Thursday, January 24, 2013

Here's A Thought

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Monrovia, California

Now that the president has been sworn in again—twice for good measure—it’s safe to speak of the matter as a done deal.  Where are the birthers?  Where are those nattering nabobs of negativity when you need a bit of diversion?  I suppose they’re regrouping somewhere, even though the matter of Obama's eligibility to run for president is now pretty much moot.

Don’t get me wrong with what I’m about to say; I’m glad Obama beat Romney.  But it occurs to me that what Barack Obama has proven he is best at so far is being inaugurated.  These great Patriotic American Prayer Meetings seem to be just the ticket for him, a man who is not religious enough to understand the real danger of religion; who on the domestic front is not far enough to the left to sufficiently fear the excesses of the right, and who on the international front is not critical enough of the crimes of the imperial United States to make any realistic attempts to lessen them.  On Monday we heard lots of hope and determination and “make no mistake about it” rhetoric.  If only he could be inaugurated every day.  The nation’s capital could adopt a new slogan:  “Welcome to Washington D.C., where every day is Inauguration Day.”

A smooth inauguration hasn’t been the case with all presidents, by any means.  William Henry Harrison, for instance, droned on for hours in harsh weather, catching a cold and dying of pneumonia thirty days later.  I’m just finishing a biography of John Quincy Adams, and from the description of his single inaugural address it seems that his speech was received coldly, and that things went rapidly downhill from there.  His chief opponent, Andrew Jackson, whom he’d outmaneuvered to gain the requisite electoral votes, resigned from the Senate less than a year later to begin a three-year campaign for president, which resulted in Adams’s resounding defeat in 1828.

The newly-named Jacksonian Democrats of that day—who, lest anyone think that Democrats have always been the good guys, were politically nearly identical to the ignorant, racist, central-government-hating Republicans of today—did their propagandizing during Adams's term with an alacrity that would warm the cockles of Carl Rove’s heart.  As a result they elected a toothless, ruthless old retired general who walked around Washington with a pair of loaded pistols on his belt, and liked to use them.  He was regarded as a champion of the common man, and I suppose he was, as long as that common man wasn’t a black person, of whom he owned several hundred, or a member of an Indian tribe, whose systematic forced relocation to Oklahoma he initiated during his presidency.

For some reason this rather disgusting individual—Andrew Jackson—has captured the popular imagination and completely overshadowed his learned, enlightened, and eminently-qualified predecessor John Quincy Adams.  Adams had spent his life as an ambassador to European governments, then as a Senator, and for eight years as Secretary of State under James Monroe.  For better or worse, he articulated what later became known as the Monroe Doctrine.  He fostered U.S. expansion through diplomacy while Jackson was busy slaughtering blacks, Indians, and anybody else who got in his way.  He spoke half a dozen languages and had helped negotiate treaties, including the one that ended the War of 1812 two weeks before Jackson’s strategically worthless victory over the British in New Orleans.

In Adams’s inaugural address he espoused many of the same goals of using the government to foster education and transportation and care for the people that Barack Obama did a only few days ago.  As president he advocated what for the time was comparatively decent treatment of Native Americans.  But the Congress and the citizenry were having none of it.  They wanted to preserve slavery and give every poor white man a patch of land, and cared little for education, enlightenment, or tolerance.  So, with a legislature that opposed his every move, the aloof Adams had to go at the end of a single term.  But he didn’t retire gracefully, instead taking a seat in the House of Representatives for the next eighteen years and dedicating the remainder of his life to fighting against the slavery that Jackson and his Democratic successors supported.

Revisiting the life of John Quincy Adams has made me wonder why, in the 21st century, when we at long last have at least nominal equality of the races, and indeed a person of color as our chief executive, the Democrats still claim the likes of Jackson and Jefferson as their own.  Neither the patrician slave-raping Jefferson, godfather of the infamous Nullification Doctrine that eventually led South Carolina and its sister states to secede from the Union, nor the loutish, self-made cracker and slave owner Jackson (who, to his credit, at least opposed the idea of secession)—embodies any of the ideals of the modern Democratic Party.  Yet each year the party of Barack Obama still holds a Jefferson-Jackson Day fundraiser.  Both men have their portraits on coins and paper money, and both are regarded as “good” or even “great” presidents.  The Adamses, father and son, who would never have thought to own a slave, and both of whom encouraged the enlightened use of the federal government to further the welfare of the citizens of the country, get precious little recognition.  Nor for that matter do the likes of John Brown and Thaddeus Stevens—two men who not only opposed to slavery with all their might but who believed in the absolute equality of blacks and whites—get their due as national heroes.

In part, this glitch in our collective memory owes itself to the long-time dominance of the southern wing of the Democratic Party over the rest of the party, which persisted into the 1960s before being broken forever by a southerner, Lyndon Johnson.  The vestiges of the  myth of southern nobility and virtue existed, eerily, side by side with the progressivism of FDR, Truman, and even Kennedy, until the white south finally decided to throw in with the modern Republicans, who today bear as little resemblance to the party of Lincoln as a pig in a tutu does to a prima ballerina.

But that doesn’t completely explain the persistent favoritism toward the iconic figures of the murky Democratic past, most of whom were southern racists.  It produced much of the richly propagandistic revisionist history that was written in the first half of the 20th century, and taught to us in school even during the nascent modern Civil Rights movement.  We were invited to see the Civil War as having arisen from a complex and nuanced set of factors, mostly economic, to which the institution of slavery itself was almost incidental.  We were constantly reminded that many northern whites were racially prejudiced, too, as if that erased the fact that they died by the hundreds of thousands in a war to end slavery.  And we were asked to view men like Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor—southerners and slaveholders all—as great military strategists who were justly rewarded with the presidency.  Even the arch-traitor Robert E. Lee was almost revered for having to make the difficult choice between his nation and his slaves.  We were fed the party line as well on the Texas “War of Independence,” being told that Crockett and Travis and Houston fought to free themselves from Mexican tyranny, when even the politicians of the time (including John Quincy Adams) knew that the only reason the Anglos had revolted was to gain white control over the territory and restore slavery after the Mexican government had abolished it in 1822.  John Brown was, we were told, a misguided nut for trying to lead an armed slave revolt.  And Thaddeus Stevens?  Who even heard of him before Tommy Lee Jones played him in the recent “Lincoln” movie?

As for Ulysses Grant, the Republican Union general who became truly dedicated to the destruction of slavery and the Confederacy and later the radical reconstruction of the South, and who as president sent federal troops to fight the Ku Klux Klan and pushed through the Fifteenth Amendment, granting blacks the right to vote, well, his administration was consigned to the dustbin of history with that of Warren G. Harding, labeled simply as “corrupt.”  The list of specific and general lies we were told about freedom and slavery goes on and on.     

History. All that stuff about us being condemned to repeat the past if we don’t remember it is, as someone  said, bunk.  We’re bound to repeat it whether we remember it or not.  But seeing the faces of revered slave owners on our bills and coins--those daily tangible reminders of our history and our government--does not help us to face the truth about them, and constitutes an insult to the nation.

Until 1909, no presidential portrait ever appeared on a coin in this country, and from 1869 to 1914, the only presidents whose faces adorned our greenbacks were Washington and Jefferson.  So here’s a thought:  Let’s put our money where our mouths are and remove from our currency the visage of any man who believed in owning another human being.  They don’t deserve to be there, however enlightened their beliefs about the rights of a small privileged segment of humanity were, and we can do better.  That would leave the nickel and the quarter open, as well as the one, two, and twenty dollar bills.  Maybe old John Quincy Adams could fit in there somewhere.  We could do worse.

In addition to his many other accomplishments, John Quincy Adams dabbled in poetry all his life.  Here's a bit from a poem he wrote while he was president:

Who but shall learn that freedom is the prize
Man still is bound to rescue or maintain:
That nature's God commands the slave to rise,
And on the oppressor's head to break the chain.
Roll, years of promise, rapidly roll round,
Till not a slave shall on this earth be found.