A Complicated Man

Cover of the book American Lion by John Meacham

History is full of turning points. One such turning point in US history is the presidency of Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States. Before him, the office was seen largely as administrative and inferior in role to the Congress. The government was largely elected and run by elites elected by a very small electorate largely made up of white male land owners. This left much of the population unrepresented. The slow change to larger enfranchisement started during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The presidential biography American Lion by John Meacham covers these years and Jackson’s role in them.

The book leans largely toward hagiography in the vain of much Lincoln biography. Jackson saw himself as a father figure to the nation, a champion and savior of the people, and the author shares this view with little exposition on the darker moments in his presidency. Regardless, this is a largely well-written overview of Jackson’s life as a US president.

Jackson saw the role of president differently than his predecessors. He saw a strong role for the president as the only federal office directly elected by all citizens. While this was not strictly true (and still isn’t) due to the electoral college, it is not entirely inaccurate either. At that time Senators were still elected by state legislatures. The election for president was the closest thing the country had to a national mandate. Our modern view of the role of president started with Andrew Jackson, and this book is an excellent introduction to this history.

The book is heavy on the Eaton affair and its affects on the first years of the Jackson administration. It also covers the main events of Jackson’s presidency in fair detail including the Bank War and the nullification crisis. It is regrettably short on coverage of the treatment of native Americans in general and the Seminoles and Cherokees in particular as well as the growing controversy over slavery. This last is an especially grievous oversight as Jackson himself was a slaveholder. I was left with the feeling that the author so admires the strengths of Jackson that he couldn’t bring himself to equally cover the flaws in his character and behavior.

Despite this shortcoming, the book is a good overview of the presidency of Andrew Jackson and illustrates how it was a turning point in US history. It does show Jackson as a complicated man with both strengths and flaws, though I feel it overemphasizes his strengths and too easily forgives his flaws. It rightly treats the subject as a man like anyone else but doesn’t go into enough depth on the darker more controversial aspects of the man and his presidency.

History Rhyming

Painting of the Webster-Hayne Debate

Many have reported on the fears of approaching civil war in the United States due to the conflict between the left and the right in politics. Talk of liberty and rights abounds with extremists vowing to take to arms to defend their freedom. As I continue to read about Andrew Jackson’s presidency, this sounds more like 1830 than 1860.

In 1830 there was a great debate in the Senate that started over a bill proposed to limit sale of lands in the West. This stirred up old sectional rivalries in the country and led to the Webster-Hayne debate. The West was opposed to the limit proposed as it would slow their increasing power which came from the population moving westward. The bill was proposed by a New England Senator whose interests were in industry and manufacturing, hoping to slow the migration of its population westward. A Senator from the South (Hayne) saw an opportunity to bring up his views on states’ right and nullification. The debates lasted from January to May 1830 and were very heated. Ultimately, the debate came down to liberty and the value of preserving the Union and whether they were compatible. Webster gave one of the most famous speeches in American history that ended with the line “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

The main division between North and South at the time was that the North was industrial while the South was agricultural. The North favored a high tariff to protect their manufacturing. The South opposed this as it made their goods more expensive to sell overseas. Of course, the evil of slavery made this division even harder to unravel. But what seems to have been overlooked in all the debate was the fact that these interests were made stronger by one another. The North needed the South and vice versa. The South grew the food and textiles that the industrial North needed to feed and clothe their workers. The North provided the goods and the transportation that the South needed to grow and sell their food and goods. Both sides let their rancor and partisanship drive a wedge between them.

We see the same happening today, though the divide is different. Today the division is largely between urban liberal politics and the more conservative politics of rural areas. Once again, both sides need each other and for similar reasons. Urban areas get their food from the rural areas. Rural areas rely on the urban centers to distribute their food and goods and to get them to market. Politically, we need to value both individual liberty (conservatives’ big issue) and community responsibility (the hear of the liberal view). But as in the 1830s, we are letting our party politics and partisanship blind us to our mutual dependency. This was perhaps summed up best by Edward Livingston, a Senator from Louisiana during the debates when he said, “The spirit of which I speak… creates imaginary and magnifies real causes of complaint; arrogates to itself every virtue—denies every merit to its opponents; secretly entertains the worst designs … mounts the pulpit, and, in the name of a God of mercy and peace, preaches discord and vengeance; invokes the worst scourges of Heaven, war, pestilence, and famine, as preferable alternatives to party defeat; blind, vindictive, cruel, remorseless, unprincipled, and at last frantic, it communicates its madness to friends as well as foes; respects nothing, fears nothing.”

Unfortunately, Livingstson’s plea for cooler heads ultimately went ignored. The flames of discord continued to grow and led to the conflagration of the American Civil War thirty years later. I only hope that in this century, common sense and cooler heads will prevail.


Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shaking hands

In an article in the latest issue of The Atlantic the author laments the lost of American conservatism that has accompanied Trump’s rise and takeover of the Republican party. He writes that liberalism is the celebration of reason over emotion while conservatism is the celebration of emotion over reason. My question is, why do we have to choose? What can’t we have both reason and emotion?

This made me think of what to me is behind our great divide politically. On one side we have the cause of individual liberty which says that as long as I don’t hurt others I should be able to do whatever I want. Whatever is mine is mine and no one has any claim on it. On the other side we have the cause of what I would call community. This argument stresses the responsibility we have to each other. It says that we are indeed our brother’s keeper. The extremes in our US politics have taken this up as an “either/or” choice. You are either for individual liberty or community responsibility. As before, why is it a choice? We need both individual liberty and community responsibility. In fact, I would argue that they are two sides of the same coin and are thus inseparable.

I used to consider myself a libertarian. In fact, I am registered to vote in my state as a libertarian. However, I no longer am one in the strictest sense. Libertarians come down strongly on the side of individual liberty. I have come to see the need not only for individual liberty but also for individual responsibility, to oneself and others. In what has become a binary world, we feel we have to choose ourselves or the other. Well, I choose both. Yes, I need to take care of myself, but I also have to help my neighbor. I don’t live in isolation. What I do affects others and vice versa. I am looking for a balance between individuality and community. In our two-party political system, it is the job of those two parties to work together, to argue and debate together, to find the proper balance between these two positions. It is not to advocate absolutely for one side or the other. That is dysfunctional. And that dysfunction is the partisanship and extremism we are experiencing now.

Biographical Mixed Bag

Cover of the book American Lion by John Meacham

At the beginning of the year I started reading American Lion by John Meacham. I never really learned much in detail about Andrew Jackson or his presidency. I chose this biography after hearing the author interviewed by Brené Brown and listening to season one of his podcast Hope, Through History. I liked his approach to history, the way he made history approachable and relevant.

I have read the first five chapters and for me it is a mixed bag. I love what I am learning and how he uncovers the humanity in all the people involved. What I struggle with his the presentation. Rather than taking a strictly chronological approach in writing, the author goes back and forth using aspects and stories from the past to illustrate what is happening in the narrative. This is an excellent approach that I have appreciated in my other books. It creates a sense history as a living thing through story. But the writing is not very precise. I find myself confused at times between what is past in the story and what is the story being told. It leaves the narrative feeling disjointed and mixed up.

As a result, I considered giving up on it and finding another biography. I did some research and didn’t find much. This particular book actually won the Pulitzer Prize for history. And it is routinely praised as the best one-volume history of Jackson. So I think I will stick with it. Despite my struggles with the writing, I am finding myself enlightened both about Jackson and this time in my country’s history.

Politics and Pragmatism

Sign with an arrow on a brick wall pointing the way to vote

During lunch today I was reading an article about ballot access and voter fraud in the US. Reading it made me remember a time I actually changed my mind about a political issue. And my change wasn’t based on a change in my politics or being convinced by one party or another. It was a simple matter of understanding and practicality.

You see, I used to be in favor of voter ID laws. In principle, I still am. It has always seemed odd to me. When I go to my polling place to vote, they ask for my name. After looking it up in their registered voter book, they ask me to sign, allow me to vote, then ask me to sign out when I leave. At no point does anyone ever make an attempt to verify that I am who I say I am. Literally anyone could walk in, give my name, and vote in my place. It only makes sense to me that they would ask me to prove who I am to vote. I could simply show my state-issued driver’s license.

But as I discussed this with friends who didn’t share my views, I got a different perspective. Not everyone who is eligible to vote has a driver’s license. Also, people who are poor and have to work a lot may not have time or money to get some other form of ID for voting. My thought was that one could be issued at no charge. That solves the cost issue but not the time it takes to get it. While all of that did start to make me questions my firm stance in favor of voter ID laws, it isn’t what changed my mind.

It was a simple matter of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You see, voter fraud is very rare. Lot’s of people claim that the relatively small number of prosecutions and convictions of voter fraud is just the tip of the iceberg. But there is little to no evidence to support this. Most cases of voter fraud are simple mistakes or misunderstandings. One law professor at Loyola Law School reported finding only 45 cases of voter impersonation since 2000 out of more than a billion and a half votes cast. Hardly something worth spending millions of tax payer money on or disenfranchising voters over.

So I no longer actively advocate for voter ID laws. If there should come to light evidence of actual cases of voter fraud in a volume approaching enough to alter elections results, then I would probably change my mind. But while the existing system is actually working, I see no just cause for making it more difficult for people to exercise their right to vote.

