Books History Presidents

The Bullies Pulpit

From Politico:

More than 100 years ago a Republican president worried that America wasn’t doing enough to protect its most treasured wild and sacred places from over-development, mining and drilling. So Congress passed and President Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, giving presidents the authority to preserve imperiled mountains, forests, cultural treasures and other public lands. Roosevelt condemned the “land grabbers” and “great special interests” who threatened the national lands he protected. “The rights of the public to the [nation’s] natural resources outweigh private rights and must be given its first consideration,” Roosevelt proclaimed. “Our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever.”

Today another Republican president is indicating he is ready to give in to the pressures of corporations and complicit state officials urging the administration to open these protected public lands to mining, drilling and other commercial exploitation. That would deprive future generations of Americans of irreplaceable treasures, both in the beauty of the landscapes that would be scarred and the birds and other wildlife that depend on those protected places for survival.

Whether it’s a good idea for Trump to revoke the protected status of lands designated as national moments is up for debate. (I’m against it.) But what interested me about this op-ed was its comparison of Trump to Theodore Roosevelt. It was negative in this case, but in Robert Merry’s forthcoming biography of William McKinley, Roosevelt comes across as much more Trump-like than TR fans like me would care to acknowledge.

TR is one of my certified History Crushes™. Anyone who reads Edmund Morris’ trilogy on the man’s brief but crowded life can’t help but admire him in some way. But there’s no getting around the fact that Roosevelt was an attention whore. Many others have noted the similarities between the two New Yorkers, but here’s Merry:

The biggest contributor to McKinley’s standing in history was Theodore Roosevelt, whose leadership style could not have been further removed from that of McKinley. Impetuous, voluble, amusing, grandiose, prone to marking his territory with political defiance, Roosevelt stirred the imagination of the American people as McKinley never had. To [McKinley]’s solidity, safety, and caution, the Rough Rider offered a mind that moved “by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,” as William Allen White described it. He took the American people on a political roller-coaster ride, and to many it was thrilling.

But the New Yorker was never one to share the credit with others. His theatrical self-importance led even his children to acknowledge that he wanted to be “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” It wasn’t surprising that soon he was denigrating the man whose presidency he had extolled through thousands of miles of political campaigning on his way to national power.

“A mind that moved by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,” “theatrical self-importance,” “prone to marking his territory with political defiance”—a little eerie, right? And the public denigration of his predecessor (and successor—poor Taft) certainly aligns with Trump’s modus operandi.

The bull moose-sized caveat here is that Roosevelt was far more qualified for the job and did soooo much more—and so much more good—in his 60 years of life than Trump has (including actually wanting to be president). Ditto that other Trumpish president, Andrew Jackson. To put Trump in their league simply because they were all blustery fellows would be an insult to the presidency and even to other blustery fellows who are otherwise good dudes.

Nevertheless, it’s good to remember that historical analogies are rarely clean, that we can’t disregard unpleasant characteristics of beloved historical figures out of convenience, and that Roosevelt single-handedly chased down and captured three outlaws in Dakota who stole his riverboat and escorted them back overland in a forty-hour marathon with no sleep while finishing a Tolstoy novel.

Books History Presidents

Action 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.

Cool Civil War Names History

Thurlow Weed

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

This guy, for better or worse, was like the Karl Rove of his time. The sources differ on the details about his life, but we know that before he turned into the Turd Blossom of the mid-19th century Weed apprenticed as a printer and editor of various New York newspapers during the 1820s, which got him interested in politics. No fan of Andrew Jackson, Weed supported John Quincy Adams in 1824 and even won himself a seat in the New York State Assembly, where he met future bigwig William Seward.

It’s then when Weed latched on to the Anti-Masonic movement (largely due to Jackson being a Mason). The movement dissipated in the ’30s, but was eventually folded into the more mainstream Whig Party, which was bolstered by Weed’s Albany Evening Journal throughout the ’30s and ’40s. Between his journalistic and political endeavors, Weed made a lot of friends and a lot deals – so much so that his adversaries nicknamed him the “Lucifer of the Lobby” (a pretty killer nickname).

As the Whigs dissolved into the nascent Republican Party, so did Weed. When the 1860 election came around, Weed’s old buddy Seward was the frontrunner but may have been screwed by his relationship with Weed, who some Republican delegates that were former Democrats were in hate with. Of course, that scraggly, rangy lawyer from Springfield then swooped in, got the nod, became president, etc.

Being the pragmatic man he was, Weed jumped on the Abe Bandwagon and even served as a European envoy during the war – after which he returned to newspapering before slowly fading from the public view and dying in 1882.

Up next on CCWN, the querulous WILLIAM CLARKE QUANTRILL.

(sources: 1, 2) (image)