Publick Occurrences 2.0

July 6, 2009

Chopping Down Old Hickory

Filed under: Civil War Era,Conspiracy theory,Jacksonian Era,Television — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:16 pm

I imagine a lot of readers here already subscribe to H-SHEAR, the Early Republic historians’ email list, but for those who don’t, here is a notice for a bit of worthwhile historical television that is airing tonight, from Dan Feller, director of the Andrew Jackson Papers project:

This coming Monday, July 6, the PBS show “History Detectives” will air a segment featuring the work of the Andrew Jackson Papers project at the University of Tennessee Department of History.  The episode concerns a letter threatening Jackson’s assassination, signed with the name Junius Brutus Booth (a famous actor and father of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth) and sent to Jackson on July 4, 1835.  Housed in the Library of Congress and long known to scholars, the letter has been presumed by Jackson biographers and political historians (following the lead of John Spencer Bassett, who printed it in his Correspondence of Andrew Jackson with Booth’s name in quotation marks) to be the work of a pseudonymous writer, while some Booth biographers and theater historians have accepted its authenticity but considered it a gag among friends. As “History Detectives” will show, the Jackson Papers staff were instrumental in proving that neither is correct.  Booth really wrote the letter, apparently in one of his legendary choleric rages.  He later apologized.  Killing presidents, or threatening to, seems to have run in the family.

I will be interested to see how the show handles the Booths. One of the cardinal points in my History of Conspiracy Theories course is that Lincoln’s was perhaps the only truly political assassination of all the presidential assassinations. I was not aware of the elder Booth’s threat against Jackson, but I would not have put the letter’s attribution in quotation marks. A guy named Brutus who named his son John Wilkes obviously had some extravagant, self-dramatizing ideas about fighting for freedom.

Now playing: Mott The Hoople – Violence
via FoxyTunes


May 19, 2009

Andrew Jackson: Sex Symbol for an Age

Filed under: Jacksonian Era,Music,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:00 am

It’s either a good thing that John William Ward and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. are dead, or it’s even sadder than I thought.  Jacksonian Democracy has finally been made into the sexy rock musical it was always yearning to become.  (So is that Amos Kendall in the leather jacket to the right of Jackson, and Martin Van Buren in the skinny tie and tennies on far left?) I have to say, much as I appreciate the academically appropriate low cost of living and general ease of life where I am, there are days when I wish were a little closer to New York. This “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is the kind of thing, among other more healthy things, I daydreamed about while reading my teenage history books. A courtroom drama about Bleeding Kansas! “The Iliad” set to Neil Young songs! (Those were different ideas.)  Anyway, someone please go review this for me.

Now, having enthused at the very notion of such a thing as Jacksonian Democracy Rock, the song you can play on Times web site, “‘Populism, Yea, Yea,’” does remind me of the final exam answers I used to get when I taught the all-of-American-history-from-Beringia-to-Bill-Clinton-in-one-semester course at Florida State, with many distant decades and movements mashed and mixed together by hapless freshman.  It is easy to confuse your angry loose-money farmers of the 1890s with your angry hard-money farmers of the 1830s; in the class, only that small amount of confusion would have probably netted you a “B.” Of course, these New York theater wags may have read Ron Formisano for their research; he retrofits the p-word back to the Revolution, so who could blame them for putting it in the title of their big number?  That same song has a chorus that goes “It’s the Age of. . .,  It’s the Age of . . . Jack-son” followed by “Take a stand against the elites” and what I think is something along the lines of “we will eat sweet democracy.” Sweet! Making one of my pet lecture points, the lyrics also make clear that, rockin’ as it might have been, democracy fueled and blithely rationalized Indian removal and violent expansionism.