Governing in a Democratic Republic

I’ve been reading the latest issue of The Atlantic (January/February 2022). The cover story is January 6 Was Practice. The author, Barton Gellman, argues that the most important issue in politics today is the steps that Trumpist Republicans are taking to make it possible to override the next presidential election if it doesn’t go their way. He writes about how Republicans are dismantling the checks that prevented this from happening in 2020/2021. It is a frightening piece.

Yesterday President Biden held a press conference where he tried to claim that his first year was largely a success despite his nearly worst ever polling numbers (only Trump was worse after his first year in office). One reporter asked him if he had overpromised. He said no. He definitely did. It seems absurd to me that the Democrats would attempt to make so many large changes when they hold the slimmest of majorities in Congress. Given what I read in The Atlantic it seems that it may be more urgent to address the state of our democracy so that we may continue to have one.

I also listened to the latest episode of The Argument podcast on Supreme Court reform. As usual, the host had two guests, one on each side. One of the guests was former Senator Russ Feingold who argued repeatedly that the court has already been packed and that two of our current justices were seated illegitimately. The other guest argued that nothing illegal was done but that norms and traditions were abandoned, as indeed they were. Feingold continued to essentially argue “They did it first!” with the idea that we now need to add justices in order to right the wrong. This is completely wrongheaded and continues to worsen the problem that caused this issue in the first place.

A good example of this is the call to end the filibuster in the Senate. The Democrats cannot get their rather aggressive agenda through because they only have a one vote majority. With the filibuster, they can’t even get to a vote. What is referred to as the filibuster is the requirement to have 60 votes in the Senate in order to end debate. The Senate has long been considered the more deliberative house of Congress. In order to filibuster, someone used to need to stand on the Senate floor and speak. There didn’t need to be any actual debate, but someone needed to speak. The speaker could change but someone had to do it. This process was changed that while Obama was president. Now you just have to say you are “filibustering”. No one needs to speak. That makes filibusters too easy. It needs to be harder.

This is a symptom of our divided politics. It used to be that neither side wanted to make these kinds of enormous changes to how they govern. For a long time, no president resorted to executive orders to govern when he couldn’t get his legislation through Congress. The concern was that the other side could then easily undo those orders. Obama struggled with Congress and resorted to executive orders. When Trump got into office, he undid Obama’s orders and added many of his own. The same thing happened with Biden. This has gotten us further and further from democratic government.

The Constitution makes it hard to get things done through government. This is on purpose. It is a feature not a bug. It was intended to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. All citizens have rights. Those in the majority do not get to do whatever they want because they won. And those who have lost do not get to manipulate things because they feel their ideas are better. We need all sides to weigh in on legislation and governing. And we need compromise. That is how our government was designed to work. Too bad our politicians, both Democrat and Republican, don’t seem to be up to the job.

Policy Making in a Democracy

Governors at podiums during COVID-19 emergency

I just read an article in the the February 2022 issue of Reason Magazine that takes a stand on a political issue where they don’t take sides politically. We need more reporting like this.

At issue is when does an emergency become a crisis? At the beginning of the pandemic, governors across the country, both Democrat and Republican, locked down their states. Why? Because the COVID-19 virus was new and unknown. We didn’t know how it was transmitted, didn’t know how to treat it, and didn’t have a vaccine. We needed an emergency response to protect public health, create space to figure out what we didn’t know, and create policy to address this new reality. But when is the emergency over? When do we go back to following our democratic methods to determine policy?

The way many governors have behaved, they’ve treated COVID-19 as a two-year emergency. While it continues to be an ongoing crisis, the article argues that it is no longer an emergency. We now know how it is transmitted, how to treat it, and we have vaccines. But politicians of both major parties continue to govern with emergency powers. And may citizens are taking action because of it. The danger of this situation is that we are likely to overcorrect and eliminate emergency powers altogether. There is a place for acting in an emergency. And there is a time to go back to governing under our democratic principles. I hope this is a lesson that we will effectively learn from this pandemic.

Lessons from History

Map of the US Presidential Election of 1824

It is often reported and lamented that today in the United States of America we are more divided than ever. We long for some long forgotten time when politics was more civil and less personal. While we do face unique political problems today, there never was a time of civil and less personal national politics. And the election of 1824 is an excellent example.

As I learned while reading the Jackson biography mentioned in a previous post, the presidential election of 1824 was extremely ugly. The two leading candidates were John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Adams was serving as Secretary of State, a role many previous presidents served in prior to being elected. Jackson was the hero of the battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812. These men did not like each other at all. Adams was allied to the strict and elitist version of republicanism that the first presidents had practiced. Jackson was a man of the people. Both men struck out at the other personally in the contest, even maligning members of each other’s families.

