6 Years of Blogging

Hard to believe that it’s been six years since I made my first post.

More than ever, I’m convinced that the Jacksonian period is supremely relevant to understanding today’s United States, especially its politics. Despite Stanley Fish telling historians to keep quiet about modern-day presidential politics, “nobody puts Baby in the corner!”

A Historical Precedent for Dumping a Presidential Candidate

The Republican party is set to nominate Donald J. Trump as its nominee this week. Most signs indicate that a plan to derail the New Yorker’s convention nomination by unbinding delegates, thus freeing them to vote for someone else, will come to naught.

In 1844, another New Yorker discovered that going into a major party’s national convention as the presumptive nominee didn’t necessarily guarantee a victory. Martin Van Buren, who had served one term as president (1837-41), sought to recapture the White House for the Democrats after losing his reelection bid in 1840. Up until the convention met in Baltimore in late May, many Democrats assumed that Van Buren was the likeliest nominee. On the first ballot, in fact, the former president won a simple majority of the votes. Unfortunately for him, the party had passed a rule that required the nominee to win a 2/3s majority. For the next three ballots, Van Buren won a plurality of the votes, but he slowly lost ground to his closest rivals: James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, and Richard M. Johnson, who had been Van Buren’s vice president and had been on the 1840 Democratic ticket with him.

Unknown to Van Buren, work had begun to replace him even before the convention started. In April, the New Yorker had written a public letter disavowing the immediate annexation of Texas. This decision sunk him with his friend, Andrew Jackson, the former president and still-powerful Democratic statesman. In the days and hours leading up to the convention, Jackson met with several politicos, including Tennessee delegate Andrew Jackson Donelson, to find a replacement for Van Buren. He settled quickly on his loyal protegé and fellow Tennessean, James K. Polk. The former U.S. House Speaker was an ardent supporter of Texas’ immediate annexation, and his name had been prominently mentioned as a vice-presidential candidate in 1840 and in the months preceding the 1844 convention.

At Jackson’s direction, several members of the Tennessee delegation, including Donelson and Cave Johnson, worked behind the scenes in Baltimore to effect Polk’s nomination. They waited to orchestrate Polk’s nomination until it became clear that Van Buren did not possess enough votes to win the nomination and that none of the other leading candidates had a chance, either. “Young Hickory,” as he was known, went on to win the fall election against his Whig opponent, Henry Clay.

Of course, the presidential nominating system works differently now. The parties operate according to a system comprised of primaries and caucuses to determine their respective nominees weeks, if not months, before the national conventions meet. Delegates walk into the convention hall bound by rules that discourage or eliminate deviation from the planned pageantry, which is all conventions have proved to be in recent elections.

That doesn’t have to be the case, however. Republicans could take inspiration from the 1844 Democratic convention and decide to dump Trump for a “dark-horse” candidate like Polk. It worked for the Democrats in 1844, but it’s an unlikely occurrence for this year’s Republican party, which seems certain to seal its candidate’s fate in the November election.

This post was inspired by the Spring 2016 senior seminar paper written by Cumberland University student Josh Williams.

My Thoughts on Jackson and the $20 Bill

Here is the Tennessean editorial I wrote on the change to the $20 bill. Comments on the Jacksonian American Facebook page already reflect exactly what I was arguing against: We Americans can’t seem to find a way to understand our nation’s past without either vilifying or valorizing those who lived in it.

Books for Fall 2016

American Presidency

Randall Balmer, God in the White House: A History (HarperCollins, 2009) ISBN 9780060872588

James Broussard, Ronald Reagan: Champion of Conservative America (Routledge, 2014) ISBN 9780415521956

Evan Cornog, The Power and the Story: How Presidential Narratives Shape America (Penguin, 2004) ISBN 978159420022x

Gareth Davies and Julian E. Zelizer, America at the Ballot Box: Elections and Political History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) ISBN 9780812247190

Donald J. Ratcliffe, The One-Party Presidential Contest: Adams, Jackson, and 1824’s Five-Horse Race (University Press of Kansas, 2015) ISBN 9780700621309

Robert P. Watson and Anthony J. Eksterowicz, The Presidential Companion: Readings on the First Ladies, 2d. ed. (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2003) ISBN 9781570034613

Civil War

Michael C.C. Adams, Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2014) ISBN 9781421412214

Gregory Downs, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard Univ. Press, 2015) ISBN 9780674743984

Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (W.W. Norton, 2011) ISBN 9780393340662

Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (Vintage, 1999) ISBN 9780679758334

Rachel Shelden, Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2013) ISBN 9781469610856

The $20 Bill and Jacksonian Mythology

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I’ve watched with keen interest the discussion about the $20 bill that has taken place over the last week or so. Most commentators seem to support the decision to move Andrew Jackson to the back of the bill and place Harriet Tubman on the front. I may have a published piece on this topic coming out soon, so I’m refraining from public comment for now.

