Andrew Jackson vs. Donald Trump

I’ve been delaying this post because I felt uninspired to write about America’s seventh President – Andrew Jackson. Jackson is a big name in history for good and bad reasons. His face adorns the $20 bill and his name is often compared with our current President – Donald Trump. I am not going to write a dry list of all Jackson’s accolades, but instead, I just want to focus on three major components of his presidency. First, however, I must mention that the biography I read was American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham. My lack of inspiration with Jackson may partly stem from Meacham’s style of biography which was disjointed and a little heavy on 19th-century gossip. I like biographies which start from birth and end at death – American Lion focuses primarily on Jackson’s presidency – making it difficult to follow a timeline.

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Upon the completion of a book, I always have a few key takeaways that stick in my mind. For Jackson, I have three major points that I want to discuss. First off, Jackson was easily caricatured by politicians but in reality, his personality was far from the public imaginings. Jackson is responsible for the powerful presidency we know of today and this shift in thinking made him appear as a despot. Behind the scenes, Jackson loved his country and wanted to protect it like a father – he was highly successful in this arena. My second takeaway was that Jackson was a stubborn man who had conflicting philosophies. This was most pronounced with his views towards Native Americans and slaves. Jackson is responsible for the Trail of Tears which forced Native Americans to move “yet again” from land in the South to the West. This policy was due to Jackson’s belief that different races of people could not cohabitate together – separation or subjugation were the only solutions. My third takeaway was that this erroneous philosophy did not apply to the States in the Union. During his tenure, Jackson prevented South Carolina from succeeding and held the States accountable to federal laws; preventing a civil war and strengthening the power of the Supreme Court.

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As one can see, Jackson was a complex man who had conflicting philosophies which resulted in policies with negative and positive outcomes. Is the country better off because of Andrew Jackson? Like most Presidents’ track record, this is a hard question to answer. I think overall, Jackson did benefit the country by keeping it together during a time when it was falling apart at the seams. His policies with the Native Americans were disastrous, and that is why I have a hard time liking Jackson. This brings me to my comparison between Jackson and Trump. Donald Trump is a complicated man who is easily caricatured. He is either vilified by the left or overly praised by the right. Jackson changed the strength of the Presidency and Trump is continuing that tradition. I believe just like Jackson, Trump loves his country. But I also think that just like Jackson, Trump has some philosophies which cause contradictions – both helping and hurting the nation.

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For a long time, I caricatured Trump in my mind. After reading Jackson’s biography, I have changed my mind about our current President. Trump is a very intelligent man and in my opinion a political mastermind. He knows exactly how to rally his base and precisely what to Tweet – ensuring his message is spread throughout the internet. Many on the left think he is an idiot for his comments just like intellectuals thought Jackson was mad for some of his statements. Trump and Jackson are strategists. Some of these strategies have good outcomes for the country while others do not. The point I want to make is that both Trump and Jackson have flaws, but they also have strengths. It is our job not to caricature and be petty but rather to be rationale and discerning. When we caricature we dehumanize. When we dehumanize we become a caricature ourselves. Does that mean I support Trump? Yes and no. Just like Jackson, I have my critiques, but just like Jackson, I think Trump’s biography will give us a more complete picture. At this point in time, however, I am unenthused to write about Trump.

PS – The more I read, the more I see myself as an Independent in the realms of politics. I think party politics close ourselves off from seeing the other side. Thoughts, comments, or questions on anything I said…please send me a message.

The Gagged President – John Quincy Adams

Awhile back, I took a break from my goal of reading all the presidents’ biographies because I was getting burned out with white men politics and I knew you guys were yearning for more variety. It’s been a few months since my last presidential post and with this season of Independence upon us, I decided to return to my mission.  The next president on my list was John Quincy Adams and I picked up his biography by Harlow Giles Unger. I was excited to read about the son of John Adams because I enjoyed learning about the elder statesmen and his family through David McCullough. John Quincy Adams was born on July 11, 1767, in Braintree, Massachusetts. He accompanied his father to France in 1778 and from there went to Russia as a secretary assistant to the ambassador – he was only 14 years old. John Quincy was a precocious student steeped in classical education and was more worldly in his 20s than elder ambassadors at the time.

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Excelling at diplomacy and statesmanship, his career accomplishments are staggering: American minister to six European countries; negotiated the end of the War of 1812; freed African prisoners on the slave ship Amistad; served 16 years in the House of Representatives; restored free speech in Congress; led the anti-slavery movement, and was the 6th president of the United States. John Quincy Adams’s actual time in the presidential office was not very successful because he appeared too aristocratic; his past-times included reading Tacitus and writing poetry – the opposite interests of Andrew Jackson who usurped him after one term. I want to focus however on Adam’s post-presidency accomplishments – accomplishments which changed the course of American history.