In conclusion, between the two possible outcomes of a project like this, awesome or awesomely stupid, I am going with the former.
Now playing: Les Sans Culottes – Coeur Vagabond


October 10, 2008

Myths of the Lost Atlantis: Andrew Jackson and the Election of 1824 (Ratcliffe)

Filed under: "Myths of the Lost Atlantis",Jacksonian Era,Past campaigns,Voting — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:00 am
This is a guest post, the second in our new series, running in honor of Philip Lampi and in conjunction with the Common-Place politics issue. See the introduction for an explanation. Click the logo below to see all of the posts.


by Donald J. Ratcliffe
Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford

[Click here for .pdf version, with footnotes]

Well, of course he was. American historical narratives have always told us so, and recent prize-winning tomes that agree on little else confirm it. Old Hickory’s fame as victor of New Orleans gave him widespread popularity, the story goes, especially with newly enfranchised voters. So when he ran for president in 1824, he came first in the Electoral College but, with four candidates in the race, did not quite win an absolute majority. When the House of Representatives broke the deadlock in favor of the second-placed man, John Quincy Adams, Jackson’s supporters screamed that the people had been cheated of their choice by “bargain and corruption” and avenged the old general with a massive victory in 1828.

But was Jackson’s “stolen” victory in 1824, the emotional heart of this tale, really quite so clear-cut? In 1884 Edward Stanwood pointed out the problem. In six states the choice of presidential electors was in the hands of the legislature and we have no direct indication of how a popular vote would have resulted. In the states where there was a popular vote, not all the candidates were on every ballot, and in some the overwhelming popularity of one candidate-not necessarily Jackson-resulted in very low turnout. All that can be reported with fair certainty is the vote in the fourteen states where there was a popular ballot, either on the district or the general-ticket system. According to Stanwood, those states gave Jackson 153,544 compared to 108,740 for his nearest rival, John Quincy Adams, who was far ahead of the other two, Henry Clay (47,136) and William Harris Crawford (46,618).

Even in these fourteen states, there is really little evidence of Jackson’s nationwide popularity in 1824. He may have won 43 percent of their popular vote, but, as Lee Benson pointed out in 1957, 42 percent of that vote came from winning four-fifths of the popular vote in just three states (Alabama, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania), which together cast 23 percent of the national vote. Local concerns explain his victories in those three states, while his success in the Carolinas followed John C. Calhoun’s decision to throw his support to Jackson in return for becoming vice-president. In other parts of the country-notably New England and New York-Jackson received negligible support in 1824, in the face of Adams’s evident popularity.

Even in some states where the electors were chosen by the people, Jackson was less popular than appears at first sight. In North Carolina, the popular contest was fought between the Caucus ticket (for Crawford) and the People’s ticket (for whoever had the best chance of beating Crawford in the Electoral College), which won by 20,145 to 15,621. The state’s electoral votes were duly cast for Jackson, and it is often assumed that they measure his popularity in that state. But in eleven counties voters followed the pre-election suggestion that they mark their ticket for electoral candidates with the name of their preferred presidential candidate. In those counties Adams men supplied about one-fourth of the People’s vote, which reconciles with contemporary estimates that about 5,000 of the 20,415 were given by friends of Adams. So we need to move 5,000 votes from the Jackson column to the Adams column.

In the case of Georgia, Philip Lampi’s research reveals a measurable popular vote on the presidential question although the decision was made by the assembly. In the election to choose the assembly, candidates were identified as friends of either Crawford or Jackson, and one ticket representing each side was run in each county. The Jackson men lost to the Georgia candidate, but still attracted (on my arithmetic) 15,478 votes, which need to be added to the Jackson column. That takes the calculation to 164,022 for Jackson to 113,740 for Adams.



October 7, 2008

Myths of the Lost Atlantis: 1828 as the Dawn of the “Age of the Common Man” (Robertson)

This is a guest post, the first in our new series, running in honor of Philip Lampi and in conjunction with the Common-Place politics issue. See the introduction for an explanation. Click the logo below to see all of the posts.


by Andrew W. Robertson
City University of New York

One of the most persistent myths in American history is the idea that the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 marks the first “democratic” election in the history of the United States. The dawn of the so-called “Age of the Common Man” supposedly brought forth universal (i.e., white manhood) suffrage and a truly participatory democracy for the first time in the United States.

