Old Andy Jackson Would Understand John McCain. Do You?

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Mr. Elder is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Emory University.

Honor is making a comeback in our national political discourse.  A recent Time article proposed honor as the best way to understand what makes John McCain tick, while the Obama campaign criticized a recent McCain television ad in language that produced the eye-catching headline, “Obama aide questions McCain’s honor.” Somewhere a McCain aide is polishing a set of pistols.

The reemergence of honor on the political stage and in the media’s lexicon is directly related to McCain’s candidacy (a semantic analysis of his speeches is fascinating). His family’s military heritage and his own service exposed him to almost the only remaining sphere of modern society in which the old ethic has any life. Honor has always been most closely associated with the military life. The duel, the only historical aspect of honor that people are widely familiar with today, flourished in the officer class of European armies in centuries past, revolving around the “point of honor,” a challenge or insult that could not be overlooked.

 But what the Time article fails to note are the similarities between McCain and another figure in American politics noted for his prickly personality, his military service, and his nearly religious sense of honor.

Honor and the presidency were never more closely wedded than in the person of Andrew Jackson, and it is difficult to avoid comparing McCain with Old Hickory in some respects. Jackson owed his initial fame (and perhaps part of his temperament) to his military service, especially his victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Jackson, like McCain, bore scars that bespoke his commitment to honor and his refusal to polish a British officer’s boots while a prisoner in the Revolution. When Jackson entered the White House in 1829 he carried the extra weight of three bullets gotten in duels, one lodged so near his heart it could not safely be removed. The man who gave him that one was not around to see Jackson take office.

In the 1828 presidential election, Jackson was opposed by John Quincy Adams, and Jackson’s obsession with honor and his volcanic temper led the Adams camp to circulate a handbill covered with coffins (representing men Jackson had killed), painting Jackson as “a wild man under whose charge the Government would collapse.” This, of course, sounds familiar, and the Time article notes that one of the main concerns surrounding McCain is that his sense of honor often leads to white-hot anger. “Wars can get started over honor,” the article quotes one of McCain’s friends as saying.

Honor in the White House offers a mixed record, but it undeniably shaped Jackson’s presidency. In his first term, Jackson obsessed over the public slights and rumors aimed at the vivacious wife of his Secretary of War, Margaret Eaton, and instigated by his other cabinet members’ wives. Jackson believed that slights of a similar nature had killed his beloved wife, Rachel. Sean Wilentz relates that Jackson became so obsessed with defending Eaton’s character that he once made the scandal the sole subject of an entire cabinet meeting, loudly proclaiming of Eaton, “She is as chaste as a virgin!”

In the Nullification Crisis of 1832, Jackson faced down the challenge to national unity and honor posed by South Carolina’s nullification of a federal tariff in what could accurately be described as a political duel. Jackson showed his willingness to use force to defend the national honor while at the same time conceding just enough to the nullifiers to allow them to acquiesce with their honor intact, a brilliant political move worthy of an old duelist and one that showed how well Jackson understood what part honor played in national politics. 

Finally, of course, there is Jackson’s epic battle to destroy the Second Bank of United States and its president, Nicholas Biddle. Jackson saw the bank as a dangerous concentration of power in a republic, run by corrupt aristocrats, and he successfully portrayed the bank as a parasitic encrustation on the national body. There was in Jackson’s campaign against the bank a tone of moral righteousness and a tendency to view the conflict as an affair of honor, a tone and a tendency that are evident in John McCain’s style of politics.

In Jackson’s time, one of honor’s main tenets was the necessity of responding forcefully to any challenge or insult (thus the extra weight he carried in lead). A failure to respond was damning in three ways, implying the truth of the insult, weakness, and disloyalty to honor’s demands. This aspect of honor is mirrored in McCain, as well, and the Time article quotes one of his fellow POWs as saying, “John gets that appeasement doesn't work with our enemies, they have to know that if they slap us, we're going to knock the hell out of them." 

