Categories
Politics Presidents

I Don’t Get It

maxresdefault

If you put a gun to my head and told me that I had to vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I would but whisper, “Goodbye cruel world.” But if my family somehow managed to convince me to stick around, in preference to Trump I would vote for Hillary. Or John Kerry, or Nancy Pelosi. In preference to Trump I would vote for the reanimated corpse of Adlai Stevenson, or for that matter that of Julius Caesar, who perhaps has learned a thing or two in his two thousand years of afterlife. The only living person that I would readily choose Trump in preference to is Charles Manson.

Alan Jacobs

Here’s what I do get about the Trump phenomenon: it’s real and legitimate and not to be denied. The part of it that isn’t baldly racist/sexist/etc is a well-deserved comeuppance for the policy of establishment Republicans (and Democrats, though they felt the Bern of their comeuppance) to believe the people work for the Party and not the other way around. I’m as surprised as anyone that Trump has gotten this far (just checked… yep, he is actually, literally the Republican nominee), but he didn’t arrive in a vacuum, and any political movement as potent as his demands attention.

Here’s what I don’t get: why anyone, despite all of the aforementioned reasons, would nevertheless choose to pull their voting booth’s metaphorical lever for an egomaniacal, bullshitting pig like Donald Trump to be president of the United States.

Not one of the voting blocs Trump currently finds support from would benefit from his presidency. Do low-income whites hurting in the Rust Belt actually think he’ll bring all “the jobs” back from the very places he’s made money from overseas? Do anti-immigration hardliners actually think stopping Muslim immigration is at all feasible and not blindingly unconstitutional? Do “evangelical” “Christians” actually think Donald J. Trump gives one damn about Christianity and won’t immediately throw religious freedom under the bus the moment it’s convenient?

[Also: He doesn’t want to be president. He probably didn’t expect to get to the primaries, let alone the convention, and is now as usual making it up as he goes, flitting around and stumbling into success because the rotting carcass formerly known as the Republican Party was too dead-eyed to fight off the contagion of Trumpism. This is The Producers come to life. He just wants to be on TV and will hire Roger Ailes to make it happen as soon as possible.]

Again: I get it. If you hate Obama or can’t find a job or find Black Lives Matter distasteful or want to give the finger to Mitch McConnell, Trump is the train to hop on this year.

But this is Donald Trump we’re talking about.

Donald Trump.

DONALD. TRUMP.

The man is inherently, self-evidently unfit for the presidency. Denigrate Hillary Clinton for her beliefs and character flaws and hawkishness and subservience to corporate interests, but don’t say she’s unfit for the office, or God forbid, that she’s “just as bad as Trump.” A former senator and secretary of state versus a blabbering reality-TV man-child? Give me a break.

I ain’t voting for Clinton. Like Alan Jacobs quoted above, forced at gunpoint to choose between Clinton and Trump I’d choose Clinton and then pull the trigger myself. But my greatest hope this year is that Clinton demolishes TrumPence in November and becomes our first woman president. I’m sure that means more Middle East invasions, Clinton family scandals, and who knows what else. But it won’t be worse than President Trump.

I applaud the prominent conservatives and Republicans who have spoken out against their party’s nominee and the toxic cloud trailing his campaign, knowing and even hoping to damage Trump enough to prevent his election. Whether moved by principle or political calculation, it matters. They are on the record, as are the ones who have cast their lots with Trump.

#NeverTrump forever.

Categories
America Politics Presidents

How to Win My Vote

south-park-vote

My first presidential vote was in 2008 for Barack Obama. It’s a vote I will never regret, despite the mixed results of the Obama administration. But in 2012 I didn’t vote to re-elect Obama, despite being generally supportive of his presidency and against the prospect of Mitt Romney. I voted for the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson—largely for the reasons Conor Friedersdorf laid down at the time—and wrote-in my deceased grandfather for some of the smaller offices.