This mythology obscures the messiness of the actual history of voting in the years following the Revolution and preceding the Age of Jackson. It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of American voting practice that too often ignores the ways in which American democracy ebbed and flowed — in fact, was redefined and restricted — in the years preceding the Civil War. Poor white men could and did vote in unprecedented numbers in the years following the election of 1800. Free men of color voted not only in New England and Pennsylvania, but also in some southern states, including Maryland and North Carolina. Women who held property in their own right — widows and spinsters — could vote in New Jersey from 1776 to 1808.

Rather than seeing the election of Old Hickory as a landmark event in American democratization, we should recognize that it was the preceding period, from 1800 to 1824, that marked the first efflorescence of American democracy, in all its messy inconsistency. Nowhere in the Age of Jackson could any woman vote; free blacks faced increasing race-based restrictions on their voting, and in most states voter turnout in the Jacksonian elections of 1828 and 1832 never equaled the peak turnout of the preceding quarter century.

Authorized by the Jacksonian mythology to ignore the elections of the period, historians of high politics have long portrayed the history of the United States from the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to the end of the Virginia Dynasty of presidents as a bright stage upon which great men enter, deliver memorable lines, and exit. This top-down approach is understandable, given the brilliance of the group that Jefferson called an “assembly of demi-gods” at Philadelphia. It diverts attention, however, from the fact that Jefferson and his contemporaries delivered their lines to an audience of ordinary men and women. In so doing, it obscures one of Jeffersonian America’s most enduring contributions to posterity: the emergence of the first truly democratic political culture in an extended republic anywhere in the world.

Contrary to the “Age of the Common Man” myth, my research suggests that the era of mass democratization began 28 years earlier, with Thomas Jefferson’s election to the presidency. The years from 1800 to 1816 saw the most dramatic surge in voting turnout in the nineteenth century, and the greatest expansion of the voting universe until woman suffrage a century later.

Suffrage Expansion and Electoral Competition, 1800-1820

In the first years of the nineteenth century, the United States was already a highly partisan, deeply polarized political culture. The Federalists and Republicans were fiercely and increasingly competitive in state elections from the middle of the 1790s to the end of the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson’s election in the so-called “Revolution of 1800″ was not the culmination of these electoral battles, as he asserted, but it inaugurated a largely forgotten era of intense if uneven democratization.



September 5, 2008

From Old Tip to Old Mac: “Bragging War Heroes” Then and Now

Filed under: 2008 elections,GOP,Military,Music,Past campaigns,Political culture,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:37 pm

Today there was an incendiary post by M.J. Rosenberg at TPM Cafe called “Bragging War Heroes.” The post got quite tough with the McCain campaign’s heavy reliance on their candidate’s POW experience, in the acceptance speech and before. Rosenberg made some claims about past war heroes and their comparatively modest political use of their military backgrounds that are devastating, if true (to paraphrase my old graduate adviser). I would be interested to know what other historians think:

You would never know it from the media coverage, but John McCain is not one of America’s greatest war heroes. He is a former POW who survived, heroically. He deserves to be honored for that heroism.

But one thing distinguishes McCain from other war heroes, the kind whose heroism changes history rather than their life stories.

America’s two greatest war heroes were Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower. Grant saved the union. And Ike saved civilization.

And neither one ever bragged about their experience. (Can you imagine Ike smacking down Adlai Stevenson by saying that while Adlai ran a nice medium-sized state, he was the Supreme Allied Commander who ran D-Day, defeated Hitler, and liberated Europe?).

Impossible. Like Grant, Eisenhower did not brag.

Actually, modesty about military accomplishments is typical of war heroes and not just here. In Israel, it is unheard of for great military leaders to brag about their service.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak was the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history (he was a commando who, among other amazing feats, dressed as a woman — with a handful of soldiers — invaded a terrorist stronghold in Beirut, killed the terrorists, and then fled to a waiting dinghy and headed home). Yitzhak Rabin led the IDF in its Six Day War victory. Ariel Sharon saved Israel from destruction in 1973 when he snuck up behind the Egyptian army and encircled them in the Sinai.

