Judging America's presidents

Don't be so quick to vilify. Consider Andrew Jackson.

"Is he a president whose accomplishments we should celebrate or a president whose failures we should apologize for?"

It's a question certain to spark a fierce debate about America's current chief executive. But before we begin lamenting the divisiveness of modern politics, it's worth remembering that Americans have elected more than a few presidents through the years who have been celebrated by some, even as they have been deeply detested by others.

Among the most instructive examples is Andrew Jackson. During Jackson's two terms, many idolized him – for he was the first man of humble origins to rise to the presidency and he then helped found the Democratic Party to stand up for other humble men. But many others intensely despised President Jackson for his advocacy of Indian removal – the forcing of tribes east of the Mississippi to resettle west of the river – and his ownership of slaves. Jackson's opponents in Congress were convinced that his vision of an "imperial presidency" would destroy the nation the Founding Fathers had created.

Americans have kept disagreeing about whether he was a good president ever since.

One night recently, a 13-year-old friend who knew I was making a television biography of Jackson came racing into the house in advance of her parents, got right in my face, and screamed, "You're making a film about a very bad man!" Her outrage had been triggered by learning, like millions of other eighth-graders taking American history, how the Cherokees had been driven from their homes by American soldiers and forced to march west into the wilderness so that white Americans could steal their land.

The villain of the story, of course, was Jackson. For some students, his villainy takes on added weight because he's their first exposure – just after they've learned about the remarkable accomplishments of the Founding Fathers – to the idea that the United States can also do evil things. Scholar Dan Feller says many young people he talks to today view Jackson as almost an American Adolf Hitler.

But try telling that to people in the South and you might just get a punch in the mouth for your trouble. In the South, "Old Hickory" is still hugely popular, not only for his triumph in the Battle of New Orleans but because he was the man most responsible for adding Florida to the United States.

In fact, until the 1950s, many Northern liberals also revered Jackson. Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Age of Jackson," published in 1945, barely mentioned Indian removal, instead celebrating Jackson's championing of the working class. And the ultimate accolade our country has given Jackson – his portrait on the $20 bill – was engineered by perhaps the most liberal president in our history, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In Mr. Feller's view, what transformed Jackson's reputation among liberals in the 1950s and 1960s was that the civil-rights movement gave many people a new understanding of the horrors of slavery and Indian removal. And as Feller said, "If you're talking about Hitler, you don't say, 'Well, he built roads and put the German people to work,' because it simply doesn't matter, given the horror of the other things he did. And that's how some people today view Jackson."

To Robert Remini, that's not fair. The most distinguished living biographer of Jackson, Mr. Remini thinks that Americans love to blame Jackson for Indian removal so that we as a nation don't have to take responsibility for it. Remini said: "Americans need to realize that it wasn't just Jackson who removed the Indians, it was the American people who did it. And not only that, we've kept on doing similar things. We 'removed' Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the Congress and the Supreme Court and the vast majority of Americans approved of it. And we, as a nation and as a people, continue to do morally questionable things today."

It's an interesting point. Maybe one reason we celebrate and vilify our presidents with such intensity is that it makes us more comfortable to think that they alone are responsible for what's going on. But when people look back on us in 150 years and consider the most controversial issues of our age – say, the war in Iraq and global warming – perhaps they'll hold not just the president but all of us responsible for the choices that were made.

It's a thought worth keeping in mind as we begin to choose America's next president: On which candidate are you willing to risk your historical reputation?

• Carl Byker is the director of "Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil and the Presidency," airing Jan. 2 on PBS. ©2007 Los Angeles Times.

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