All this to say: winning my vote in 2016 has become an uphill battle for the major parties. The specter of Hillary Clinton from the Democrats and (vomits) Donald Trump from the Republicans has further galvanized my already enhanced reluctance to vote for either corrupt, craven, duplicitous party.

Being a resident of a solid-blue state, my vote won’t count for much come November. But here are my (non-exhaustive) conditions for each party if they want it. I await their thoughtful reconsideration of misguided priorities having to pick between a douche and a turd.

Republicans

Stop clinging to your guns. I’m a hunter; I get it. I’ve shot and killed deer and ducks, and felt the awesome power of a gun’s blast. To a certain type of person it’s intoxicating. But saying “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” completely misses the point, which is that people are dying needlessly and at a historical rate because of them. Your Baracknophobic obsession with owning guns and proselytizing for them has become pathological. You’ve lost touch with reality, which is that literally the only purpose of a gun is destruction. This reality supersedes the cultic devotion you’ve imbued in the Constitution, which believe it or not has not existed forever and was not chiseled into stone on Mount Sinai. Besides, the Second Amendment is a gun-control amendment.

And religion. America is not a Christian nation. I say that having been a Christian all my life, one who’s frustrated with the corporatization of religion and unjust wielding of power from the pulpit. You’re not helping people of faith by crying martyr and holding hands with Kim Davis. And you actively hurt people of other faiths or no faith at all, who are citizens deserving just as much representation as you do. I strongly support religious liberty and gladly practice it, while at the same time acknowledging that other religious people around the world experience actual life-threatening religious discrimination.

Start actually, you know, conserving. Treating the earth like a garbage dump is not conservatism. Laughing at climate science is not conservatism. Bowing down to the Koch brothers is not conservatism. How about let’s just work on those three things before moving on to advanced concepts like “Oil is not a renewable resource” and “Snow does not prove global warming is a hoax.”

Acknowledge that black lives matter. “But all lives matter!” Yeah, no. Maybe in your utopian dreams. In reality, where deeds matter a whole lot more than words, black lives have been enslaved, oppressed, incarcerated, ignored, and killed a whole lot more than others. The first step to changing this is admitting that’s a problem.

Don’t nominate Donald Trump. Which is a sentence that in saner times would seem self-evident, but alas. I started writing this post in the summer of 2015, when the campaign was still young and uncertain and when Trump seemed like a fad scripted by late-night comedy shows that would eventually burn out. Now here we are in March and Trump has the Republicans by their Grand Old Parts. Part of me wants him to get the nod, just so he can push the red button on the GOP implosion and hopefully begin the process of restoring the party to something resembling respectable. But if we’re looking at the big picture, having a short-fingered vulgarian in the Oval Office would most decidedly not make America great again.

Democrats

At least pretend like abortions are bad. Because they are. Regardless of the circumstances that lead to the pregnancy, abortion is the gruesome slaying of a nascent life. Trying to defund Planned Parenthood is a stupid, short-sighted gambit by the Republicans, but the spirit behind it isn’t. Stop treating abortion as if it’s like ordering a latte and maybe its opponents won’t have to make such desperate, futile, attention-seeking ploys to stop it altogether.

Stop treating religious people like they’re all Sarah Palin. Because they aren’t. Dan Savage likes to call quiet, non-polemic religious folk NALTs, as in “Not All Like That”—like the Palins and Cruzes and Santorums of the world, who lack any discernible shade of grey in their worldview. To the skeptical outsider, a global religion like Christianity may look like one big blurry ball of bigoted buffoons; but anyone who assumes that, and can’t or won’t see the spectrum within, isn’t qualified to say so.

Put down your pitchforks. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a great primer on the internet’s outrage-industrial complex and the irony of low tolerance among well-intentioned liberals who preach tolerance themselves. However sympathetic I am to historically oppressed people getting a voice, I cannot get behind any ideology prone to stridency and self-seriousness. Take a breath, and stop tar-and-feathering technocrats and small-town pizzerias.