None of these guys talked about it. McCain does. Continuously. His lack of modesty — about something war heroes tend to be modest about — does not become him.

Now it might well be true that Grant and Eisenhower were this reticent about using their military careers, but if so their modesty stands apart from a long pre-existing tradition. Perhaps President-Generals Washington, Jackson, Harrison, and Taylor did not personally make speeches about their war experiences, as far as I am aware, but the people who campaigned for them had no such compunctions, to say nothing of their lower-ranking successors Frank Pierce and Teddy Roosevelt. In the middle of the 19th century, bragging about war heroism was practically the default strategy of American presidential politics. There were campaign biographies galore, but probably more important were my true love (historical evidence division), the campaign songs. It was “The Hunters of Kentucky,” promoting Andrew Jackson’s role in the Battle of New Orleans, that really launched the trend:

I s’pose you’ve read it in the prints, how Packenham attempted
To make old Hickory Jackson wince, but soon his schemes repented;
For we with rifles ready cocked, thought such occasion lucky,
And soon around the general flocked the hunters of Kentucky.

You’ve heard, I s’pose, how New Orleans is famed for wealth and beauty
There’s girls of every hue, it seems, from snowy white to sooty.
So Packenham he made his brags, if he in fight was lucky,
He’d have their girls and cotton bags in spite of old Kentucky.

But Jackson he was wide awake, and wasn’t scared at trifles,
For well he knew what aim we take with our Kentucky rifles;
So he led us down to Cyprus swamp, the ground was low and mucky,
There stood John Bull in martial pomp, and here was old Kentucky.

A bank was raised to hide our breast, not that we thought of dying,
But then we always like to rest unless the game is flying;
Behind it stood our little force, none wished it to be greater,
For every man was half a horse and half an alligator.

Jackson won two terms against non-military opponents partly on the strength of such epic bragging. But his opponents were not to be outdone, unseating Jackson’s hand-picked successor in 1840 with an elderly veteran named William Henry Harrison. The Whigs’ campaign songs boasted even more broadly and folksily about Old Tippecanoe’s triumphs during the War of 1812 than Jackson’s had. Everybody knows “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” but there were many more, like “The Buckeye Song“:

In the end, I have to demur from M.J. Rosenberg’s broader interpretation of past American political practice. What is more unique and distinctively modern about John McCain’s politicization of his wartime service is the McCain story’s emphasis on suffering and endurance in the midst of military failure. There is a personal triumph there, to be sure, and a spiritual and psychological success. But surely there is a tremendous difference between the war record of a long-term POW in a losing cause and success as a field commander in a winning one. One might be said to make a bit more sense as a qualification for Commander-in-Chief than the other. Truly it took our modern therapeutic culture, in which people routinely publicize their past personal traumas as badges of honor and the subjects of best-selling books, to turn McCain’s sort of war heroism into a recommendation for high national office. [Probably the closest previous example at the presidential level would be the carefully retailed legend of JFK and PT-109. Even there, the war was won even if the boat was sunk.]


February 19, 2008

Wisconsin Primary Cheesehead Special: Andrew Jackson’s even more mammoth cheese

Filed under: Early Republic,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 10:29 pm

In honor of the primary election being held today in America’s Dairyland, I offer a fromage-related item that recently came to my attention. (Sadly this post does not actually mention Wisconsin.) As many readers of the blog will know, I wrote an article a few years back on the Mammoth Cheese presented to Thomas Jefferson by the dairy farming Baptists of Cheshire, Massachusetts, in 1802. (It was published as a chapter in the Beyond the Founders collection I co-edited with David Waldstreicher and Andrew W. Robertson, but seemingly read by far more people in the earlier version posted on my web site.) One of those readers, Loyola College student Erin Bacon, wrote last week with news that I had missed the biggest cheese of all, a 1400-pound specimen that is apparently common knowledge among residents of Oswego County, New York. I had mentioned a 100-pound cheese sent to Andrew Jackson by a Cheshire couple, but Ms. Bacon’s “local pride” impelled her to inform me of her hometown’s far more imposing tribute, a dairy product that was indeed as giant as Old Hickory’s self-regard. She sent a link to an old Oswego County history available online. Here is the account from 1895 Landmarks of Oswego County:

Dairying, and especially cheese-making, had become an important industry, particularly in the south part of the town [Sandy Creek, NY] in the Meacham neighborhood. In 1835 it made the locality famous. Col. Thomas S. Meacham was a man of enthusiastic temperament and fond of remarkable things, and in that year he conceived the idea of making a mammoth cheese as a gift for President Jackson. He had 150 cows, and for five days their milk was turned into curd and piled into an immense cheese-hoop and press constructed for the purpose. The cheese weighed half a ton, but was not large enough, so the colonel enlarged his hoop and correspondingly enlarged the cheese until it tipped the scales at 1,400 pounds. It was then started on its journey to Washington. Forty-eight gray horses drew the wagon on which it rested to Port Ontario, whence it was shipped November 15, 1835, the boat moving away amid the firing of cannon and the cheering of the people. Colonel Meacham accompanied it. It was conveyed by water by way of Oswego, Syracuse, Albany, and New York, and along the entire route its projector was given a series of ovations. Reaching Washington the huge cheese was formally presented to the President of the United States in the name of the “governor and people of the State of New York.” In return General Jackson presented Colonel Meacham with a dozen bottles of wine. The mammoth production was kept until February 22, 1836, when the President invited all the people in the capital to eat cheese. The scene is thus described by an eye-witness:

This is Washington’s birthday. The President, the departments, the Senate, and we, the people, have celebrated it by eating a big cheese! The President’s house was thrown open. The multitude swarmed in. The Senate of the United States adjourned. The representatives of the various departments turned out. Representatives in squadrons left the capitol – and all for the purpose of eating cheese! Mr. Van Buren was there to eat cheese. Mr. Webster was there to eat cheese. Mr. Woodbury, Colonel Benton, Mr. Dickerson, and the gallant Colonel Trowbridge were eating cheese. The court, the fashion, the beauty of Washington, were all eating cheese. Officers in Washington, foreign representatives in stars and garters, gay, joyous, dashing, and gorgeous women, in all the pride and panoply and pomp of wealth, were there eating cheese. It was cheese, cheese, cheese. Streams of cheese were going up in the avenue in everybody’s fists. Balls of cheese were in a hundred pockets. Every handkerchief smelt of cheese. The whole atmosphere for half a mile around was infected with cheese.

Colonel Meacham also sent a cheese to Vice President Van Buren, another to Gov. William L. Marcy of Albany, a third to the mayor of New York, and a fourth to the mayor of Rochester, each weighing 700 pounds. In return he received from the latter a huge barrel of flour containing ten ordinary barrels.

My Mammoth Cheese article made no pretensions to cataloging every single instance of presidential food tributes, but I will say that this Super-Mammoth Jacksonian Cheese makes one of my points fairly well. Thomas Jefferson’s cheese was a homely salute from a whole community, and it had a political message — New England Baptists’ support for Jefferson’s free-thinking, tolerant approach to religious freedom and many common Americans’ excitement at what promised to be a more democratic era. Jefferson’s Federalist opponents, still clinging to power in many places, sneered at the gesture and turned up their noses at the cheese. (It did smell.)

On the other hand, at least from the account above, Jackson’s cheese was something of an advertising stunt*, and only political in the sense of being the then-existing political establishment’s tribute to itself. A hard-charging local entrepreneur conceived the idea, and Whigs and Democrats and all of Washington society embraced it. Like most of the political festivities of the mid-19th century (as opposed to the earlier period), the Jacksonian Mammoth Cheese was bigger chiefly in the amount of money and ballyhoo that went into it.

*I wonder if the writer of the children’s book I complained about in the article, A Big Cheese for the White House, conflated the two cheeses. In that story, it was the original Mammoth Cheese that was an advertising stunt.


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