Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What was Andrew Jackson Thinking?

Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian. By Michael Paul Rogin. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. Pp. [xxii], 373, xii. $16.95.) ISBN: 0887388868
Book Review by Jared Frederick

Michael Paul Rogin’s study of the Jacksonian Era in Fathers and Children is a mixture of social, political, and psychoanalytic history that attempts to explain the reasoning for Andrew Jackson’s governmental mentalities in general and his seemingly vindictive policies against Native Americans in particular.
Using Freudian analysis as a method to measure Old Hickory’s actions, the heart of Rogin’s message rests in the idea of Jackson as a tool and a symbol of American expansion and all the capitalistic opportunities entailed within. In this context, Rogin claims Jackson viewed himself as the replacement for the legacies of the deceased Founding Fathers. Here, the removal of the American Indian from his lands would prove to be Jackson’s presidential litmus test in the process of advancing his national agendas including the destruction of the National Bank.

In the years that American began to mature, national expansion became a centerpiece of politics and business. At the center of this topic was the issue of Indian removal. This endeavor was a major policy of the Andrew Jackson administration yet few historians, Rogin contends, have placed Indians at the center of Jackson’s life and have failed to see the Jacksonian Era as one of native genocide and subjugation. Entwined with this notion is the long-held perspective, also held toward blacks, that paternalistic approaches were implemented to coerce another race in order to attain white advancement. For some Americans, it was initially difficult to reconcile the destruction of Native Americans with that of the American self-image. However, paternalistic instincts eventually compensated for this seeming contradiction in the minds of many citizens. Jackson’s vice president Martin Van Buren echoed the sentiments of his president in stating that there “was perhaps in the beginning unjustifiable aggressors [against natives], but of whom, in the progress of time and events, we have become the[ir] guardians and . . . benefactors” (4). In this sense, Indians were viewed in a childlike manner. The family-centered structure of native life was one that Jackson himself was denied in the wake of his parents and brothers deaths by the time he was fifteen. Rogin claims that by placing national identity within the context of Jackson’s own personal loss, Jackson became a replacement patriarchal figure for Americans mourning the loss of father figures. In other words, the psychoanalytic excavation of Jackson’s life came to embody the society he rose to lead. In this sense and many more, the author argues, Jackson became the first modern American president. One could claim that the story of early America is the story of Andrew Jackson. As Rogin contends, this “history of westward expansion and psychic regression, of regeneration through violence and flawed maturity, is the biography of Jackson” (13). In this sense, Rogin shatters romanticized consensus interpretations of Jackson’s life by revealing him as a leader with a troubled past, an irascible temper, and an extremely protective and removed manner of conducting business.

As the sons of those who led the Revolution came to power, their domination over the “childish” natives symbolized America’s growth from childhood to maturity. Andrew Jackson was the embodiment of this idea. As a son of the Revolution who rose from rags to riches, his personal story encapsulated the essence of the self-made man while inspiring his fellow expansionist Americans to follow in his footsteps of domination and capitalization. Conquering Indian lands reunited whites with the natural landscape and further ingrained them in the increasingly popular notions of Manifest Destiny. Leaders such as Jackson argued that only a paternal-like government could save native nations from themselves or extinction. As Rogin makes clear, however, paternalism better accommodated the needs of whites than it ever did for Indians. Thousands would be dispossessed from their homes in the wake of the broader market economy which replaced more localized household economies.

The quest for capital was an undeniable goal in the Manifest Destiny Jackson helped to initiate. The seizing of land was perhaps one of the greatest international economic implications of the 19th Century. Indian removal allowed for the planting of cotton and additional crops, which eventually increased the production of northern industry as well as foreign exports. Also within this framework, black slaves were judged with paternal instinct similar to that of Native Americans. Their fate in this “new” west, too, would ignite sectional disharmony and a subsequent fratricidal civil war. In these western territories, Indians and then slaves became the victims of a broader capitalist agenda to attain land and all its resources located therein. The inherent weakness is in Rogin’s argument is also his strength. While the author’s use of psychoanalytic method to uncover Jackson’s ideological roots is beneficial in many cases, Rogin nevertheless makes over-reaching claims in comparing instances of Jackson’s adult behavior to stages of infancy and childhood. One cannot argue that this claim does not add to the historiographical discussion of Jackson’s legacy, however. All in all, Rogin concludes that Jackson’s rise (as well as America’s), embodied the notion that the young republic was no longer childlike, but was growing and evolving “from nature to a capitalist civilization” (13).

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