Acknowledge that police lives matter. I wouldn’t want to be a cop; would you? Every one of those police shooting videos sickens me, and I almost always sympathize with whoever was the victim of overreaching power. But I never forget how fraught with danger the lives of law enforcement are, that they chose to be the person called when something bad could be happening. Please: let’s get the bad ones off the street and restrict their use of deadly force, but never forget their humanity.

Don’t nominate Hillary Clinton. I’d love to vote for a female president. Just not this female. Sure, she’s qualified and acts the part: like everyone, I loved watching her own the Republicans during the Benghazi circus of cynicism hearings and imagine we’d see a lot of that Hillary during her presidency. But that’s the problem: I prefer presidents whose lives aren’t telenovela-level public dramas, and have at least a few core beliefs they stick with even when it’s inconvenient. To paraphrase the musical Hamilton: when all is said and all is done, Sanders has beliefs; Clinton has none. (And no, I don’t “feel the Bern”… I just don’t want to climb the Hill.)

Categories
Books History Presidents

Herbert Hoover in the White House

By nature of their office presidents generally believe the press corps is working against them, but there is little question that in Washington in 1932 reporters and editors had a lively antipathy for Hoover, a disdain unmatched by any successor until the next Quaker to occupy the White House—Richard Nixon, some forty years later.

—From Charles Rappleye’s (excellent) forthcoming Herbert Hoover in the White House (which I’m reviewing for publication): a delicious irony that our nation’s only two ostensibly Quaker presidents were active players in a mutually antagonistic relationship with the press.

Categories
Books History Presidents

Destiny of the Republic

In Assassination Vacation, one of my all-time favorite books, Sarah Vowell calls the circumstances surrounding the Garfield assassination “an opera of arrogance, a spectacle of greed, a galling, appalling epic of egomania dramatizing the lust for pure power, shameless and raw.” After reading Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, which details said circumstances, Vowell’s characterization now almost seems like an understatement.

The things I did while reading Destiny ranged from yelling at Dr. Bliss’s casual (and admittedly good-faith) malpractice in his care of the wounded president, cringing at the horrific realities of nineteenth-century medicine, admiring Garfield’s resilience and character in general (as well as his beard), and considering how naturally New York senator Roscoe Conkling could have excelled as a cable-news talking head today.

Many factors influenced the outcome of this high drama, all of which Millard captures and deftly welds together in service of this strange, tragic, and largely forgotten pocket of U.S. history. Each subplot—Garfield’s rise to prominence, the perky madness of the assassin Charles Guiteau, Conkling’s political machinations, the dunderheaded care of Dr. Bliss—deserve its own book, but this one (wisely) keeps its focus on the assassination itself. Even the detours showing the involvement of Alexander Graham Bell, fresh off inventing the telegraph with a contraption he thinks will help locate the bullet still lodged inside Garfield, help serve the larger narrative of how disparate elements (science, politics, medicine) can combine into an extraordinary mezcla.

I sometimes wonder how historical events would have been colored differently if Twitter and other social media had been around. But it turns out coverage of a major news story in 2014 isn’t all that different from one in 1880. With the telegraph and newspapers churning out daily, even hourly, updates on Garfield’s health and prognoses from his chief doctor, the coverage seemed just as anxious and overheated then as it does now.

It’s worth reading Destiny of the Republic not just to get a detailed picture of this “opera of arrogance,” but also for an illuminating look at an oft-forgotten pocket of U.S. history.

Categories
Books Presidents

Ten Books

In the Filmspotting tradition of naming lists after what you know will be on everyone’s list so should be removed from consideration, I’m going to name this the To Kill A Mockingbird Memorial List of Ten Books That Have Stuck With Me For Some Reason. Acknowledging the usual disclaimers of making lists (it’s not binding, it could change tomorrow, etc.), here are ten titles I’d think of right away if someone asked for a great book recommendation.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
 by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Essential reading, for American citizens especially.

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
Ostensibly a compact history of the Titanic disaster, it reads like a thrilling and expertly written novel. Though dated, the prose is solid yet so smooth, steadily pressing the narrative on like the doomed steamer it documents. 

