On Empathy and Andrew Jackson

Well the anarchists, hooligans and thugs were at it again yesterday.   Seems they had a rope around  President Andrew Jackson’s equestrian statue which stands in arguably one of the most honored spaces in America – directly in front of the White House in Lafayette Park.

Its a lovely work of art.  It really is.  Commissioned in 1847, two years after Jackson’s death by the Hermitage, his plantation home in Nashville, Tennessee, it was cast in Bronze by Clark Mills and his black slave apprentice Phillip Reid.  It is considered the first equestrian statue to be cast with the horse rearing on it hind legs.  Imagine that.  A statue of the late President cast only 2 years after his death to stand in front of the White House,  No President had stood there before.  The four corners of the park are marked by statues of Lafayette, the Comte de Rochambeau, General Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Baron von Steuben.  Think Jackson’s rabid supporters had anything to do with it?

So why has it become a target?

A bit of history is in order which perhaps you don’t know about President Andrew Jackson.

Jackson was the victor at the Battle of New Orleans and campaigned against the Spanish in Florida.  The four cannon surrounding the statue in the park were taken by Jackson from the Spanish in battle.

Andrew Jackson brought 14 slaves from his Tennessee plantation with him to the White House in 1829. By the time of his death he owned 150 African-Americans.  He truly believed in slavery for those he considered an inferior people.

But he also waged brutal war on native Americans. an act of genocide which has come to be known as the Trail of Tears.

His attitude toward Native Americans was not unusual for the times, though by today’s standards he would be considered a racist as he believed American Indians as well to be inferior to whites.

Jackson’s attitude toward American Indians could be viewed partly as paternalistic. He believed Native Americans to be like children who needed guidance.  Of course, the American Indians, not to mention sympathetic white people ranging from religious figures in the North to the backwoods hero-turned-Congressman Davy Crockett, saw things quite differently.  To this day Andrew Jackson’s legacy is often tied to his attitudes toward Native Americans.

At the time of the American Revolution and the establishment of an independent nation  there were five large tribes of Native Americans living in the southeastern states, mostly in Georgia.  They were the Choctaw, Chickasaw  Creek, Seminoles  and the Cherokee.  They were considered by white Americans as the five “civilized” tribes.

“The bulk of the tribes lived in towns (some covering hundreds of acres and populated with thousands of people). These communities regulated their space with planned streets, subdivided into residential and public areas. Their system of government was hereditary. Chiefdoms were of varying size and complexity, with high levels of military organization.”

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson treated the tribes as sovereign nations and encouraged them to adopt the ways of white cultural norms. Washington promulgated a doctrine that held that American Indians were biologically equals, but that their society was inferior. He formulated and implemented a policy to encourage the “civilizing” process, which Thomas Jefferson continued.

The noted Andrew Jackson historian Robert Remini wrote “they presumed that once the Indians adopted the practice of private property, built homes, farmed, educated their children, and embraced Christianity, these Native Americans would win acceptance from white Americans.  Washington’s six-point plan included impartial justice toward Indians; regulated buying of Indian lands; promotion of commerce; promotion of experiments to civilize or improve Indian society and presidential authority to punish those who violated Indian rights.

And so the southeastern native Americans spoke English and adopted white cultural norms. n fact, settlers hungry for land were actually dismayed to see American Indians, contrary to all the propaganda about them being savages, adopt the farming practices of the white Americans.

Yet for all their effort to fit in to new America, in the end it did not mean they could keep their land.  Plantation owners in Georgia and South Carolina wanted Cherokee land; it was perfect for growing cotton and creating plantations worked by slaves.  The state of Georgia moved on the sovereignty of Indian rights and claimed the tribes were simply part of Georgia, the government of which had sovereignty over all the state, including Indian land.

And the southern whites in Georgia had an ally in the White House.  Andrew Jackson.

Chief John Ross – Leader of the Cherokee Nation.

Not what you thought eh?

The political leader of the Cherokee tribe, John Ross, was the son of a Scottish father and a Cherokee mother. He was destined for a career as a merchant, as his father had been, but became involved in tribal politics. In 1828 Ross was elected the tribal chief of the Cherokee.

In 1830, Ross and the Cherokee took the audacious step of trying to retain their lands by filing suit against the state of Georgia. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Chief Justice John Marshall, while avoiding the central issue, ruled that the states could not assert control over the Indian tribes.

According to legend, President Jackson scoffed, saying, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”

And no matter what the Supreme Court ruled, the Cherokees did face serious obstacles. Vigilante groups in Georgia attacked them, and John Ross was nearly killed in one attack.

Jackson agreed that native Americans in the southeastern states needed to be removed from their ancestral homes to federal lands west of the Mississippi.  Georgia, for one, refused to accept the notion of Washington and Jefferson that an Indian sovereign state could exist within its territorial borders.  Jackson wholeheartedly agreed.