In the meantime, though, there’s been some bad history in some of the reaction pieces that I’ve read. One of the most egregious is Suzanne Fields‘. A short list of the factual inaccuracies and distorted interpretations in her piece includes:

“He was the first president whose identity was forged outside the original 13 colonies.” (Jackson was actually 21 when he moved to what became Tennessee and was 29 when it became a state, so arguing that his identity was “forged” in his 20s is a stretch.)

“He was a self-made man in Tennessee” (Jackson owed much of his success to his kinship and political networks, including his wife Rachel’s family.)

“he diversified and democratized politics, blazing the way for any boy born in poverty to dream of rising as high as the Oval Office.” (Most scholars would agree that Jackson benefitted from political democratization more than he contributed to it. Also, his immediate family wasn’t wealthy, but poverty doesn’t describe its socioeconomic status, either.)

“He fought in that war with guerilla tactics in the remote Carolina backcountry, maturing in later years into a skilled dueler on behalf of the honor of his beloved wife Rachel, who was denounced as a bigamist because her lawyer had not properly tidied up her divorce proceedings.” (Jackson’s military service during the Revolution was as a courier. This description of Rachel’s divorce is virtually disconnected from any historical reality.)

“Jackson was . . . a fierce defender of democratic values” (This depended on the issue.)

“He even adopted an orphaned Native American baby as his son.” (This “fact” is so overused and misrepresented that I can only roll my eyes. Update: Fortuitously, Slate just interviewed Dawn Peterson, who has a new book coming out on Indian “adoptions.” )

Fields makes the point that Jackson is being treated differently from Washington and Jefferson, who held many of his same views and took many of the same actions that he did. That’s a reasonable argument to make, but much of the rest of her piece is ahistorical claptrap.

Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America

Bolt Manuscript CoverI am pleased to announce that William K. Bolt‘s book, Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America, is the inaugural volume in Vanderbilt University Press’ New Perspectives on Jacksonian America series.

From the catalog: Bolt’s book “show[s] why the tariff was an important part of the national narrative in the antebellum period. The debates in Congress over the tariff were acrimonious, with pitched arguments between politicians, interest groups, newspapers, and a broader electorate.”

From the back cover, “Bolt wisely integrates the discussion of the economic aspect of tariff rates with the political dimension. We discover shifting viewpoints, pledges, promises, half-truths, and outright deceit deftly engaged in by the likes of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Andrew Jackson, and James K. Polk. This volume is critical to understanding the intersection of the American economy and politics in the antebellum period.” John Belohlavek, author of Broken Glass: Caleb Cushing and the Shattering of the Union.

If you are interested in learning more about the series or want to submit a manuscript, please contact either me or Beth Salerno.

Here’s What the Trump/Jackson Comparisons Are Missing

The irony is strong with this one.

The comparisons between Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson continue to appear. This recent one does a poor job of making its case, but as we discussed it in my Jacksonian America course this morning, it occurred to me that if commentators really wanted to use a Jackson comparison to Trump, they should focus on free speech.

Many people may not realize that Andrew Jackson used his influence to help the federal government infringe upon Americans’ First Amendment rights. In 1835, at the behest of Postmaster General Amos Kendall, he authorized the suppression of mailings sent by northern abolitionists into the South. In a 9 August 1835 letter to Kendall, Jackson acknowledged, “we are the instruments of, and executors of the law; we have no power to prohibit anything from being transported in the mail that is authorized by the law” [1]. He went on to say, however, that he approved of Kendall’s suggestion to verbally tell southern postmasters that the mailings should only be delivered to subscribers.

That doesn’t necessarily sound so bad. Even Americans in the Jacksonian era didn’t appear to like unsolicited mail. But then Jackson wrote that the postmasters

ought to take the names [of the subscribers] down, and have them exposed thro the publik journals as subscribers to this wicked plan of exciting the negroes to insurrection and to massacre. This would bring those in the South, who were patronizing these incendiary works into such disrepute with all the South that they would be compelled to desist, or move from the country.

Sounds to me like executive encouragement to use intimidation in limiting free speech.

Trump has hardly been a supporter of free speech. Publications as diverse as The Hill, National Review, Techdirt, and The Verge have commented on his willingness to shut down critics through legal action, verbal threats, and inciting violence among his supporters. One can only imagine a United States government under the presidency of such a prickly personality.

If journalists and others want to find the most apt comparison between The Donald and Old Hickory, they might want to start here.

[1] Andrew Jackson to Amos Kendall, 9 August 1835, in Bassett and Jameson, eds., Correspondence of Andrew Jackson, 5:360-361.