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
Like Fellowship of the Ring, this book is really a stand-in for the sublime trilogy it begins, yet is also the best book in the saga. Most of what we know and love about TR comes from his presidential and post-POTUS years — the Bull Moose, the assassination survival, the Amazon pioneering — but the man who would do these things was forged in the 42 years before becoming president, which are chronicled in this book. He seized his days with unadulterated vim, relentlessly stacking his resume and making the rest of us look bad. I hope “Bully!” makes a comeback.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
Haven’t read this since high school so perhaps my feelings will change with a reread, but this was my first exposure to media criticism and it hit me like a bag of bricks. It was shocking to read about how Sesame Street was ruining education and that our dependence on distracting technologies would doom us to a Huxleyan dystopia of dumbness. These were his (admittedly cranky) opinions, but they rang true to me. And their prescience was and continues to be sadly undeniable. 

Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey
Hard to decide between this and Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace?, but I went with the more recent read. Yancey profiles thirteen prominent figures who helped restore his crumbling faith, among them Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Leo Tolstoy, G.K. Chesterton, and Annie Dillard. As faith falls out of fashion, books like this remind me that religion can be richer and more reasonable than our culture of unbelief realizes.

The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson
“Should you be lucky enough to be moving across a calm surface with mirrored clouds, you may have the sensation of suspension between heaven and earth, of paddling not on the water but through the skies themselves.” And: “Standing there alone, I felt alive, more aware and receptive than ever before. A shout or a movement would have destroyed the spell. This was a time for silence, for being in pace with ancient rhythms and timelessness, the breathing of the lake, the slow growth of living things. Here the cosmos could be felt and the true meaning of attunement.” And so on.

The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck
I probably wouldn’t have liked it when it came out in 1978, given that it was a mega-bestseller and cultural phenomenon. But its plainspoken style and challenging yet attainable standards on discipline and spiritual development were a revelation to me. Peck’s four pillars of discipline — dedication to truth, delaying gratification, acceptance of responsibility, balancing — are all noble and necessary goals for self-improvement I think about, and fail to achieve, often. And when they are paired with his perspectives on love and grace, it makes for a great roadmap for life. (Hat-tip to my sister for the initial recommendation.)

Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen Ambrose
I love a broad history as much as anybody, but I also enjoy when a writer takes an angle on something. In this case, it’s Ambrose profiling the oddly parallel lives of Crazy Horse and George Custer, which converge tragically and infamously at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Like most other Ambrose books it’s a smooth read with an emphasis on good storytelling and capturing his subjects’ humanity. People who struggle with reading history would do well to start with anything by Ambrose.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
Here’s where I admit that I have a strong bent toward irreverence in life generally, but in the arts specifically. Pious readers may frown upon this fantastical take on Jesus’s youth and adolescence, but I found it funny, humane, and ultimately honoring of the spirit of Jesus. Like an Anne Lamott book, Lamb walks the line between reverence and irreverence like Philippe Petit on a high-wire: effortlessly and therefore beautifully.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
First read in high school, then again in college. It was even better the second time around (which begat a critical essay for a U.S. history class). “On the Rainy River” remains of my all-time favorite pieces of writing. 

Categories
America History Presidents

Flag Abuse

Responding to the anti-shutdown right-wing protest in front of the White House on Sunday (which featured the Confederate flag and a rebel yell), Ta-Nehisi Coates gets at something that has long gnawed at me:

If a patriot can stand in front of the White House brandishing the Confederate flag, then the word “patriot” has no meaning. The Nazi flag is offensive because it is a marker of centuries of bigotry elevated to industrialized murder. But the Confederate flag does not merely carry the stain of slavery, of “useful killing,” but the stain of attempting to end the Union itself. You cannot possibly wave that flag and honestly claim any sincere understanding of your country. It is not possible.

