I’ll post more updates on its progress.

Should Harriet Tubman Replace Andrew Jackson on the $20?

PHOTO: Harriet Tubman is one of the final four candidates that you can vote for in the Women on 20s campaign.As I’ve written about previously, the push to remove Andrew Jackson from the $20 continues. The Women on 20s website announced that Harriet Tubman was the choice of those who voted in its poll. The campaign has gained a lot of media attention and has led to the introduction of a bill in the U.S. House to replace Jackson with a woman.

Dan Feller at The Papers of Andrew Jackson recently weighed in on the proposed change. The Knoxville News-Sentinel also published a piece by Feller. Unfortunately, it’s behind a subscriber firewall, but he was kind enough to send me the text. I can’t post all of it, but the gist is that Feller argues that there were many Jacksons, not just the one who supported Indian removal. There’s also the Jackson who stared down Calhoun and the nullifiers and the Jackson who battled the corporate/banking power of Nicholas Biddle and the Second Bank of the United States. As Feller concludes,

Jackson proclaimed that wealth should not rule numbers, that in a democracy every citizen, regardless of circumstance, should have an equal say in government. If that principle is worth upholding, Andrew Jackson is worth remembering.

One question that seemingly will remain unanswered is how Jackson even wound up on the $20. As a Washington Post piece pointed out, no one really knows how or why he came to replace Grover Cleveland. (A bigger question–how in the world did Cleveland, of all presidents, gain that honor?)

Kristen Burton had a good idea: why not rotate who appears on our currency?

Makes sense to me–just as long as it’s applied equally, at least as far as paper money is concerned.

248 Years Later, Andrew Jackson Remains Controversial

Today commemorates Andrew Jackson’s 248th birthday, and it’s safe to say that he remains controversial.

Today’s Nashville Tennessean editorial page shows the divide. Howard Kittell, CEO of the newly named Andrew Jackson Foundation (previously the Ladies’ Hermitage Association), makes the case that the new exhibit at The Hermitage seeks “to present Jackson in a truthful and realistic manner, recognizing that his actions reflected the views of many people of his time and also the profound effect of his actions upon generations of Native Americans.” Native American activist Albert Bender, not surprisingly, sees Jackson in a different light. “[T]he Andrew Jackson Foundation wants to elevate this monster, this ethnic cleanser, to the status of a great president,” Bender writes. “Jackson was a racist devil incarnate — an early-day American Hitler whose deadly legacy for American Indians remains extant to this very day.”

Jackson’s legacy has also been attacked in other ways recently. Arthur Chu at The Daily Beast reluctantly argued for Reagan to replace Jackson on the $20. While Chu is not a fan of Reagan, he prefers him to Jackson because “[t]here is not a single significant accomplishment of his administration that you can defend today as a positive thing.” Chu finds redemptive qualities or decisions in Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Ulysses S. Grant, but none in Jackson’s. In fact, he argues that “honoring Jackson gives tacit approval for” nearly every modern-day failure. Banking collapse? Check. “Cowboy diplomacy?” Check. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election as California’s governor? Check.

Chu is not the only one who wants to see Jackson replaced on the $20. A “Women on 20s” campaign has emerged that seeks to replace Old Hickory with a “female ‘disrupter.'” Candidates include Alice Paul, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Margaret Sanger.

These two pieces led to a Breitbart piece that argues “Jackson without a doubt deserves to be recognized among our greatest national heroes as the face of the $20 bill.”

I’ve written about this topic before (here and here), so I won’t repeat my previous arguments. I will say two things, though. First, Chu is wrong about Jackson. Whatever his flaws as we look back at his life and presidency, he stared down South Carolina nullifiers. For that decision alone, he deserves some respect. Second, I think it would be great to replace some of the current men on our currency with others who represent a more complete American experience. I think one could make a case for others besides Jackson being replaced (Grant, for example), but I don’t see his presence on the $20 as sacrosanct.

Remembering Monty Pope

OBIT Monty PopeWhen I wrote the dedication to my first book, I thanked six educators who had invested in me, from elementary school through graduate school. All of them were significant in their own way, but Monty Pope was without a doubt the most influential person in setting the course of my career. He mentored me throughout my undergraduate career, convinced me to attend grad school, and pushed me to study Andrew Jackson.