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John Quincy’s later life is a lesson on how to respond to hardship. After losing reelection in 1828 and burying his son who committed suicide, he felt dejected and considered leaving political life forever. A flame of hope flickered for him when his local district in Massachusetts approached him to run for the House of Representatives. He became the first ex-president to sit in Congress and became a man on fire in the new role. For the past 30 years, slavery was a topic seldom discussed in government. It was such a hot-button issue that politicians didn’t even speak a word of it on the floor of the House or Senate. This changed however with the addition of the slave state Missouri and the ever-expanding Western boundary of the nation. New states were trying to come into the Union – with each addition, the balance of power between the south and north shifted.

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John Quincy had always been an abolitionist, but it wasn’t until his time as a Representative that he pushed this mission into politics. He stood on the floor and spoke the unmentionable words – Southern politicians denounced him and his “traitorous” rhetoric. He wrote in his journal during this time…

“It is among the evils of slavery that it taints the very sources of moral principle. It establishes false estimates of virtue and vice: for what can be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin?”

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He would bring up the issue of slavery so often that the Southern politicians created a “gag rule” which would table any mention of the subject. The “gag rule” prevented any debate or discussion and whenever John Quincy tried to talk he was screamed at by Southerners until he was forced to sit down. After countless petitions and arguments, John Quincy was able to argue for his case – at one point he held the floor for two straight weeks. All of his excessive arguing against censorship and slavery led to him being a national hero and beloved member of Congress for those in the north. His driving force would lead to laws that reversed the “gag rule.” His later debates on abolition would influence a young representative from Illinois – Abraham Lincoln. John Quincy was the political matchstick which ignited the fuse leading to the Civil War. The sixth president died in 1848 two days after collapsing in the House of Representatives. His life was filled with education, service, failure, and accomplishments. More than anything, John Quincy Adams, bounced back after defeat and led the country as one of the most preeminent moral leaders. Failure is never the end – it is just the catalyst for a better beginning.

Meet a President on President’s Day

It’s that time of year again – President’s Day! This is one of my favorite holidays because I get to ask random people about their most beloved President. I usually get an odd look, and some people even feel offended as if I’m probing into their political ideology. Usually, I get the following answers: Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. Almost like a game of Pokemon, I try to find people with rare favorites like James Buchannon or Andrew Jackson. My favorite President is by far Theodore Roosevelt and if you like to learn more about his extraordinary life click here, here, and here. These past few weeks have been heavy with posts on Presidents, and it is partially because of today’s holiday commemorating George Washington’s birthday. This is a special post because it marks my last Founding Father to report on – John Adams. I read John Adams by David McCullough and highly recommend it to understand this peculiar second President of the United States. Who knows, maybe after reading this, you’ll have a new favorite.

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John Adams was born in Quincy, Massachusettes on October 30, 1735, to a pious farming family. As a direct descendant of the original Puritans, Adams began his life steeped in a culture of morality and tradition. Adams did not care for his early schooling and at one point wanted to be a farmer – this was vetoed by his father, and he was sent to Harvard College in 1751. While in school, Adams excelled in his studies and eventually became a lawyer with a promising career in Boston. It was during this time that he met his future wife, Abigail Smith, and they would go on to have six children – two dying early in life. While in Boston, Adams became an active opponent of the Stamp Act and unfair taxation by the British Government. He would actually go on to represent the British Soldiers who were responsible for the Boston Massacre – believing in the justice of the court and eventually receiving massive publicity from the trial. His reputation as a sharp lawyer and proponent of liberty led to his election in the First and Second Continental Congress. He was responsible for pushing the government into a bicameral legislator and the final passing of the Declaration of Independence – Jefferson said that Adams was the “pillar of the Declaration’s support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered.”

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With his success in the Continental Congress, Adams was elected Ambassador to Britain where he negotiated the final treaty ending the Revolutionary War in 1783. He became Vice President under Washington and took the Presidency himself as a Federalist in 1797. Adams’ Presidency could be best summarized as a placeholder for Washington’s policies. Adams was pro-British and supported Atlantic trade between the two countries; he prevented war with France and balanced a tightrope of European powers trying to take advantage of the young republic. In the end, Adams’ presidency was nothing to do backflips over. His personality while in office was prickly and somewhat aloof – preferring the opinion of his wife over his cabinet members. Adam loved to argue, and he was not one to sway with public opinion. He had a strong moral foundation, but an excessive paranoia of opponents which led to the Alien and Sedition Acts – limiting the inalienable rights of the citizenry.

