Monday, January 3, 2011

“You can’t shoot History in the neck!”

When you know a subject well, it’s difficult to enjoy its popularization.  Last week, as I sat in a Broadway theater during the opening minutes of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” I had to remind myself to check my historian’s hat.

“Jackson was born in Tennessee …” the Storyteller began, and my inner Historian immediately interrupted, “No, he wasn’t.  He was born in South Carolina.”  “Stop that right now!” screamed my inner Theatergoer.  “You’re not going to enjoy one minute of this show if you spend the whole evening fact-checking.”

(So I tried to stop.  But the whopper about the Supreme Court upholding nullification was both egregious and unnecessary, and so must be noted.  And now I’ll stop.)

The point of the musical is not, of course, to be a historically correct presentation of Jackson’s career, but rather a commentary on American history and especially politics, so we must take it on its own terms. It portrays Jackson as the first “rock star” and uses the conventions of the rock biopic to tell his story. 

The main target is American populism, and Jackson represents the emergence of this strain of our politics.  The play does not use the term in the late 19th century sense of the word, but in the more general and generic way we refer to any movement that claims grass-roots origins and that purports to represent the regular folks in their struggle against the powerful elites.

For me, the key moment in the show is when Jackson, having been elevated to the presidency on a pledge to do the people’s will, asks “the people” what they want him to do on various issues.  The replies he gets from Average Citizens are not helpful.  Jackson ask impatiently: “You realize those two thing are contradictory, right?”

And that’s precisely the problem.  All politicians of every stripe blithely and confidently say “The American people want …” when of course what they really mean is “I (and people who think like me) want …” 

There are very few things “the American people” as a whole want, and none of them are subjects of political controversy.  Politics, almost by definition, is dominated by those things that divide us.  To govern is to choose, and when political leaders choose, they inevitably do something that some of the American people want and that some of the American people do not want.

When the majority is on our side, we insist that the will of “the people” be done.  Currently, the new Republican majority in the House is claiming a sweeping mandate and demanding that the “will of the people” (i.e., every Republican position) prevail, despite the fact that the Republican leadership spent the last two years rejecting and attempting to thwart the “will of the people” as represented by the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Americans say that they want, to use George W. Bush’s inaccurate self-description, a “united not a divider.”  But the fact is that every consequential president in American history has been divisive.  A president cannot be effective without making choices, and no consequential choice is made without creating, at least initially, division.  When we look back and decide a president was “great,” it is not because he created an instant consensus around his policies.  It is because time has vindicated the choices he made, and eliminated the stark divisions that existed at the time.

All of which brings me back to Jackson.  At the end of the show, the Storyteller tries to sum up Jackson’s legacy.  She rightly states that there is no historical consensus on Jackson.  Using the overblown hyperbole that marks the entire show, she paints the debate as between those who consider Jackson the greatest president of the 19th century and those who think of him as an “American Hitler.”  (As for the former, I think Lincoln pretty much wins that hands down—though Jackson might well be a consensus number two.  As for the latter, as is usually the case, the Hitler analogy obfuscates more than it illuminates.  As awful as the Trail of Tears was, it was no Holocaust.)

Jackson, listening to all of this, cries: “I thought History would vindicate me!”  The Storyteller, who earlier in the play had been temporarily silenced by a shot from Jackson’s pistol, replies: “You can’t shoot History in the neck!”  True, Storyteller, true.  But they do try.


  1. Mark, great stuff, esp. the perspective on what politics is for anyway. Question for you: what is a good (not academic, readable but solid enough history-wise) one volume bio of Jackson? I'm not sure I'll venture that deep in the 19th Century yet, but I may since I just found out that Jackson was in attendance, as a representative of one of the new states in the Union, at President Washington's I think last appearance in the Congress. The Chernow bio I read said that Jackson refused to stand for the ovation everyone else gave the President.

  2. I have not read it, but Andrew Jackson: A Life and Times by H.W. Brands is probably your best bet. Brands is a good historian but also an accessible writer for the general public.