Democrats take Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson down a peg

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale
Portrait of Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

I was perfectly happy to see the trend of southern states removing the old Confederate battle flag from various places of honor (most notably, the South Carolina Capitol building in the aftermath of the hideous murders of black congregants at a Charleston, S.C., church).

Really perfectly happy. Agreed with the decision. It may have been a symbol of some other things as well, but that flag was certainly a symbol of slavery, and it’s hard to go overboard denouncing the brutal depravity of that institution. It also symbolized the century and a half of resistance to equality in the aftermath of slavery.

But it also crossed my mind (and not for the first time) that when we engage in the cleansing of our historical honor roll it’s not always easy to know where to start and stop. Apparently, for many state Democratic Party organization, it doesn’t stop before taking two (formerly) revered figures down a peg.

State Democratic Party organizations (although not the DFL in Minnesota) have for about a century held an annual celebration called the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, honoring former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, each of whom bore some claim to being the father of what eventually became the Democratic Party.

(Brief aside on the double-father-of-the-party bit. The Republican Party burst fairly full-bloomed as a national party in the mid-1850s and fielded its first presidential candidate in 1856. If you know who that candidate was, give yourself a presidential history Brownie point. OK, it was Gen. John C. Fremont, and he made a respectable second place showing in a three-way race.

(But, in contrast, the exact moment when the Democrat Party, as we know it, came into existence is much more complex. The party label under which Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and John Quincy Adams were elected as the third, fourth, fifth and six presidents was — maddeningly, for today’s purposes — the Democratic Republican Party. Jackson also won his first term as president as a Demo-Repub — basically, there was no other party during this period — but then Jackson won his reelection in 1832 labeled as a just plain “Democrat” and a party under that name has finished first or second in every presidential election since. Anyway, the Dems have generally been happy to trace their roots to both men and during the 20th century to name their annual state party banquet the Jefferson-Jackson dinner.)


Jefferson, of course, was famous for his beautiful prose, including the bit about all men being created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but also for his hypocrisy on that point by financing a really very, very grand lifestyle on the backs of slave labor and even, as the DNA testing finally proved beyond the rumor level, for using female slaves for sex.

Jackson was also a slaveholder and added brutal policies toward Native Americans that at least border on genocide.

Andrew Jackson in 1845
Andrew Jackson in 1845

And yet there they were (and still are) brazenly adorning the $20 bill (Jackson) and the nickel (Jefferson on the front and his house on the back) and there they were (but are quickly being dropped) as the namesakes of the annual celebration of the state chapters of the party that — at least in recent history — has been the party of civil rights.

According to Tuesday’s New York Times, “the Iowa Democratic Party [recently] became the latest” to decide to unname its annual dinner after Jefferson and Jackson. The Iowans will go with the old name one more time, this year, then begin a “very inclusive” process of figuring out a new name in time for next year.

“Iowa joins the Dems of Georgia, Connecticut and Missouri in jettisoning Jefferson and Jackson” and, the Times said, “at least five other states are considering the same change since the massacre in June at an African-American church in Charleston, S.C.”

To tell you the truth, I’m fine with this, too. I prefer balanced, well-informed knowledge of history to  ancestor worship. But Jefferson is so high in the American pantheon that I would expect the Republicans to make some hay out of this. Fine. At least we’ll be talking about history and (I assume) no one will be apologizing too hard for slaveholding.

Oh, and don’t forget the effort to unname Lake Calhoun after the great slavery apologist and nullifier John C. Calhoun.

Of course, George Washington was a slaveholder too and an Indian fighter. And crazy cranks like me even know some dirt on Abe Lincoln (although, frankly, none of it remotely approaches the issues raised against Jefferson and Jackson). So, while I sympathize with the name-changing impulses, I wish I knew how to maintain some kind of balanced perspective.

Minnesota’s event

So I mentioned that Minnesota didn’t have this problem. For much of its history, the state Democratic Party also held an annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner. And after the merger with the Farmer Laborites, the state DFL continued the tradition. But just as Hubert Humphrey (whom we might easily call the “father of the DFL”) was dying in the late 1970s, the party decided to change the name to the Humphrey Dinner.

I was brand new in Minnesota and not yet wise to its wonderful ways, and I don’t remember the event, but as I started working on this little diatribe, I found myself wondering whether Minnesota DFLers may have been way ahead of the curve in wishing to distance themselves from the unsavory aspects of the Jefferson and Jackson story.

