CNN’s 10 “most bizarre” elections in U.S. history

We were looking for the video CNN uses in its ads for its new series Race for the White House, which shows the changing face of the White House from the mid-1800s to the present (very interesting—more and more barriers put between the street and the building). We couldn’t find it, but in the mayhem of features on the site we did find “10 of the most bizarre elections in American history”. The name implies that many more than 10 American presidential elections were bizarre, but likely they just mean 10 were actually bizarre.

At any rate, they do a pretty good job describing the 10 elections/campaigns they list. No glaring errors. They don’t say the 1824 election really was a corrupt bargain, they just note that Jackson claimed it was. They admit that the 1876 election was rigged by racist southerners to give the Republican candidate the presidency if he would end Reconstruction. And they focus on the real issue of the 1964 campaign—Johnson’s commitment to ending institutional racism—instead of talking about the Daisy ad.

This was more than we expected of CNN, so we thought we’d pass it along with our commendation.

Jefferson-Jackson Day no more?

The Democratic and Republican Parties each hold annual fundraisers that, while they attract big names—including sitting presidents—go mostly under the public radar. The Republicans have Lincoln Day, and the Democrats have Jefferson-Jackson Day.

Each event is named for founders of each party. Clearly Lincoln was the first Republican president, but it’s harder to claim  that Jefferson was the first Democratic president. His party was called the Democratic-Republican party, but it did not have much in common with the modern Democratic Party, which didn’t really come into being until 1828, when supporters of Andrew Jackson who were enraged over his loss in the 1824 presidential campaign decided to scrap the Democratic-Republican Party and form a new party. It became an increasingly proslavery party during the 1830s and 40s, and was solidly proslavery by 1850.

And that’s the problem with Jefferson-Jackson Day and the J-J dinners held in every state in Spring or Fall: some people (including the NAACP) have begun to question the wisdom of continuing to associate the modern-day Democratic Party with two men who were unapologetic slaveholders, each of whom also did a lot to alienate and destroy American Indian populations. Connecticut, Florida, Iowa and others have already renamed their dinners, and other state Democratic parties are considering it. There has been predictable outrage over this from conservative spokespeople, who see it as political correctness gone wrong, and who urge us to remember that no one is perfect, and that our national history is filled with people who did good things for the nation while holding views that we can no longer accept.

When the “view” you’re holding is proslavery, it’s hard to defend this rationalist point of view. It posits the idea that there was ever a time when people did not know that enslaving human beings was very bad for the enslaved, did not know that it was always done sheerly to make money at any cost, did not understand that it was deliberately designed to destroy the humanity of the enslaved and turn them into animals bred and raised for stock.

There was never a time when slavery was not fully understood as a complete negative. This doesn’t mean there was never a time when people lied to themselves and others by claiming it had its good points, was bad but sadly necessary, was supported by religion, civilization, and tradition, etc. In fact, the present day is one of those times, as slavery is of course still going on unapologetically in many parts of the world and secretly in others.

We think it’s a good idea to rename the Jefferson-Jackson Day and Dinner in every state, and it would be wonderful if each state came up with different people to name them for, people whom we can celebrate without reservation. Each state has them—sometimes people say it’s impossible to find someone from “the past” who was fully honorable, but of course that’s not true. So get busy in your own state and nominate suitable heroes to name the Day and Dinner for!

Andrew Jackson facelift

We were transacting some business yesterday and happened to get an old $20 bill from an ATM. We were comparing the old and new and couldn’t help noticing how Andrew Jackson was airbrushed to look substantially younger and more handsome in the new bill:


In the new bill, on top, his eyes have been made larger and the deep bags underneath his eyes have been removed. His jaw has also been widened and shortened, changing his face from its familiar long rectangle to more of a heart shape. Jackson looks positively appealing in the new bill. One has to wonder why this was done…

If only we had old $1, $5 and $10 bills to analyze. Maybe Washington, Lincoln, and  Hamilton have had similar makeovers. If anyone out there can send images, please do!