Monty passed away on Wednesday. It’s hard to convey concisely the many stories about him that I would like to tell. I could talk about the time he became convinced that he needed to expose a sheltered boy from East Tennessee to the world, so he threatened to take me to a gentleman’s club in Nashville. (We didn’t go.) I could talk about the time that he and I had a debate after class about the 1824 election and the meaning of plurality. (I was wrong.) I could talk about the time he became exasperated with me because I had calculated my course grade and didn’t take a quiz because it wouldn’t help or hurt me. (Not my finest moment of persistence.)

Mark and Monty_Summer 1998

Monty and me, Summer 1998

I could also mention the talks we had when I was his work-study student. Or the ones we had when I was in grad school. Or the ones we had when we became colleagues. I cherish those conversations, as do hundreds of students and dozens of colleagues. Monty was an easy person to talk to, even if he thought you were crazy for being anything other than a Democrat, an Episcopalian, or a Middle Tennessean. He told you that you could be better than you were, and he truly believed it. He wanted you to believe it about yourself, too. When he said that he was proud of you, it wasn’t idle talk.

Pace, me, and Monty at The Hermitage, Fall 1999

Pace, me, and Monty at The Hermitage, Fall 1999

Many professors influenced me in significant ways. Jim Dressler didn’t suffer fools lightly. Chris Duncan and John Markert were deliberately provocative. Fred Rolater and Libby Nybakken demonstrated mastery of a subject. Bill McKee and Connie Lester modeled professionalism. Thad Smith set high standards. Ren Crowell and Fred Colvin made lecturing look effortless. John Marszalek taught me work ethic and balance between work and family. Monty did many of these things, but from him, I took away two major lessons. The first was that at its heart, history is a story. The second, and even more important, lesson was that investing in students was the most important responsibility that professors owed.

Monty, me, Jack, Fred, and Bill before my lecture at CU in Oct. 2007

Monty, me, Jack, Fred, and Bill before my lecture at CU in Oct. 2007

I haven’t mastered either one of these two lessons from Monty, but in my day-to-day life as a history professor, those are the two lessons that I return to. I’ll never be a professor like he was, but I certainly aspire to be.

Was Andrew Jackson America’s Worst Great President?

Despite what some may think, I’m not a Jackson apologist. But I do think it’s important to correct mistaken impressions of Old Hickory perpetuated both inside and outside of academia.

Michael Brendan Dougherty’s piece in The Week is a good example of the latter. Dougherty takes the standard approach to Jackson’s life: a rags-to-riches story (“Jackson grew up in log-cabin Carolinian poverty, became an orphan during the Revolutionary War, and then rose into a kind of frontier aristocracy”); emphasis on his violent temper (“He was a smoldering latrine fire of resentments and rage”); and the negative consequences of his populist politics (“This marauding style of patronage machine-building would live on for a century”). All of this supports his argument that “Andrew Jackson was America’s worst ‘great’ president.”

There are several things to take issue with in Dougherty’s narrative, but I want to focus on two. The first is his claim that “After the war [of 1812] and with designs on the presidency, he [Jackson] hired a few biographers in succession to spread perhaps the most captivating story of his life: his capture by the British at age 14 during the Revolutionary War” [1]. This is patently false. John Reid started the first biography of Jackson in 1816 and died after completing only the first few chapters. Jackson’s military aide and friend, John H. Eaton, completed the biography, which was published in 1817. The biography was revised for the 1824 and 1828 elections. Eaton also wrote the “Wyoming” letters, which were not a biography per se, for the 1824 campaign. Henry Lee, son of “Light Horse Harry” Lee and step-brother of Robert E. Lee, wrote a biography during the 1828 election, but it was never published during Jackson’s lifetime. So, there was essentially only one biographer (Eaton), and the first edition of his Jackson biography was not written with the presidency in mind.

Dougherty also argues that “Jackson’s purge of federal office-holders relied on a campaign of trumped-up and false charges against incumbents, especially in the Northeast where Jackson tried to build a base of political loyalty.” Jackson’s patronage policy was more complex than he suggests. Historians generally agree that he removed about the same percentage of officeholders as his predecessors. Jackson did not simply “purge” his enemies, however. As he explained to Treasury Secretary Samuel D. Ingham about his decision to offer one of John Quincy Adams’ relatives a job, “Whilst on the one hand we ought, & must, drive out spies & traito[rs] from our camp, and defaulters from the guard of our Treasury, we must shield the honest, & well behaved. Justice to ourselves & others require this.” On the other hand, Dougherty is right in that “[t]he geographic focus of the post office removals in northern states suggests an intentional strategy to boost support outside of Jacksonian Democratic strongholds in the South.”[2] That’s not the impression that Dougherty gives, though.