I am a Yankee through and through, born and raised in the liberal hotbed of Madison, Wisconsin, and a denizen of Obama’s Chicagoland. I’m self-aware enough to acknowledge my lack of understanding for the Southern mindset in all things politics and culture. But for the love of Ulysses S. Grant, I refuse to give any credence whatsoever to the belief that wielding the flag of Dixie so loudly and proudly represents a mere appreciation of “heritage” and “freedom” and not what it actually represents: treason.

Let’s not forget: Robert E. Lee and his Confederate military colleagues were traitors. Not grand heroes of a glorious rebellion against the forces of evil, as their past and present acolytes believe, but willing participants in a war against their own country. Lt. Col. Robert Bateman writes in Esquire that Lee, “as a traitor and betrayer of his solemn oath before God and the Constitution, was a much greater terrorist than Osama Bin Ladin… after all, Lee killed many more Americans than Bin Ladin, and almost destroyed the United States.” It’s staggering to see Robert E. Lee, hero of Dixie, compared to Osama bin Laden, chief executive terrorist and national bugbear. As a genteel general Lee wasn’t a terrorist, but on both points Bateman is nevertheless correct: Lee willingly betrayed his solemn oath and went on to kill thousands more Americans than bin Laden ever did.

I think of Robert E. Lee because people today who wave the Confederate flag and tell the president to “put the Quran down” and “figuratively come out with his hands up” are him. They are him for inciting a destructive rebellion (Civil War, meet shutdown) that was 100% caused by their own party. They are him for scorching the earth to grandstand against laws they don’t like. They are not freedom fighters, nor righteous citizens. The Confederate flag stands not for freedom, but for the abuse of it. In their minds they are still Johnny Reb, fighting a battle that is long over yet insisting that his side won and remains the true keeper of the flame of freedom.

The line between protest and rebellion is wide. Crossing that line requires a deliberate jump that most incidents of dissent don’t make (Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, I think, are included). Properly registering dissent in America is relatively easy. Elections are the clearest means of making one’s voice heard (although apparently these protestors don’t agree with that given their obduracy toward the legally enacted and upheld health-care act). When that doesn’t work, civil disobedience is next (see The Civil Rights movement). But once you make the leap from civil disobedience to contempt for the law, you’re dangerously close to the precipice into which our country fell once before.

The Dixie flag-wavers don’t seem to understand this. They’re off in la-la land where the Confederacy was a great place with “honor” and “heritage” before those damn Yankees ruined everything.

I’ve been to the South. The South has friends of mine. South, you’re no Confederacy. So why do you act like it?

Categories
America History Presidents

James Mehdison

Finally made it through Ralph Ketcham’s James Madison: A Biography. Presidential biographies usually take longer to get through than other books, but I clamored for the end of this one. It’s funny how the POTUS books I’ve read thus far usually take on the characteristics of their subjects: Edmund Morris’ Theodore Roosevelt trilogy was expansive yet gripping; McCullough’s John Adams fiery and forthright; Cooper’s Woodrow Wilson stately and academic. It makes sense, then, that Ketcham’s book was as bookish and rational as Madison was.

This was a man who was present at every key moment in the young nation’s history, from the famous (the Declaration and Constitution) to the infamous (fleeing the White House from the British in the War of 1812). Ketcham certainly had a lot to say about these events, as well as the intellectual forbearers and philosophies that accompanied Madison throughout his adult life, but decidedly little about the man himself. Perhaps that’s an expectation only modern readers have, to get to know the emotional lives of those we read about as much as their public ones. But, to me, without some deep insight into the subject I’m dedicating my time to, pages of analysis of events and goings-on quickly become a chore.

Or maybe I just need a break from presidential biographies.

Categories
Books History Presidents Review

Rutherford B. Hazy (In History)

Rutherford B(eardly) Hayes.
Rutherford B(eardly) Hayes.