As best I could tell in one day of calling around to old DFL hands who were in the picture at the time, the answer is no.

Hank Fischer, who chaired the party a bit before Humphrey replaced Jefferson and Jackson as the event’s namesake, said he didn’t recall any such motive. “It was much more about honoring Humphrey than about anything to do with Jackson and or Jefferson, at least that’s my best recollection.” He said there had long been some critics of Andrew Jackson over his policies toward Native Americans, but he doesn’t recall anything but respect and admiration for Jefferson back then.

Mary Monahan, who was in the DFL hierarchy at the time and became the chair soon after the name change was adopted, had the same recollection. Long-time DFLers were laid low by Humphrey’s final illness. “It seemed to me it was all of a sudden — like a light bulb went off — let’s name it for Humphrey,” Monahan said. And so they did, without much meaning to distance themselves from historical crimes of the old namesakes.

Five years ago, with Walter Mondale still among us as the consummate elder statesman, another light bulb went off (or does one mean “went on”?) and the party added his name to what this past June was “Fourth Annual Humphrey-Mondale Dinner.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/12/2015 - 10:45 am.

    OK by me

    I’m inclined to think of “hypocrisy” and “politician” as being roughly synonymous. But then “…a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds,” and just about any adult human with a working brain has found at least one or two instances wherein their firmly held beliefs or practices has bumped up against evolving knowledge of history and societal change. That is, it seems OK to me for a public figure to change his/her mind about a major issue. I tend to see that as evidence of both political opportunism and a functioning intellect and/or conscience. I see nothing admirable in Jefferson’s slaveholding or procreation habits, nor with Jackson’s genocidal instincts and occasional policies. On the other hand, that Jefferson guy was quite a writer and thinker, and if any president of the 19th century was a representative of the common man – beyond the beatified Lincoln, that is – it would likely be Andrew Jackson.

    I don’t think the latter qualities excuse the former. Human beings are complicated. I’m fine with doing away with the Jefferson-Jackson naming rights in favor of Humphrey-Mondale, but my guess is that both of the latter were/are also somewhat more complicated in private and in person than their public personas might indicate.

  2. Submitted by Roy Everson on 08/12/2015 - 10:52 am.

    Back to the Buffalo Head nickel?

    We long ago came to terms with having several ex-presidents being slaveowners. Their contributions to the country outweighed their personal business affairs, odious as we would judge them today. But Jefferson didn’t merely own slaves. He devolved from the inspiring Declaration in 1776 to becoming the political benefactor of the small but powerful slaveowning class. He served them well with the unconstitutional and disastrous purchase of Louisiana territory from France in 1803. Plenty of room to expand slavery in the southern half!

    That being said his numerous deeds including founding the world’s oldest political party certainly earns him lots of points.

    • Submitted by Nathan Fisher on 08/12/2015 - 12:10 pm.

      set aside the fact that Jefferson didn’t found the Democrats

      The “world’s oldest political party” dragged this country into, and lost, a bloody civil war based upon the political issue of owning other human beings. This is hardly a personal failing but a rather systemic one. I’m sure Humphrey has his own issues but, in 1948, he marked a turning point for the Democratic Party and a path to the quasi-redemption that you see today.

      • Submitted by Roy Everson on 08/13/2015 - 01:40 am.

        True that about HHH….

        ….but the Civil War thing — well nobody’s perfect. The party’s always made up of whatever flawed humans show up at the participate. Immature democracies ain’t always pretty and mature ones still have plenty of rough spots. Some factions take longer to mature than others. Point is the roots of the system we have today were a sharp improvement over preexisting conditions. By remembering how far we’ve come we can look ahead with inspiration and optimism.

        • Submitted by Nathan Fisher on 08/13/2015 - 01:38 pm.

          Sure but

          if I’m going to have an annual fundraising dinner, I’d probably want to call it something more inspiring than Nobody’s Perfect & Our Ancestors Were Flawed. Especially since the future of the party is far less white than it once was. Inspirations come and go.. and that’s ok.

        • Submitted by Nathan Fisher on 08/13/2015 - 01:43 pm.

          preexisting conditions

          Britain abolished slavery throughout the empire in 1833. Be careful who you’re speaking for when you say “the roots of the system” were a “sharp improvement.” It took 33 more years and 500,000 dead Americans for the system you contemplate to curtail the right to own humans as chattel.