Finally, Dougherty repeats the most common criticism of Jackson today: “As president, he reversed the alternately benign and malign neglect of Indian affairs by his predecessors and engaged in the forced removal of Indians from the South, culminating in the Trail of Tears.” It’s impossible to defend Jackson’s treatment of Native Americans by modern-day standards, but it’s wrong to claim that the first six presidents didn’t do their part in endorsing the killing of Native Americans, the seizure of their land, and the destruction of their culture. All of that can’t be laid at Jackson’s feet alone, no matter how hard we try to paint him as THE villain in Early Republic U.S.-Indian relations.

[1] This story serves as the centerpiece of a forthcoming essay, entitled “‘I owe to Britain a debt of retaliatory Vengeance’: Assessing Andrew Jackson’s Hatred of the British,” part of a collection commemorating the Battle of New Orleans’ bicentennial to be published by LSU Press.

[2] These examples comes from my forthcoming book, Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democrats, p.p. 144-45, 142.

Remembering Lynching in the U.S.

The New York Times published a piece today on lynchings in the South. The piece focused on a report by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which examined lynchings in twelve southern states. Much of the report reinforces what historians such as Amy Louise Wood, Fitzhugh Brundage, and others have written about lynching, but a couple of things about the NYT piece and the report troubled me.
The first was the discrepancy between the report’s title, “Lynching in America,” and its content, which centers on twelve southern states (the former Confederacy and Kentucky). Lynching was a national problem, but one wouldn’t know it from the report. The second was the EJI’s decision to explicitly exclude certain types of lynchings. The report notes,

We distinguish “racial terror lynchings”—the subject of this report—from hangings and mob violence that followed some criminal trial process or that were committed against non-minorities without the threat of terror. . . . We also distinguish “terror lynchings” from racial violence and hate crimes that were prosecuted as criminal acts.

The EJI certainly has the right to define lynchings as it sees fit, but I don’t agree with the narrowness of the definition.

One could chalk up my reservations to pedantry, but other historians have pointed out more significant issues with both the report and the NYT piece. Read Kidada Williams’s Twitter feed, for example, for several thought-provoking comments on how even academics lose focus on what lynchings actually meant.

Crystal Fleming points out a significant problem with the NYT article.

I don’t know if EJI will be successful in placing markers commemorating lynching victims, but if nothing else, their report has prompted discussion of the horrific acts of violence that white southerners committed against African Americans. I hope that it also leads to a discussion of lynching as a national act, not one that was solely confined to the southern states. I say this not because I fail to recognize the South’s racial problems, but because relegating lynching to the South scapegoats the region, providing an excuse to ignore the national problem of white supremacy.

Books for Fall 2015

History of the U.S. I

Timothy B. Smith, The Mississippi Secession Convention: Delegates and Deliberations in Politics and War, 1861-1865 (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2014) ISBN 9781628460971

Don Hickey, Glorious Victory: Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans (Johns Hopkins University, 2015) ISBN 9781421417042

Betty Wood, The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies (Hill & Wang, 1997) 9780809074563

Introduction to Historical Methods

Conal Furay and Michael J. Salevouris, The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide, 4th ed. (Wiley Blackwell, 2015) ISBN 9781118745441

Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton Univ. Press, 2011) ISBN 9780691153001

Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 8th ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2013) ISBN 9780226816388

African American History

Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard Univ. Press 2013) ISBN 9780674045552

Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (Vintage, 2003) ISBN 9780375713712

John K. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998) ISBN 9780521627245

Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2011) ISBN 9780807871973

Andrew Jackson in Space

My friend and fellow Tennessee historian, Gordon Belt, Tweeted out a link to a new comic book yesterday. The title? Andrew Jackson in Space. A Twitter exchange with the writer, Brian Visaggio, resulted in the following interview.

