WASHINGTON – When Donald Trump recently laid a wreath at the tomb of Andrew Jackson, the 45th president was sending a message by choosing a hero.
It is difficult to imagine that this selection was the result of vast reading in presidential history. Rather, it was the appropriation of Jackson as depicted on the $20 bill – the long-haired, steely-eyed, bad-assed disrupter. The end of the effete, philosophical founding generation. The embodiment of a populism that venerated and served “the people.” The avatar of American nationalism.
This was, in fact, the way Jackson was viewed by many contemporaries, both supporters and detractors. He was the original, and prototypical, testostero- president. He took on the British, the national bank, the Congress, the early secessionists with a determined application of will and power. He consistently pressed the boundaries of executive authority.
George Washington had viewed swagger as a moral failure. Jackson made it an American political virtue. His movement, quite literally, broke china at the White House. It essentially created the idea of congressional party loyalty. It devalued civility. In all these ways, we still live in Jackson’s America.
Jackson was a large, complex figure (the best starting point to learn about him is Jon Meacham’s “American Lion,” which is brilliant in everything except its reverence for its subject). But it would be typical of Trump to admire Jackson, not only for his virtues, but for his vices. Jackson was the first president who made dueling, gambling and horseracing a part of his public persona. He was prickly, demanding and mercurial. He was no stranger to sexual scandal. His opponents regarded his presidency as unimaginable, until he beat them.
But Jackson’s vices were not merely personal. Many of the founders had been internally conflicted slaveholders. Jackson was not one for psychic struggle. Meacham recounts that Jackson once authored an “Advertisement for Runaway Slave” that offered $50 for the return of the slave “and ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him.” Such attitudes were not disqualifying in Jackson’s America.
And much of Jackson’s reputation depended on being a frontier Indian fighter. This was a president who once earned the Indian nickname “Sharp Knife.” In a battle against the Red Stick Creeks, Jackson set about to “exterminate them” (his words). Hundreds of fighters and civilians were killed trying to flee across the Tallapoosa River. By one account “the river ran red with blood.” A sharp knife indeed.
Jackson was also one of the nation’s leading advocates of “Indian removal,” which amounted to the ethnic cleansing of Creeks and Cherokee across the lower South. His “Indian Removal Act” was a signature legislative achievement, opening up tens of millions of acres for cotton cultivation. These efforts culminated soon after Jackson’s presidency in the Trail of Tears, on which 4,000 Cherokee men, women and children died of hunger, cold and disease during their forced expulsion to the west. This is close enough to genocide to spark a continuing debate over application of the word.
Why consider this ancient history (which is not really so ancient to the Cherokee)? Because Trump, in visiting the Hermitage, has invited us. Jackson was wrong – badly, culpably wrong – on the largest issue of his time: the dignity and value of people of color. “The tragedy of Jackson’s life,” admits Meacham, “is that a man dedicated to freedom failed to see liberty as a universal, not a particular, gift.”
There is no refuge in the argument that Jackson merely reflected the values of his time. Jackson’s opponent in two elections, John Quincy Adams, viewed slavery as “the great and foul stain upon the North American Union.” Henry Clay called Indian expulsion “a foul and lasting stain upon the good faith, humanity and character of the nation.” And Jackson’s reputation will always bear those indelible marks.
These issues are directly applicable in our politics. Like Jackson, Trump has become the champion of poor, voiceless, white Americans. But does he view liberty as a universal gift? His dehumanization of migrants and Muslim refugees would indicate otherwise. And there has been talk of expulsion as well. Is American identity really related to ethnicity? Does American nationalism require the identification of internal enemies? Does putting America first always involve the organization of resentments and a search for scapegoats?
No American hero is perfect. But it is hard to summon one who didn’t see the evil of the Middle Passage and the Trail of Tears. And this makes Trump’s choice of heroes a self-indictment.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.