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He was viewed by Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans as a tyrant. Adams lost his reelection and eventually went into retirement near his birthplace in Quincy. He would stay active in political opinion and eventually mend his friendship with Jefferson in later life. John Adams did not excel in the public eye and was always best suited for the intellectual backrooms of government. Although he had difficulties appeasing the masses, he became a role model in respects to morality which surpassed most Founding Fathers. Unlike the Virginian leaders, Adams was an abolitionist from birth and never owned a single slave. He corresponded with his wife with a love that was genuine and uncompromising. Adams was a modest and shrewd businessman – living without the suffocating debt ubiquitous for southern leaders. Adams and Thomas Jefferson would end up dying on the same day – the 50th Anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Adams is one of my “honorable mention” Presidents because what he lacked for social skills he made up for in reading and writing. He had a library of over 3,000 books and believed these words full heartedly…

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“Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.”

Happy Presidents Day everyone! 

America’s Jello War

Have you ever made Jello? The process is pretty simple: mix jello packet with water, place in molds, let set. The setting process is critical – if you jump for the treat too soon it will lack any firmness and wiggle; you’ll basically bite into thick fruit punch. Jello is an excellent metaphor for America during the first years of its nationhood. After the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, America was far from the firm consistency of Jello; there were many forces which wanted to prevent the setting process.

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Domestic and international threats were constantly trying to undermine the Constitution and the office of the presidency. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, was a famous advocate for a hybrid-monarchy and wanted America to mirror components of British government. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson was constantly paranoid that a King would take over the states or that the New England colonies would secede to the Brits. We look back at those years with 20/20 hindsight but people were freaking out about the state of their “Jello-Nation.” So when did the Jello finally set?

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The United States really didn’t become a unified nation until the War of 1812 – America’s Jello War; the War of 1812 is always skimmed over in History Class but it was the war that gave America its familiar consistency. To learn more about this important-congealing period, I read 1812: The War That Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman.

In the years that led up to 1812, America was in a constant struggle with Britain over their policy of “Impressment.” Impressment was the policy of British ships stopping vessels at sea in order to search them for British citizens – the captured Brits would be forced into military service. America didn’t like being pushed around on the seas and especially didn’t like when American citizens were unjustly impressed to serve the Royal Navy – more than 10,000 by 1812. Added to these grievances, the British restricted international trade as a way to counter Napoleonic France – this was ruinous for American exports.

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The seas were foaming with anger between the two countries but the problems also extended to the terra firma. America was trying to expand westward but the British were slow to exit forts which were lost during the American Revolution and were quick to help Native Americans fight for contested territory. These territory disputes were constant and many westerners were salivating for more land – Canada looked like a low hanging fruit. Everything came to a head in 1812 after impressment searches led to American vessels being militarily attacked – James Madison reluctantly declared war on Great Britain.

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The war was fought on land and sea. Battles took place along Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Saint Lawrence River, the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the western frontier. Many battles were small skirmishes that pitted a weak American militia against a veteran British regiment; Native Americans many times joined the British or fought on their own. By the end of the war America had 35,000 troops compared to nearly 50,000 British troops with casualties of 2,200 and 1,100 respectively.  At the beginning of the war, many thought it would be simple to annex Canada, but after several failed attempts the American forces realized it would be much more difficult. The Americans and British kept swapping victories and the war seemed to be at a permanent stand still – the Americans were unorganized and the British were under resourced due to concurrent wars in Europe.

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James Madison had in theory the power of a united nation but in reality was a bystander to a conglomerate of individual states. Men were hard to recruit and funds were no where to be found – hence, the fighting kept puttering along with each nation only putting a toe into the cold water of  war. It all came to a head with the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 which saw for the first time support for the War by the New England states. This victory ended any thought of the British increasing their fleets in the Atlantic and became a rallying cry for the entire nation – Francis Scott Key would write the Star-Spangled Banner during the battle.

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A peace treaty was soon signed and America was reborn in the eyes of the world as a “real” nation that could hold its own. The War of 1812 birthed the national careers of two future presidents: William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson. It stopped any talk of New England succession, led the way for the Monroe Doctrine, expedited westward expansion, increased federal power, and was the catalyst for the future sale of Alaska from Russia. After the War of 1812, the Jello Nation was set and molded. Or in the words of the then Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, to Thomas Jefferson…

“The people now have more general objects of attachment with which their pride and political opinions are connected. They are more American; they feel and act more as a nation and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby secured.”