I'm currently in the third of Isaac Asimov's four-book American history series, which I will review later. I'll throw out the hint that I highly recommend it despite some obvious biases on the author's part (fairly mild, and unavoidable; that's why we need to read history from several sources). These are adult books, but easily accessible for literate middle schoolers; Asimov has the gift of speaking clearly to those without much knowledge of the subject, while not being in the least condescending—a skill all too few of us possess.
As I said, this isn't a review. But this morning I came upon some passages from a chapter on Andrew Jackson that I thought worth sharing.
The gradual democratization of the voting process had removed barriers and increased the numbers of those eligible to vote. ... The era when elections were in the hands of the educated and comparatively well-to-do was over.
This meant politicians had to vie for the votes of the uneducated and unsophisticated, and that, in turn, meant that wild accusations, exaggerations, and outright lies could be used profitably.
The 1828 elections were the first to involve the kind of dirty campaign tactics that the United States has been accustomed to ever since. [John Quincy] Adams, for instance, one of the most honest men ever to be in public life, was charged with all kinds of corruption by men who knew they were lying when they made the charges.
Jackson's inauguration marked a strong break in American tradition. Until then, the presidency had been held by men of the upper classes, bred in the cultivated tradition of the coastal regions. In the forty years since the Constitution had been adopted, the office had been held by men from Virginia for thirty-two years and by men from Massachusetts for eight years.
Jackson was from Tennessee and had been only sketchily educated. Violent and tough, he was widely known as "Old Hickory," indicating that he was as hard and rugged as the wood of the hickory tree. He was a great believer in the common man—which meant he had a certain suspicion of the educated man. Where earlier presidents could boast of family, Jackson was born in a log cabin; his success (and the growth of the voting population among the less well-to-do) made it virtually obligatory for politicians to boast of humble origins and to disclaim any pretensions to education and refinement. (Wealth was all right in itself—politicians could be rich, as long as they were crude.)
In fact, the Jacksonian Democrats' contempt for education was such that the embittered National Republicans took to symbolizing the Democratic party with a donkey, and that symbol has remained to this day.
Jackson was the first colorful president of the United States. Before him, presidents had been inaugurated in dignified seclusion; Jackson, however, invited the public into the White House to help him celebrate, and in their enthusiasm, the shouting, liquor-filled men completely ruined the furnishings.
Nor did Jackson stand on his dignity and serve merely as the grave executor of laws passed by Congress. He actively pushed for laws he wanted and unhesitatingly vetoed laws he didn't like; he was the first president to be the kind of powerful and active leader we have grown accustomed to these days. He knew he had the people with him, and he relied on them to back him against Congress and even against the Supreme Court.
Another aspect of the new democracy came about with Jackson's belief in the average man. It seemed to Jackson a matter of little importance just which man filled which governmental job. Since all men were equal, any man could do the job, so why shouldn't it go to a friend rather than to an enemy?
Until Jackson's inauguration, presidents had, more or less, followed the principle of allowing men to stay in their government jobs unless and until they displayed incompetence. ... This way of looking at public office as booty rather than as responsibility has ... been called the "spoils system" ever since. ... Jackson actually used this system only moderately, but he established the precedent.
Asimove wrote those words more than 40 years ago, but he could have penned them last week.
Here we are, nearly 200 years after the opening of the first American public high school in the United States, exactly 100 years since education became compulsory in all states, in an era of unprecedented levels of college attendance—and what have we gained? I see a few possible conclusions.
- The American public education system has failed utterly to create a general population sufficiently educated to resist the political tactics developed specifically to appeal to "the uneducated and unsophisticated."
- Despite the enormous portion of our young days given over to the educational system, that system has proved insufficent to counter other, more powerful forces that shape our national character.
- Educated, intelligent, civilized, and responsible behavior is subject to its own form of the second law of thermodynamics, and will always disintegrate into chaos without the expenditure of considerable energy.
- Asinine behavior is by no means limited to the party that first earned the donkey label.
- It's time our politicians started raising the bar, and treating the electorate as the educated populace we ought by now to be.
- It's time we starte behaving, in our political lives, like the educated populace we think we are.