January 23, 2012 by Kate Savage
It was a win, win, win for Newt! proclaim the people who are paid to proclaim. A GOP debate, where the white-haired man was on fire, the debater, with a holy vitriol tempered by hard-browed realism. Cut to the camera on the crowd watching, and their ecstatic gasps, hands clapping above their heads.
Some of these are the humans who booed down Ron Paul when he suggested the Golden Rule as a good mindset for foreign policy decisions. And they cheered instead, some even getting on their feet in excitement, when Newt said “Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies–kill them.” Mitt Romney, eager to share in the love sent Newt-wards for this, agreed: “Speaker Gingrich is right. Of course, you take out our enemies, wherever they are.”
I live in Nashville, Tennessee, home stomping-grounds of Old Hickory. And so I have learned about some of Andrew Jackson’s clear-cut ideas, and some of his killings.
Andrew Jackson’s story is complex and nuanced, and even heroic at moments. I don’t intend to deny that when I suggest that the name Andrew Jackson should first conjure up a wealthy slave-owner and poster boy for genocide. Whatever else he did, over the course of his life Jackson profited off of the coerced labor of nearly 300 human beings who were held in his ownership. Whatever else he did, Jackson was responsible for forcing the original occupants of the southeastern US off of their landbases.
Before Jackson was president, he led the attack against the Florida Seminoles for harboring escaped slaves from the US, even though they were living in what was then Spanish territory. This means that ‘killing America’s enemies’ required invading another country in order to punish indigenous people for exercising their belief in human equality.
As president, things were no different, as is shown by his passing of the Indian Removal Act. Even when the Supreme Court of the US granted that the Cherokee in Georgia had the right to self-government, President Jackson simply refused to comply with laws that didn’t fit inside his ‘clear-cut ideas.’
This means that, in the end, Jackson is the person most responsible for the eviction of 70,000 people from their ancestral landbases. Even when evictions were done after negotiations, these discussions were always shadowed by the weight of the violence which Jackson and others had ruthlessly inflicted on those groups who wouldn’t play nice and cede their land.(1)
And of course, these figures of violence include the Trail of Tears, where Jackson sent 7,000 soldiers to force 16,000 Cherokees into stockades at the point of the bayonet, not allowing them to return home for supplies (which were looted by settlers and troops) before they started for Oklahoma. The forced march killed one out of four people on it, a total of 4,000. I recap the story because it might be less likely to be brought up in televised presidential debates.
If Jackson acted only out of racist hatred, that would be bad enough. Even more troubling is the probability that he simply promoted racist hatred in the cynical service of his greed. Jackson was a land-speculator, making a killing in a market where slave labor was building the cotton industry at a rapid speed. Large tracts of land which he emptied of original inhabitants ended up in his portfolio, or those of his relatives.
In an annual address to Congress, Jackson reported on the progress of Removing Indians: “It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation.” Through moral gymnastics, Jackson concludes that he isn’t engaged in mass murder and theft, but that “Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous.”
On the sign in front of the Andrew Jackson building in downtown Nashville (next door to the Occupy Nashville plaza) is his quote: “There are no necessary evils in government.” The fact that a slave-holder responsible for genocide would say these words–someone who witnessed some of the actual murder and rape and pillage caused by the policies he was promoting, and nevertheless defended them staunchly–suggest a dizzying moral confusion on his part. His ‘clear-cut ideas’ grow a bit fuzzy.
Of course, the past is another country, where things were done differently: I don’t berate Andrew Jackson just so we can frown with righteous indignation on a man who acted in accordance with the ideas popular at his time. More importantly, we should recognize that our generation’s own popular ideas, like drone wars and nuclear arsenals, might horrify future generations, and that being true to basic ethical premises might look like acting outlandishly.
But even more basically than any of this: at the very least, let’s resist Gingrich’s attempt to resuscitate figures like Andrew Jackson into hero-hood.
Read this incredible post from Unsettling America, which links Andrew Jackson’s practices with current foreign policies.
(1) After one of these ‘agreements’ was put into law, leaders of the Cherokee in Georgia sent a message to the US government, asserting that the treaty-writers had never spoken with anyone who had authority to sign a treaty for their people. They include:
“By the stipulations of this instrument, we are despoiled of our private possessions, the indefeasible property of individuals. We are stripped of every attribute of freedom and eligibility for legal self-defence. Our property may be plundered before our eyes; violence may be committed on our persons; even our lives may be taken away, and there is none to regard our complaints. We are denationalized; we are disfranchised. We are deprived of membership in the human family! We have neither land nor home, nor resting place that can be called our own. And this is effected by the provisions of a compact which assumes the venerated, the sacred appellation of treaty.
“We are overwhelmed! Our hearts are sickened, our utterance is paralized, when we reflect on the condition in which we are placed, by the audacious practices of unprincipled men, who have managed their stratagems with so much dexterity as to impose on the Government of the United States, in the face of our earnest, solemn, and reiterated protestations.”