During the height of the 2008 presidential campaign, I paid a visit to what was then an annual gathering of the Conservative Caucus, a right-wing group founded by the late Howard Phillips, who also helped found the religious right.
Unlike his compatriots among the religious right’s founding fathers, Phillips, a large man with the voice of a radio actor, relished the use of extreme language to characterize his perceived enemies: Gays were “sodomites” and “perverts”; Planned Parenthood was “Murder Incorporated.” He also cozied up in public to neo-militia groups such as Missionaries to the Pre-Born.
In a small meeting room at a hotel in Arlington, Virginia, the Conservative Caucus convened for its yearly Constitution Day awards event, a notably low-budget affair with nothing on the menu but hotel-supplied hard candies and pitchers of water—and vitriol, no small measure of it trained on the surging Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama.
Receiving the group’s Andrew Jackson Champion of Liberty Award that day was Cliff Kincaid, a staffer at the right-wing group Accuracy in Media, whose mission is to expose the supposedly left-wing bias of U.S. mainstream media. Kincaid had earned that award for extensive research he had done into Obama’s background, which ultimately led him to the conclusion that Obama grew up steeped in the evils of communist belief.
When I asked Phillips why he named the award after Jackson, a Democrat, he simply replied that Jackson was the greatest American president who ever lived. Abraham Lincoln, he said, was the worst.
ACROSS THE COUNTRY that same year, local and state-level Democratic Party organizations held fundraising dinners celebrating “Jefferson-Jackson Day,” named for the party’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, and the man who restored the party to popularity, Andrew Jackson.
Long embraced by Democrats as a champion of the little guy and an opponent of moneyed elites, Jackson’s murderous history as a war criminal, slavery enthusiast, and genocidal enemy of Native Americans was hardly given a glance. As Ari Rabin-Havt wrote for the Prospect, the Andrew Jackson celebrated by the Democratic Party was the Jackson of the Giant Block of Cheese—a reference to the seventh president’s public relations stunt, in which he placed a huge hunk of the stuff in a public area of the White House, so that the hungry could come and get their fill.
Then there was Jackson’s war against the Bank of the United States—a precursor to the Federal Reserve—a move used to burnish his populist credentials. But as Jonathan Chait points out in his recent New York magazine essay, Old Hickory’s smashing of the big bank was likely designed to eliminate competition to the numerous small bankers who backed the brash former general.
Chait’s piece was prompted by a commentary by historian David Greenberg, who argued at Politico that, hey, Jackson did some good stuff, too! It wasn’t all Trail of Tears and the protection of slaveholders; he presided over the granting of suffrage to white men who had no land, paving the way for universal suffrage. Even more significant, writes Greenberg, is the structural re-jiggering of the architecture of the republic, which, he says, Jackson promoted, and that gave way to “a radically more egalitarian political culture than the United States had previously enjoyed.”
Greenberg’s treatise was written in response to recent cries to remove Jackson’s image from U.S. currency. Rabin-Havt, meanwhile, wrote his piece about Jackson’s legacy in May 2014, when he argued here for an end to Democratic Party affairs—namely, the countless Jefferson-Jackson dinners—named for the populist president.
Among the things Greenberg asserts in his limited defense of Jackson is a warning to Democrats that they abandon Jackson at their peril:
Indeed, one wonders whether the failure of Jackson’s detractors today to credit his democratic contributions isn’t related to the Democratic Party’s troubles in retaining the loyalty of white working-class voters.
Chait steps off from Greenberg’s admonition to claim that Andrew Jackson characterizes today’s Republican Party far more than he does the contemporary Democratic Party—especially in the race department. In some ways, that’s true, particularly in the more populist, Tea Party wing of the GOP, as evidenced by Howard Phillips’s appreciation for the Jacksonian legacy.
But to shove Jackson off on the Republicans is to let Democrats off the hook.
The ugliest truth is that the Andrew Jackson of history is the embodiment of neither party alone: He is the embodiment of America, period. We became a “great nation” through a brutally executed land-grab that involved the murder and death-by-neglect of who-knows-how-many American Indians, including countless numbers of children. We became a great nation on the backs of the enslaved people who worked the farms of the South and the ports of the North. And we became a great nation conceived for the enrichment of white men at the expense of everybody else.
Today, U.S. women earn 77 cents for every dollar paid to American men. In both parties, they’re vastly underrepresented in Congress.
Black people are gunned down by police with appalling regularity, and face barriers to employment, education, and upward mobility. Similarly, Native Americans face horrific discrimination and the often-abject poverty of the reservations—the enclaves created by the white man’s land-grab.
Democrats may wring their hands at the citation of such facts, but systemic change is slow in coming.
So, yes, let’s purge his name from the political dinners and his stern visage from our currency. But let’s not pretend that his ugliness belongs solely to the other side. There’s enough stain in Jackson’s legacy to cover much of the map of America—and both of its major political parties.