Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Lesson on Splitting

I am opposed to selective recall of history. Andrew Jackson’s treatment of Natives and Africans are well known and he is accountable for this conduct. He shares this responsibility with wealthy landowners who funded this treatment for their own economic interests. But Jackson is like all humans and was a combination of good and bad. Unlike all humans he was President, and unlike all Presidents he occupied the office during the late 1820s and through the 1830s, a difficult period in American history in which the seeds of the Civil War were nurtured, intentionally or not. The bad things he did were hugely bad and reverberate to this day.

Jackson did some good things too, and these were also huge in their own way.
  • Jackson, against all odds and the elitism of the times, rose from poverty and dire circumstances to the Presidency. He was the first President born to immigrant parents.
  • He participated in the Revolutionary War at age 13, and had scars to prove it.
  • At his inauguration Jackson invited farmers, merchants, “commoners” and their families, virtually off the street, into the White House. This was a signal about whose interests concerned him the most.
  • Jacksonian democracy is the political movement during the Second Party System toward greater democracy for the common man symbolized by Andrew Jackson and his supporters. Up until oligarchs began taking control of our country (again), this form of democracy was still predominant. Ironically, at key moments in our history, it would serve the groups that he himself had persecuted.
  • Jackson is credited with placing the Executive office on a par with the other branches of government.
  • Jackson believed that voting rights should be extended to all white men and not just property holders. By the end of the 1820s, attitudes and state laws had shifted in favor of universal white male suffrage. Of course this left out others who had to wait to win the same privilege, but this was an enormous shift for the time.
  • In Washington’s social circles, overwrought with elitism and favoritism, Jackson showed favor only to those who treated his friends justly and proved their loyalty to him in other ways. One example was known as the Eaton Affair and it turned Washington on its head. In its aftermath he terminated his entire cabinet except for one individual. He communicated that he was not going to bow to elitist ideals. 
  • To address corruption in politics, Jackson replaced about 10% of a variety of office holders. For this, he is credited with what he called “the principle of rotation in office”. 
  • As a result of aggressive controls on spending, Jackson is the only president in American history to pay off the national debt and leave office with the country in the black.
  • Jackson limited the powers of the Second Bank of the United States, which had previously benefitted mainly private stakeholders and the government itself. He saw the threat to individual liberty posed by government institutions when they became too powerful, and he actively battled to keep them in check.
  • Jackson prevented a break in the union when South Carolina threatened to secede due to a tariff issue. This set precedents that Abraham Lincoln would later use to oppose secession. 
  • Jackson was the first President to establish the use of the veto over a matter of policy.
  • “Jackson had many faults...but...With the exception of Washington and Lincoln, no man has left a deeper mark on American History. “ ~Theodore Roosevelt
I think it’s great to put Miss Harriet on the 20 dollar bill. She deserves it. I also think it’s fine to remove Jackson from it, though I understand now he will still be present on the reverse. It seems fitting to memorialize the complexities in our country’s history in this way. (Actually he could be removed from all bills; he did not believe in paper money.) But I stand against reducing people to their sins alone, and engaging in juvenile psychological splitting to deny the full range of their humanity to advance an agenda. No one I know would want that for themselves or those they care about. Besides, if we only look at things as all good or all bad we cannot understand our history or even ourselves.

So I am standing up for the good in Andrew Jackson, a son of Ulster. He did some big, good things for this country which remain with us even now, though they are perhaps a bit tattered. The current political season in which we find ourselves would benefit from a healthy dose of Jacksonian democracy, though we would need to put a thick layer of justice all around it.

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Adapted from multiple sources.