Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Andrew Jackson, man and symbol

"Our commitment has been, since the days of Andrew Jackson, to all those he called 'the humble members of society--the farmers, mechanics, and laborers.' On this foundation we have defined our values, refined our policies and refreshed our faith." - Edward Kennedy, Speech to the 1980 Democratic National Convention 08/12/1980

"President Obama is [the Tea Party's] target because the people have put him in his office and he stand in the way of the extremists. They are against him precisely because he's making progress. ... So they will say anything to tear down the President. But they are at war with more than President Obama. They are at war with President Andrew Jackson. That's how far back they want to go. They want to go back [to] the 1830s. They want to go back to before the Civil War, 'lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification,' to quote Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous 'I have a dream' speech." - Sidney Blumenthal to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 2010 (Oliver Darcy, Sid Blumenthal Unloaded on Tea Party in ‘Confidential’ Three-Page Memo to Hillary Clinton The Blaze 08/31/2015)

Andrew Jackson has gotten criticism from some liberals lately, partly with good cause. But for those of us not ready to surrender all the leading figures of early American history and its lasting heritage entirely to the conservatives, Jackson represents some not just important but critical in the American democratic tradition.

The site for the Hermitage, at Jackson's plantation home, where he and his wife Rachel are buried, currently gives this general description:

America during the Age of Jackson was a nation brimming with possibility and growing into a golden, young adulthood. Though born far from the wealth of the northern elite, Jackson was able to expand the powers of the President beyond any before him. The result was indelible changes in the government.

Though Jackson also fought hard to restore a nation of “We the People” and give voice to all those he represented as President, this expansion of democracy did not include everyone. Slavery remained a pervasive part of American society as did the continuing displacement of Native Americans. Opportunities for women and free blacks were still largely nonexistent under Jackson’s presidency.

Nevertheless, Jackson helped to inspire a uniquely American sense of promise and hope; the idea that anyone can succeed through hard work and natural ability, rather than through unearned power and privilege.
Chauncey DeVega, who is always worth listening to, refers us to this post from Werner Herzog's Bear, America Has Its Own Antecedents For Trump 08/31/2015.

And I like a lot about WHB's analysis. He gives a meaningful list of characteristics that establish a strong resemblance to what most people once recognized as fascism and the current edition of Donald Trump. Then he writes:

I tend to shy away from calling people fascists unless they are of the avowed Golden Dawn variety, mostly because it diverts political debate into obfuscating semantics. I also shy away a little bit from using that word in an American context. The fascist movements in Europe were innovative because they were on the Right, but based in a populist nationalism, rather than the old elites of the church, monarchy, and nobility. Those institutions don't exist in America, which is why extreme right wing populism has taken a slightly different form.
I like his caution on using the "fascism" label. And I also like his description of Trump's similarities to George Wallace.

But his description of The General (Jackson) is another question:

As I have written before, I think it all starts with Andrew Jackson. Jackson's white nationalism appealed directly to the mass of rural white men. He brazenly ignored the Supreme Court and pushed to deport the Cherokee to Oklahoma in a shameful ethnic cleansing. Trump's deportation advocacy ought to be seen in light of the Trail of Tears. Trump's immigration proposals come out of a belief that this is a white man's country, a basic principle of Jacksonianism. Jackson also set his sights on [the] elite, attacking the Second Bank of the United States, and acting contemptuous of those more established in Washington. Later Southern populists like Ben Tillman, who attacked elites while simultaneously enforcing white supremacy carried on the Jacksonian spirit until the end of the 19th century.
The previous piece he references is from the same blog, Andrew Jackson Still Lives 01/22/2015, in which he makes clear he sees Jackson as part of a conservative tradition that runs until today.

Here I want to make a few comments around the later post.

He calls it "a basic principle of Jacksonianism" that "this is a white man's country." True.

It's also true that for his rival John Quincy Adams "this is a white man's country." Despite his justifiably honored anti-slavery activity.

Daniel Webster, who so decisively shaped American conservatism, also believed "this is a white man's country." The Great Compromiser Henry Clay believed that America was "a white man's country." And Lord knows that's what John Calhoun believed!

But if we compare Jackson to the younger Adams, Jackson was indeed critical of "the elite" - and for very good reasons! And his Administration was far more interested in preserving the privileges and undemocratic power of the elite and its key institution, the Bank of the United States, which Jackson fought effectively. And defeated.

Just as he defeated the secessionism and treason of John Calhoun. In terms of the future of democracy and of America as a democratic nation, there's no question that Jackson was on the side of democracy against the treason of the "slavepower" in the Nullification Controversy.

In other words, I see WHB as indulging in anachronism here, judging Jackson's significance outside of the real historical context of his life and times. In terms of his achievements and significance, we have to look not just the fact that he shared the general conviction among white Americans in his day that "this is a white man's country." We have to look as well in the direction he was headed.

I could try to describe this consideration postmodern style by talking about the importance of the Jacksonian "narrative." But I'd prefer looking at it with more Hegel than Lyotard. If we look at Jackson as acting as the instrument of the World Spirit in moving forward the cause of freedom and democracy, he came with defects that other events and persons that Hegel saw playing that role, like the French Revolution and Napoleon.

To use a current instance of a leader, President Obama will likely be remembered as having pushed forward social progress with Obamacare and peace through his nuclear agreement with Iran. He will also be remembered for his terrible record on secrecy and civil liberties. And for his reckless and destructive interventions in Libya and Syria, even though he wound up taking less destructive actions than his opponents urged.

I suspect another reason Werner Herzog's Bear codes Jackson as a conservative and a predecessor of Donald Trump may be the influence of the historical narrative that sees the Hamiltonian tradition as the predecessor of modern progressive policies like the New Deal, while the Jeffersonian tradition represents a backward-looking, agrarian trend that led to modern segregationist states-rights conservatism. I'm not familiar with WHB's other work, so I'm guessing here.

But it's a historical narrative that I find deeply flawed.

The more relevant predecessor from the period around 1830 for today's rightwing demagoguery is the Anti-Masonic Party, effectively the original group of American crackpot conspiracy-theory political groups. The Encyclopædia Britannica article on the "Anti-Masonic Movement" as of this writing relates

It was the first American third party, the first political party to hold a national nominating convention, and the first to offer the electorate a platform of party principles.

The movement was ignited in 1826 by the mysterious disappearance of William Morgan, a bricklayer in western New York who supposedly had broken his vow of secrecy as a Freemason by preparing a book revealing the organization’s secrets. When no trace of Morgan could be discovered, rumours of his murder at the hands of Masons swept through New York and then into New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.

As Anti-Masonic candidates proved successful in state and local elections, politicians saw the issue’s vote-catching possibilities. Anti-Masonic newspapers flourished in the heated political atmosphere. In September 1831, the Anti-Masonic Party held a national convention in Baltimore, Md., nominated William Wirt for president, and announced a party platform condemning Masonry for its secrecy, exclusivity, and undemocratic character.
It drives me up the wall that our star pundits seem to think Richard Hofstadter and his famous 1964 article The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Harper's Nov 1964) is still the last word on contemporary American rightwing politics. But he's a great historian. And he wrote in that famous article:

The anti-Masonic movement of the late 1820s and the 1830s took up and extended the obsession with conspiracy. At first, this movement may seem to be no more than an extension or repetition of the anti-Masonic theme sounded in the outcry against the Bavarian Illuminati. But whereas the panic of the 1790s was confined mainly to New England and linked to an ultraconservative point of view, the later anti-Masonic movement affected many parts of the northern United States, and was intimately linked with popular democracy and rural egalitarianism. Although anti-Masonry happened to be anti-Jacksonian (Jackson was a Mason), it manifested the same animus against the closure of opportunity for the common man and against aristocratic institutions that one finds in the Jacksonian crusade against the Bank of the United States.

The anti-Masonic movement was a product not merely of natural enthusiasm but also of the vicissitudes of party politics. It was joined and used by a great many men who did not fully share its original anti-Masonic feelings. It attracted the support of several reputable statesmen who had only mild sympathy with its fundamental bias, but who as politicians could not afford to ignore it. Still, it was a folk movement of considerable power, and the rural enthusiasts who provided its real impetus believed in it wholeheartedly. [my emphasis]
The Anti-Mason radical rightwings conspiracists were anti-Jacksonian.

A useful perspective on Jackson and his movement comes from three historians in the American liberal tradition, Samuel Eliot Morrison, Henry Steele Commager (who was a big influence on my own thinking in college) and William Leuchtenburg in their A Concise History of the American Republic (1977). They are generally critical of him, claiming that he "was no champion of the 'common man'" - then continuing immediately to say "they [the common men] loved him because he proved that a man born in a log cabin could get rich and become President; and, perhaps most of all, because his victory at New Orleans transformed the War of 1812 from a rout to a glorious vindication of American valor." And they describe Jacksonianism as follows:

Jacksonian Democracy was a national movement in that it opposed disunion and knew no geographical limits; Jackson men in Maine and Louisiana uttered the same cliches. But it was anti-national in rejecting Clay's 'American System.' The Democracy [i.e., the Democratic Party] wanted roads, canals, and (in a few years) railroads to be chartered and aided by the states, but no Federal Government messing into the operations. Jacksonians spoke for the men on the make who resented government grants of special privileges to rival entrepreneurs and who distrusted the positive state. Opponents of artificial distinctions and advocates of greater popular participation in politics, the Jackson men identified themselves with the movement toward more equality. Yet they believed in equality only for white men ; they were far less charitable toward the Indian and the Negro than their 'aristocratic' foes. Jacksonian Democracy was not ' leveling' in the European sense, having no desire to pull down men of wealth to a common plane; but it wanted a fair chance for every man to level up. In the states, Jackson Democrats sometimes, but not invariably, favored free public education and a somewhat cautious humanitarianism, but dissociated themselves from most of the 'isms' of the period, such as abolitionism and feminism. In general, they shared that contempt for intellect which is one of the unlovely traits of democracy. There was no contact between political democrats like Jackson and democratic philosophers such as Emerson , and Old Hickory cared not a whit. The jackass as symbol of the Democratic party was first used by the Whigs as a satire on Jackson's supposed ignorance; the party not only joyfully accepted this emblem, but has retained it to this day.
The reference to distrusting "the positive state" is a bit of an anachronism of its own. And at least an echo of the image of a forward-looking Alexander Hamilton who opposed backward, parochial Jeffersonianism. Although Commager was a huge admirer of Thomas Jefferson.

But especially considering their account is unenthusiastic about Jackson, that paragraph gives a idea of why Jackson became a symbol of progressive, democratic politics.

I just saw this today from the Hermitage site: "Jackson’s pet parrot, Poll, attended his funeral service, but had to be removed after he started cursing at the mourners."

This got me thinking about what the parrot might have been saying. I imagine him mimicking Jackson's voice and saying things like, ******* that rotten *********** John Calhoun! I should have hung that ******* *******!!

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