Being an historian means a lot of things. Digging through dusty archives, nuancing popular retellings of the past, arguing interpretive and historiographical points with fellow members of the guild. It also means getting to know the subjects of your study through stories and visuals and (in the case of the 20th century) audio and video.
One of these latter realities has led me, somewhat embarrassingly, to really idolize the hair of two antebellum political leaders of the United States. Both were considered towering figures in their time. But besides their hair, neither of which really garner much admiration from me.
My first (and rather briefly discussed) hairdo hero of the 19th century is none other than John C. Calhoun, twice Vice-President and sometimes senator from South Carolina. A slavery supporter and by extension severe states-rights advocate and “nullifier,” he is not a figure with whom I share a lot of common political ground. But take a look at those sideburns. Powerful stuff.
The second follicled figure, more contemporary to my own hairstyle preferences, is literally THE face of the $20 bill, Andrew Jackson himself. And, as a matter of fact, it is that same currency portrait that garners a lot of style points from me. Seriously. I would love to walk into the barbershop one day, hand them a twenty, and say: “Make me look like this man. Please.”
A big problem, though, is that Andrew Jackson was probably the closest thing to a military dictator the United States has ever had. A rough-hewn man of the frontier, he achieved fame with his exploits in New Orleans during the War of 1812. Known as “Old Hickory,” Jackson was a strong and often unyielding leader who was truly as tough as nails. Someone tried to assassinate him while he was President, and according to legend Jackson took it upon himself to chase down the shooter and beat him with his cane. That’s the kind of man he was.
Heroic, I suppose, except that much of his bluster and energy were directed towards pursuits that were less noble than bull-headed. As a military leader, he once executed two British subjects for aiding the enemy, and made sure to do so quickly in order that the sentence would not be overturned. His Presidency is remembered for the tragic “Trail of Tears,” the forced removal of the Cherokee from Georgia to parts West. When the Supreme Court had tried to arrest this train of events with an earlier ruling, he was rumored to have said: “John Marshall (the Chief Justice) has made his decision. Let him enforce it!”
Jackson is also known for making full use of the power of his office, waging a full-scale war against the Second Bank of the United States as a dangerous moneyed interest in American politics. A successful campaign issue, the results of his efforts and the demise of the Bank ended up creating instability in the American financial system with repercussions that some have seen leading all the way the to Great Depression 100 years later.
So egregious were Jackson’s political excesses that he garnered a censure from the Senate (later repealed when his party gained control) and singlehandedly led to the formation of a the Whig Party, dedicated amongst other things to the limitation of presidential power.
In the end, both figures briefly mentioned here, while powerful, heroic (in a sense), and iconic leaders of America in its first century, nevertheless carry within themselves some rather troubling elements. Though I consider it an axiom not to pass dismissive historical judgment too quickly, the obstructionism of a man like Calhoun and the actions of Jackson throughout his life make me glad they don’t live in our time.
Despite the hair.