Marching onward in my quest to read a biography of every U.S. president, I finally made it through Ari Hoogenboom’s  Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President. I confess to having held the same vague notions of Hayes that Hoogenboom writes he’s commonly known for: that he won the disputed 1876 presidential election, ending Reconstruction, and that he was just another forgettable (yet unforgettably bearded) president who fell through the cracks between Abraham Lincoln and the twentieth century.

But Rud, as he was known, is a perfect exemplar of the purpose of my biblio-presidential journey: to fill in the gaps of my U.S. history knowledge and give the lesser-known figures a fairer shake than high school textbooks give them. In the end I found Hayes to be a fascinating figure, whose presidency was as bland as his pre- and post-presidency years were compelling.

Hayes was raised in Ohio by a widowed mother and a strong-willed sister who both felt very protective of him. When twentysomething Rud was in Boston attending Harvard Law School, both women would constantly needle him about studying and finding a woman. I’m sure he was glad he took his time looking for a mate because the woman he married, Lucy Webb (the first First Lady to graduate from college), helped sway him away from his social-issue indifference toward support for abolition, temperance, and Christianity (though he could only latch onto very liberal Christian orthodoxy).

His newfound moralism continued into the Civil War, which he entered as a major in the Ohio 23rd infantry (fighting alongside future president William McKinley, who was a private in the 23rd, and James Garfield, a brigadier general and another eventual POTUS). In the Battle of South Mountain, Hayes led a charge and got shot in the left arm, fracturing his bone, but in a total Teddy Roosevelt move he stanched the wound and continued on in battle, eventually getting stranded between the lines. Seeing the end, he left notes for his family with wounded Confederate soldier nearby, only to be scooped up by his troops and brought to the hospital. Later in the war, Hayes earned plaudits from General Ulysses Grant that Hayes would brag about for the rest of his life: “His conduct on the field was marked by conspicuous gallantry as well as the display of qualities of a higher order than that of mere personal daring.”

After the war, Rud served in Congress and then as Ohio governor for two non-consecutive terms, the later of which he parlayed into the Republican nomination for president in 1876. Support of the 14th and 15th amendments and reform of the civil service/appointments system were Rud’s bread and butter during the campaign, which culminated in the “Compromise of 1877,” a.k.a. the most controversial election before 2000. The compromise boiled down to this: If Hayes were awarded the disputed presidency, he would agree to remove all remaining federal troops from the former Confederacy, thereby abandoning the fledgling Republican state governments in the South to the reemergent (erstwhile Confederate) Democrats. In exchange, the Democrats wouldn’t violently storm the inauguration in protest. Some deal. However, Hayes and the Republicans chose the presidency over the already withering GOP governments in the South and have earned scorn for ending Reconstruction ever since.

Rud’s presidency continued on, mostly filled with drama over Hayes’ attempted reform of how political appointments were dolled out — Hayes: The president should make appointments instead of Congress! Congress: No. — and more drama over returning to the gold standard, in addition to the drama over the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. (Two fun bits of trivia: Lucy Hayes hosted the first White House Easter Egg Roll in 1878 after Congress banished it from the Capitol grounds, and Rud hosted the 30-year-old Thomas Edison and his new phonograph.) But why the flippancy over Hayes’ single term? Because what he did after it was way more interesting.

In a nod to the third act of John Quincy Adams’ storied career, Hayes unleashed his very progressive views on race, education, and big business and became social justice crusader way before it was trendy. Among other things, he advocated for universal education as a means to ensure the suffrage and advancement of the recently freed yet woefully unsupported slaves. He served on the National Prison Reform Association board with the young New York state assemblyman Teddy Roosevelt and railed against  income disparity and the plight of the poor that corrupt monopolies exacerbated. He was a trustee of Ohio State University (a school he helped to found as Ohio governor) and endorsed the 24-year-old W.E.B. DuBois for an educational scholarship.

Judged strictly on his presidential tenure, Hayes doesn’t inspire much praise. He came about during a time when the party bosses held as much if not more political power and  control than the presidents did. I don’t think all forgotten presidents deserve to have their low reputation reconsidered (I’m coming for you, John Tyler), but viewed holistically I’d say Hayes deserves more than the middling (and slowly dropping) rank he often gets.

