Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct several factual errors. Dr. Bryan has written an explanation discussing the mistakes of the original chronology while reviewing the standards of scholarship that every historian should follow. That can be found below after the original column that appeared online Aug. 10, 2019.
Forty years ago, I started my first job as a professional historian. Upon finishing my Ph.D., I took a position as assistant editor of the Andrew Jackson Papers, a documentary editing project located at The Hermitage, Jackson’s home near Nashville. I spent more than three years there transcribing and editing the seventh president’s voluminous correspondence, which was published eventually by the University of Tennessee Press.
At that time, scholars rated Jackson in the top tier of chief executives, as a “great” or “near great” president. Like most historians then, I agreed. His rags-to-riches life story was compelling. He was a national military hero and an iconic public figure who left the White House with even more popular approval than when he entered it. He claimed the mantle of championing the common man. As president, he took decisive action in resisting the secession of South Carolina in 1832-33, thereby perhaps preventing civil war. In many ways, he was bigger than life.
Over the years, however, my perspective, along with those of many other historians, began to change. Almost from the beginning, Jackson’s administration was beset with controversy, most of it of his own doing. Branded by his political enemies as dictatorial and capricious, he maintained that he was the only elected official of all the people and that he should uphold their interests against a sectionalized, incompetent Congress, a body that he confronted frequently.
He was the first president to use the veto for reasons of expediency rather than on constitutional grounds, tipping the balance of power toward the executive branch. For that matter, he issued more vetoes in his term as president than all of his predecessors combined.
Furthermore, he appointed loyal men to his cabinet with whom he rarely consulted, relying instead on an unofficial “kitchen cabinet” that provided him mostly with managed news reported to him by “yes men.”
He attempted to make himself co-equal with the judicial branch in determining the constitutionality of legislation. He defied the Supreme Court on several issues, knowing that it had no real authority to ensure compliance with its rulings. In one case, he was reported to have said about the chief justice of the United States, “Mr. Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”
Two issues in particular stand out as examples of Jackson’s misguided policies. The first involved Indian lands in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. As the commander of an American army in the War of 1812, Jackson waged hard war against the Creek Indians, who had allied themselves with the British.
Upon his election as president, he brought a deep-seated resentment against Indians with him to office. In 1829, in his first State of the Union address, Jackson called for the relocation of all Eastern Indians to beyond the Mississippi River. This was a popular idea among white settlers, particularly when gold was discovered on Indian lands in Georgia. The president’s wish became federal law when he lobbied Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act in 1830.
After several years of legal wrangling, and Jackson’s refusal to respond to pleas from the Indians, he forced the removal of some 14,000 Cherokee from their native lands to the current state of Oklahoma. Escorted by soldiers, the group lacked adequate clothing and food, and was poorly prepared for the deplorable weather they experienced, an estimated 4,000 men, women and children died before reaching their final destination.
Long relegated to brief references in American history textbooks, the Trail of Tears now has been brought to the forefront by scholars as one of the most tragic chapters in the American experience.
Another misguided Jackson policy that would have long-standing consequences centered on the economy. For years, Jackson had a deep distrust of banks in general, but especially the Bank of the United States, which had been the brainchild of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton during George Washington’s presidency. Designed to provide enduring economic stability to the nation, the bank, Jackson argued, was controlled by a few wealthy men who lined their pockets at public expense. When the bank charter came up for renewal in 1832, Jackson refused to sign it, and for all intents and purposes the institution went out of business, with its assets distributed among several state banks.
This action, combined with a shortsighted policy of demanding only gold or silver to pay for the purchase of public lands, led directly to a financial panic in 1837. Had he simply curbed some of the central bank’s practices rather than crush it altogether, he could have saved the nation from weakened finances that brought untold misery to hundreds of thousands of people for many years to come.
Ironically, Jackson made the presidency so strong during his two terms in office that most of his successors were weak leaders who were unable to effectively lead the country through a series of crises that eventually led to civil war.
It is perhaps not surprising that Donald Trump has embraced Jackson as his hero. Soon after his inauguration, the president hung Old Hickory’s portrait in the Oval Office and called him “an amazing figure in American history.”
One can go too far in comparing the two men, as there is as much dissimilarity between them as there is similarity. Nevertheless, even though the times and circumstances are different, for better and for worse, we seem to have a modern-day Old Hickory in the White House now.