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.

Truth v. Myth: Andrew Jackson

Part 2 of my analysis of the History International show on Andrew Jackson. In part 1, I mentioned the depressing rationales for admiring Jackson given by two of the “experts” giving commentary during the series. Let’s look at them in depth here.

First up, H.W. Brands, author of Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times. Brands’ first egregious comment came in the analysis of the Indian Removal and the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Here’s what Brands had to say about it:

“Jackson’s policy was at peace with the policies of adminstrations before and after his. It’s easy to pin the label [of genocidal monster] on Jackson because he took a more visible position. But Jackson probably would have said, this was not merely my policy but the policy of the United States government, for better or worse.”

Hm. The show had earlier claimed that Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and J. Q. Adams had all wanted Native Americans removed from their lands. This, apparently, clears Jackson of the shame of actually doing it. It’s the “he’s just doing what everyone else was thinking” argument.

But there’s a reason why none of those presidents actually did it: it was so inhuman they could not see how to do it and retain any integrity at all.

Let’s examine Brands’ “it’s not Jackson’s policy, it’s the policy of the U.S. government” line. First of all, the U.S. government had multiple treaties with the southeastern Native Americans saying they could stay on their land. Second, the U.S. Supreme Court had just struck down a move to void those treaties and remove the rightful inhabitants of the southeast. Jackson famously ignored the Supreme Court ruling, thus in two ways trampling rather than helplessly going along with the “policy of the U.S. government.”

Brands is joined in his benediction of the Indian Removal Act by Andrew Burstein, author of The Passions of Andrew Jackson:

“It’s easy for us to attack Jackson for his lack of humanity… he should have known better. But it’s too easy for us to do that because we didn’t live in their world. And their world, Jackson’s world, was a very brutal world.”

I remember a friend of mine once reacting to this kind of reasoning; someone had said people in the antebellum period just didn’t understand that slavery was wrong, they couldn’t have known that because slavery had always existed. And my friend said, Really? Do you think in 200 years people will say about us, ‘Oh, people in 1995 didn’t understand that racism was wrong because it had always existed. They just weren’t able to see a different reality”?

I didn’t live in the Nazis’ world, so am I unable to say that killing Jewish people is wrong? Of course not. I know it’s wrong, and so did those Nazis during their own time. Americans in the 1830s knew lying to people and putting them on a deadly forced march was wrong.

If Jackson’s “world” was a “very brutal world,” maybe it was because men like Jackson did terrible, brutal things in the name of money, power, and land, and not because people back then were just different than we are and didn’t understand that people could live in peace. We “don’t live in Jackson’s world” because we have made strenuous efforts to outlaw the kind of brutality that people have always known is wrong. We’ve tried to rid the world of it, and especially to rid America of it because America is supposed to be better than that, and not because something changed in the genetic makeup of humanity between 1830 and 2008.

Finally, it’s back to Brands, who says this about Jacksonian democracy: “Jacksonion democracy sums up the idea that power belongs in the hands of the people, that ordinary people should run this [America’s] government.”

I think Jacksonian democracy shows us that power belongs in the hands of those who uphold the founding principles of representative democracy and natural rights that this nation was founded on, and if someone like Jackson, who tramples those principles, takes power, terrible things happen. If “ordinary people” uphold our founding principles, then by all means give them power. If “unordinary people” (whom I take to mean the rich, the educated, or the thoughtful and cosmopolitan) uphold those principles, then give them power.

Brands’ statement is simply another airing of the tired idea that the (ideally western frontier) outsider is The Common Man, decent and straightforward, independent and tough, uneducated and honest. Jackson was straightforward and tough, but that’s about it.

This myth that headstrong people who won’t listen to anyone else and never admit they’re wrong about anything are Real Americans, and the kind of leaders we need to preserve Americanness, is so dangerous. An egomanianc who won’t be told when he’s going off the rails is not a good leader. From Jackson to Bush, we have seen the terrible results when someone like this holds the presidency.

