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Brands's 4th law
Nothing is inevitable till it happens
While I was researching a biography of Andrew Jackson, I was struck by the number of males in nineteenth century America named after the seventh president. And not just Andrew, but Andrew Jackson, as in Andrew Jackson Smith and Andrew Jackson Jones. I was impressed. To borrow a first name shows respect but can be ambiguous; to incorporate another person’s whole name connotes something more.
As my research continued, I encountered other evidence of Jackson’s popularity among his contemporaries. He was commonly referred to as the “Hero of New Orleans” or simply “The Hero”; many admirers spoke of him as the second George Washington.
I wanted to see if I could measure Jackson’s popularity in some quantifiable way. I knew that public-opinion polling didn’t begin until the twentieth century. I considered sampling newspaper editorials, but ruled that out on the ground that newspaper owners - who usually dictated editorial policy - weren’t representative of the American population as a whole. Newspapers in the 1930s, for instance, leaned Republican while Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats were rolling up landslide election victories.
I decided to try another yardstick, informal but perhaps instructive. I got out a large atlas of the United States and consulted the index of place names. I counted the number of Jackson Counties, Jacksonvilles, Mount Jacksons, Lake Jacksons and the like. Then I scanned the index for other long runs of places named for single individuals. It turned out that Jackson came first, substantially ahead of Washington and Franklin, who roughly tied for second. I couldn’t be sure every place called Jackson was named for Andrew Jackson, but neither did I know that every place called Washington or Franklin was named for George or Ben. I figured the error rate would be about the same in the three cases, the names being relatively common.
The conclusion I drew from all of this was that Jackson might well have been the most popular American of the nineteenth century. I found this very interesting. I was working on the book just after the turn of the twenty-first century, and I was quite aware that Jackson’s popularity had diminished substantially by then. He was remembered for the Trail of Tears and being a slaveowner, and not much else. What was it about Americans in the nineteenth century that made them think so differently about Jackson?
It wasn’t that they knew less about Jackson than we do. Historians have not unearthed secrets that have forced a rethinking of Old Hickory’s reputation. No, the traits and actions for which Jackson was condemned in the twenty-first century were fully known by his contemporaries.
I eventually realized that it wasn’t on the debit side of Jackson’s account that things had changed, but on the credit side. Jackson was a hero to millions in his era for three accomplishments: saving America from defeat and possible dismemberment at the hands of the British during the War of 1812, confirming the ascendancy of democracy in American politics by his election in 1828, and facing down South Carolina secessionists and preserving the Union in 1832-33.
In Jackson’s day, these were huge. British forces had been battering Americans in the War of 1812 through the autumn of 1814, when they launched a campaign up the Mississippi River. With troops and ships released by the recent defeat of Napoleon, they aimed to sever the Union along the lines of the Mississippi. But Jackson, at the head of a motley army of regulars and militia, whites and blacks, Anglos and French- and Spanish-speakers, farmers and merchants and pirates, smashed the British and saved the American republic. The victory seemed a miracle to Jackon’s American contemporaries, and they never stopped thanking him for it.
Jackson’s election in 1828 brought down the curtain on the age of deference in American politics, when voters were expected to elect their betters: men like the Virginia dynasts Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, and the Harvard-educated Adamses. Jackson was first Westerner elected president, and the first president ordinary Americans could consider one of their own. He embodied the democratic revolution in American politics and life. To be sure, democracy at that time excluded most women and black people; even so, the achievement of universal adult white male suffrage was a breakthrough, and Jackson was hailed and embraced as the “people’s president.”
Jackson’s defense of the Union against South Carolinians who nullified a federal tariff and threatened to secede made him the Abraham Lincoln of his day, except that where only half the country appreciated Lincoln’s effort, which came at great cost in lives and money, nearly everyone but the South Carolinians praised Jackson’s vigorous defense of the Union, which cost nothing more than a show of force and a credible threat to personally lead an army to South Carolina and hang the secessionists himself. Indeed, in Lincoln’s day, more than a few oldtimers wished Jackson could be resurrected and reprise his handling of South Carolina.
A hundred years later, the United States had become the most powerful country in the world, a defender of global democracy, a nation securely united from sea to sea. For those born in the twentieth century, it was tempting to think of this outcome as inevitable. Small acorns grow into mighty oaks; thirteen colonies give rise to a superpower.
But this outcome only seemed inevitable. At several junctures along the way, the process might have taken a different turn. The British, following a victory at New Orleans, might have reconsidered the draft treaty negotiated at Ghent two weeks earlier, and completed their Mississippi campaign, undoing - formally or de facto - the Louisiana Purchase, with themselves taking the place of France. If Jackson had had the Napoleonic complex his critics alleged, American democracy could have gone the way of democracy in many other countries, where generals have refused to vacate the presidency. If Jackson had permitted South Carolina’s secession, there would have been no Union for Lincoln to save.
Jackson’s historical reputation became a victim of his success - and the success of the many others who helped his generation accomplish what it did. They did their work so well that later generations often saw the Jacksonian accomplishments as inevitable and therefore trivial or at least not especially praiseworthy. This misunderstanding made it easy for them to focus on Jackson’s shortcomings.
Rearview mirrors on cars sold in the United States carry a warning: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” The point is that the truck behind you is a bigger deal than you think. Something similar can be said of the mirror history provides on past events. Many of them seem small now but were a big deal when they occurred. Had people in the past acted differently, those events might have turned out differently. The truck might have gone off the road. And we’d be left with the wreckage.