My sister has despised Andrew Jackson ever since she was 9 years old and witnessed a reenactment of the Trail of Tears somewhere along the route of a cross-country family excursion. I was not quite 3 then and do not remember much about the journey, except for the sunburn and blisters I got in Florida, but I can understand her low opinion of Jackson, the notorious "Indian Killer." And I have some sympathy for the Democrats who are trying to topple Jackson, the founder of their party, from his traditional position of honor.
Nevertheless, they are going too far when they also seek to purge Thomas Jefferson, the other man credited with bringing together the earliest manifestation of what would become the Democratic Party. Jackson and Jefferson are distinctly different men.
For nearly a century, Democrats have held annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners to raise money and celebrate their party, but now party officials in several states have dropped the names of the two founders from the yearly events and five other state parties are considering a similar change. The way these things go, soon no Democratic organization anywhere in the country will want to hold back and look retrograde.
Jefferson and Jackson’s big sin is that they owned slaves and, because of that, some Democrats insist the two founders do not embody the modern identity of their party. Not surprisingly, this push to disassociate from the old presidents comes just as a new generation of civil rights activists is finally forcing the country to confront the continuing legacy of slavery. Confederate flags are being lowered from government-owned flag poles across the South, memorials to Confederates too closely associated with the Ku Klux Klan are facing removal and there is a renewed debate about how the lives of many black Americans today are still stunted as a result of social and economic opportunities denied to generations of their ancestors.
Back when the two Southerners, Jefferson and Jackson, were raised up as paragons of the party, Democrats dominated the South and segregationists dominated the party’s congressional wing. That aspect of the Democratic Party is long gone. The Republicans have become the party of white Southern conservatives and the Democrats are, largely, a liberal, city-based party supported by big majorities of blacks, Latinos and Asians. To many of the new Democrats, the third and seventh presidents are no longer representative of who they are.
There is a defense to be made of Jackson, who was a champion of the common man and an enemy of the powerful financial interests of his era — two concerns that resonate in America today, when gaping income inequality is becoming a threat to our democracy. But the man who is still on our $20 bill was equally known for his harsh policies against Native Americans. He proposed, and then signed as president, the Indian Removal Act that forced the expulsion of tribes from areas east of the Mississippi River and led to the horrors of the Trail of Tears. Earlier, as a military commander, he ordered massacres of Indian women and children and sparked the First Seminole War when he led troops to chase down fugitive slaves hiding in Seminole lands in Florida.
Frankly, Jackson may be best left in the history books.
And Jefferson? The master of Monticello was born into a privileged position in America’s slave-based economy and, despite his philosophical antipathy to slavery as an institution, could never bring himself to accept the big political and economic cost he would have suffered if he were to free his own slaves. This has always been the strange paradox of Jefferson. How could the man who said, ”I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” also fail to understand that even his reportedly benign relationships with his slaves were, unquestionably, a form of tyranny?
Still, if we are to judge every hero of our past by today’s progressive standards, few would measure up. In the case of Jefferson — the author of our Declaration of Independence — his failure to disenthrall himself from a dominant social institution of his time must be weighed against the profound intellectual legacy he has left every American. Jefferson’s bold assertion of revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality has inspired every advance toward justice this nation has seen. Imperfect as he may have been as a man, his vision of a truly democratic society continues to be the impetus for America’s loftiest aspirations.