Categories
Books History Presidents

Action Andrew Jackson

438px-78yo_Andrew_Jackson
Photo of Jackson at 78 years old.

When I look back on my nearly 19 years of classroom education in elementary, middle, high school, college, and grad school, I think I’ll remember my junior year AP U.S. history class in high school as my favorite. What I loved about it was what probably bored most other students in class: it was a data dump of historical facts and anecdotes; a pure, unadulterated stream of Americana. Mr. Friedberg would spend each class throughout the semester explaining persons, places, dates, key events, and political concepts from the Revolutionary War to the Clinton presidency, and I would gleefully take notes.

I had a buddy in this class who shared the same affection for the subject matter, and more importantly, the detailed note-taking thereof. We would compare notes outside of class and discuss what we were learning, so much so that after the semester we planned to create a website where we would maintain an archive of our notes in narrative form as a resource for other Web denizens, but also because we just enjoyed writing about it. I recently found one of the documents we created for this endeavor titled “Jacksonian Democracy,” which detailed the politics and people of the period between 1824 and 1848 that was defined by the attitudes, actions, and aftermath of Andrew Jackson.

Re-reading these notes from high school was a kick because they retrod the same narrative of Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, a biography of the seventh president by H.W. Brands that I just finished reading. In my quest to read a biography of every U.S. president (eight down, 35 to go), I recently tackled John Quincy Adams, Jackson’s presidential predecessor, bitter rival, and polar opposite. I knew after reading the JQA biography (John Quincy Adams by Paul Nagel) that I would need to read Jackson next, so I could give “Old Hickory” a fair shake after having read about him from JQA’s perspective, which, unsurprisingly, isn’t very adoring.

What I knew about the tempestuous Tennesseean before this was what most other people knew: he turned a hardscrabble upbringing into a career as a soldier, famously defeating the British at New Orleans in the War of 1812 and parlaying his fame into the first man-of-the-people election in the young nation’s history, which ushered in a new era of democratic reform. But seeing that life story rendered in detail by Brands gives me a new (qualified) appreciation for the General.

Brands’ take on the man, who was left fatherless before birth, shows a young boy deprived of formal education, adequate adult supervision, and a decent standard of living, the lack of which conspired to create a pugnacious, immature, and defiant ruffian who often (and sometimes purposefully) got in over his head. One such instance occurred during the Revolutionary War when as a 13-year-old courier he was captured by the British and implored to clean the boots of an English officer. When Jackson proudly refused the officer gashed his hand and head, leaving him with lifetime scars and a hatred of all things British. He later acquired more wounds from the countless duels he either initiated or was compelled to engage in. Seriously, I lost count of all the duels he was in one way or another involved in.

A huge part of Jackson’s life and identity was his wife Rachel. They married in the 1790s under scandalous circumstances: Rachel had divorced an abusive knave named Lewis Robards and apparently shacked up with Jackson before the divorce was finalized. Jackson’s fierce loyalty for his friends and intense hatred for anyone who betrayed that loyalty or besmirched his or his wife’s honor were revealed in this situation, in another during his presidency, and throughout his life.

Jackson’s insatiable defense of honor is what provided such a stark contrast with his predecessor Adams. Both men were children of the Revolution, though with extremely different upbringings. While Jackson was orphaned early on and as a teen fought British regulars in South Carolina, John Quincy was getting schooled at Harvard and traipsed around Europe with various Founding Fathers. JQA was self-loathing and depressed, which constantly stymied his intellectual ambitions; Jackson was a man of action, basically seeking out conflict and unabashedly fighting his way through court cases, wars, and political scandals, even while suffering through lifelong debilitating ailments. While Adams defended Jackson at times, the 1824 election imbroglio, its subsequent political skullduggery, and Adams’ Federalist leanings inevitably made him Jackson’s natural enemy.

