Andrew Jackson and the Weight of Historical Judgment

While reading Robert Merry's recent piece about Andrew Jackson and populism in The American Conservative, I was struck by his defense of our eighth president: 

"Yes, Jackson owned slaves, but of course so did George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whose standing in the presidential pantheon hasn’t dropped as a result. And, yes, he signed Indian-removal legislation and later initiated the forcible removal of Southeastern Indian tribes to territory west of the Mississippi River, leading to the tragic “Trail of Tears.” But the country at that time harbored overwhelming political support for Indian removal. Thus, while this certainly can be characterized as a particularly sad chapter in the American story, it’s pointless to single out one man as personification of those brutal policies when the country as a whole clamored for them. Besides, there undoubtedly is some truth in Jackson’s claim to be motivated by a protective regard for the Indians, who, in his view, couldn’t coexist peaceably with the country’s burgeoning and overpowering white population.

Still, by succumbing politically to the voracious land appetites of the country’s whites, Jackson contributed to the deaths of thousands of Indians, and that should be considered in any assessment of his two-term presidency. The bigger question is whether it should overwhelm his overall contribution to the country in its second-generation era of development." 

In Merry's view, the negative reaction to Jackson in recent years is a result of "political correctness" and, he suggests, not warranted for a man we should treat as a heroic American figure. Which makes me wonder about how we balance the positive and negative in our treatment of presidential history. I think Merry makes a reasonable point that we should not discard historical figures because of problematic views or actions. But I also believe that we should hold presidents to higher standards and hold them accountable when needed. 

Ultimately, it comes down to whether we study and/or read about our presidents because we want to revere them or because we want to remember them. Not unlike Mitch Landrieu's argument in the recent debate about removing Confederate monuments in New Orleans, I believe that our responsibility is to remember these men for the entirety of their accomplishments and failures, both political as well as moral. This is not a call for political correctness; rather, it is a suggestion that we view our history with a wider lens and accept that even some of the people we want to admire most had serious failings. For me, this is what makes my reading so rewarding and what makes these presidents worth revisiting and remembering. If I wanted to read about saints, I'd find another field of study.