A photograph of Donald Trump on the phone in the Oval Office has been making the rounds on digital media recently, and it got me to thinking about that old expression about a picture being worth a thousand words. I teach American history for a living, so I was both heartened and a bit surprised when I saw a painting of Andrew Jackson adorning the wall behind President Trump. Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president (who coincidentally won in the Electoral College despite earning significantly less than 50 percent of the popular vote) also proudly displayed Jackson’s image above the fireplace in his office, but I suspect it might have been for different reasons.
Andrew Jackson’s ascendancy to the presidency in 1829 was considered a great triumph for the “common man” in his ongoing quest to wrestle political and economic power from the entrenched interests of educated and property-owning elites. Jackson’s supporters loved it when their president enthusiastically castigated uncooperative government officials, obstructionist judges and foreign leaders who refused to go along to get along. Except for the fact that Jackson was a Democrat and likely never used the word “tremendous,” this story line should sound remarkably familiar.
By today’s standards, Jackson was undeniably racist. But then again, from our perspective perched high above the 20th century, nearly all of Jackson’s contemporaries who called themselves Americans look racist, sexist and intolerant to some degree. Their constitutional safeguards for slavery and their widespread support of the Indian Removal Act offend most of our sensibilities, as indeed they should. It seems so clear to us, because with the benefit of hindsight motives and methods and meanings are much easier to nail down when we are dealing with “then and there” rather than “here and now.” It’s impossible to know for sure, but I’m willing to give Donald Trump the benefit of this doubt: I think his affinity for Jackson comes almost exclusively from their shared combativeness and willingness to tell it like it is, which always appeals to a significant segment of our population. Last year, then-candidate Trump referred to Jackson’s presidency as a “tremendous success,” but offered no explanation. Maybe he just likes the painting.
Lincoln, on the other hand, admired Jackson not for his political bravado but rather for having personified the movement that enlarged the meaning of democracy in America. For Lincoln, the story of our nation was like no other. Not perfect or without stain per se, but uniquely qualified in the annals of humankind to advance the notion that people are capable of governing themselves. It is perhaps providential that the man Americans called president on the very day Lincoln entered the world was Thomas Jefferson, author of the five most important words in American history: “All men are created equal.” And just a few days before he died in 1826, Jefferson characterized our nation’s progress at the half-century mark, writing to Washington, D.C., Mayor Roger Weightman: “All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God.”
Lincoln looked up to Jackson because his presidency was proof-positive that the palpable truth to which Jefferson referred was spreading and would indeed continue to spread farther and faster if Lincoln had anything to say or do about it. Given his understanding of America’s unique origins and experiences, Lincoln’s contributions to that unfinished work — the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, preserving the Union, and abolishing slavery in the Constitution — suggest that he took the long view of history. He wanted Jackson glancing sideways at him every day from above his hearthstone as a reminder that much remained to be done to make America a truly free, just, equal, united and righteous nation. Thank God.
I wonder if President Trump has ever thought about any of his predecessors with that much humility. Time will no doubt tell.
Steve Werle, of Minneapolis, is a high school teacher.