Founders and Presidents, History and Memory

November 17, 2003

It appears that, according to a pretty decent looking quiz, of all the founders I most resemble George Washington.

Which Founding Father Are You?

Invisible Adjunct is Hamilton. This ties into something I was thinking about last night after reading Jake at Political Aims talking about Ronald Reagan's legacy.

Several people have compared Reagan with past Presidents of the U.S., and one of the more common comparisons is between Reagan and Andrew Jackson. The two have a fair number of things in common: both were derided as dunces by their foes; both were smart politicians; both introduced controversial economic policies; both presided over a boom while in office but had their vice presidents first succeed them and then lose after one term because of an economic crash; both were strong nationalists; both believed in shifting decisions from the federal to the state government wherever possible. Finally, both were controversial in their day because of their response to law and the Constitution. Jackson played fast and loose with the balance of powers during Indian removal and the Bank War; Reagan presided over the adminstration during Iran-Contra.

What struck me the most about the two men, however, was the difference between their immediate and their eventual legacies. Let me explain. Jackson was censured by the Senate for his actions during the bank war. After Jackson left office, his partisans worked for years until they were able to remove that censure from the official record; they wanted to vindicate his name. Reagan was not censured, but his partisans have worked for years after Reagan left office, trying to name a federal building in all 50 states after him, contemplating adding him to Mt. Rushmore, and otherwise turing RR into an omnipresent visual and aural icon.

When I introduce Jackson to the students, the first thing that comes up is Indian removal. Regardless of what other things they learn about Jackson, they keep coming back to the Trail of Tears. Some students call it genocide, I call it ethnic cleansing, but people in the 21st century are appalled by it. Indian Removal smells bad today; it smelled bad at the time as well. Jackson had a clearly defined choice and took the more expedient rather than the more moral option. Joe Ellis suggests that Jackson was trying to undermine support for South Carolina Nullification by pandering to the other Southern and Wester States, but Jackson still made this moral decision.

The tragedy of Indian Removal came in two parts. In the first part, state governments with assistance from the Federal governments systemattically undermined Indian self-government and pressured the indians into selling out at a loss, trading improved land in the East for less land, unimproved land, in what is now Oklahoma. The Yazoo River Delta is some of the best farmland in the world; Oklahoma is not nearly that good. The second part, the migration, is what everyone remembers. The migration was poorly planned and poorly supplied. Indian leaders wanted to rest before starting the trip, U.S. Army officers in charge of the migration agreed, and the late start meant that they did not arrive in Oklahoma until long after snow fell. About a third of the Cherokees died during that march. Other tribes also had terrible losses during the migration, and all the South East tribes had their autonomy, governance, traditions, and viabilty devastated by the removal process. Indian removal killed about 30,000 Indians, and I know people who don't know much history but, literally, froth at the mouth when condemning Jackson as a genocidal murderer.

How does this relate to Reagan? Jake Rosenfeld links to a NYT article by Frank Rich suggesting that people are becoming more and more aware of Reagan's lack of response to the AIDS crisis. Like Jackson, Reagan made a moral decision knowing that there were better alternatives. He ignored AIDS and hoped it would go away when he could have dramatically slowed the progress of the disease by starting an awareness campaign. Face it, it is hard to catch sexually transmitted diseases; you have to be amazingly intimate before the disease can jump the body barrier. Prevention works, not perfectly, but it works. Reagan knew that, and decided to ignore AIDS and hope it would go away. Over 50,000 Americans died of AIDS during Reagan's administration; Reagan's silence meant that many people caught the disease who would have been spared if there had been better public health policies.

Just as we hold Jackson culpable for both the policy decision to pursue Indian Removal and the deadly implementation of that policy, so too will future generations hold Reagan culpable for the policy decision to ignore AIDS and the deadly consequences of that willful ignorance. If Jackson can be called genocidal for killing 30,000 Indians, what does that make Reagan and his 50,000? I will not get into the details to which we can blame U.S. public health policy in the 1980s for the pandemic in Africa, I do suspect that the disease would have gotten loose there eventually, but even today, in 2003, Reagan fans are effectively spreading AIDS by refusing to share the most effective public health measures. That too is part of the Reagan legacy.

We condem the British officials who worsened the Great Hunger in Ireland because, according to their ideology, the best thing to do was let starving Irishmen find work in the free market. 4,000,000 of 8,000,000 Irish died or emmigrated, over a third of the missing died of hunger or exposure. We should condemn American politicians and officials who are still worsening the AIDS pandemic in Africa because, according to their ideology, abstinence is the only acceptable way to prevent sexually transmitted disease. I do not know how many millions will die, or will die early, because of this policy, but the numbers dwarf the Great Hunger.

So when people make their lists of the great presidents of the 20th century, Reagan will go on that list just as Jackson goes on the list for great presidents of the 19th century. Both men: led a wartime conflict (1812, Cold War), refocused the Federal government, presided over a dramatic political realignment, and promulgated policies that can readily be interpreted as mass murder.

We think twice these days before slapping Jackson's name on things. There was a movement to take AJ off the $20 during the last makeover. I happen to believe that AJ should stay on the money; I would be very cautious about sending my children to Andrew Jackson Elementary School. When people try to slap Reagan's name on things, we need to ask the same questions about moral decisions and moral consequences that we ask about Jackson.

Try putting this appositive phrase after Ronald Reagan's name on the next federal building: Ronald Reagan, the mass murder who presided over the end of the Cold War. Do you still want a batch of Washington party hacks to slap that name on your building?

Posted by Red Ted at November 17, 2003 09:30 AM | TrackBack