1. What is your background in the comics world? 
I’m best known at this point for doing an ongoing science fiction comic called Stronghold, which is best described as Power Rangers for grown-ups. It’s a grim book about a group of armored space ninjas leading an uprising against aliens who have conquered the earth. There’s also a lot of complicated feelings going on in it. It’s not just an action book.
I’ve been doing comics for a long time, but only really started to really engage in the field in the last year with Stronghold, which has a bit of a fanbase now. I’ve done a couple of comic shorts — both historically-themed, too. I did a short called “The Burning Sun” for a crime anthology about body-snatchers in 1790’s London, and another, “The Sisters,” which is a horror comic about a couple of scam artist mediums on their way to the World’s Columbian Exposition.
At this point, I’m still at the beginning of my career.
2. What interested you in basing a comic on Andrew Jackson?
Jackson fascinates me, which isn’t to say I much like the man. Most of the time when I’m asked this question I have to give a sort of primer about Jackson for people who don’t necessarily know that much American history, but I suppose that’s not necessary here.
The simple answer is that I needed a subject for a comic and I had written “Andrew Jackson versus Robots” on a list of possible plot seeds for an aborted history-themed anthology comic. I started developing the idea and the end result was a book about a crazy adventurer punching his way through space on his way home. There’s drama built in — you know how intense his relationship with Rachel was, how much that inhabited is mind, so separating them provides this volatile man with a profound forward momentum.
The complicated answer is that Jackson is so emblematic of his age; it’s named after him, and in a real sense that was the age that birthed the country we live in. I’ve been on this vague ongoing personal quest to try and wrap my head around the United States as an entity, and Jackson has always loomed large as the man who sort of birthed it in his own image. And his psychology is so complicated — his swaggering masculinity bordering on parody, his truly ancient sense of honor, his quickness to violence, his willingness to commit to things larger than himself alongside his intense self-interestedness, his pragmatism, his hypocrisy — Jackson is so incredibly complicated. As a writer, I’ve really enjoyed traipsing around this guy’s head.
I talk about him a lot using the phrase “frontier lunatic bastard,” which mostly just means I’m describing his volatility; but Jackson was also coldly calculating. He’s got this villain inside him all the while he’s trying to be the hero.
3. Even though this is a comic, historians reading this interview will want to know about your source material. What primary or secondary sources did you use to craft your interpretation of Jackson?
My reading has been pretty limited to Jon Meacham’s American Lion, Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, and Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor, the latter two for background on the man’s time and particularly on 19th century honor codes that so informed his self-image. I feel likeWhat Hath God Wrought is a biography of Jackson in a sense by looking at the world he constructed. You get a strong sense of him from it.
4. One of the things that you allude to on your Kickstarter page is the contested place of Jackson today. Many people see him as a villain; in fact, some descendants of southeastern Indian tribes consider him an American Hitler who committed genocide. How do you handle that in the comic?
The setting of the book is in 1803, well before Indian Removal, so I’m not going to be bringing it up explicitly. One of the things I’m after here is contingency — what made Jackson the sort of man who could do that? How might the experiences I’m putting him through affect him? Make no mistake — Jackson is not purely a hero in this by any stretch, and he will, in an oddly literal manner, have to confront the sort of monster he’s capable of turning into. My goal isn’t to write polemic — I’m interested in looking at this guy who made the decision and knew what he was doing and did it anyway.
That’s where contingency comes in; obviously Jackson was never in space, never had to fight through hell to return home, was never thrust back into the marginal life of his youth the way he is here after having spent his life clawing his way to the top. He’s having some particularly unique, life-altering experiences that will have to force him to confront the attitudes of his time and place if he wants to survive and thrive. So a big thing for me is making sure I’m leaving him open to growth.
There’s never going to be an issue that’s an allegory for Indian Removal — I just want to make sure I’m always portraying him as someone who has that in them; that’s a decision Jackson is capable of making. He’s going to spend a lot of time looking in the mirror at his worst parts. So let’s see what he finds.
Bonus question: I don’t know if you want to spoil the story by answering this question, but is there another Early Republic politician who winds up in space as Jackson’s nemesis? Someone whose name rhymes with Tenry Play, perhaps?
At this point, I have no plans for Jackson to fight Henry Clay; I don’t want this book to be nothing at all but historical arcana, but if I can find a solid story reason for it to happen, I’m not averse. That said, I do have a fun story planned where he fights Time Roosevelt, an amalgamation of every single Teddy Roosevelt from across the multiverse. Don’t want to give too much away there.
* * * * *
My thanks to Brian for doing the interview. As you can see, he has a good sense of Jackson’s life and the mythology surrounding it.
The Andrew Jackson in Space Kickstarter campaign ends in six days, and I hope you’ll donate to it if you’re so inclined. Andrew Jackson doesn’t often appear in popular culture, so for me, any opportunity to see how non-historians depict him is interesting.

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