The great and the ghastly
First-ever guest post, 'badly flawed but important,' and 7 other things worth your time.
Trying something different today: Below is a guest post by Donald Graham, majority owner and chairman of Graham Holdings Company, and formerly the publisher and chairman of The Washington Post. It appeared first on his personal Facebook page this week. (Used with permission and thanks.)
The post is his take on the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square near the White House, which protestors tried to tear down earlier this week.
How do we reckon with flawed history — deeply disappointing in some cases, amazing and admirable in others — especially when we think we’d do things very differently now, if we had the chance?
I don’t agree with every point he makes (and the implicit political message at the end is his, not mine). But, that’s fine. It’s the nuance and perspective, and an attempt to work through a hard problem that will never please everyone, that makes it worth reading.
Here’s what Graham had to say:
That’s not just any statue the protestors were trying to tear down on Monday night.
Clark Mills’s statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square celebrates a man of glaring strengths and faults. Our seventh President was the son of an Irish immigrant; his father died before he was born. Two older brothers died in the American Revolution, then his mother died when he was 14 after freeing her son, a soldier in the Revolution, from imprisonment by the British.
Jackson won the one great American land victory of the War of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans, defeating a British force of Napoleonic War veterans under great commanders (yes, after the war had ended, but before word had reached this country).
He was a large-scale slaveholder and planter and his beliefs about native Americans were prehistoric (and his actions were vile).
But for all his huge flaws, he did some quite admirable things. In 1824, he won the popular vote (taking 42% in a four-way race) and had more electoral votes than any other candidate. When Henry Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams, Jackson protested the “corrupt bargain” — but he accepted the result, preserving the peace of a young country.
And as president in 1829, he stood firm against South Carolina’s first attempt to secede, saving the Union:
"The Constitution ... forms a government not a league ... To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union is to say that the United States are not a nation."
He made it clear he would use force if the state tried to secede, and it did not. On the pedestal of the statue are the words Jackson spoke to John C. Calhoun as a toast at a public meeting during the crisis: "Our Federal Union, It Must Be Preserved."
Jackson’s man-of-the-people qualities made him beloved by many Americans in his day. But it was his stance against secession that endeared him to Abraham Lincoln, who asked for Jackson’s speech against nullification as one of three documents he studied in drafting his First Inaugural.
The statue in Lafayette Square was designed and cast by Clark Mills, a self-taught sculptor.
It was the first equestrian statue ever made in the United States and people of the time were proud that an American could create such a thing. Mills had never seen an equestrian statue when he set to work.
Jackson’s horse rears on two legs, but those legs hold up the 15-ton statue. Apparently there was no such statue anywhere in the world — two or three in Europe used the tail as a third support.
Working in a studio near the White House, he made six castings of the horse before completing it. An historian wrote, “Mills attacked and solved a problem which had baffled Leonardo da Vinci.”
Apparently the legs contain a lot of metal and there is also a great deal in the tail. So those trying to pull down the statue were defeated at least briefly by the strength of Clark Mills’ design of 167 years ago.
I am glad the statue still stands. Andrew Jackson is no Confederate general; he fought for this country, not against it.
If the government of the United States or the government of Washington DC wanted to move it, that would be fine with me. (Virginia’s governor is moving the statue of Lee in Richmond; fine.)
My preference would be to put a tablet near it explaining who Andrew Jackson was and what he did: the great and the ghastly.
He was badly flawed, but important. It is all part of our history.
What I love about the United States has always been its aspirations. We go back to a document that says: “All men are created equal.”
It was written by a slaveholder and I believe those words were understood [at the time] to exclude women. But in time, at the highest price imaginable in northern soldiers, black and white, we eliminated slavery.
First came the Civil War, then the 13th Amendment. And then, many years later, the 19th.
This left our country—for most of us, the country we love--with many more imperfections.
During the last century, brave people--Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis and their incredible colleagues; Barney Frank and all who worked for gay rights; Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and and millions of women--fixed quite a few of the scars our ancestors left us with.
Many things are still wrong today, as the deaths of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and many others tell us unequivocally. Those wrongs extend beyond police violence to an education system, an economic system, and a criminal justice system (and indeed a political system) that do not work well for all.
So much about our country still needs fixing. But we are Americans.
We live in a country put together by people long ago who were willing to try to live without a king—and made it work.
As Gerald Ford said in taking over after a particularly ghastly period: “Here the people rule.”
And if you think, as I do, that the people made a very bad mistake in 2016, we can try to fix it this year, and then go on with the work of Jefferson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, King, John Lewis, Barney Frank, all those women, the Floyd family, and so many who are calling for change today.
We can continue the 231-year work of making the country live up to its aspirations.
7 other things worth your time
NASA named its headquarters building after its first Black female engineer, Mary W. Jackson, who started in the agency in the 1950s when it was still segregated, and worked her way up. Her story was portrayed in the 2016 movie, Hidden Figures, along with a book by the same name. (Axios)
The Justice Department asked the U.S. Supreme Court late Thursday night to overturn Obamacare. I try not to offer too much direct commentary on these news links, but I don’t understand this at all—pushing once again in the middle of a pandemic, while 20 million people rely on Obamacare for health insurance (disclosure: including me), and we have a 13.3 percent unemployment rate. (Business Insider)
The U.S. Government sent $1.4 billion in stimulus checks to dead people, most of which wound up in the hands of their next of kin. Now the IRS wants it back. (Bloomberg)
A spokesman said President Trump won’t quarantine when he arrives in New Jersey because he’s “not a civilian.” (For what it’s worth, Bill Clinton made a similar argument in 1996 in the Paula Jones case, but dropped it when it became a political liability. If he’d persisted, the case might have been delayed, Monica Lewinsky would never have been swept up in it, and there likely wouldn’t have been an impeachment in 1998.) (Washington Examiner, Baltimore Sun)
A record 32 million Americans now live with their parents. Obviously many of them are kids, and that’s exactly where they’re supposed to be living. But more than 2.7 million of them are adults who moved back in with mom/dad/grandma/grandpa (or some combination) between March and April of this year. (NYT, $)
A sheriff in Washington State urged residents at a rally to ignore the state’s requirement that residents wear masks, telling them: “Don’t be a sheep.” (NY Post)
Amazon bought the naming rights to the new NHL team’s Seattle stadium. They’re calling it Climate Change Arena. (The Verge)
If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. You can also just send an email to email@example.com.
And of course, please share Understandably! Seriously, that’s the #1 thing we need right now, is for people who enjoy this newsletter to encourage friends and family to sign up as well. Thank you!
One-click review and feedback: