Thursday, September 04, 2008

Andrew Jackson

Jackson, our seventh president, may have been only partly literate. Don't let that fool you. Historian David Hackett Fisher relates an event when the exact wording of complex legislation was being debated in Tennessee for over a week. Some early drafts had been misplaced; people wanted to consider returning to an earlier wording of key passages; tempers were running high. Jackson recited all earlier drafts word for word, including the debate about the changes, at points identifying who had said what. Such feats of memory were more common on the frontier, where folks relied less on books and writing for their education. Many who could read could not write, though men of importance labored to teach themselves to make at least their own signature with a flourish.

So in the town histories where your ancestor signed with an "X," it didn't necessarily mean he couldn't read, and certainly not that he was stupid. The term "unlettered" had a specific meaning we have since made general.

Jackson practiced law, specializing in land claims, even though he had read few books of law. He developed a reputation for sizing up liars and charlatans quickly. His marriage to Rachel was clouded in controversy, and there are still conflicting accounts of how proper it was for him to have taken her from her abusive husband. Some say he thought her divorce was final and simply made a mistake; others that he had forced the divorce by absconding with another man's wife.

Some regard him as a great president, others are more sparing in their praise. He was a Scots-Irish frontiersman, rough, domineering, unpolished. He considered himself the representative of the common people, and took any aspersions on his lack of social graces as an insult to his people more than himself. This was not uncommon in a tanistry system (from which we get the word "thane," you Shakespeare and Tolkien fans). The thane and his people were closely identified, sharing glory and insult together.

Democratic Senator Jim Webb, one of the new blue dogs, has written movingly on how the Scots-Irish have made this country what it is more than any of the other waves of immigrants that arrived. (Born Fighting: How The Scots-Irish Shaped America) He is prejudiced, of course, as these are his people, and we all overvalue the contributions of our own ancestors. But Webb may have a case here. John McCain, BTW, is descended from this group as well.

Andrew Jackson would never be elected in our current primary system. The Eastern elites, powerful then as now, would have laughed him out of several states, where he would win only a few percent of the vote where people considered him a bumpkin and a hick. Yet he was likely smarter than they were, and certainly stronger, a better judge of character, and a better leader. He didn't know who the ambassadors from European countries were, and he didn't care that he didn't know. If he had to deal with one, he studied up on it and moved on.

I don't know if Sarah Palin is going to be an Andrew Jackson - that's a pretty high standard for anyone. But that's the type of leader she's aspiring to be, and that may be the best standard to judge her by. As I noted in a previous post, she is not from my tribe, er, hive, and my ears are quick to reject her unless I force myself to look at what she has and has not done, what her tendencies are, where she wants to go. I have to remember that a large percentage of my Puritan ancestors probably looked down on Jackson, but they were wrong. (My own Scots-Irish ancestors, though they came from the Merrimack Valley instead of Appalachia, may have liked him just fine).


Anonymous said...

I'll be here tomorrow:

Highland Games at Ligonier

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Ours are in a few weeks in NH

Donna B. said...

Albion's Seed is one of my favorite books, in that it is one I've got bookmarks stuck in and notes in the margin and re-read various parts of several times a year.

My ancestry is Scots-Irish, English, Dutch, Irish, and Scots, with a little Native American thrown in for good measure.

I have ancestors that fought on both sides of the Revolution and both sides of the Civil War. Some were illiterate, some were lawyers, some were inventors. Most were poor farmers.

What amazes me about all of them is how they were influenced by Jacksonian ways. If I had to use one word to describe my heritage, it would be Jacksonian.

And I'm really quite proud of that :-)

OBloodyHell said...

> Such feats of memory were more common on the frontier, where folks relied less on books and writing for their education.

They were more common by and large in past times when cultures averaged being less literate. Mnemonic cultures make up for the level of illiteracy.

How Jackson would have been less literate in a culture which still had widespread literacy as the US did after the Revolution but before we got The Germanic System of Indoctr-- Sorry "Education" -- I wonder about.

That's why they had so many mnemonics, BTW... -- Some of the lyrics to the Simon & Garfinkel song, "Scarborogh Fair" are actually the ingredients to a medaeval love potion.

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