February 25, 2010

behind the scenes of at times dull

here is what is going on. we are mired, just mired, in andrew jackson. we had planned to finish the meacham biography by february 14, and neither of us has yet accomplished it. every once in a while we check in with each other, confirm that we haven't finished, and complain about this book.

i can't put my finger on it, but this biography just seems insubstantial. andrew jackson was a huge turning point for the american presidency, and while meacham is quick to point this out, he's more interested in which adjectives to use to describe the turning point than in parsing out its implications.

jon meacham loves adjectives.

we have also had very little serious inquiry into AJ and the indian question, which is maybe the defining question of his presidency. meacham dwells a lot more on the nullification crisis, and on the scandal of who would and would not receive visits from andrew jackson's secretary of war's wife, who was of ill repute. these issues got a lot of people hot and bothered at the time, but their historical merit doesn't jump off the page.

dave and i are now very serious presidential scholars, and we can tell a fluff biography when we've got it in our hands. we're not happy about it.

presidential fact #15: this was before the time of full body scanners

back in the day, the public were allowed to come and observe congressional sessions at their will. (this is still true to a degree, but there are a lot more bag checks, i'll tell you.)

if one was going to the senate to listen to the nullification debates of the 1830s, one would pass a sign that read:


February 15, 2010

happy presidents day!

Belated Valentine's Day Gift


In which all of the Presidents are listed in order of sexiness.

Most underrated? Harding at 41---I like the eyebrows.
Most overrated? Honest Abe Lincoln at 10. When accused of being two-faced, he once replied, "If i had two faces, would I use this one?"

h/t Matt Rogers

February 11, 2010

Civil War Stirrings

In one of Meacham's first scenes, a weary second-term Andrew Jackson admits to himself that Civil War may be inevitable, and that he had best start preparing for it. The President had a perfect candidate in mind to command the Union troops: himself. It is an arresting introduction to the seventh president, and offers a tidy summation of many of his salient traits-- patriotism, courage, stubbornness, and being ahead of his time.

My first thought upon seeing Jackson facing civil war was "What? Already?" Abraham Lincoln, whose presidency is defined by the Civil War, is still 9 presidents away. But the small-c, small-w civil war that loomed over Jackson did not have at its core the familiar issue of slavery---it concerned the Nullification Crisis, a huge deal that history largely has forgotten (at least it was never taught to me).

Basically South Carolina passed a law that declared the Tariff Act of 1828 (passed by Jackson's enemy and predecessor, JQA) unconstitutional, and inapplicable to its citizens. This was indeed a crisis. Though the Constitution created a federal government of limited and enumerated powers, its power to tax had never been questioned. If the citizens of South Carolina were exempt from paying federal taxes, all United States citizens would also be, and the union would dissolve. Similarly, if any one state were to have the power to declare federal laws unconstitutional, no federal law could ever be enforced.

Many South Carolinans and interested observers expected some support for Nullification from the new President Jackson. He was swept into office with a populist states' rights message. Surely he would support a state's ability to disencumber itself from the tax-happy feds. However, and after a good amount of dithering, Jackson stated certainly: "I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assembled by one state, incompatible with the existence of the union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed." Jackon's Vice-President, John Calhoun, disagreed and left his post to become a South Carolina senator.

Both sides began gearing up for conflict. Jackson made absolutely clear that he would not hesitate to send troops to South Carolina to enforce the tariff, and Congress passed the Force Bill, allowing him to do just that. On the brink of war, Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, reached a solution that all parties agreed with. Basically South Carolina would pay its taxes, and the tariffs would decrease each year for a period of nine years. War was averted.

Yet it would be folly to dismiss the Nullification Crisis as an isolated incident---the basic battle lines that it drew were apparent in the Civil War, and persist today. You had on one side the strong federal government people, who believed in laws that were more or less uniform- each state was an equal member of the union, and had to be taxed as such. On the other side was the state's rights contingent, who believed in a "weak, inactive, and frugal federal government."-- states should be allowed to do almost whatever they wanted including interpreting the Constitution and allowing slavery. From the Crisis forward, "states rights" became euphemistic for "allowing slavery," and every state who supported nullification ended up seceding from the union during the Civil War.

This division exists today, evidenced by Rick Perry's threat that Texas secede from America to protest the President's stimulus packages, and the Tea Partiers allying themselves historically with those who believed they should be free from unjust national taxes. The Nullification Crisis should perhaps teach us that such rhetorical protesting can have dramatic real-world consequences. In the run-up to the Civil War, only one state decided to secede without dramatic disagreement and in-fighting. That state was South Carolina, which had already been waiting 25 years for its opportunity.

February 07, 2010

Presidential Fact #14

During the 1828 election, members of JQA's camp referred to Jackson as a "Jackass," punning on his last name. Jackson embraced the nickname and adopted it as his personal symbol, which is still used by the modern Democratic Party.

February 04, 2010

full steam ahead

with jackson in the white house, we're crossing into the 1830s. when people ask me about this project, one of the things i mention is that i feel like i live dually in 2010 chicago and in 19th century america. i'm very at home with the pace, vernacular, customs, and geography of the 1800s, because i spend so much of my time there. which is why i almost let out a whoop of joy the other day, when john quincy adams got on a train.

back when we were reading adams and jefferson, dave texted me to say, "it's driving me nuts that these guys don't have cell phones." a lot of the early guys who were european ambassadors before they were presidents had to wait month - months! - for answers to their letters. sometimes they would get promoted or reassigned and not know it for almost a year. it was terrible.

and then there's a handful of times in each biography so far where the dude's trip to washington is delayed because of muddy roads. because they all went home when congress wasn't in session, about every 50 pages we have to go through a description of the trip back to quincy or virginia and how the carriage held up. it's dull reading, at times.

but then, thank the almighty in heaven, they built the railroad. it happens during jackson's tenure, so one of john quincy adam's trips to washington as a congressmen is the first time we read about it. i was just so happy. when one of these guys gets in a car i'll probably weep for joy.