There’s a lot not to like about Andrew Jackson. He was brash, bordering on unhinged, especially when dealing with an adversary. He could be annoyingly obstinate, like when he refused to honor or even acknowledge various Supreme Court decisions (mostly due to his ire for the federalist Chief Justice John Marshall). And, oh yeah, he owned a bunch of slaves. This, along with his involvement in the removal of Native American tribes, is usually the deal-breaker for people when considering his presidential greatness.

But his failings could also be interpreted as his strengths. His obduracy paid off for his democratic and anti-elite ideology in his fight against the banker Nicholas Biddle (yet another hated rival) and the National Bank. When faced with a tariff-induced constitutional crisis that was spearheaded by his former VP John Calhoun and his South Carolinian brethren, Jackson brought the hammer down on his home state in favor of preserving the Union. Add to all this the fact that he narrowly escaped becoming the first assassinated president due to two pistols misfiring at point-blank range. God must have loved Andrew Jackson.

He wasn’t a lovable guy, but he was important for his time. He was the first president not from Virginia or Massachusetts, or from the elite establishment that until then had essentially dictated the course of public policy without a whole lot of input from average citizens. Jackson carried to Washington the mantle of idealized agrarianism and equality for the common man that was established by Jefferson, and from which the Jacksonian brand of democracy was sowed for future generations.

Categories
America Books History Presidents

History Crush: Theodore Roosevelt

I recently stumbled upon the National Archives’ “History Crush” series, wherein archivists confess their undying love for certain historical figures like Susan B. Anthony, Charles Sumner, and Alexander Hamilton. This got me thinking about who mine would be. As a certified history nerd, I have many. But with a gun to my head, I’d probably have to say Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt with preservationist John Muir at Yosemite in 1906.

Edmund Morris’ three-volume trilogy (comprising The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt) about the 26th president of the United States is teeming with surreal stories and facts about TR, like how he wrote a best-selling book The Naval War of 1812 during college and became a New York assemblyman at 23; or how in Dakota he single-handedly chased down and captured three outlaws who stole his riverboat and escorted them back overland in a forty-hour marathon with no sleep while finishing a Tolstoy book; or how as NYC police commissioner he patrolled the city at night to shape up the city’s cops and along the way met poor people who would later partly inspire his progressivism; or how he bonded with John Muir at Yosemite and later single-handedly created the national parks system; or how he was shot in the chest while giving a campaign speech in Milwaukee but finished the speech anyway; or how he blazed down the Amazon River, acquiring a deadly amount of abscesses, dysentery, and malaria along the way and lived to write about it.

Of course, so much of the pomp surrounding TR’s legacy was partially created by TR himself – he had an insanely swollen ego that would have gotten him in a lot more in trouble had he not been beloved for most of his life. But I would argue that he earned the acclaim he craved for many reasons, not the least of which being he was brilliant, a voracious reader (a book a day (!) on average—sometimes I can barely muster the energy to read a chapter a night), and renowned historian who wrote constantly and could talk to any dignitary, scholar, or layman about literally any subject.

But the most interesting thing about TR, to me, is he was a walking contradiction. He was a sickly boy with chronic health problems, but basically said Screw it and let his unbounded energy drive himself to a full live but an untimely death. He was a wealthy Harvard aristocrat yet happily fraternized with the poor people whom his buddy Jacob Riis called “the other half” of society. He was an ardent environmentalist before there was such a thing, but had an insatiable lust for battle and killing—yet even when he went on a safari and slaughtered hundreds of wild animals, he donated a lot of them to museums for scientific study. Or he just dissected them himself, having acquired biology and ornithology as hobbies at a very young age. He distrusted and helped break up the big-business monopolies that had close ties to his very own Republican Party. He remade a paltry navy into a world-class fleet, but avoided war during his presidency and even won a Nobel Peace Prize.

Both Democrats and Republicans try to claim TR as their own, but he defies a label. In spite of his weaknesses and failures, he was his own man who made an indelible mark on the presidency and the country. For that, Theodore Roosevelt is one of my history crushes.