Andrew Jackson was not a hero!

How many times can this man be excused?

Newsweek’s Jon Meacham was on On Point, the NPR radio talk show, on November 21, talking about his new Jackson bio, American Lion. Many times Meacham said he didn’t want to romanticize Jackson, then went on to grossly romanticize him.

Meacham was also on The Daily Show, and both Jon Stewart and Tom Ashbrook, normally people with a sense of justice, were inexplicably starry-eyed while Meacham larded praise on Jackson. Stewart actually read a description of Jackson’s crimes and then laughed appreciatively.

I have already lambasted apologists for Jackson in two places: “Time to Retire ‘An American Original’“, and “Truth v. Myth: Andrew Jackson.” But now I must do it again.

Like all the latest Jackson fans, Meacham fixates oddly on Jackson’s physical courage. The fact that Jackson attacked a would-be assassin is what made Meacham decide Jackson needed another bio. He carried a wounded soldier on his back, he lived through a British prisoner-of-war camp during the Revolution, he carried two bullets in his body… the ancient world’s obsession with physical bravery is alive and well for Jackson fans, and like the ancients, these fans see it as the ultimate recommendation of the hero.

When a caller was at last allowed to bring up Jackson’s murder of the Cherokees, Meacham dared to say that “one generation’s accepted good is another’s evil,” and that people in the future will judge us for the injustices we didn’t fight, and that too will be unfair.

If only historians wrote history. The massacre of the Cherokees was not an “accepted good” when it happened, it shocked the nation. Yes, many Americans went along with it, but not because they thought it was right, but because they simply wanted the Cherokees’ land and did not care how they got it. And if we are judged by posterity for the wrongs we did not right, that’s not unfair, it’s our due.

Jackson is resurfacing today, I think, because he seems to represent a conservative who got his own way and didn’t let anyone stop him, and that appeals to a loud but small group of Americans (see “The Great American Experiment“). But Jackson is the last man whose example we should–or will–follow in the 21st century.

The Great American Experiment

America is an experiment. From the time of its first white settlement, America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who became landowners or lawyers or independent merchants. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, I think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant veterans built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. To define those ancestral Americans as merely white or straight or Christian strips them of their most stunning feature, their near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere. Barack Obama is such an American, and his election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.

More Puritan myth busting at American Revolution

Brad Hart reviews an interesting study of Puritan (and other colonial American) sexuality at American Revolution. I agree that it’s hard to study colonial sexuality when only the most sensational of situations (court cases, executions) were recorded for public posterity, but there’s certainly work to be done combing through the journals and other records we do have.

The image we tend to have of Puritans in New England as sex-haters is completely mythical; see just about all my Truth v. Myth posts on the Puritans for proofs!

President Barack Obama

Americans have lived up to their founding principles and elected Barack Obama president. The fact that Mr. Obama is the first black president is, on its own, reason enough to celebrate eternally. But there is more.

The greatest thing about Barack Obama is that he appealed to those American founding principles, consistently and openly. He called on us to fulfill our mandate to offer justice and liberty and equality to all Americans, and to offer all the world honesty, fairness, and democracy. Barack Obama reminded us constantly that as Americans we are called to fulfill very lofty and demanding principles, and that we can only achieve happiness, security, and success when we do so.

In an election where there was so much talk about who was a “real” American, we learned once again that the only real American, the only true American, is the American who upholds our founding principles.

I can only quote the man himself, in his victory speech of November 5, 2008:

“And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.”

Who could have said it better? Every Founding American is alive again in our country today with these words.