Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson are having a very bad summer. In pollster-speak, they have “high unfavorables.” Even though Jefferson has his own memorial and Jackson has the 20-dollar bill, they’re getting knocked around as badly as the Confederate flag.
This you may not know. As we seek to confront the past and purge ourselves of racist iconography, the Confederate flag has drawn virtually all the attention – undeservedly so, because Democrats in four states have also voted to erase the names “Jefferson-Jackson” from their annual fundraisers.
As symbolism goes, this is no small thing. Decide for yourself whether this is an enlightened reckoning with history (Jefferson and Jackson were slave owners) – or political correctness run rampant.
The “Jefferson-Jackson Dinner” has been a party staple for generations. For instance, Connecticut’s Democrats have hyped theirs annually for the last 67 years – until now. This summer, they decided to drop the dead presidents and rename the dinner. So did Missouri’s Democrats. So did Georgia’s. And similar moves are being contemplated by Democrats in Arkansas, Maine, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Tennessee. (Yes, Tennessee, even though it was home to Old Hickory.)
And last week, Iowa’s Democrats voted to reboot. Their purge is the biggie, because the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner has long been the first stop on the primary season meal circuit. Presidents 3 and 7 will still be on the logo when candidates show up for next month’s confab, but starting in ’16, they’re gone. Iowa Democratic chairman Andy McGuire says that a new name, as yet unchosen, will “align the values of our modern-day Democratic party – inclusiveness, diversity, and equality.”
One can argue, of course, that purging Jefferson and Jackson is unwise because it disassociates us from our own past. It can prompt us to wonder where we should draw the line. Should the Jefferson Memorial be bulldozed? If slaveowning is a deal-breaker, should we denounce George Washington and rename the nation’s capital? (Please no. Conservatives would rush to insist that it be renamed Reagan, D.C.)
The counter-argument, which obviously has merit, is that Democrats want to rebrand with people who better reflect what the party stands for today. That disqualifies Jefferson, who owned 600 slaves and likely fathered children with at least one of them. Yes, he was on record calling slavery an “abominable crime,” and, yes, as president he signed a bill abolishing the slave trade – but he didn’t exactly practice what he preached.
Jackson was even worse. He’s widely viewed by historians as a father of the Democratic party, if only because of his humble roots and populist politics, but his treatment of Native Americans was the apotheosis of white supremacy. Check out the new book, Jacksonland. He basically ripped off the Cherokees and made himself rich in the Deep South. During his military career, he killed them in droves, stole their land for a pittance, and developed it as his personal real estate empire.
A random excerpt from the book, which I read this summer:
“Jackson’s style of negotiating was frank and coercive. In talk after talk over the years, he told native leaders he was their friend, and that he wanted to pay for their land – but that if they failed to sell, white settlers would take their land for nothing….(He) brought Cherokee leaders a warning that their nation might be destroyed if they bargained too hard….Jackson and his friends would move to take advantage. The scale of their gain has rarely, if ever, been calculated. Many real estate records from the era have been lost. But records that survive show that after 1816, the names of Andrew Jackson, his relatives, and his two closest business associates appeared in the titles to more than 45,000 acres of newly opened Alabama land.”
So ask yourself whether this guy deserves an annual dinner. Democrats have decided to reassess the past in accordance with their current values – which is why the Missouri party has already replaced Jefferson and Jackson with their favorite home boy, Harry Truman. As president, Harry desegregated the military in 1948. On the other hand, he did use the N-word in a letter in 1911, and he did say at one point that blacks belong in Africa….
Yup, the urge to purge can get very complicated. As the British novelist L. P. Hartley famously wrote, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”