Bill Long 11/12/04
Presidential Biographer Extraordinaire
Life is difficult for a Presidential historian/biographer born in the 1920s. He (and they are all he's) was nurtured in the time when Presidential biographers considered their subjects "great men," who were "heroes" of American culture as they saved the Union, created the federal system, gave us a New Deal, or argued for a League of Nations.
Historiographical traditions in America changed, however, in the mid-1980s, just as this "greatest generation" of biographers was at its peak. Instead of laudatory and lionizing biographies, stories began to appear that brought the Presidents down a peg. Instead of being great men pursuing great ideals for a great land, they were complex individuals of conflicting emotions and actions, figuratively and literally coupling with creatures who hitherto had no "voice" in American historical discourse. Thus by the time we reach late 2004 we have a pastiche of biographies, fueled by vastly different historiographical assumptions and generational experiences, all presenting us Presidents that sometimes seem to bear more resemblance to the decade in which they are being written about than to the decades in which they lived.
Meet Robert Remini
So it was with great interest that I attended the lecture of Professor Robert Remini (Fordham '43, Columbia [Ph. D.] '51), without question the most prolific biographer of any United States President. He has written 11 biographies of Andrew Jackson. That is not a typo. But Dr. Remini has also written biographies of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams and Joseph Smith, among others. One might say that he is a master of the texts and significant figures of early nineteenth century America. His comprehensive biography of Jackson (in 3 volumes) appeared just as the aforementioned seismic historiographical shift was beginning (1977-1984).
Yet, he is definitely shaped by the philosophy of the "greatest generation," and he is more indebted to the "great man" view of history and the Jacksonian biographical tradition blazed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1945 (The Age of Jackson) than by the modern critical assessment of Jackson as evidenced in Andrew Burstein's 2003 revisionist biography The Passions of Andrew Jackson.
One should be clear, however, on what I mean by different historiographic traditions. It is not as if Remini ignores the shadow side of Jackson or denies that he viciously killed Indians or relentlessly pursued his political opponents. Yet, throughout his talk (and presumably his longer works), one has the sense that he wants to focus on the "positives," on those things where Jackson helped define the modern state. Whereas Remini would acknowledge that Jackson could be brutal, he chooses to focus instead on Jackson's use of the veto power as an important chapter in the growth of Presidential power. In contrast, a more revisionist historian, looking at the same texts, would be stuck on Jackson's "viciousness" or "vindictiveness" or his self-aggrandizing tendency to ignore the rule of law whenever it pleased him.
Thus, Remini would like to weave Jackson's life into a beautiful and continuing national tapestry while the revisionists are arrested by his cruelty, irrational savagery and political vindictiveness. As one online reviewer has noted, the Dames of the Hermitage, who maintain the Andrew Jackson homestead, would probably stock the shelves of the gift shop with Remini, rather than Burstein, books.
Assessment and Conclusion
Dr. Remini's thesis, in his energetic and clear lecture, was that Andrew Jackson is like a mirror: by knowing him, we know ourselves and, as we know ourselves better, we are better able to understand him. He only had time to give two well-presented examples. First, Jackson's use of the veto power created the modern Presidency, a Presidency where executive power often overrides the legislative and judicial power of the land. Webster and others objected in vain to Jackson's arrogation of this seemingly extra-constitutional prerogative. Second, on a much smaller "human" scale, Jackson sat for portraits nearly every day. Ralph Earl, an early American portrait painter, was married to Jackson's wife's niece, and had a painting studio in the White House. By frequently sitting for portraits Jackson showed that he understood the power of the visual image to identify himself and work his way into the hearts and minds of the American people. Jackson likenesses appearend on fans, vases, plates and numerous other objects before the $20 bill got him. This, Remini says, adumbrated the 20th century realization of the "power of the picture" in political life.
As I left the lecture, I had two overwhelming feelings. First, I felt that we had not even scraped the tip of the iceberg with respect to knowledge of Andrew Jackson. I am trying to remedy this deficiency with some reading of my own, both in Remini and several others. But, second, I noticed something that I will comment on in the next mini-essay. The lecture lasted only about 40 minutes. Polite questioning continued for about 15 more minutes. Then he was hustled away by people in nice suits to a reception for the "big donors" of the lecture. Though Remini was not responsible for that setup, it got me to thinking. Maybe the lecture, good and stimulating as it was, was simply intended as the first part of the ritual of self-congratulation that wealthy people often engage in. After a hard day's work (or a day when you want others to think you worked hard), there is nothing better than to have the sense you are receiving special attention from a scholar whose approach can, however vaguely, be seen to shore up your sense of self and your capitalistic ventures.
I think that everyone enjoyed the evening. And I also enjoyed the next morning as I wrote this essay.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long