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.
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.
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” . 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.
 Andrew Jackson to Amos Kendall, 9 August 1835, in Bassett and Jameson, eds., Correspondence of Andrew Jackson, 5:360-361.
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.
Betsy Phillips at the Nashville Scene has written an interesting piece on nineteenth-century Spiritualism’s treatment of Andrew Jackson. In particular, she noted the claims by Isaac and Amy Post, in their 1852 Voices from the Spirit World, that Jackson told them that he “was wrong in almost every thing” that he did during his lifetime. If you’re like me, you probably find it hard to believe that Old Hickory apologized for anything, even in the afterlife.
(Betsy’s article made me think of another otherworldly Jacksonian experience that I had a few years ago. Someone contacted me and said that they knew of someone who believed that they were the reincarnation of Andrew Jackson Donelson.)
As Brooke Palmieri, whose post inspired Betsy’s piece, noted:
Dead men cannot verify the truth of the words put into their mouths. Which makes the past into something of a puppet show. Or at least makes history at its core a discipline shaped by desire, the desires we have to make sense of what has happened. . . . Voices from the Spirit World is less about the way in which we are haunted by history than about how relentlessly we might haunt the annals of the past, hunt the dead beyond their graves, draw words from their mouths to make meanings of our own circumstances and support our own causes.
Palmieri is absolutely right about the Posts and their fanciful revisionist history. I think we can see the same thing happening with those who compare Donald Trump to Jackson, an idea about which I’ve written previously and which continues to persist. Hopefully, we only have a few more weeks of the Hair Apparent’s nonsense until he goes back to firing C-list celebrities.
In a recent Minnesota Star Tribune editorial, Stephen B. Young, global executive director of the Caux Round Table, calls Donald Trump a modern-day Andrew Jackson. His argument centers on an understanding of both men as populist tribal leaders defending the middle class against “the effete elite.”
Some of Young’s analysis rings true, but he repeats some of the pervasive mythology about Jackson and misses the larger point. In terms of mythology, he describes Jackson as “always ready to fight,” which taps into the falsehood that Old Hickory fought frequent duels (he didn’t) and that he possessed an uncontrollable temper (he actually used his alleged temper deliberately on many occasions). Young also mentions Jackson’s inauguration of the spoils system, “a populist mechanism of tribal loot-sharing.” The seventh president actually didn’t replace nearly as many officeholders as he was accused of, and his reasons were often more complex than putting into place “his own choices.”
Where Young goes especially wrong, and where I think he misses his chance to make an apt comparison between Trump and Jackson, is when he calls Jackson a “frontier populist” fighting for the middle class. Much like Trump, Jackson was an elite member of society, one of the richest men in Tennessee in the years immediately prior to his death in 1845. Yet, he presented himself, and allowed his supporters to present him, as the defender of the common man. As the work of Donald Ratcliffe and others has shown, Jackson was more the beneficiary than the cause of the democratic upsurge of the 1820s.
Donald Trump may wind up as the Republican party’s nominee, and he may even become president. Comparing Jackson to him is inaccurate, though. Whatever Jackson’s faults, and like all of us, there were several, he demonstrated his love for the Union. Can we say the same for Trump?
The Library of Congress has digitized its collection of Andrew Jackson’s papers. You can find a description of the collection’s organization at the link.
While the papers have been digitized, they have not been transcribed or annotated. Still, this project opens up enormous possibilities for those who study Jackson’s personal life and political career.
The LC staff is planning to digitize Martin Van Buren’s papers over the next two years, which I’m pretty ecstatic about, for obvious reasons.
Beth Salerno and I are co-editing a new book series at Vanderbilt University Press (VUP). Entitled New Perspectives on Jacksonian America, the series will examine the period from 1812-1861, which generally spans the decades when Andrew Jackson was a significant figure in life and death. The chronological definition of the series recognizes the importance of the War of 1812 in elevating Jackson to national prominence and his continued importance, even after his death in 1845, to United States politics and society in the years leading up to the Civil War. This series will consider any manuscript that addresses the Jacksonian period and its place in shaping the United States during these decades.
Our current advisory board consists of:
John Belohlavek, University of South Florida
Andrew Frank, Florida State University
Lorri Glover, Saint Louis University
Stephen Mihm, University of Georgia
Kirsten E. Wood, Florida International University
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.