What any comparison between Jackson and McCain can tell us is indistinct, but potentially important. Honor is not a position on an issue. It is a way of looking at the world. It is a constellation of attitudes that guide both action and reaction. The authors of the Time article draw attention to McCain’s sense of honor because in November voters will have to decide “whether or not to make his obsession with honor their own.” In doing so, Americans would be well served by a historical perspective that considers honor’s history in our highest office.

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Leslie Kitchen - 10/17/2008

A current candidate who returned from Vietnam only to dump his wife who had been permanently injured in an automobile accident because he no longer liked the way she looked? This is honor? The man who has used his gaudy, but entirely spotty military record for political gain and as a personal "get-out-of-jail-free card is honorable?

Old Andy Jackson, a proven murderer--honor? The Indian Removal Act and the seizure of Indian lands for profit--this is honor? The man who demogogued against the National Bank and laid the groundwork for the 1837 Panic--whose kind of honor? The man who coldly turned on his own niece because she opposed his will in regard to a sex scandal was honorable?

Strange, strange idea of honor.

R.R. Hamilton - 10/10/2008

It's folly to blame the Panic of 1837 on Jackson's destruction -- years earlier -- of the Second National Bank.

In America before the Depression of the 1930s, Panics came at nearly-predictable 20-year cycles: 1799, 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, 1929. (I could add 1948, 1966, 1987, and 2008, though the improved understanding of central banking has ameliorated these such that they are barely recognized as "panics" in the 1799 to 1929 tradition.)

The Panic of 1837 was not due to Jackson, but to the business cycle.

Tim Matthewson - 10/5/2008

If McCain is elected, how many American men and women soldiers will have to die to satiate the honor of John McCain? Will the mothers of fallen American soldiers feel the deaths of their sons and daughters were justified to preserve the president's sense of honor? Should wars be fought to preserve, protect, and defend the honor of America? Or should Americans only fight when backed into a corner by an enemy and when the enemy menaces the national security of the United States?
Fighting for honor, just like fighting duels, is an antiquated and unjustifiable reason for spilling blood. John McCain developed his bizarre ideas about honor while he lay in sick bay for 5 years at the Hanoi Hilton. Others have shown that McCain equates national honor with victory and assumes that defeat is the most horrible experience an army and nation can endure. But take a look at the thoughts of David Patreaus on this subject. Most important, he does not use such simplistic words as victory, defeat, honor when referring to the Iraq war. Even though observers such as McCain, Bush and Fox News and the Weekly Standard use such words, indeed they have already proclaimed victory in Iraq, those who understand counterinsurgency wars realize that insurgencies are seldom clear cut, decisive, or final. Much like Vietnam, the U.S. can say in Iraq that we won every battle, but the enemy can come back with the retort that winning battles is irrelevant to the final disposition of Iraq. Fighting for "honor" and "victory" is a form of madness born of disturbed minds.

Jon Martens - 10/3/2008

If anything, it was reinforced.

Jon Martens - 10/3/2008

In Jackson's time, a sense of honor could only exist between those who view themselves as equals. Jackson did not view himself as an equal with Native Americans, indeed no one in Jackson's time would have, therefore his honor was not impugned by the Indian Removal Act.

Raul A Garcia - 10/1/2008

The first public knowledge duel was the one between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton- a real tragedy for the latter. Wasn't Burr Jefferson's VP? Most of these men you could not sip wine with, although they can be mesmerizing with political speak. There is too much adulation/hate in toto. We the people remain sovereign although we are ground daily.

Dan Angelino - 9/29/2008

Sure, Jackson was an honorable man. Ask any Cherokee.

Walter D. Kamphoefner - 9/29/2008

Fortunately, Andrew Jackson didn't have any nukes at his disposal.

One could point to other parallels as well: widespread ignorance of economics, with an unprecidented depression as a result--though it was mostly his successor who bore the consequences. And a Palinesque cronyism in the "pet banks" he chose to replace the Bank of the U.S. as a federal depository.