Saturday, April 22, 2006

Opposing tyranny the American way: Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and appointments with destiny

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., discusses his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Age of Jackson in the current print edition of the New York Review of Books: History and National Stupidity 04/27/06 edition.  (The online link is unfortunately behind subscription.)

Schlesinger's book was published in 1945.  He explains in the new essay the particular perspective that shaped his book.  His treatment of Jackson and his time was intended "to shift the argument from section to class".  In other words, where the tendency then was to talk about the Jacksonian movement in terms of a sectional movement of South and West, Schlesinger tried to refocus attention on the class aspects of it, aspects which were very prominent in Jackson's own time.

He was also examining Jackson's Presidency in terms of the ways it anticipated Franklin Roosevelt's.  He writes:

In advancing my interpretation, I was conditioned by the passions of my era. Conservatives in the angry Thirties used to fulminate against the New Deal as "un-American." I wanted to show that far from importing foreign ideas, FDR was acting in a robust American spirit and tradition. Jackson's war against Nicholas Biddle and the Second Bank of the United States thus provided a thoroughly American precedent for the battles that FDR waged against the "economic royalists" of his (and my) day.

His reference to "economic royalists" picks up a phrase which FDR used in his "Rendezvous with Destiny" speech of 1936 (both text and audio are included at that link; the text only is here).  Ronald Reagan quoted the phrase "rendezvous with destiny" in his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention.  But we never heard any quotations about the "economic royalists" from him.

Reading the text of Roosevelt's speech - or, even, more hearing a recording of it - is a dramatic reminder of how generally conservative and even stodgy our politics in America have become.  It's hard to imagine even a long-stretch Democratic candidate talking this way today, much less a President of the United States.

Admittedly, it was his acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic Convention.  But, still, I can't help but think that one of the reasons the Republicans now control all three branches of the national government is that the Democrats have gotten much too far away from this kind of thinking and willingness to fight for the good of working people.

In that speech, Roosevelt described the growth of the corporate economy and the effects it had on economic and political power:

For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital - all undreamed of by the Fathers - the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.

There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small-businessmen and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. They were no more free than the worker or the farmer. Even honest and progressive-minded men of wealth, aware of their obligation to their generation, could never know just where they fitted into this dynastic scheme of things.

It was natural and [perfectly] human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it[, wrapped it] in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man [of the American Revolution].

The hours[, the hours that] men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor - these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship. The savings of the average family, the capital of the small-businessmen, the investments set aside for old age - other people's money - these were tools which the new economic royalty used to dig itself in.

Those who tilled the soil no longer reaped the rewards which were their right. The small measure of their gains was decreed by men in distant cities.

Throughout the nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly. Individual initiative was crushed in the cogs of a great machine. The field open for free business was more and more restricted. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise. ...

For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor - other people's lives. For too many[, for too many of us throughout the land] life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.

Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people's mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended.

The royalists [I have spoken of, the royalists] of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody's business. They granted that the government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.

Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.

These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance [...(applause) ... And our allegiance] to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. [applause] In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike. ...

Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales.

Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.   (my emphasis; my adjustments in brackets based on the recorded version)

Yes, that's what the President said of the "economic royalists".  He said, "Our allegiance [...applause ... And our allegiance] to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power."

Yo!  Now, even some Democrats - and, of course, the entire Republican Party - act as if a Bolshevik revolution is under way if someone suggests that the wealthiest people in America should be required to pay taxes to support their country.  We've come a long way, baby.

And that's really too bad. (I highly recommend listening to the full speech of 12 minutes or so at the audio link above.)

Schlesinger also talks about Sean Wilentz' The Rise of American Democracy, and gives him credit for treating certain subjects well that Schlesinger admits that he neglected in The Age of Jackson:

Jackson and Roosevelt, it appeared, had much the same coalition of supporters - farmers, workingmen, intellectuals, the poor - and much the same coalition of adversaries - bankers, merchants, manufacturers, and the rich. There was consequently a striking parallel between the 1830s and the 1930s in politics, and there was striking parallelism in the basic issue of power - the struggle for control of the state between organized money and the rest of society. I was hopelessly absorbed in the dilemmas of democratic capitalism made vivid for my generation by FDR and the New Deal, and I underplayed and ignored other aspects of the Age of Jackson. The predicament of slaves, of the red man and the "trail of tears" - the forcible removal of the Cherokees and other Indians from Georgia to the far frontier - and the restricted opportunities for women of the period (save for Peggy Eaton, the wife of John Eaton, Jackson's secretary of war, a woman who in 1920s style rebelled against convention with Jackson's support) were shamefully out of my mind.

Sean Wilentz has done what I should have done in his brilliant, powerful work The Rise of American Democracy. He has given slavery and the Indians their proper place in the Age of Jackson, and he describes Jackson's failures to deal with both. The perspective of 2000 is bound to be different from the perspective of 1940. And the perspective of 2060 is bound to be different from the perspective of 2000 - and I trust Sean will still be around.  (my emphasis)

I blogged here about Sean Wilentz' Andrew Jackson (2005), which shows that he really "gets" Jackson and what Jacksonian democracy was about.  I've got a couple of Wilentz' articles that I plan to post about soon,as well.

No comments: