Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Trump puts Andrew Jackson back in the news

Well, I called this blog "Old Hickory's Weblog" for most of its existence 'til now. So I'm happy to see this refreshingly historically literate commentary on Andrew Jackson and the Nullification Crisis in response to our President's bizarre Civil War revisionsm from this past weekend ("People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?"). Because Josh Marshall in this piece knocks it out of the park in Trump Knows Jack about Andrew Jackson. SAD! TPM 05/01/2017:

The final months of Jackson’s first term as president saw what historians refer to as the Nullification Crisis. In critical ways, it was a dry run for the Civil War. The notional trigger of the crisis was a tariff law which was generally opposed in the Southern states. But the real issue was the authority of the national government, whether states or groups of states could block federal laws or even secede from the union, and ultimately the security of slavery.

The originator of these doctrines and driver of the crisis was one of the great political stars of the early 19th century, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.
Who, we might add, is the real political ancestor of Trump and Steve Bannon. As Josh also concludes at the end of the piece.

... the Nullification Crisis cut to the core of one of his central beliefs: the inviolability of the federal union. Today we hear ‘nationalism’ used as a byword for xenophobia, racism and militarism. Jackson had his mix of each. But Jackson thought the crisis, what Calhoun was doing could not have been more important. He actually wanted to march an army down to South Carolina and hang Calhoun. To the extent Jackson knew about the Civil War and was 'really angry' about it, he was really angry at the Southern planter aristocrats who would later start the Civil War. He was ready to go to war in 1832-33 to vindicate the union and popular democracy – two concepts that to him were basically inseparable.

Josh slips up a bit when he says that Jackson "also become known for his militarism." Say what? There was wasn't even a standing army to speak of when Jackson was President. Remember all those big wars during the Jackson Administration of 1829-1837? Me neither. I believe the sum total of them amounts to: the Second Seminole War of 1835-42. I think Ken Burns did a 12-part documentary series on that one. (Or, NOT!) Unless we include that it was during Jackson's Presidency that the US snatched the Malvinas/Falkland Islands from Argentina and gave it to the British, leaving a still-unresolved problem. But Josh redeems himself on that one:

Most of the public image of Jackson today, at least in the public arena is driven by the writing of Walter Russell Meade, whose grasp of the man and the period is, I would argue, rather thin and presentist. It’s this Jackson – militarist, unilateralist, authoritarian and nationalist that Bannon is in love with and through Bannon has become Trump’s favorite President.

Andrew Jackson has become the Schroedinger's Cat of contemporary American politics. Republicans don't believe in science, so rather than looking for quantam complexity, they just make stuff up to fit their preferred narrative. Democrats worry that if they challenge the Trump/Bannon/white-supremacist image of Jackson, it might upset some hardcore Republican somewhere who would never consider voting for a Democrat ever. So they cede the image of Jackson - Revolutionary War veteran, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, a Founder of the country and of the Democratic Party - to Republican hackery.

The reason that the Steve Bannons of the world would go to the trouble of fabricating a bogus historical version of Jackson: because Jackson has an enduring reputation as a pioneering political reformer. They make use of his image. The Democrats don't bother to contest it.

I visited the Reagan Library and Museum in southern California two weekends ago for the first time. They have a replica of the Oval Office as it was during St. Reagan's Presidency. I learned from the guide's spiel that St. Reagan was 6'1" tall. And LBJ was 6'5". I also noticed that he had a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the office, although not positioned in so prominent a way as Trump has it. St. Reagan surely realized that the well-known image of Jackson the Democrat had a firmly-established reputation as a reformer. And using it fit well with his pitch to the so-called Reagan Democrats that "I didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me."

And the Democrats can't use their own well-established party symbol! It reminds me of the famous quote, a attributed to poet Robert Frost, that a liberal is someone "too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel."

One fascinating thing in learning about Argentine history is that contesting 19th century history is still a thriving practice. Left-nationalists and kirchneristas, not just historians but politicians and polemicists - proudly identify themselves with the images of Mariano Moreno (1778-181) and Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877). While conservatives look to Bernardino Rivadavia (1780-1845), Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888) and especially Bartholomé Mitre (1821-1906) as the secular saints of their political tradition. But here in the US, only the Republican Party draws on that symbolism of the early days of the US, which still resonates strongly for many American voters. Zach Schonfeld notes in Understanding Donald Trump's Weird Obsession With Andrew Jackson Newsweek 05/01/2017, "Despite the more despicable aspects of his legacy, he remains reasonably popular among historians. (Though his popularity is sliding, and some are blaming Trump for that.)"

Sean Wilentz' Andrew Jackson (2007), his contribution to the American Presidents Series, is a fairly recent but pre-Trump account by a liberal historian that stresses elements of Jackson's democratic achievements and legacy without ignoring the less democratic aspects of his character and career.

But I said at the time that Trump visiting Jackson's grave and ludicrously trying to identify himself with Old Hickory was an instant dose of major bad karma. He's lucky that Jackson didn't claw his way out of his grave right there and bitch-slap him. He wouldn't have challenged Trump to a duel, though, because you only did that with somebody who was considered to have some personal honor.

Trump's vague remark that Jackson could have worked out something to avoid the Civil War attracted a lot of attention.

Jackson's supporters who were still around after the 1860 election were heard to wish they could have Jackson back in the White House for that moment. (Although, apparently unlike Trump, they were aware that Jackson was dead since years before.) But they were addressing a particular, immediate problem. Lincoln's famous decision-making style was to weigh decisions carefully and analytically, but then when he made the decision he followed it through in a determined way. And they were frustrated at Lincoln's seemingly restrained posture after he took office, in what they saw as a contrast to Jackson's handling of the Nullification Crisis. Lincoln himself later expressed regret that he hadn't responded more actively, like arresting Union military officers who resigned to go South to lead an armed rebellion against the US government. Trump may have heard some version of that, but what came out of his mouth in that interview was hopelessly garbled.

Tim Morris gives Trump way too much credit in understanding that situation, of which Morris himself gives a decent account, in Donald Trump is right about Andrew Jackson New Orleans Times-Picayune 05/02/2017.

Here are a few other notable reactions:

Christopher Wilson in Historians react to Trump’s Civil War comments: ‘That’s entirely wrong in every respect’ Yahoo News! 05/01/2017 quotes historian Eric Rauchway putting Trump's comment about Jackson's "big heart" in some necessary context:

There was also pushback against Trump’s musings that Jackson could have prevented the Civil War and his suggestion that the seventh president — whose Indian Removal Act essentially legalized genocide — had a “big heart.”

“Andrew Jackson himself was a slaveholder and the Jacksonians were slaveholders and they despised the abolitionists,” said Rauchway, “so it’s hard for me to believe that they would have been able to prevent the Civil War. And actually it was Jacksonian policies – particularly those of James K. Polk, who styled himself as Young Hickory, as a direct heir to Andrew Jackson – which precipitated the Civil War. That’s entirely wrong in every respect.”

“Jackson had a big heart for white farmers,” said Hemmer, “Less so for the American Indians he slaughtered and the African-Americans he enslaved. Given Trump’s own focus on white Americans over non-white Americans, it’s not surprising that he would fail to see the limits of Jackson’s big-heartedness.”
James Loewen responds to Trump's now-infamous question in ‘Why was there the Civil War?’ Here’s your answer. Washington Post 05/02/2017:

Trump’s conclusion about Jackson places him in a camp of 1930s historians who called it a “needless war,” in the words of James G. Randall, brought about by a “blundering generation.” That view is a product of its time, and that time is now known as the Nadir of Race Relations. The Nadir began at the end of 1890 and began to ease around 1940. It was marked by lynchings, the eugenics movement and the spread of sundown towns across the North. Neo-Confederates put up triumphant Confederate monuments from Helena, Mont., to Key West, Fla., obfuscating why the Southern states seceded. They claimed it was about tariffs or states’ rights — anything but slavery.