Now is not the time to idolize Andrew Jackson, but to learn a lesson from his terrible example.


Time to retire “An American Original”

I was watching a History International program on Andrew Jackson last night, and as the experts who were interviewed throughout tried to sum up Jackson’s accomplishments (more on that in a later post), all but two of them encountered the difficulty of being Jackson fans yet having to explain the Native American genocide he happily instigated. They each fell back on disreputable arguments to support their case as fans, and one of them used the old tried-and-true: “Well, Jackson was an American original.”

I notice that this phrase is always dragged out to describe/boost someone whose main quality is that he does not ever think he is wrong. Jackson defied the Supreme Court and overreached the powers allocated to the executive in order to mercilessly betray and kill Native Americans, and never once betrayed the slightest regret or doubt about that. So what do you say about him if you admire his in-your-face independence and confidence? He was an American Original.

This seems to mean someone who did bad things but was charismatic. Someone who never once admitted they were wrong. We translate this into confidence, and independence, and being a maverick who doesn’t kow-tow to the powers that be. A rebel. These are qualities we like, and so we decide they are only exhibited by Americans.

But there is a difference between rebelling against injustice and rebelling against justice, and anyone who does the latter is not an “American original” but a criminal. Yes, the person may be irritatingly charismatic. But there’s no excusing or forgiving the crimes.

So if Jackson’s slate can be washed clean by calling him an “American Original”, it’s time to retire the phrase when used as a compliment.

Thinking you are never wrong is not admirable. It’s not a strength. And no American should ever be that way, because never admitting fault is anti-democratic. It’s saying one person knows what’s right and whatever they do is right and everyone else can just shut up. When the executive won’t ever admit fault, it means his entire administration must support his wrongheaded policies because there’s no other option. And that’s not good for democracy.

Jackson was many things, but in a world filled with criminals and anti-democratic leaders, original is not one of them.

See part 2 for a full analysis of the harmful mythmaking in this program.

1824-2008 Election Season

It seems that ever since American voters turned on to Andrew Jackson in the 1824 campaign, being “a man of the people” has changed its definition in America.

It used to mean someone who had the best interests of our democracy in mind. A man of the people realized he was the people’s representative and their leader. He (and it was, until 2007, always a he) was someone the people could admire and respect.

But with Jackson began the tradition of the grossly unqualified candidate who rode in on his popularity as a military/war hero, with nothing else to recommend him for the office of president. People who had qualms about Jackson’s lack of experience, terrible personality, and unresolved war crimes were painted as elitists, sipping tea with their little finger extended while voting for John Quincy Adams. Adams, son of a Founder, was painted as an effete, useless rich old man who just wanted to reign as king.

This was new to American politics in 1824 and 1828, this use of the western frontier as the place where “real” Americans came from, having a moral virtue of honesty and straightforwardness. Suddenly to be born in a log cabin was a virtue. And from Harrison to Lincoln (great though he was, it was the “log-splitter” image that helped his candidacy) to Teddy Roosevelt (thank God he was a Rough Rider or it would have been over for him!) to George W. Bush, Americans have always fallen for the “plainspoken western outsider” who rides into Washington to clean house.

In 2008, the accurate description of working-class Americans that Barack Obama made are leading the right to call him an elitist. In these days of no western frontier, it is suddenly being in touch with the working class (though never actually from the working class) that stands in for the western sherriff.  Being called an elitist is still the kiss of death.

Jackson was perhaps our worst president. Lincoln was (tied with Washington) our greatest. You can’t always tell how the “outspoken outsider” thing will play out. But we should, after nearly 200 years, be wary of falling for the “elitist” ploy, of watching candidates talk at the working class and then forget them completely, or talk about them even as they describe their economic plans designed to crush the working class more completely.

Let’s go back to what the Founders intended, which was choosing someone for president who:

–understands the principles of our democracy, and

–will suffer and withstand criticism to uphold them

Then, no matter what geographical or financial region the candidate comes from, we will know we have the right one.