When Barack Obama is inaugurated later this month, millions will descend on our nation’s capital to witness a historic inauguration. In all the emphasis on his being the first black president, though, overlooked is another rarity in his background, the fact that his father was born and raised in a foreign country. It’s not the first time we’ve elected the son of an immigrant as our chief executive, but it’s been more than 170 years.
As a nation, despite our national mantra that all men are created equal, we still emphasize parentage. Our last president’s father had been president, himself. To some voters, both fans and foes, that was George W. Bush’s chief qualification. The two George (H.) W. Bushes, both of them Texas oilmen involved in elective wars with the same faraway potentate, will confuse generations of school kids yet unborn.
Bush wasn’t the first president whose daddy had been president; we’ve also elected grandsons and cousins of presidents to be president, hence the plurality of Adamses, Harrisons, Roosevelts. It went without saying that they were sons and grandsons and cousins of Americans.
Maybe, having officially rejected the idea of blood aristocracy and inherited titles in a memorable war, we substituted a parallel gene-based system. Several presidents did have humble, sometimes dismally humble, origins. But statistically it would appear that when we go to the polls, we tend to tip the scales with genealogy, and a prominent American heritage, in mind.
Before Barack Obama, the last president whose father was an immigrant was the first one who was born in poverty, and the first president from Tennessee.
Know what today is? Jan. 8 was once a big holiday, hereabouts, and in much of the nation. It’s Andrew Jackson Day.
Jackson was born to parents recently arrived from a town near Belfast, Ireland. Jan. 8 wasn’t his birthday, but the date of his most famous victory, the astonishing rout of the British army near New Orleans in 1815.
Neither side knew the treaty intended to end the War of 1812 had already been signed, but it seems significant that after 30 years of intermittent hostility with the mother country, she never gave us any more trouble after Jackson’s smackdown. Neither did any other European power, in that time of the Napoleonic Wars, when several European nations had territorial interests and ambitions in North America.
Jackson was feted all over the nation, especially here in town, where he attended a ball held in his honor at the Lamar House, now the front of the much-newer Bijou Theatre. For generations afterward, Jackson Day was a time for toasts, speeches, and singing. Just at random, I looked one up here in town. In 1892, city fathers still seemed grateful. That event, at the Central Democratic Club’s quarters in downtown Knoxville, “the hall crowded to its utmost capacity with a representative audience of ladies and gentlemen,” featured a men’s harmony quartet singing patriotic songs: “America,” “Comrades in Arms,” “Hail, Columbia,” “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Prominent young attorney Joshua Caldwell called Jan. 8 “one of the most significant [days] of the year...not because of the military victory which was achieved at New Orleans...but because that battle had been the means of strengthening the love of the masses for Andrew Jackson.”
Popular former alderman W.A. Henderson acknowledged “contradictory elements” in Jackson’s personality, adding that “the seeming contradictory had worked together to mold a character and a man who alone of all others was capable of guiding the ship of state safely through the storms which were raging in the political sea.”
There were a lot of those. But mention Jackson’s name today, to nearly anybody, or even pay a bar tab with a $20 bill, and you’ll likely hear bitter remarks about his treatment of the Cherokee. Jackson scholars express frustration with that simplification. Not just that it seems to concentrate on his evil traits, but that it concentrates on only one of his evil traits.
The removal policy was racist, and maybe not the sort of thing we’d do today. But it passed Congress and was generally popular among whites, especially in this part of the country; some considered it a humane option to increasing friction between incompatible civilizations, one of them growing much faster than the other.
Contemporary critics of the removal policy included a few radical Christians and some moral intellectuals, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, with whom Jackson wouldn’t have much to speak about anyway. Moral criticisms were little understood by the pragmatists of the frontier. Even historians didn’t give Jackson much grief about Indian removal until the 1960s. Most of the words criticizing Jackson’s Indian policy on moral grounds were written more than a century after he was dead and unlikely to change his mind.
Jackson as ethnic cleanser is shorthand for his complicated administration, maybe because we’re more enlightened about race now—but maybe just because to understand Jackson’s guts in the face of the Nullification crisis, which threatened to dissolve the Union, we first have to talk about the intricacies and imbalances of the tariff, and I’ve found nobody ever wants to talk about the tariff in a bar. And to understand his veto of the charter of the Bank of the United States, we first have to explain what it was, and that can spoil a good party.
Still, through it all somehow, Jackson’s hot. A new biography, American Lion, has gotten an unusual lot of attention. Last year’s interesting Jackson documentary on PBS was subtitled, appropriately, “Good, Evil, and the Presidency.”
Noting the renewed interest, some pundits have tried to draw lines of comparison between Andrew Jackson and Barack Obama, both bold outsiders whose ascension to the presidency had once seemed unlikely. But it’s a pretty shallow comparison. Jackson distrusted intellectuals, and was never inclined to listen to his opponents.
However, there’s one issue Jackson might recognize, if dimly. The first immigrant’s son in the White House since Jackson will have to consider issues of how much the federal taxpayers’ money should be invested in banking. Jackson was, to be polite, against it.