I saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Public Theater. It grabbed me. Musicals that portray little-known aspects of American life strike a chord in me: Floyd Collins and Dreamgirls are two of my favorites, and my thesis musical at NYU, Americo Presents the Stars and Stripe Cavalcade, was a Cabaret-style skewering of all those milky American myths we’re force fed throughout grade school.
It also grabbed me because of what it managed to do: make Andrew Jackson a character who sings. Brendan Milburn and I struggled with how to make John Brown sing (I mentioned this a few weeks ago after my visit to Harpers Ferry), but Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson solved it by making its subject a rock star. Old Hickory was a young emo dude in tight, tight pants, and who spouted vulgarities as he guided his own outsized ego around the stage like a parade float. John Brown would be a rock star, too, I decided.
But BBAJ was more than just a diversion to me. It was a very clear metaphor. Although its first drafts were written before we’d ever heard of Sarah Palin, it seemed to warn about the American tendency to nurture cults of personality into positions of power, where they can really do some awful damage, such as creating the Trail of Tears.
Good grief, I thought. Are we going through this again? I began to see a lot of similarities between Old Hickory and that woman on Fox News. They were both the products of their own vicious, divided, violent times, when old ways of doing things were falling apart and a new way was clearly demanded.
• Both Palin and Jackson rose from the wildernesses of their nation
• Palin claims to be the choice of the people. Jackson, too, was swept to office with a rally cry of populism
• Jackson was known as a fierce military man; Palin can shoot a moose from the sky
• Both came from modest families, had weak educational backgrounds, and began political careers in lowly posts
• Both Palin and Jackson gained support by claiming to despise elitism, federalism, and business-as-usual Washington; both deeply mistrusted those in power
• They share fierce nationalism, and both implied they were the right kinds of patriots, as opposed to the people who disagreed with them; for both, humble roots are the noblest pedigree of a true American
• Palin has a persecution complex, and a paranoia about a constant tide of enemies — or at least, pretends to in many speeches. Jackson did, too, and his letters prove it
• Palin’s private life turned into a major campaign issue; Jackson’s wife Rachel was dragged through the mud for being a bigamist; the validity of the marriages of both were eternal topics of debate
• Both paid attention to political details, gathering supporters in a broad range of classes and occupations, and collecting the support of crucial news organizations to paint their opponents as undemocratic, elitist, and exclusive
• Jackson was about the preservation of the white yeoman gentry; Palin is the heroine of the middle-class Christian
• Palin quit the governorship mid-term, Jackson quit the Senate. He did it to run for president later. (He was also the governor of Florida for just nine months)
• The morality of both were intensely questioned while, ultimately, it was their values (less than their abilities) that earned them followers. Every move Palin makes is examined for its propriety; so were Jackson’s
• Palin and Jackson both derive(d) power by whipping Americans into a state of furious anti-Federalism
• Both were widely judged to be incompetent for the presidency, with little state and legistlative experience
• Jackson mocked his opponents with sneering nicknames such as “the aristocrats” and “the Monarchial party”; Palin employs derisive nicknames routinely, such as with “fatcats”
• The fortunes of both turned on the actions of an unemployed painter: Joe the Plumber’s antics may have cost McCain/Palin points, while an unemployed house painter tried to assassinate Jackson on the steps of the Capitol (he had two guns, but both misfired)
• Both had sons who required special attention; Palin’s son Trig is well-known, but what’s largely forgotten is that Jackson adopted an Indian, Lyncoya, who was orphaned after Jackson and his men killed some 850 in the Creek War. (I can only imagine that caring for these children absolved some inner conflicts, and at the least softened them to criticism for their political actions.)
Although he was responsible for many military deaths in the name of his various causes, he was also fond of duels. He murdered a man, a political rival named Dickinson, in a duel once. He let the other guy shoot first. “Great God, have I missed him?” Dickinson asked his second. But no, Jackson has taken the bullet, right near his heart, and now that his rival’s shot was spent, he took his turn. He pulled his trigger and polished Dickinson off.
Yeah, Jackson was a badass; there’s no doubt of that. But being a badass does not make you fit for anything except a bottle fight. But one can never underestimate the American tendency to elect the person they wish they were like, rather the one who is probably most fit to lead.
Because Americans thought it would be a great idea to vote for the underdog, he eventually won the presidency in 1828. Upon his inauguration, he threw the doors of the White House open for all Americans to celebrate. They trashed the place, smashing the china soiling the furniture, and nearly collapsing the floorboards.
That turned out to be one of American history’s greatest metaphors. In truth, he was not well equipped to navigate Washington, the rules of our government, and his own murky beliefs about just how far the Federal government should extend into states’ lawbooks. When push came to shove, and when it came to implementing his agenda, he couldn’t hack it.
He wound up creating the Trail of Tears — an abhorrent act of genocide, a national shame forever — and because of the deaths and destruction he approved and enabled, many call him the American Hitler. He ratified dozens of treaties but pretty much broke them all. He also had a big hand in creating the system in which the President rewards the party die-hards by giving them positions in his government. We all know what kind of fanaticism and divisive gamesmanship that can breed now.
Some people say he averted a civil war over the role of federal power. This, though, had much to do with the machinations of the people around him, and let’s not forget that a real civil war came 30 years later, and he also did nothing to eliminate slavery, which would have averted that, too.
BBAJ suggests pretty strongly that maybe it’s not a great idea to let the people decide everything that governs them. You don’t elect someone who plays outside the rules and still expect them to advance the game. It’s probably not any better an idea than letting corporations and business take over the government and wriggle out of regulation, as has happened in the past 30 years and which has now resulted in two ongoing wars over oil and an entire sea turned into a garbage pool by BP.
Even though the crowd that attends New York theatre is a bit more versed in American history than Mom and Pop Walmart usually is, most of them didn’t know that much about Jackson. How could we, when our mythology has done so much to expunge his sins from the record? After all, Jackson is enshrined on the $20 bill despite the fact he worked tirelessly to abolish the national bank entirely, going as far as taking federal money out and giving it to state banks. (Mostly unregulated, they frittered it away, causing a depression).
Looking forward, what is Sarah Palin capable of? Jackson thought any attack on him was an attack on his people, and Palin sure talks that way, too, showing the same steadfast ambition for the highest office that he wanted, and eventually scored twice. She’s certainly a rock star to her followers, and her platform and snide verbiage is every bit as effective as Jackson’s was in the 1820s and 1830s.
I do see one difference, besides the fact Jackson hated corporations: He was adamant that no state had the right to “nullification,” meaning it could not strike down, individually, any federal law it wanted. But Sarah Palin has already come out in defense of Arizona’s immigration papers law, saying the federal laws were not to Arizona’s satisfaction. In that, even though I can’t stand the guy, I lean toward Jackson’s side. Defending unity has its benefits; Palin’s version, though, sounds more like anarchy.
She hasn’t given us a Trail of Tears, and she may never do so, but history is almost always a guide, at least of what’s possible. And history is always a warning never to underestimate the underdog in a bottle fight.