Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian
Professor Rogin’s first book, The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter, told us much about the liberal mind by reviewing its effort to discredit populism by tying it to McCarthy. In his new book he is writing one kind of psychohistory to reveal, through a lay analysis of Andrew Jackson, the causes, nature, and effects of the vast and ruthless removal of Indians from the eastern United States, and the character and dynamics of Jacksonian Democracy. It is a significant book, but it is not as exciting as you might expect; hence two warnings presented with the intention of encouraging you to push on through until you finish—for it is worth the struggle.
First, it is inexcusably, and in places mind-numbingly, redundant. My therapy proposal is to have Rogin and his editor at Knopf read it aloud to each other. Second, so much heavy and persistent clinical explicitness is no longer necessary—or even particularly helpful—in psychohistory. Rogin does a great deal of heavy breathing, and there are far too many paragraphs in which his hyperventilation reminds one of Playgirl thinking it is necessary to seduce Ms.
All that said, it is an important book, so let us think about it carefully. The first thing is to clarify the difference between contemporary psychohistory and the classic relationship between psychology and history. The kind of psychohistory that is currently in vogue is about seventy-five years old, and involves the formal use of psychological and psychiatric models and theories to explain the actions of individuals and groups. The other relationship goes back at least to Thucydides and involves a process whereby the historian, through his reconstruction and analysis, provides the reader with the sense and the feel of a social and psychological reality—an understanding of the world view entertained by the people in question. Despite appearances to the contrary, the ancient approach is more dialectical and dynamic.
Rogin is a modern practitioner, and hence it is helpful to remind ourselves of some of the benchmarks provided by his predecessors. Less than an hour after opening Fathers and Children, I laid it aside and reread these four items: William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain (1925); William Bolitho [Ryall], Twelve Against the Gods (1929); Edmund Wilson’s study of Abraham Lincoln in Patriotic Gore (1962); and the long essay by Edwin G. Burrows and Michael Wallace on “The American Revolution: The Ideology and Psychology of National Liberation,” in Perspectives in American History (1972).
Rogin generously credits Burrows and Wallace with significant help, and mentions Wilson’s tour de force in a footnote. I will return to the former work, but first let us review Rogin’s argument. He opens with the proposition that America began with “acts of force and fraud” against the Indians, and then isolates Jackson as the key figure in the subsequent “Indian destruction.” American historians have generally been guilty of ignoring the First Americans, but this is not a wholly new theme, as witness Mary Young’s study, Redskins, Ruffleshirts, and Rednecks (1961).
Rogin dramatizes the theme by grounding it in both the terrifying freedom of market place capitalism and the psychology of Jackson. His analysis combines the breakdown of the family in post-1800 America, the rage generated by childhood separation anxiety, the related necessity to prove one’s worth as measured against the achievements of the Founding Fathers, and the struggle to sublimate those forces and the death wish in an authority that would sustain “an independent, virtuous American identity.” In sum, “Jackson’s monomania powered westward expansion.”
Rogin’s discussion of revolutionary fathers is an adaptation of Burrows and Wallace. The family was not only the metaphor used by the upper middle and upper class in discussing the empire, but it was the basic unit of society. When the mutual respect and interdependence of the good family (read mercantilism in political economy) was destroyed by the bad mother parliament and the bad king father, the maturing colonial child had no recourse but separation.
But the break away from England generated anxiety and rage, awe and anger toward the Founding Fathers, and the definition of Indians (and blacks) as children who had to be disciplined if they refused to display their maturity by accepting the life of the new America. That was only the beginning, however, for the family was being replaced by the possessive individualism of market place capitalism. A veritable Hell emerging in Arcadia. Bad news from every front—and rear.
Rogin then warms to his theme: the pathology of Andrew Jackson. He begins with Jackson’s violence and assertive independence, concluding that “rage fed Jackson’s self-reliance.” Those characteristics, as well as his tendency to slobber, are traced back to “tensions in the early maternal tie.” Jackson’s mother pushed him to be independent, then, when he was only fourteen, left him to care for another and shortly died. His subsequent “moods of manic omnipotence, paranoid rage, and occasional deep depression” are explained as being common to those who “remain dominated by the early maternal relationship.” Such troubles were intensified and complicated by the guilt and anxiety shared by Jackson and Rachel Donelson, whom he courted and married before she had been legally divorced from her first husband (a theme later used to interpret her melancholy and death, and his defense of Peggy Eaton, the socially ostracized wife of his secretary of war).
