In 1948, Arthur Schlessinger, Jr. wrote a book called Walking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson. Schlessinger admired Andrew Jackson, as the title would imply, but he had a problem. Schlessinger was a liberal who opposed segregation. And with Hitler having been defeated by a New Deal Democratic president just three years before Schlessinger’s book was published, the idea of ethnic cleansing had never been more horrifying to the American Left. Yet Schlessinger admired Andrew Jackson, a man who made a fortune by buying and selling African Americans, inflicted punishments on his slaves so savage that they would have made a man as wedded to slavery as Jefferson Davis cringe, and promoted ethnic cleansing of Southeastern Native American tribes. Schlessinger got around this problem partly by avoiding any mention of the Trail of Tears, which was somewhat like writing a book about Abraham Lincoln and not mentioning the Thirteenth Amenndment, about FDR and not mentioning Social Security, or about Bill Clinton and not mentioning the Monica Lewinsky Scandal.
It’s not 1828, the year that Jackson was elected president, or 1948, the year of Schlessinger’s . . . selective historical account, but the 7th president is still held in disturbingly high regard. On October 7th, we will once again be subjected to the one Democratic Party event that makes me flat-out embarrassed to call myself a Democrat every time it happens, the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. Or as I like to call it, “Dead Slave Master Appreciation Night.” Seriously, the Republicans give their constituents the Lincoln-Reagan Dinner, (yes, I know Reagan wasn’t a great president, but Lincoln’s name comes first!) and Democrats like me are stuck with a dinner named after two slaveholders, one of whom promoted ethnic cleansing? And that’s not all. The Ladies’ Hermitage Association is changing its name to the Andrew Jackson Foundation. According to historian and Jackson biographer, Jon Meacham, Abraham Lincoln was inspired by Andrew Jackson. Now, having not read every single thing that Abraham Lincoln ever said or wrote in his fifty-six years, I cannot deny that Old Abe may have drawn some inspiration from Andrew Jackson. It must, however, be pointed out that Lincoln entered politics as a member of the Whig Party (the GOP was not formed until 1854), which was started specifically to oppose Jackson’s policies. He considered himself a disciple of Henry Clay, who ran against Jackson for president in 1832. This is not to praise the Whig Party, which crumbled under its own iniquity by refusing to offer a strong alternative to proslavery Democratic politics. It is merely to point out that portraying Lincoln as a disciple of Andrew Jackson is highly inaccurate.
I would now like to briefly debunk some arguments about Andrew Jackson:
Argument 1: Andrew Jackson promoted democracy!
Andrew Jackson promoted democracy for heterosexual, white men. During the era of “Jacksonian Democracy,” states began eliminating property qualifications for voting. Many states also, with the support of many Jacksonians, began adding race-based restrictions on voting. While this is not commonly known, property-owning, un-enslaved blacks could vote in many states during the early 1800s. Disciples of Andrew Jackson helped change that, and by the Civil War, legally unrestricted was only available for black men in a few Northern states.
Argument 2: You Can’t Ignore the Good Things Andrew Jackson Did!
Lee Harvey Oswald vehemently abhorred segregation in an era when many people thought it was right and many others would not take a strong stand against it. How would people react if we started having “Oswald October Dinners”? Some actions are horrific enough that they cross a line, at which point the person doing them cannot be considered a hero regardless of other good things they did.
Argument 3: Jackson was a man of his time!
The 1820s and 1830s were a virulently racist period in American history. However, the same era that saw Jackson use his office to brutalize African Americans and Native Americans also saw the beginning of white people working in concert for immediate emancipation of all slaves and the implementation of racial equality. Furthermore, Jackson’s views on slavery put him in the reactionary, not moderate, camp for the era. He supported policies censoring abolitionist petitions in Congress, while his rivals Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams opposed this violation of free speech, even though Clay generally made a career of throwing slaves under the bus. Finally, Jackson’s Native American policies were highly controversial at the time that he was president. A signature petition from New York City opposing these policies was forty-seven yards long. The opposition came not only from Yankee missionaries and activists but also from Northern and even some Southern politicians like Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Frelinghuysen, Henry Clay, Sam Houston, and David Crockett. These were not fringe radicals but mainstream political figures. The Indian Removal Act, which paved the way for the Trail of Tears passed the Senate 28 to 19 and the House 101 to 97–hardly a display of overwhelming support. In fact, the Supreme Court declared that the Cherokee Nation’s rights were being violated by land-hungry white Georgians, only for Jackson to declare that Chief Justice John Marshall could not enforce his decision. Steve Yoder of Salon.com sums it up best by saying, “But is it unfair to hold Jackson to today’s standards? It would be — had Jackson’s contemporaries not tried their best to stop him.”
I am hereby proposing that the offensive Jefferson-Jackson Dinner be renamed the Humphrey-Hamer or Hamer-Humphrey Dinner. A dinner named for the politician who did more than any other to make the Democratic Party the less racist of the two parties and for the woman who challenged the racist method of choosing DNC delegates from Southern states and risked her life by engaging in activism against Jim Crow. That’s a dinner I would pay to go to.