What the Politics of Andrew Jackson’s Era Can Tell Us About Today

NPR correspondent Steve Inskeep speaks about his book Jacksonland and what it says about America’s democratic tradition

Andrew Jackson's official White House portrait by Ralph E.W. Earl. (Public Domain)
smithsonian.com

Until the 1830s, there were, for all intents and purposes, two ways of mapping America. There was “a white man’s map and an Indian map.” In Jacksonland, NPR’s Steve Inskeep rigorously revisits the events leading up to Indian removal, focusing on two men fighting for their respective maps—one who saw necessary real estate for white settlement and the other who had legal and historic claim to the space.

While Andrew Jackson’s name looms large in American history, many might not be aware of one of Jackson’s greatest foils, a mixed-race politician named John Ross who “passed” for white or Cherokee depending on what the politics of the day called for, and fought his cause all the way to John Marshall’s Supreme Court.

Jacksonland steps into a centuries-old historic argument about the forces at work that led to the genocidal chapter of Indian removal in American history. In Inskeep’s hands, he creates a complex portrait of two key players of the day—one whose life’s work revolved around Indian removal and other who stood in his way. Inskeep spoke with Smithsonian.com about how the events in Jacksonland, recently released in paperback, offer a powerful parallel to today’s society and how he thinks the U.S. Treasury should design future bills. He even touches on the comparisons between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump.

The title of your book is Jacksonland, but it almost felt like the story centered more on John Ross, the Cherokee politician who went up against Andrew Jackson. How did you decide on the title?
 

I wanted Jackson and Ross to be equals as characters in the book. Ultimately though, Jackson won and Jackson got to put his stamp on that real estate, and real estate was the heart of the whole thing. 

But Ross was also a revelation to me. I learned a lot about Andrew Jackson in the process of writing this book, but I learned everything about Ross. I’d never heard about him before a few years ago, and even though he did lose, I make the argument that he added a lot to our democratic tradition and was an innovator in a lot of ways.

What got you interested in writing about this intersection of history?

I cover politics and that can be kind of depressing. It was especially bad a few years ago and that drove me back into history, which I’ve written some in the past and I’ve studied all my life. I ended up focusing on the 1830s, which is when our democratic system as we know it began to take shape in a way that we would recognize today. Of all the stories I looked into during that period, the story of Indian removal is the one that feels really visceral and still an open wound. There were other amazing things that happened in the era, but they don't have that same feeling of being unresolved.

The Martin Van Buren quote, that while other controversies “agitated the public mind in their day” would fade, the emotions aroused by Indian removal would probably “endure…as long as the government itself.”

I loved that quote, and it’s so true. In the afterword, I lay out all the different takes on this. Every generation has had their own version of this story and they’re widely different versions.

You write about how 1830 was this changing point in American history. Can you talk about the events and technologies that conspired to make this a crucial era in America’s timeline?

In the early years of the country, there was a free press, but not all that many newspapers, and there was a right to vote, but it was rather limited. There were property qualifications, and white men almost universally were the only ones who could vote. There were a handful of places where a few women and a few African-Americans voted, but white men essentially had the vote. Not even all of them, or necessarily most of them could vote, and what had happened by Jackson's time was first that the franchise had been expanding and so more people had the opportunity to vote, and the media was expanding decade after decade. I believe there’s around three dozen newspapers in the colonies at the time of the Revolution, and by 1828 there's something like 800 of them. And every decade, there's another few hundred of them, so there's more people who can vote and they're better informed and engaged by this increasingly competitive media that's often sharing competing points of view.

States were changing the way that they voted for a president. These electors who actually choose a president had been themselves chosen by state legislators, but state after state was changing that, and by Jackson's time, the majority of states were having popular votes for president.

The competition of that period massively increased participation itself, which allowed a space for Jackson.

What parallels do you see in the changes happening in Andrew Jackson’s era and the changes in America today?

One of the things I learned that I felt instinctively, but I feel that I can now document, is the way that we build upon our political traditions without necessarily even knowing it. When people today make certain statements that seem a little paranoid or that they're worried about who's really running the government, and, sometimes in legitimate ways, talking about how the government has been captured by outside forces, worrying about foreigners, worrying about unelected judges, things like that. You hear those same patterns of argument in the 1820s and ’30s. The issues are different but the attitudes are quite similar.

I wrote an article for The New York Times in February, it compares Jackson to Trump. I want to be really, really careful about that comparison, I waited for months before I came around to writing that article because they're very different people in terms of their resumes and so forth. What Trump captures is Jackson's attitude, which you could probably say of a lot of other politicians through the generations; there's this political tradition of talking a certain way, assuming a certain fighting stance. ‘The people who are on my side, I'm going to do everything to defend them and I don't care who gets hurt.’ That was Jackson's approach, it is Trump's approach and it is a particular American political attitude.

It was fascinating to see Andrew Jackson's relationship with the newspaper reporters of his day in Jacksonland. You point out that he drew a circle of them in as advisers, and also point out the elite newspaper he didn’t trust, The National Intelligencer. Did it surprise you how similar the president’s relationship with the press was back then compared to how it is today?

In the early 1800s there was this paper, The National Intelligencer, and people would say it was The Washington Post of its day, it was The New York Times of its day, but there's really no comparison because it was the newspaper. Sure, there were other newspapers across the country, but this was the established newspaper. Because there was basically one ruling party (that had its different factions and wings) for a couple of decades after the Federalists faded away, you only needed one newspaper.

By the 1820s, people like Jackson were concluding that they needed their own outlets to get their own views out and not rely on this establishment paper. Not just powerful men like Jackson thought like that. African Americans recognized in this period that they needed their own newspapers, and the very first black-owned newspaper was founded in 1827. The Cherokees realized they needed a newspaper and founded theirs in 1828.

We worry a lot about the fragmentation about media today because we fear that everybody is just tuning into stuff that confirms their biases. I think that happens, but generally speaking, the increase in the number of outlets is great—you can throw any idea out there in the marketplace and if people are interested in it you can find an audience.

You have mentioned that one of the toughest questions you were asked while doing your book tour came from a Cherokee man who asked, "Are you just another white man making money off us? Or will you help us get our land back?" How did you approach researching and writing the Cherokee side of this story?

You've put your finger on one of the hardest things, because Indian history is extraordinarily complicated. The sources in those early years are really, really difficult because so many of the people involved were illiterate. You're relying not on Indians in their own words, but on Indians' words and customs as interpreted by white men who I guess were sympathetic, because they were hanging out with Indians. Or they might be patronizing. There's so many opportunities for misinterpretation there.

The first thing you have to do with the sources that are available is try to sort through that and figure out what is credible there and what to disregard. I give an example in the book; there are a number of people who left descriptions of Native American nations in the southeast. They wrote them down as part of an effort to prove their theory that Indians were the lost tribe of Israel—which is kind of, wow, that's really something, no evidence for that.

But nevertheless, they were there and observing people, and so you have all these useful observations. You have to somehow sort through all of that and try to do it in a respectful way, but also an accurate way. Ultimately, the challenge of this influenced the characters that I chose. There are any number of Indian leaders who are extremely interesting that we could have focused on who were illiterate, and the only words we have of them are things that they said or supposedly said to white men. The white men wrote them down accurately, or not so accurately, or whatever.

In John Ross, I had a guy who wrote enough letters that they filled two thick volumes in the Library of Congress, and that's not even a complete set of his letters. I had thousands and thousands of his own words.

The most important thing for me to do was to make sure that Native American story fit into the broader strand of American history. I think that there's a tendency to take Indian history and deal with it one or two ways that are different than that. One is just to assume that it all ended; that people were here, they were crushed and that's the end of that, and the other is to assume that it is this unusual specialty way off to the side that isn't all that relevant to America today. Neither of those is quite what I wanted to get at. I felt as I researched this material that what we had was a part of American culture and, as I argue with Ross, particularly, a part of American democratic tradition and it ought to get its place. 

Speaking of American democratic tradition, in the book, you chronicle Ross’ legal struggle to maintain Cherokee land and the failure of the system to follow through with its promises. What did Jacksonland show you about the failings of democracy?

We see in this book a country that's really diverse—more diverse than we may have realized—and people are struggling with this question of how to respect everybody's individual rights and still make sure we fit together as one country.

People who were here in the early 1800s came up with some really terrible answers to that question. But the nature of democracy is that nothing is ever over, nothing is ever finished and so we come back and we argue it again and we argue it again and we argue it again. I don't think there's any doubt that we've come up with better answers over time and so we can hope that we'll come up with better answers still. 

You paint a nuanced picture of Andrew Jackson in this story, a man who has this incredible temper but wields it strategically and has an eye for posterity. How did your understanding of Jackson change writing this book?

I don't think I had a clear idea of what Jackson did or who he really was or why he had such a hold on the American imagination. This is another guy I chose because he left behind so many of his own words and his letters are amazing. He's so full of fire and passion and such a jerk sometimes, but very strategic as you point out. I just didn't quite grasp what he had done.

I was aware of Indian removal since junior high school. It was a page in my seventh grade history class, I think. And it was a memorable page, but it was only a page. But the thing I realized was that Indian removal wasn't just a thing he did among many things that he did—it was a central project of his life and his presidency. It was the making of the South that we're much more familiar with from the Civil War onward. I just hadn't realized quite what his significance was in just literally building the country, assembling the real estate for it. 

You’ve mentioned that during your book tour you encountered many modern fans of Jackson. What were they saying? What surprised you about how they saw him? 

There were people I ran into that had a son or a nephew named after Andrew Jackson. Today. And you find people in Nashville and elsewhere who kind of wonder, 'Why does everyone pick on this man? He's a great hero.'

And I really do understand that. No matter how much some people will instinctively dislike Jackson, he was really persistent. He never gave up. He constantly overcame health problems and just kept showing up for work and doing what he was doing.

Now, we can wish he did things differently. But the way he handled himself, there's something admirable about that. And you understand why it is that some people today admire him although that admiration is kind of below the surface. It's been muted. You'll notice in this whole $20 bill controversy there hasn't been a huge faction of America that has spoken up for Jackson, although I know from my experience that they're kind of out there. 

I saw that you wrote an op-ed last year arguing that Jackson should be on one side of the $20 bill and Ross on the other. To me, that image almost seems like a short summary of your book.

I think that would be a graphic illustration of what the book is trying to say, that democracy is a struggle, that it's not one great person who comes up with the obvious right answers and you just do what's best for the country. You have an argument about what's best for the country and the argument goes on, and it's from the argument you would hope over time that better and better answers emerge.

I love the idea that they've ultimately chosen. They didn't do exactly what I proposed, but they're doing a two-sided bill: Andrew Jackson on one side, Harriet Tubman on the other. That's actually kind of cool. You have this guy who for all of his greatness was also a slave owner and actually personally chased down escaped slaves. And on the other side of the bill you have a woman who helped slaves escape. That is democracy right there in a really visceral way. That's going to be a powerful bill, and I wouldn't mind if they did something like that with all of the bills.

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