Saturday, July 25, 2015

Andrew Jackson as a 21st-century political symbol

"World history is not the ground of happiness. The periods of happiness are blank pages in it ..." - Hegel, Philosophy of History (German original: "Die Weltgeschichte ist nicht der Boden des Glücks. Die Perioden des Glücks sind leere Blätter in ihr ...")

There's a new round of discussion about the contemporary role of Andrew Jackson as a symbol, specifically for the Democratic Party.

I guess it was a good move to use "Old Hickory" in the name of this blog instead of Jackson's name explicitly!

It makes me recall that when I started this blog in 2003 with this same name, originally on AOL, I had a couple of things very much in mind. One was my disgust at neo-Confederate ideology. The State of Mississippi had a special referendum election in 2001 to vote on getting rid of the Confederate battle flag symbol on their state flag. It was the only issue on the ballot. And a solid majority, including a heavy majority of white voters, voted to keep the Confederate version of the state flag. It was one reminder among other of the virulence of segregationist thinking, bolstered as it has always been by neo-Confederate ideology and symbols.

As the Andrew Jackson logo on the right side of the blog that has been there for years says of Jackson, "He stood up against the secessionists and the economic royalists." What makes his image a potent one in my mind against neo-Confederate symbolism is that Jackson was a slaveowner and supporter of slavery who nevertheless chose democracy and national unity against the narrow interest of the Slave Power as embodied in John C. Calhoun and his supporters.

President Andrew Jackson n/d; accessed 07/25/2015:

He was also a wealthy man who in the conflict over the Bank of the United States chose democracy and the empowering of the "common man" over the narrow interest of his own class.

Which brings me to the other thing that was particularly on my mind in 2003. The Democratic Party, which honors Jackson as one of its founding spirits along with Thomas Jefferson, was in many ways flat on its back in 2003. The Party had collectively rolled over and played dead when Bush and Cheney and the corrupt Supreme Court stole the 2000 election and handed the Presidency to Dick Cheney. After that, they collectively rolled over for the authoritarian USA PATRIOT Act and allowed the criminal invasion of Iraq to proceed with minimal resistance despite the remarkable popular opposition and activism that opposed it.

Jackson symbolizes the very opposite tradition in the Democratic Party: democratic activism, mass mobilization, the fight against antidemocratic power and privilege. The Jacksonians even believed and publicly argued that Jackson had been cheated out of the Presidency in the election of 1824 by a "corrupt bargain" on the part of John Quincy Adams on behalf of the Money Power, or what Franklin Roosevelt would later call "the economic royalists."

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote in his now much-criticized The Age of Jackson (1945):

So superb a self-sufficiency could be effective only when matched by an equally superb self-control. Again contrary to the Jackson myth, there was small basis for the picture of uncontrolled irascibility. Jackson, who knew his reputation, never hesitated to exploit it. "He would sometimes extemporize a fit of passion in order to overwhelm an adversary, when certain of being in the right," said one observer, "but his self-command was always perfect." His towering rages were actually ways of avoiding futile argument. To committees which called on him to protest his financial policy, he would fly into vehement denunciations of the moneyed monopoly. When they left in disgust, he would coolly light his pipe and, chuckling "They thought I was mad," remark blandly on the importance of never compromising vital issues; one always lost friends and never appeased enemies.
This was the kind of spirit that the netroots were looking for in their Democratic leaders in 2003. It was this spirit that many saw in Howard Dean and his Presidential campaign, the kind many saw (perhaps somewhat overoptimistically) in Barack Obama, the kind we see now Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the kind that even Hillary Clinton now feels it necessary to display. It's the kind of fighting spirit that we've seen in movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives matter and in the present-day netroots movement itself.

As much as I value utopian political theory for the insight and inspiration it can give, I've always thought it was important to understand what is happening in real existing politics. And personal symbolism is important. However important principles and programs are, the people that democracies elect to office are human beings. People vote for individuals, however much they have partisan or principled considerations in mind. As we saw in recent days, Bernie Sanders' principled positions are not a replacement for how he interacts with real live voters, such as the Black Lives Matter protesters who challenged him at the Netroots Nation convention last week.

I don't defend Jackson's support of slavery. Nor his Indian policy. His Indian policy, particularly the Indian Removal Act which along with the fight against South Carolina nullification and the Bank of the United States was among the three most historic achievements of his Presidency. It isn't anachronism to say that. The policy was hotly disputed in Congress with clear arguments against it's morality.

The wrongness of the Indian Removal act is not mitigated by the fact that every other white American had bad ideas about Indians and Indian policy with exceptions like fur traders and Herman Melville. The latter had actually lived among aboriginals in the South Sea. Fur traders often integrated closely with Indian tribes with whom they worked.

And when it comes to national and democratic symbolism, Jackson as a 17-year-old actually fought in the Revolutionary War. It's not much of a stretch to consider him the last of the major Founders of the American Republic. That's not perfection. And it's not utopia. But it's not Aaron Burr or John Calhoun, either - who, ironically, were respectively Vice Presidents to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

General Jackson was also the hero of the Battle of New Orleans of early 1815. It's famous that the war with Britain had officially been concluded at the time of the battle, but neither side had yet gotten word. But if the British Army had won, the peace certainly would not have developed as it did. New Orleans even today is a critical port because of the traffic on the Mississippi River. It was already a critical port in 1814. Whoever controlled New Orleans could control the commerce on the Mississippi River. That was the main reason of Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase. It was a principle of Jefferson's foreign policy that whatever country controlled New Orleans - France, Britain were the most practical options besides the US - was by definition the principal opponent of the United States.

So the Battle of New Orleans wasn't just an early 19-century media event. It was substantively very important. Though the symbolic significance of Jackson's forces defeating those of the mightiest Empire on the planet was also not nothing. It rightly made Jackson a national hero.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's interpretation of Johnny Horton's folk classic, "The Battle of New Orleans":

I opened this post with the famous Hegel quote because it captures an important part of my own understanding of history. When Hegel described seeing Napoleon in the streets of Jena as witnessing the World Spirit on a horse, he didn't mean that he regarded the French General as a god or a model man. He meant that Napoleon signified to him the most progressive force in history at that time.

In the previous post, I quoted California Gov. Jerry Brown saying in Rome:

I think the formation that I’ve undergone growing up in the Catholic faith, the Catholic religion, puts forth a world that’s orderly, that has purpose and that ultimately is a positive. And that’s very helpful when you look at a world that looks very much the opposite, in terms of the wars, the corruption and the breakdown. And so even though from an intellectual point of view it looks very dark, in another sense I have great faith and confidence that there is a way forward.
Whether one takes a Catholic view of history or a Hegelian one or some other kind, it proceeds through flawed individuals. Often deeply flawed ones.

But understanding how history proceeds, the history of democracy or any other aspects, making realistic assessment of those who advanced it, as Jackson did, and those who sought to impede it or take it in a retrograde direction, like John Calhoun.

I'm not willing to cede the progressive side of early American history to conservatives. The only white man of any note that I can think of in the early half of the 19th century who came close to matching prevalent 21st-century notions on race and gender and equal rights was John Brown. Who was (unlike Calhoun or Jefferson Davis) hanged for treason. Also, Brown was a "terrorist", and who wants to identify with one of those? Jackson was a wealthy slaveowner, who nevertheless when it came to choosing between his class and democracy with the Bank and the Nullification Crisis, chose the democratic side and fought for it effectively.

I'm going to try to look at the current media controversy over Jackson's legacy in upcoming posts.

No comments: