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Andy Horowitz

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An Andrew Jackson History Lesson for Newt Gingrich

Posted: 01/20/12 12:29 PM ET

As the presidential candidate with a doctorate in history, Newt Gingrich might help the American public understand how history shapes today's complicated political debates. But Gingrich, evidently, is not up to the job. Judging by his gaffe at Monday night's Republican debate, one wonders if he was really worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars Freddie Mac paid him for his advice, he claims, as a historian. I refer not to his tortured appropriation of black history and politics on Martin Luther King Day, evidenced by his tangle with moderator Juan Williams, but to his awkward confusion of two important Jacksons in American history.

Asked by moderator Brett Baier if he would support a unilateral military operation against a Taliban leader inside of Pakistan, at the cost of severing all U.S.-Pakistani diplomatic relations, Gingrich responded:

We're in South Carolina. South Carolina in the Revolutionary War had a young 13-year-old named Andrew Jackson. He was sabred by a British officer and wore a scar his whole life. Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America's enemies: kill them.

Gingrich was right about the scar, but my search through the collected speeches and writings of President Andrew Jackson turns up no statement similar to the one Gingrich evoked. There is, however, a widely repeated story that fits the bill -- about Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson, Confederate General during the Civil War.

There are several versions, but the most popular one is related in the Thesaurus of Anecdotes and Incidents in the Life of Stonewall Jackson, a 1920 compendium by Elihu Samuel Riley:

Jackson had just closed a tender interview with the wounded and dying Gregg, one of his generals. As he and Dr. McGuire reached the Confederate headquarters, and were closing a conversation in which General Jackson was lamenting the death of such a man as his dying general and the frightful sacrifices the South was making, the doctor asked him what was the best mode of meeting the overwhelming numbers of the Federals. General Jackson replied: 'Kill them, sir! kill every man!

Realizing that the "kill them" quotation comes from Stonewall -- not Andrew -- Jackson gives it a profoundly different valence. Of the many things to say about Stonewall Jackson (in his Civil War documentary, Ken Burns calls him a "pious, blue-eyed killer") here's one: he was a traitor. His "kill them" sentiment was directed towards American soldiers.

Gingrich's mistake is probably no worse than when Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann accidentally invoked the spirit of John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer, rather than John Wayne, the movie star, in the former's birthplace of Waterloo, Iowa this summer. Both incidents point to the general problem of trying to airlift historical comparisons, without context or full information, to try to score a contemporary political point. But even if we forgive Speaker Gingrich his slip, it is not at all obvious that we want to be taking our cues, today, from Andrew Jackson.

Years after that British officer cut young Andy Jackson, he grew up to become a war hero, leading America to victory at the Battle of New Orleans the winter of 1814-1815 -- fought, by the way, some days after the war was settled by the Treaty of Ghent (the news was slow to travel then.) After that war, he overreached his Congressional orders in the late 1810s with an unauthorized invasion of Florida, then controlled by Spain, to fight the Seminole Indians. As president, among Jackson's most profound legacies is the policy of Indian Removal. The only major piece of legislation Jackson championed in Congress, the Indian Removal Act of 1830, enshrined a policy that culminated in 1838 with the military-enforced dispossession of the Cherokees, in what is remembered with regret as the "Trail of Tears." On the original question Speaker Gingrich was asked, having to do with diplomatic relations, Andrew Jackson would not be my go-to guy.

A survey of Andrew Jackson's career offers a host of other decisions worth considering, decisions that don't put him nicely in sync with contemporary Republicans or Democrats. Jackson stood forcefully against Senator John C. Calhoun's theories of nullification and secession, the roots of today's conservative arguments about "states rights." Jackson marshaled unprecedented power in the presidency, and used his veto more than any previous president. He opposed Senator Henry Clay's "American System" of internal improvements, which we might link to stimulus spending today. He dispensed patronage to members of his own party with such abandon that his methods became known as the "spoils system." He stood for a strict separation of church and state, and against the abolition of slavery.

Jackson was a fierce champion of the common man -- meaning white man. The rise of widespread political involvement during the first-half of the nineteenth century is known as "Jacksonian Democracy." His economic policy was laissez-faire, because he thought most forms of intervention served only the powerful. He opposed corporations as a tool of monied interests. He famously engaged in a "Bank War" against rechartering the Second National Bank of the United States. Jackson's message when he vetoed the bank's renewal sounds more like Occupy Wall Street than any of today's presidential candidates might dare, but it also endorses a more benevolent view of the role of government:

It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist... but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society -- the farmers, mechanics, and laborers -- who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.

These are all just snippets of complicated policies, set in a context nearly two centuries removed. But we live with the legacies still. Despite the fact that I, as a Ph.D. candidate in history, believe that more historians should get paid more often for their advice, we must remember that bad history is worse than no history at all.