Theodore Roosevelt endured a childhood haunted by ill health. Orphaned by age 15, Andrew Jackson struggled for survival in the Carolina back country. Born the first son of a second marriage, George Washington aspired to rise above his inferior social rank. Abraham Lincoln, a child of the frontier, transformed himself through sheer hard work, and perseverance.
Before they were men these four presidents encountered enormous obstacles in order to reach America’s highest office.
This is the topic of four programs I’m presenting this spring. The idea of exploring future presidents childhoods seemed an interesting approach to understanding the past. What I didn’t expect was the anxiety churned up researching Andrew Jackson.
Rereading Chernow’s Washington A Life proved an enjoyable review. Washington was not perfect, and certainly a man of his time. But that he overcame his avarice and ambition makes Washington an affirming subject.
On Lincoln, Douglas Wilson’s Honor’s Voice did no less. The man’s goodness, compassion, and intelligence came directly from overcoming his rustic beginnings. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Wilson, plumbs the depths of Roosevelt’s chronic childhood illnesses, and the directive from his father to overcome his frail body through exercise and sports.
Then there is Andrew Jackson.
HW Brands work, Andrew Jackson His Life and Times, is an oldie but goody; a book I enjoyed a lot. But that was before Donald Trump. Picking up Andrew Jackson, American Lion has been an ordeal. Jon Meacham describes a man who honestly believed he alone could save America by consolidating all power in the White House. Only Jackson spoke for the people, not Congress and certainly not the Courts. And the most distressing element? The Seventh President got away with his autocratic coup because voters let him.
How does his childhood figure into his administration? Jackson never had limits. The early demise of his family, left the boy unsupervised in the backcountry, shuttled from one relative to the next. Somehow his rootless beginnings left in Jackson a volatile temperament of him against the world.
The General murdered scores of Native Americans, and brought home a Creek boy he’d made an orphan. Brutality and tenderness, compassion and racism, love or hate.
For Jackson all issues of state were personal, and loyalty the foundation of all his relationships. In that vein Trump resembles Jackson, plus the vile racism.
What separates Andrew Jackson from Trump is a numbers game. President Jackson, for better or worse did win 55.5% of the popular vote in 1828, 54.2% in 1832. (Each election included four or more candidates) Our seventh President did earn an actual mandate from the people.
Trump did not, and loses more ground every day
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Chumbley has written two plays, “Clay” about the life of Henry Clay, and Wolf By The Ears, an examination of slavery and racism.