The election was complicated by two other men running for president, William H. Crawford and Henry Clay. As a result, no candidate won a majority of the Electoral College votes. According to the constitution, the election was decided by the House of Representatives with each state’s delegation getting a single vote. Only the top three candidates were on the ballot, so Henry Clay was dropped.

Like Adams, Clay could not stand Jackson. It is widely thought that Clay made a deal with Adams to give him the election in exchange for being made Secretary of State. Jackson was the big winner in the popular vote with 41% to Adam’s 31%. Jackson even won 15 more votes in the Electoral College (99-84). Due to the machinations of Clay, Adams won the election and became the next president and named Clay as his Secretary of State.

This happened during a time in US history as more and more people were getting the right to vote. There was a philosophical shift toward popular rule and elections and away from powerful elites controlling them. As is often the case in transitional times, things were ugly. It is often said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. It certainly seems to me that our times could be considered to be rhyming with this time in history.

Unintended Consequences

View of the US Capitol building from the South

When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in decades back in the 1990’s, one of their big ideas was that congresspeople spent too much time in Washington. Instead of living in DC, they should live in their districts. This would connect them better with their constituents and their needs instead of isolate them with other politicians in the capital. Only one problem. The same problem that seems to happen with most ideas in politics – unintended consequences.

I was in my twenties when this was happening. I remember that it seemed like a good idea. Politicians should stay close to the people they represent, right? Professional class politicians who live in DC lose touch with those they represent. But as with most things in life, it is a bit more complicated as I learned while reading Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek.

The idea was that because they stayed home in their districts so much more of their time, they would be more connected to the people. They would spend more time with them, hear about their issues more directly. Except that isn’t what happened. Instead at the urging of their parties, both Democrat and Republican, congresspeople spent a much larger part of their time fund raising. And because they didn’t live in Washington, they had much less opportunity to connect with their fellow representatives.

When they lived in DC, their kids went to the same schools, they attended the same school activities, they got together more frequently for lunches and dinners. In short, they got to know their fellow congresspeople as people outside of work and across party lines. This had the affect of making compromise easier to come to. They saw their political rivals as people like them that had goodness in their hearts with whom they disagreed. This gave them the basis to work things out.

Living outside of the capital, they lost this connection. With the greater focus on fundraising from their party, party tribalism became the focus of the day. This led to further polarization of our politics and to much of the mess we currently find ourselves in. Not only have our representatives reduced their focus to their party first, seeing their rivals as existential enemies, the parties themselves have encouraged this same vision for their members. And now particularly partisan people hold this same vision and idea about those who disagree with them, tearing apart friends and families.

I don’t have simple solution to this. I am not sure there is one. In fact, I think this is an object lesson in the dangers of simple solutions. After all, it started the simple idea that living in your home district as a congressperson would be much better for the people you represent and the country as a whole. It didn’t turn out that way. So it may be better to consider the second and third order effects of “simple” solutions before we implement them. We won’t always see the dangers that lurk ahead, but we may be able to avoid some of them. And spare ourselves some pain and difficulty in the process.

History is Personal

Portrait of US President Andrew Jackson

I tend to read three books at a time – one fiction, one history/biography/memoir, one business/science/psychology. This week I started reading a biography of US President Andrew Jackson. He is a controversial president whom many think was a terrible man. He was very popular and his presidency signaled a shift in our country. It’s even called the Jacksonian era. I never really learned much about him in school and decided to remedy that by reading An American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham.

The first chapter starts with him having learned at his home in Tennessee that he has been elected president in the fall of 1828. It was a bitter ccontest with John Quincy Adams, both candidates going after the character of each other. Adams’ side even went so far as to say some pretty horrible things about both Jackson’s mother and wife.

Just before Christmas, his wife of forty plus years, Rachel, had a heart attack and died a few days later. Family and country were everything to Jackson. This loss was devastating despite his victory in the election. He had expected to go to Washington with his wife. Now he was going as a widower.

Whenever I read about history, I do my best to put myself in the shoes of figures such as Jackson. How would it affect me to lose the love of my life just before embarking on the most ambitious part of my career? I felt it as a gut punch. There is a lot to dislike about Andrew Jackson as a person, but I simply can’t get over the depth of despair he must have felt even after such a victory.

I am only just starting to read this book, so I am sure I will continue to learn a lot about Jackson that I didn’t know before. Some of it may hit me like this experience. Some of it may make me angry. But I am certain that as I continue to apply empathy to all that I learn, I will better understand the history of this man and this time in my country’s history. This is what I mean when I say that history is personal.