  3. Submitted by Roy Everson on 08/12/2015 - 11:17 am.

    Not so proud papa

    It’s harsh to characterize Jefferson’s private life as “using slaves for sex.” Only one has been cited. Sally Hemings was half-sister of TJ’s late wife. While she lay dying she begged Jefferson to not remarry so that her children would not be raised by a step-mother. The sisters resembled each other — what’s a founding father to do?

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 08/12/2015 - 01:55 pm.

      ok, using child slaves for incestuous sex then

      Sally was 14 when Jefferson, 44, took her to Paris and forced himself on her. Somehow it’s better that he was raping his father-in-law’s teenage daughter? That’s like something the Marquis de Sade would dream up.

      • Submitted by Roy Everson on 08/13/2015 - 01:57 am.

        Trump factor

        Sally was brought over to accompany and serve Jefferson’s daughter. He was then wearing one of his most important Founding Fathers hats: diplomat in the center of European influence, securing America’s credibility at a crucial time. Again, the public record trumps the gossip about his peronal life.

        • Submitted by Doug Gray on 08/13/2015 - 10:08 am.

          gossip? try fact

          Last I was at Monticello even the keepers of the flame admitted that Mr. Jefferson had sex with that woman, which is to say, girl. You’re a bit behind the news cycle there. Point being there’s no need to invoke the names of slaveowning elitists from the late 18th Century to buttress the legitimacy of our 21st Century republic.

          • Submitted by Roy Everson on 08/13/2015 - 03:09 pm.

            Facts are what make gossip juicy! I’m well aware of Sally’s story. But his public acts to support the expansion of slavery were far more consequential.

  4. Submitted by richard owens on 08/12/2015 - 11:26 am.

    “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson”

    Smithsonian Magazine (October 2012).

    highly recommended!
    With five simple words in the Declaration of Independence—“all men are created equal”—Thomas Jefferson undid Aristotle’s ancient formula, which had governed human affairs until 1776: “From the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” In his original draft of the Declaration, in soaring, damning, fiery prose, Jefferson denounced the slave trade as an “execrable commerce …this assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.” As historian John Chester Miller put it, “The inclusion of Jefferson’s strictures on slavery and the slave trade would have committed the United States to the abolition of slavery.”


    (spoiler alert) Jefferson stopped talking about the evils of slavery when he one day while doing his accounting, he realized his wealth grew larger with the simple event of every slave birth.

    Read more:

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/12/2015 - 01:15 pm.

    Historical Context…

    Judging these men solely on their attitudes about slavery, you diminish history not embrace history.

    • Submitted by Nathan Fisher on 08/12/2015 - 03:07 pm.

      historical context

      These men founded a political party that endorsed treason, caused a war that killed 500,000 Americans, and for what? For the right to own human beings. The party certainly has certainly changed since Strom Thurmond ran for president. I think its safe to say the modern party can call its fundraising dinner whatever it wants without “diminishing” history.

      • Submitted by Roy Everson on 08/13/2015 - 09:11 am.

        Durned Dems

        The party never endorsed treason. That was a faction within a faction. Even in the South it’s questionable whether a majority of Democrats favored secession.(which by the way wasn’t universally considered treason then). But the one-percenters of the South in those days — the slaveowners — manipulated the process to protect their interests at all costs. Sound familiar? By generating fear among the lower class whites they exploited misplaced loyalty to their state government at the expense of the nation. All so slavery could expand.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/12/2015 - 03:07 pm.

      To Put it in Context

      Jefferson had deep misgivings about the morality of slavery. In fact, in his Autobiography, he referred to slavery as being a “perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” Deep moral misgivings aside, he freed very few of his slaves, and in fact relied upon them for his own livelihood.

      I don’t think it requires moral context to call that “hypocrisy.”

      Andrew Jackson was a substantial slaveholder, but by the mores of his time, probably no worse than any others of that ilk. He deserves to be judged harshly for his treatment of Native Americans. While 19th century America was not kind to the Native population, Jackson’s policies were not met with universal approval (prominent opponents of the Indian Removal Act included Congressman Davy Crockett). In any event, I don’t understand the historical “context” that would mitigate Jackson’s near-genocidal policies.

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