Friday, April 11, 2014

Was Andrew Jackson a Good President?

(The malware crisis seems to have abated? I will try it.)

(The last sentence was earlier in the week. It seems to be back now. Unfortunately I have already started the next post on this account).

(This assumes that any president has ever been, or could be good, which the free and untamed men of the internet and elsewhere would knowingly insist has never occurred).

It seems like no one whose authority would be credible ever wants to come out and say definitively 'yes' or 'no' to the question above. If there is a consensus among learned people concerning the matter, I couldn't tell you what it was, though my sense is that they probably think he was too important in too many ways to be dismissed, but are uncomfortable to appear to extoll him too much, if at all. He was obviously a man of superior energy and leadership capability who set the country on a distinct path in its youth that it may not otherwise have embarked on so thoroughly, and which in world-historical political terms reaped astonishing benefits in terms of power and affluence, and whose personal character influenced and colored that of the nation itself for generations after his own time. He is a man however who always made the more delicate-spirited members of the intellectual class uncomfortable to contemplate, and today not merely his racial attitudes but his extreme personal harshness generally make it difficult for us to regard him as a person to whom we owe any homage at all, let alone consider him one of the greatest of all our countrymen. Yet for all that we want to think we have moved beyond needing this type of character at this stage of our history, it is hard to read about him and not be struck by the thought that we could sure use someone--provided he or she was on 'our' side--to emerge from the population in our own time who was possessed of certain of his qualities, namely the purposefulness and decisiveness in action, and the ability to lead and inspire and represent some vital segment of the population.

In reading over old historical accounts of Jackson--most of the history books in my library date from the 1940s to the 60s--one is struck by the pervasiveness of the word 'hate' in describing Jackson's attitude on any number of issues. He hated Spain. He hated Eastern bankers, and urban sophisticates generally. He hated John C. Calhoun. He hated the assumption of privilege where he considered it to be unearned (I know everyone hates this, but Jackson actually called people on it). He had a volatile and explosive temper. He fought duels and had men hanged, in his military career, with a minimum of deliberation or anguish. His racism, if that word even begins to describe his attitude towards black people and Indians in the context of contemporary enlightened thought, along with the other negative qualities enumerated above, will probably be the dominant ingredients in any consideration of his career for a large proportion of the modern educated population. That he was the most popular, galvanizing, and perhaps the most fearless political leader of his age (though it seems to have been an age that from our vantage was unusually blessed, or cursed, with fearlessness) perhaps comes to seem trivial in comparison.

His energy and personal popularity remind me of Theodore Roosevelt, who remains a fairly well-liked figure in our history, in spite of, and doubtless in some cases because of, his by our standards more outrageous bloviations about race, the place of women, manliness, and the like. Both men became the political champions of movements that perceived, almost ferociously, to have righteousness and the tide of history on their side. Edman (Irwin, early 20th century psychologist), made a few observations about Roosevelt's career in his book (Human Traits and Their Social Significance, 1920):

Under the section "Pugnacity as a beneficent social force":

"Part of Theodore Roosevelt's power was in his picturesque phrasing of political issues as if they were great moral struggles. No one could forget, or fail to have his heart beat a trifle faster at Roosevelt's trumpet call in the 1912 campaign: 'We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.'...Astute political leaders have not failed to capitalize the fighting instinct, and any social project will enlist the wider enthusiasm and the more energetic support if it is hailed as a battle or fight against somebody or something."

And later on, under the section "Enthusiasm" ('Enthusiasm is as ubiquitous a word in writings about Theodore Roosevelt as 'hate' is in those about Andrew Jackson):

"Leaders of great movements who have been successful in controlling the energies and loyalties of millions of men have been frequently men of this high and contagious voltage. It certainly constituted part of Theodore Roosevelt's political strength, and, in more or less genuine form, is the asset of every successful political speaker and leader."

Jackson appears to have partaken in his time of these qualities also. It is clear, by the way, that while I have some difficulty conceiving of how emotions were communicated to his base of support in those remote times with its technologically primitive media and means of communication, that the communication may have been more effective, and acted more vigorously upon those receiving it, than what prevails in our time. His ascent, and the multitude of deeds of derring-do that marked the way, I still find, when I think about it in the habitual and predominant way of narrative in which I consider things, to be a thrilling and inspiring story taken in its own simple context, and a testament to what men growing up with the freedom of self-determination that existed on the old frontier could make of themselves. His personal determination to break up the big banks (and the imposition of regulations which, if I understand correctly, lasted well into my own lifetime), ultimately successful, to anyone living through these times cannot fail to make an impression. This policy is often blamed for the Panic of 1837, a depression which brought about real hardship in the years right after Jackson left office, and most money-savvy people in today's world I sense highly disapprove of Jackson's views on economics. Most of the midcentury histories seem to be of the opinion that this action benefited the country in the long run. I am sure something of this sort is what most diehard liberals were imagining/hoping that Obama or the Clintons were going to do to the health insurance companies. Many people seem to think we are entering a centuries long period where corporate interests will be incontestable and lord over the common people with an iron and pitiless sway, and certainly they seem to have developed more sophisticated mechanisms for making sure no one acquires the political strength to restrain them, but at bottom all of these entities are just people, and eventually someone, or some faction, will emerge who is strong enough to contend with them on behalf of the interest of the public, or some section of the public that is rising in strength, and one or other of these powerful interests will have so long outlived its usefulness as to be mortally weakened in spite of all appearances. Shocks and dislocations need not always be generated from one direction...

Obviously I have not come any closer to understanding whether Jackson was a good president or not, because I no longer know my own criteria for judging such matters.

I was rereading some Boswell lately, and came across this passage that, sadly, fairly well describes myself these days:

"Johnson lamented to Mr. Hector the state of one of their school-fellows, Mr. Charles Congreve, a clergyman, which he thus described...'He confesses to one bottle of port every day, and he probably drinks more. He is quite unsocial; his conversation is quite monosyllabical; and when, at my last visit, I asked him what o'clock it was? that signal of my departure had so pleasing an effect on him, that he sprung up to look at his watch, like a greyhound bounding at a hare.' When Johnson took leave of Mr. Hector, he said, 'Don't grow like Congreve; nor let me grow like him, when you are near me.'"

Not that the malware infection has come back, after a two day virus, this may again be the last post on the site. I will have to see how things stand when I take up my next topic.

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