Added Sept. 18, 2019
Telling it Like it Was
Last Flag Day (June 14), my wife and I attended a brass band concert of toe-tapping patriotic music, including my favorite, John Philip Sousa’s “Liberty Bell March” and ending with his always-popular “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
We enjoyed the concert, but throughout it, I kept thinking about the assertion a man made as he handed out copies of the U.S. Constitution to all concertgoers. With each copy he distributed, he opined, “Be sure to read this because they don’t teach it in school any more.”
I wondered if that assertion could be true. So when I returned home, I went online and randomly selected a dozen states scattered throughout the country and looked at their public school’s learning standards and the teaching of the U.S. Constitution. Lo and behold, every one of these states did, indeed, teach the Constitution, although some like Virginia go into greater depth than others.
I also attended a dinner of a patriotic society last year at which the featured speaker observed with a straight face that: “George Washington isn’t even mentioned in history textbooks any more,” to which a seemingly knowledgeable audience nodded in agreement.
Again, to check the accuracy of that assertion, I examined half a dozen college and high school American history textbooks currently in use, and I could not find a single one that did not give our country’s first president his due.
Some people blame many of our country’s current woes on a conspiracy among educators to drop mentioning anything that frames the United States in a positive light and positions the negative aspects of our past front and center. Over the years, I have heard some people question why do we have to teach our students anything that portrays our history in a negative light such as the lynching of blacks or how we mistreated Indians. This concerns me.
Manipulating the facts of history to suit one’s argument is unethical according to the standards of scholarship proclaimed by the American Historical Association. It was one of the first things we learned in graduate school, along with several others commandments. These include:
- Do not plagiarize
- Do not ignore contradictory evidence
- Reveal any biases you might have
- “Tell it like it was” based on strong factual evidence
- Back every assertion with accurate facts
Indeed, we historians stress the importance of basing our arguments upon solid facts, and we strive to practice what we preach. I was chagrined when my colleague Daniel Feller, editor and director of the Andrew Jackson Papers Project at the University of Tennessee, alerted me to errors of fact that I hastily made in writing my Aug. 11 column that appeared in the print edition of the RTD (it appeared online on Aug. 10) comparing presidents Jackson and Trump. For example, I should have given 1832-33 rather than 1831 as the date of the South Carolina Nullification Crises; Jackson’s call for Indian removal was in his first state of the Union address rather than his inaugural address; and he vetoed the re-charter of the Bank of the United States in 1832, four years before its original charter expired.
In the total scheme of things, being off in which my chronology does not change the overall interpretation of Jackson’s presidency, but there is no excuse for my incorrectly reporting those dates and facts. I should have relied more on actual sources than my memory in presenting my case.
My carelessness, however, cannot compare with a term referred to as “historical negationism” or “denialism,” both of which mean an intentional misrepresentation of the historical record. Examples of this kind of distortion of the past include denying the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, and Japanese war crimes. Arguments that American slavery was a benign institution, that slavery was not a root cause of the Civil War, and slaves served in substantial numbers as Confederate soldiers, is another form of negationism.
George Orwell portrayed negationism in his novel “1984.” In addition to practicing the deliberate distortion of current events, Orwell’s fictional nation of Oceana is ruled by The Party that employs the Thought Police to eliminate independent thinking and individuality. The novel is set in a time when the government relies on intentional misrepresentation of the facts, secret surveillance and the blatant manipulation of historical evidence to substantiate an argument.
We can find examples of Orwell’s portrayal of the deliberate manipulation of information about the past by a central authority in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Communist China and North Korea.
There is another form of negationism, however, that has become influential today — social media. Whether it is current events or history related, information coming out of social media often is unfiltered and unedited for its accuracy.
Conspiracy theories have abounded on social media such as the so-called “birther movement” that denied the legitimacy of the Obama administration under the claim that he was not born in the United States. Nation of Islam’s leader Louis Farrakhan has contended that the federal government deliberately created AIDS in an attempt to decrease the nation’s black population.
On the surface these theories seem outlandish. Most people do not accept these reported conspiracies as legitimate, although the current president occasionally seems swayed by them. He and others who depend on social media as legitimate sources of information would do us all a favor if they did some simple background research and fact finding rather than accepting them at face value.
Charles F. Bryan, Jr., Ph.D.
President & CEO emeritus
Virginia Historical Society