Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Not really a review of American Lion: By Jon Meachem

or: how we remember our great racists

This book wasn't that great, it was very well written, but it didn't really say anything new.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking. Andrew Jackson belongs to a group of historical figures almost universally reviled by (I hesitate to say the left), but...educated people on the progressive side of the political spectrum. Now I'm certainly no Jackson partisan, I find the whole craggly dueling racist thing not really to my taste.

But Jackson really did change American government in dramatic and positive ways. He was the first political figure of any major prominence to profess that the people of American spoke through him, rather than that he spoke through them. During his presidency, the number of (white, male) voters increased dramatically, with property and other class-based qualifications being done away with entirely in some states.

The people running against "King Andrew", most notably Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, feared and hated him not for the reasons that modern students of history might, but because he represented democracy, which had been, up till the Age of Jackson, a term used largely in the pejoritive. They feared that with Jackson in power, the monied, eastern, patrician class would not be able to consolidate their wealth, and would lose too much to the rabble. (During his time, Jackson was perhaps chiefly beloved for his fight against the national bank).

I think that Jackson is disliked in some circles not really for the bad things he did, but for the good things he did. (the same is true to some degree with Jefferson, no one ever feels the need to remind us that James Monroe owned slaves, cause really, who gives a fuck about James Monroe). There is irony to the fact that had Jackson just been a do-nothing loser like James Tyler, no one would hate him today.

None of this is to say that we should ignore the revolting things that Jackson did, but I get frustrated with the idea that we should ignore his positive achievements because of these very real negatives. While I may be far more sympathetic to the impulses behind this reasoning, it is in essence, no more intellectually teneble than a conservative historian's position that we should laud Washington and ignore his slave-owning.

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