Reading American Lion, a chronicle of the life and times of Andrew Jackson, one has to understand that when studying history a different lens is often essential; yet, should not necessarily influence your tried and true moral compass. The primal gut matters. But, ask yourself, what decisions would you make if you lived in the 1820s? Often, we leverage our own current worldview, the influence of culture, traditions, and the lately, to judge the decisions leaders contemplated for good and evil.
History, time itself, can be a cruel judge.
Take a look at how presidential rankings shift with each passing decade; Bill Clinton time has not been kind while George W. has improved incrementally. Comparisons matter. And for this reason alone, I imagine writing a biography about our nation’s leaders requires a certain set of skills. I give Jon Meacham credit. He weaves a tale, highlighting the facts and letting the reader cast a verdict. What’s the end conclusion? The 7th President of the United States was a complex man, often misunderstood and will be forever judged by keeping the country together and expanding the United States to the Trail of Tears and maintaining the country’s economic dependency on slavery. Take a deep breath. Too much to unwind in a short post, but I’ll do a poor job of explaining a flawed and inadequate rationale. Not all arguments are reasonable. Many are poor.
Still, full speed ahead with some diversion.
Years back, I remember encountering this post on the Most Badass Presidents in history. This is an entertaining piece to steal time between Zoom meetings. And, of course, Jackson is near the top of the list. He dueled. Often, he let his adversary shoot first, took the bullet, and then moved closer to finish off his opponent. Yes, badass is adequate here. Heck, when he looked back on his Presidency one of his regrets is failing to kill his own Vice-President. For the life of me, I can’t fathom why either is acceptable; nor, can I fathom dueling with my neighbor over mowing hours and poor landscaping. Sorry, my azaleas do need trimming. Don’t challenge me to a musket duel at 15 paces.
But, I do try to understand.
Dueling happened, this was a thing. Have you seen the musical Hamilton? And, Vice-Presidential selection differed early in our democracy. The runner-up served as second in command. If we used the same methodology in the 2020 election, Donald J Trump would serve as Vice-President because he won the second most electoral college votes.
Is rationalization good? A human condition? But I see why Jackson hated his Vice-President. Despite losing in a modern day landslide, Trump has yet to concede (Mitt Romney performed better statistically by two points). Can you see DJT serving under Joe? How would that even work? Would the duly elected let his rival use the tiny desk? These are questions that will forever remain unanswered.
I digress. While reading, I did highlight a few learnings:
- If we thought politics are abhorrent in 2021, well, feel glad we didn’t live in the 1800s. Being offended by such catchy name calling as Little Marco makes one a snowflake compared to labeling your opponent’s wife a whore and prostitute. Yet, Adams ran that as part of a political ad against Old Hickory.
- While in the White House, Number 7 started his own newspaper. Can you imagine that practice being common today? The Biden Gazette? Republicans can claim The NY Times serves this function. Fox News skewers the Fake News Media nightly; yet, one could make the argument they are the most-watched network in the universe, at least according to the ads between reruns. The Times daily readership is less than a half million. Tucker Carlson pulls five times this total nightly. Heck, he might pull more in the 1.00 AM rerun slot than the famed paper does in a week. But what is mainstream? A narrative? Rhetorical, I suppose.
- Jackson fiercely battled Indian tribes. And it was hard not to as many partnered with the French and British to pause US expansion. One has to understand the landmass was a quarter the current size, and he lived in the frontier. While in the army, he witnessed families butchered during battles; yet, enigmatically adopted lost children. Still, he never followed Sun Tzu’s doctrine to “build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.” Under his watch, the US army proved ruthless in relocation. We grapple with this legacy still, and I’m thankful we don’t write it off. In open societies, history should never be changed despite technologies best efforts.
- The general fiercely protected his troops. If anyone contested his loyalty to others, not sure if they knew anything about the man. When asked to abandon the sick by the US government after a battle and march gone wrong, he leaped off his horse (giving the steed to those who needed the help), ensured each man found a way home, and pushed onward.
- Despite the South trying to secede, he kept the country together. And was more than willing to go to war by threatening to march against South Carolina.
- Extended the power of the Executive Branch, only to be further expanded by his predecessors. Today, our branches are strangely out of tune with one another. For changes, we should rid the world of primary elections, move power away from the speaker, and enforce accountability at the committee level. Constitutionally, the legislature is the most powerful on paper but refuses to behave as such. That’s for a longer post.
A Presidential home visit.
After finishing the book, I visited the Hermitage, which is almost 90 percent original, like any Junior High kid. A regular field trip. While taking the tour, one can see the same wallpaper Old Hickory showed to his visiting guests in pristine condition. The reason? His adopted son found financial ruin, and the State of Tennessee has presided over the property since the 1800s. As the place is relatively unchanged, you can see the original paintings that adorned the house (including a prized piece of Columbus who really isn’t him), the large volume of books and periodicals in his study (he collected favorable press), and a cigar-shaped candle burned annually to celebrate his victory at the Battle of New Orleans.
Jackson was a man who came from nothing, knew each of the presidents before him, and carried a certain charisma that permeates the home. His reach extends across the grounds. The trees. The walk up the drive. His kingdom remains the same, a snapshot in time. But what doesn’t go unnoticed is the sheer number of slaves required to manage the plantation. Hundreds worked the grounds. For all of his accomplishments, the challenge Old Hickory never overcame was the problem he didn’t feel existed.
And that’s what grated me during my two-hour walking tour. While showing off the guest bedroom, the guide asks, “Do you notice anything missing in the house?” And the simple answer is a working bathroom was never installed. In fairness, you have to dig for truth. So, why? Cost is the excuse to avoid a hard answer. The floorboards resemble Roman marble but were sourced from local Tennessee trees, painted to match. Number 7 was known as a Scrooge McDuck miser, a compliment, but let’s not look past a hard truth. Sadly, the help hauled off the stink, keeping it out of sight and mind. Theodore Rosevelt. FDR. Lincoln. All revered the man. Yet, you see, it’s the evil beside you, the one you accept as commonplace, that is the hardest to overcome. A hard legacy, one that permeates for an eternity. Understanding the lens matters, but isn’t an excuse either. Onward we go.
- The visit to the Hermitage still bothers me. Hard. Important not to look away.
- Yes, I know the election was stolen … And Trump won more votes than any president seeking election in history … blah, blah, blah… Mitt Romney lost by less than four points. Trump? About five, four and a half if you’re a stickler for details. Hard to fake math. But we all have our illusions.
- When making decisions, one should use a forever lens. Speed kills. Slow to anger, be authentic.
- The photos are from the Hermitage grounds; however, the wallpaper, featuring the story of Telemachus, described above is inside the house, which has rules against photography.