The Indian Removal Act was signed into law on May 28, 1830 and Jackson used the Army to enforce it as did his successor Martin Van Buren. The act has been referred to as a unitary act of systematic genocide, because it discriminated against an ethnic group in so far as to make certain the death of vast numbers of its population. Jackson viewed the demise of Indian tribal nations as inevitable, pointing to the advancement of settled life and demise of tribal nations in the American northeast.

One by one, the tribes were evicted from their homes by thousands of soldiers and marched westward to their new home – eastern Oklahoma, where 10,000 square miles had been reserved for them. The French author Alexis de Tocqueville, on his landmark trip to America, witnessed a party of Choctaws struggling to cross the Mississippi with great hardship in the dead of winter.

The leaders of the Creeks were imprisoned in 1837, and 15,000 Creeks were forced to move westward.  The Seminole, based here in Florida and led by their great Chief Osceola fought a brave resistance against the Army which eventually called a meeting for an armistice and treaty.  When Osceola showed up under a white flag he was shamefully taken and imprisoned in South Carolina where he died within the year.  The majority of the Seminole moved west but thousands fled into the everglades, gave up their horses for boats, started new lives,  took in run-a-way slaves from Georgia and lived untouched by soldiers. They continue to live there to this day.

Osceola – painted in his Seminole clothing while imprisoned.  He and the Florida Seminole were unconquered and his statue stands on the Florida State University campus, honored and untouched.  There are probably half a dozen towns in this country named after him.

A considerable force of the U.S. Army—more than 7,000 men—was ordered by President Martin Van Buren, who followed Jackson in office, to remove the Cherokees. General Winfield Scott commanded the operation, which became notorious for the cruelty shown to the Cherokee people.

Soldiers in the operation later expressed regret for what they had been ordered to do.

Cherokees were rounded up in camps, and farms that had been in their families for generations were awarded to white settlers.

The forced march of more than 15,000 Cherokees began in late 1838. And in the cold winter ​conditions, nearly 4,000 Cherokee died while trying to walk the 1,000 miles to the land where they had been ordered to live.  Today nearly 1 in 5 Okies is of Cherokee descent.

Now what do I care about Andrew Jackson’s statue in front of the White House? It doesn’t affect me.  My grandfather didn’t get to this country until 1905.  Lots of people in America then  didn’t think southern Italians were fully white people anyway.  We never owned slaves.  Weren’t here for the Civil War.  None of this is my fault.

And after all, the statue is beautiful and it is history.  Just not mine.

What I ask for, and what I try to give is empathy.  Too many folks don’t seem to have any.  How would I feel  about Andrew Jackson’s statue if I was a native American or a black man?   I can understand why so many want memorials of the slave state moved from our honored public spaces.

Jefferson Davis was an unapologetic racist all of his dys – “African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social and a political blessing.”  

A historic personage?  Yes.  One to be still be honored in our public spaces?  I can understand why many people think not.    How would I feel if my family were the ones enslaved and I grew up seeing that memorial everyday?

Its a lovely statue.  Jackson is an important historical figure.  He was President.  Should he be in a place of great honor, seen by millions?  Lots of folks think not.

His Hermitage Plantation in Nashville, which was worked by his African-American slaves would be a fine location this important historical figure’s monument.


About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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9 Responses to On Empathy and Andrew Jackson

  1. GP Cox says:

    Well I think they should. You can not judge history with 2020 eyes – different worlds exist century after century and even decade by decade. What do they suggest should be in the place of all these statues torn down?

    Liked by 1 person

    • toritto says:

      Hi GP. The park originally honored 4 foreign heroes who came to our aid during the revolution. It doesn’t need a slave President’s statue. It would still be a fine park without it. No statue of a President should stand in front of the White House. Not Obama. Not FDR. Not Reagan. Not Trump. And certainly not Andrew Jackson. Best regards.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. beetleypete says:

    I am giving up ith this issue. As a foreigner, I feel there is too much ‘picking and choosing.’. Jefferson owned slaves, yet his plantation at Monticello is preserved as an historic monument. And his face adorns the $2 bill. Surely that should be changed, and the plantation house closed? I don’t get how the uncomfortable history can be allowed to be ‘selective’. I will leave it at that.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

    • toritto says:

      Monticello is a museum Pete. No. One is calling for its closure. Jacksons plantation is a museum. Good place for his statue. Lots of folks dont want any former President in front of the Wh. Most are simply calling for removal of Confederate monuments. Sure there are folks demanding more. Aren’t there always? That’s why it pays to listen to reasonable voices. Best from Florida.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A wonderfully thoughtful post. I absolutely agree. I don’t believe in revisionist history, but the majority of the statues should be in museums.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Norman Pilon says:

    To remember the past is all well and fine. Whether to glorify it is altogether another question.

    And why shouldn’t the past be judged by ethical standards not its own?

    The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre.

    Autrement dit :

    If money, according to Augier, [14] “comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,” capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt. [15]

    Marx gets it about right, as do the anarchists, hooligans and thugs that were at it again yesterday.

    Liked by 1 person

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