Jackson was an inveterate speculator in his early years, and Rogin uses land as the way to project his analysis of Jackson into the political economy. Land was central as exchange value, as a source of income for the government, and for economic development. But his early successes “failed to rescue Jackson from separation anxiety and establish his authority in the world” because of conflicts over land titles and related losses. He therefore turned to the Indians to establish firm foundations for property rights, and the self-confidence he lacked.
That posed serious problems, but it also offered great opportunities to resolve separation anxiety by establishing one’s identity and authority. Indians were viewed as children who, by remaining in communion with nature; allowed Jackson to vent his rage and fantasies about “the oral stage of infant bliss.” He was likewise angry about the communal property arrangements of the Indians. “The rage was not simply that of an anal society against its own fantasies of oral bliss…. The Indians, it was held, had by their own primitive violence given up their right to inhabit Eden.”
“The Indian was a fragment of the self, that primitive, oral part which was dangerously indolent and aggressive and therefore, in the name of self-defense, had to be destroyed.” Jackson obsessively asserted his peculiar right to discharge the task. “War against the Indians would permit Jackson to reexperience his feelings of primitive violence, purify the self of them, and establish legitimate title to the land. He could destroy lingering fears of feminine domination and grow securely to manhood.”
The War of 1812 offered two opportunities. Jackson could kill Indians and establish his parity with the revolutionary and constitutional fathers. His campaigns against the Creeks, which culminated in the bloody battle at Horseshoe Bend, “emancipated him from parental domination and established him in the ranks of revolutionary fathers.” Rogin treats the land taken from the Creeks, and from other tribes through subsequent violence, bribery, fraud, and other maneuvers, as an instance of the kind of primitive accumulation described by Rosa Luxemburg.
Assaulting the primitive natives, Jackson “cleared the obstacles to market capitalism, politically and by force, before the market could act on its own.” In the process, and particularly through his maneuver of posing as the defender of the average Indians against their bad chiefs, he came “to understand himself as the tribune of the people against selfish and entrenched leaders.” That became his role in white politics as the father figure of Jacksonian Democracy.
If we grant Rogin his premises, he is generally persuasive about Jackson, and Jackson’s personal involvement with the Indians. He is not as convincing when he projects his arguments onto wider questions. The way he links primitive rage, primitive natives, and primitive accumulation, for example, is clever, but there is more to marrying Freud and Marx than devising that kind of catechism. He suggests that ideology and structural social dynamics are co-equal in importance with the psyche, but he neglects them in various important places in the book.
His handling of Jackson’s confrontation with South Carolina over its nullification of the tariff is weak, and the account of Jackson’s war against the Second Bank of the United States is a schematic nightmare. “A logic of the psyche,” he writes, “led from children to mothers, from debt to the Bank, from Indian removal to removal of the federal deposits.” Rogin unbelievably ignores the censure of Jackson by the Senate for removing those deposits from Biddle’s bank; and his concluding few pages on Manifest Destiny read almost like an afterthought.
I am dumbfounded by Rogin’s failure to probe the censure of Jackson. It is not only the natural and logical culmination of Rogin’s approach and analysis, but it would have offered him a chance to speculate about two other presidents, Lincoln and Nixon, who also dared the Congress, the courts, and the public to strike them down. Are they also to be understood by analyzing their anxieties about separation? (Rogin could have given us a useful dialogue with Edmund Wilson, who suggested that Lincoln was warning the public as early as 1838 that he would seek vast power to prove his superiority to the Founding Fathers.)
The fear of the past can be interpreted in Rogin’s way, particularly in dealing with specific lives, but there are other choices. Nevertheless, he has written a gutsy and thought-provoking book. I have one final comment. Like every major intellectual system, psychoanalysis is a grand metaphor. Hence, like all metaphors, it obscures other truths and will crumble in our hands if it is squeezed too passionately. Let us cherish our metaphors, as in community and love, rather than attempt to possess them as in the market place.
Daddy! October 16, 1975