In the context of modern times and contemporary views, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson would both be viewed as social conservatives. But in many ways they were extremely progressive particularly on economics.
Failing to maintain perspective on historical events is one of my great beefs with modern liberalism as I consider myself a progressive yet find myself constantly frustrated by the judgemental nature of many other liberals about history. For years a move has been afoot to eliminate any mention of Jefferson or Jackson in local or state party circles. This year after decades of pressure, the Florida Democratic Party renamed the Jefferson Jackson dinner “Leadership Blue.” The FDP’s decision which I disagree strongly with simply reflects the prevailing politically correct sentiments of today and a lack of historical appreciation so many Democrats have for the history of our greatest of political parties.
Thomas Jefferson’s brilliance and thoughtfulness made the American War for Independence a true revolution of liberal ideas and ideals, and Andrew Jackson was the first American President to reach out to the mass of people who were not aristocrats – these two men are responsible for the Democrats long being a party of the people.
Jackson achieved the greatest military victory of America’s first half century as the General who defeated the British regulars at the Battle of New Orleans. In reality, it was the first time the Americans had faced a British elite force in either the War for Independence or the War of 1812. Despite the perception that Jackson was a typical southern racist of the day, he in fact enlisted and paid black soldiers the same as his white men in defending New Orleans in 1815. He did this against the advice of every other officer in the US Army and his enlisted white men. It was the most integrated US force assembled until the Korean War and it won the biggest battle in American History until the Civil War. The battle was won against the longest of odds. Hatred of the British led to General Jackson’s integration of Native Americans, free African-Americans and Creole speakers into his army. Anyone who was not British was welcome to join his force. When confronted angrily by local Plantation owners about this, Jackson rebuffed their concerns and as noted above paid his black soldiers equal to his white ones.
Jackson also struggled to preserve the union and by rejecting South Carolina’s attempts to “nullify” the tariff of 1828. With his strong stance President Jackson preserved the union and laid the groundwork for Abraham Lincoln a generation later to save the union during the Civil War.
Jefferson rejected centralized government and the decision making of a few monied elites favored in the model Alexander Hamilton prefered for governance. Together with James Madison they formed the Republican (now the Democratic) Party which advocated individual liberty and freedom of speech and the press. Hamilton’s opposing Federalists were an elitist party based around the Northeast.
The brilliance and idealism of Jefferson was recognized all over world and he was in fact the inspiration for many of the Revolutions that swept Europe in the 1800s. From the coffee houses of Paris to the streets of Budapest, those seeking liberty and freedom from tyranny knew the name of Thomas Jefferson and what he stood for. Jefferson’s writings were an inspiration in Europe’s “Year of Revolution” in 1848 when the despotic monarchies of the continent were challenged by those craving freedom on the Jeffersonian/American model.
Certainly the racial views of both men were troubling. Jefferson collected books from all over the globe including many from the Arab world, India and China. A Francophile, he was a believer in revolution and people’s power who in his writings expressed an appreciation for the greatness of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. Yet his views on the black race and African slavery were decidedly backward even by southern standards. He simply seemed to believe those of African descent were biologically inferior to all other races.
Jackson was willing enlist black men at the Battle of New Orleans and while he had little in common with the plantation aristocracy that dominated Southern politics he did make common cause with them on slavery. His views towards Indian removal are the most troubling aspects of his legacy. Jackson’s unwillingness to abide by Supreme Court decisions with regards to Native Americans is an unfortunate stain on his name and one which will never wash off.
It is also worth noting that Jackson is more responsible than any other person for Florida being a part of the union, and his invasion of Florida helped secure settlers from the continuing Indian raids encouraged by foreign agitators both Spanish and British. Modern Florida would not be possible without him.
I don’t want to come across as insensitive as I am a first generation American of color, but I have always appreciated the sacrifices men and women, white, black and latino have made for this nation to become the greatest land ever conceived in human history. To rewrite history would be tantamount to denouncing our nation which has struggled so greatly to become among the most enlightened and prosperous on planet.
I understand the sentiments of Democrats who would prefer to honor other individuals or pretend as if Jefferson and Jackson would not be Democrats today. The reality is Jefferson might well be a Democrat today and Jackson almost certainly would be. They were men of their times, molded by the world around them. To condemn them to the dustbin of history when so much of what we enjoy as Floridians, Americans and Democrats are due to their sacrifices and vision is simply wrong in my mind.