Earlier, everyone knew better. In 1858, William Seward, a Republican senator from New York, gave a famous speech titled “The Irrepressible Conflict,” referring to the struggle between “slave labor” and “voluntary labor.” When Mississippi seceded, it emphasized the same point: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”

Simply to recognize this material interest renders improbable the “needless war” notion. Mississippi was right: Slavery was the greatest material interest in the United States, if not the world. Slaves made up an investment greater than all manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. Never has an elite given up such a stake voluntarily. The North went to war to hold the nation together, not to emancipate anyone. But the Civil War did end slavery. When might that have happened otherwise?
And I see that the next generation of the Clinton Dynasty has a safely simplistic answer that would not disturb any donor to the Clinton Foundation:

Postmodernism never really took hold with me, I admit. But "Slavery. Longer." seems like a 2-word answer to me. I'm just sayin'.

I wonder how Chelsea would explain Jackson's position in the Nullification Controversy. She went to Stanford, so I'm guessing she had one or two decent American history classes. But if you take the real history seriously, slavery and antislavery were devilishly complicated. Last month, I wrote a bit here about Hinton Rowan Helper, who was one of the most famous and effective antislavery advocates. He was also a white supremacist with racist ideas against blacks so noxious I can barely read them. And that combination of attitudes was not at all unusual among antebellum white opponents of slavery.

The one famous white American prior to the Civil War I know of who had ideas on the equality of blacks and whites, and men and women that would sound respectable in 2018 was John Brown. But how many Americans today would regard the "terrorist" (and hardcore Calvinist) John Brown as someone with whom they could identify? I think most Democratic politicians today, of either the corporate or progressive variety, would do backflips to avoid identifying the guerrilla fighter and convicted traitor John Brown as some kind of hero. Even though the Union Army that put an end to slavery - and was mainly composed of white men who thought themselves to be part of a superior race - used "John Brown's Body" as a marching song. Like Josh Marshall says in his excellent post on Trump and Jackson, history is complicated.

Also, there's this from Hillary hardliner Simon Maloy:

Seriously, dude?

Jamelle Bouie's heart and head seem to be in the right place in this piece from March, Donald Trump Sees Himself in Andrew Jackson Slate 03/15/2017:

This is the most familiar vision of Jackson, heavily indebted to the mythmaking of the Democratic Party, which claims him as its founder next to Thomas Jefferson. In this popular narrative of the party, Jefferson embodied equality, autonomy, and economic opportunity, whereas Jackson stood for democracy and its expansion. Under his presidency, the United States renounced its property requirements for voting, opening the franchise to all white men. Defenders of Jackson acknowledge his racial exclusivity but see it as separate from a broader embrace of the principle of democratic participation.

That’s one view of Jackson. There is another. That perspective sees Jackson in a different tradition. Not of democracy, but of white supremacy. This Jackson was a planter who built his wealth and influence with the stolen labor of more than 200 enslaved Africans. He forced Native Americans off their land in a campaign of removal that claimed thousands of lives in service of white expansion and white hegemony.

Jacksonian democracy, in other words, was a racial democracy built on a foundation of ethnic cleansing, committed to race hierarchy and enslavement. And while Jackson rejected the nullification theories of his vice president, John C. Calhoun, he all but embraced the South Carolinian’s view that slavery — and racial caste more broadly — was “the best guarantee to equality among the whites.” Along with that racial ideology, he brought ceaseless condemnation of elite corruption and a profoundly anti-government philosophy that contributed to the panic of 1837, a crushing depression that lasted more than a half-decade.
Unfortunately, it's also a little-bit-of-this-little-bit-of-that approach to history. Jackson's two most significant democratic achievements as President were his successful fight against the Money Power embodied and symbolized by the Bank of the United States headed by Nicholas Biddle and his suppression of Calhoun's nullification scheme. Bouie ignores the first and trivializes the second.

But he does manage to say that Jackson's "populism ... is too exclusive." The present tense there is a tell. This is very much a presentist view of the Age of Jackson. And while I would call the Jacksonian movement proto-populist and let William Jennings Bryan's Populist Party be the first populists, I suspect that for corporate/Hillary Democrats, what bothers them about Jackson's "populism" is not that it was too exclusive, but rather than it made the Money Power a symbol of the wealthy ruling elite and successfully opposed it.

If the Hillary hardliners could scold Bernie Sanders for supporting a mayoral candidate in Omaha that had an anti-abortion record in his past, even though he had the most pro-choice position of any of the candidates in that race, I can picture them accusing Bernie or Elizabeth Warren of being "Jacksonians" and try to make that mean "Trumpists."

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