Politics & Policy

Abolishing the Jefferson–Jackson Dinner

Presidential portraits by Rembrant Peale and Ralph E.W. Earl
Democrats are tossing their former heroes down the memory hole.

Last weekend, the West Virginia Democratic party had its Jefferson–Jackson dinner, at which Bill Clinton urged West Virginia to return to the bosom of the Left. Jefferson–Jackson dinners are Dem fundraisers and whip rallies; this week and next, a couple more are taking place, in Ohio and Indiana. The weekend after next is the premier Jefferson–Jackson dinner, Iowa’s, which will host the Democratic presidential candidates and open caucus season.

It will be Iowa’s last Jefferson–Jackson dinner. The name is being abolished, because one day the Democratic party woke up and realized that Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson — rather than being two men who helped found their party and this country — were actually beneath contempt. The Jefferson–Jackson dinners in Connecticut, Georgia, and Missouri have already had their names changed; according to the New York Times, similar censorship is being mulled is New Hampshire, South Carolina, Arkansas, Maine, and Tennessee.

Neither Thomas Jefferson nor Andrew Jackson was perfect; each made serious mistakes in his life. But this is a stupid idea.

Let’s take Jackson first. I am no fan of Andrew Jackson. He was, at times, ruthless, unreasonably harsh, even treacherous. His great sin, of course, was the Indian Removal Act. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that some of my great-great-great-great-great-grandparents were Cherokees, who lived in southwest North Carolina, in one of the communities that would end up being displaced onto the Trail of Tears (though I certainly don’t claim to speak for Cherokees). So — doing my best to be impartial — I will say that the Indian Removal Act was a tragedy. But Andrew Jackson was no Hitler to American Indians.

The Indian Removal Act did not begin as an Andrew Jackson initiative; the issue had already been debated for a quarter-century before he took office. In part, it was a question of state vs. federal powers: Who was in charge of dealings with sovereign entities inside a state’s borders? That became mixed up with unfair and illegal efforts in some Southern states to force American Indians off their land, and with efforts to staunch violence between Indians and whites. The federal government and the state of Georgia had been negotiating this since 1802; Congress’s and Jackson’s hands were forced when, after 27 years of talks, the Southern states said (in short) that they were going to start taking Indian land whether or not the feds said they could.

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Indian tribes would have to leave if they wished to stay independent. Andrew Jackson seems to have encouraged them not to, believing that they should renounce their culture and integrate. However, he said in his Removal Act address to Congress, “If it be their [American Indians’] real interest to maintain a separate existence, they will there [in their new territory] be at liberty to do so without the inconveniences and vexations to which they would unavoidably have been subject” in the Southern states, which were, on their own, moving to begin regulation of Indian tribes.

Indian removal should never have happened, and Jackson is certainly guilty of an important role in it. But that role does not qualify him as genocidal. Though I would not name a dinner of my own after him, nor do I choose to belong to any party that he founded, the Democrats’ trying to erase him from their history is a mistake. It implicitly supports the position that Jackson was guilty of genocide, and, frankly, that isn’t fair. It also bears mentioning that, without Jackson’s leading the fight in the Battle of New Orleans, the U.S. might not have survived the War of 1812.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Norbert Rehme/Dreamstime)

Much more important to me is the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, who — unlike Jackson — was a great man. In many ways, he was a contradiction — he did own slaves, but there is no question that he abhorred slavery. The fact is, the only meaningful way to tell how liberal-minded an historical figure was is to compare him to his contemporaries. This is what I always have to remind myself when I look at how (my fellow) Jews were treated in the Middle Ages: Some cities made them wear yellow stars or hats, and live in ghettos, but also let them practice their religion, protected them from abuse and harassment, and ensured they were governed by the law rather than the mob — while other cities simply banned their existence.

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Thomas Jefferson did own slaves, but, unlike many slave-owners, he was not inhuman: He did not allow his slaves to be overworked, he gave them Sundays and holidays off, he allowed them to own property, and he provided them with (relatively) comfortable homes. He was known to purchase slaves for the purpose of reuniting families. He called for the Declaration of Independence to include a condemnation of slavery; that passage was removed from the final draft at the behest of the Southern states. He called the Atlantic slave trade and slave markets “violations of human rights . . . which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe.” He succeeded, during his presidency, in banning the import of slaves. Previously, Jefferson had proposed banning slavery in the Western Territories; that bill was defeated by a single vote. His slave overseer and one of his slaves are reported to have said that it was Jefferson’s desire to free all his slaves. He did free some of them. After his death, the others were sold to cover his debts.

Thomas Jefferson did much, much more to advance the cause of freedom than anyone involved in a Jefferson–Jackson dinner ever will.

In no sense am I defending Jefferson’s having owned slaves, just as I am in no sense defending Jews’ being forced to live in ghettos. But the fact is, Thomas Jefferson did much, much more to advance the cause of freedom than anyone involved in a Jefferson–Jackson dinner ever will. To accept removing his name from Jefferson–Jackson dinners is tacitly to agree with the assertion that he was a bastard. And that’s simply intolerable.

Of course, the Democrats are free to call their fundraisers whatever they want. But remember, what is permissible today is mandatory tomorrow. How many Jefferson and Jackson High Schools are going to be forced to change their names? Who comes next? George Washington? Abraham Lincoln? Bill Clinton, for having opposed gay marriage and supported Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Who will survive the purge? Don’t find yourself in the position, ten years from now, of having to say, “First they came for Andrew Jackson, and I did not speak out, because I didn’t like him.”

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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