Are Conspiracy Theories Central to U.S. Political Debate?

Anne Applebaum’s piece in Slate argues that

we have been blessed in recent history by a political system that has, for the most part, kept them [conspiracy theories] outside the mainstream of American political life. With the possible exception of the anti-masonic movement in the 19th century and some of the madder moments of the Nixon presidency, conspiratorial thinking has never been central to the political debate.

She goes on to say that Americans have had a “longstanding aversion to conspiracy theory.”

I couldn’t disagree more. One need only read the work of Robert Goldberg, Richard Hofstadter, and Kathryn Olmsted to see the centrality of conspiratorial thinking. The list of significant events and experiences in U.S. history tied to conspiracy theories is long: The American Revolution, the political battles of the 1790s, Andrew Jackson’s fight against Nicholas Biddle’s Bank, northern accusations about a “slave power” conspiracy and southern accusations about an abolitionist conspiracy, the Know Nothings, the Populist party, the two Charles Lindberghs and their fear of the military-industrial complex and FDR’s fascist intentions (respectively), fundamentalist Christian accusations that FDR was the Antichrist, Area 51, McCarthyism, the John Birch society, the multiple political assassinations of the 1960s, the moon landing, the Iran-Contra affair, Waco, Ruby Ridge, Oklahoma City, Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy,” Vince Foster and Whitewater, the New World Order, 9/11 truthers, weapons of mass destruction, birthers, Sandy Hook–the list goes on and on.

Applebaum’s larger point is that Donald Trump’s supporters “prefer satisfying stories.” Earlier this week, I wrote that comparisons of Trump and Andrew Jackson missed the mark. Buried in that post was the suggestion to look at why people are drawn to politicians such as Trump. In his case, despite his outrageous remarks and claims, Trump seems to have tapped the inner fears that have always been present in U.S. society. His ability to do so and to use those fears to vault himself to the top of the Republican party’s list of presidential candidates says more about American voters than it does about him.

Is Donald Trump a Modern-Day Andrew Jackson? New Thoughts

While I have been wrapped up in launching The Papers of Martin Van Buren project this week, a couple of historians wondered what I thought of Steve Inskeep’s piece comparing Donald Trump to Andrew Jackson. I’ve written about this comparison previously, but Inskeep’s take prompted a different set of thoughts for me.

One of the problems that I’ve had with previous Trump/Jackson comparisons is the historical errors that marred the interpretations. Inskeep has a different perspective because he has written a good book that touches on a large portion of Jackson’s life. (Disclosure: I wrote a positive review of the book for Civil War History, with some minor quibbles that usually arise in reviews.) In his comparison of Trump and Jackson, he avoids making Old Hickory into the rough, frontier, democratic champion, and he acknowledges Jackson’s faults and contradictions. I don’t have any real issues with what Inskeep wrote, but some thoughts came to mind as I read and re-read his piece.

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.

Just as an addendum, I’ll admit that doing PR for the Van Buren project these past few days has made me more aware of the constraints of modern media. Media outlets want a modern-day connection that resonates with their audiences; otherwise, why spend time on coverage? Van Buren was the architect of the Democratic party, but no media person wants me to spend ten minutes explaining how the Democratic party of today differs from that of the 1830s. Van Buren was the originator of the two-party system, but, again, no media person wants a historiographical exposition on the contentiousness of that idea among scholars and the qualifiers that go with such a statement.

I could offer other examples, but I’ve been struck several times this week that the soundbites that have been pulled from interviews are a pale imitation of my thoughts on Van Buren. I (and my university’s communications director) appreciate the PR from media coverage of the Van Buren project, but the project and the person it centers on are much richer than any of the pieces that have run about it on television or appeared in print or digital media.

I can empathize with those, like Inskeep, a journalist with a historian’s eye, who find themselves commenting on current events. It’s not an easy thing to do, and do well. I do hope, though, that my comments lead to a different narrative than the one about Trump as a modern-day Jackson.

Official Launch of The Papers of Martin Van Buren Project

0001Cumberland University is launching The Papers of Martin Van Buren project on Monday, Feb. 15. (Fittingly, that is Presidents Day.) There will be a press conference in the Vise Library at 2:00 P.M. At 3:30, we will be holding a symposium on presidential papers projects in Labry Hall 130. Speaking at the symposium will be:

Mr. James Bradley, The Papers of Martin Van Buren, Independent historian

Dr. Daniel Feller, The Papers of Andrew Jackson, University of Tennessee

Dr. John Marszalek, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Mississippi State University

Prof. Jennifer Stertzer, The Papers of George Washington and the Center for Digital Editing, University of Virginia

The project website is still being developed, but it is live and will give you a sense of what the project entails.