Speeches & Floor Statements
Posted on June 23, 2020
The late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said this, that “self-righteousness in retrospect is easy and cheap.” The late Samuel Huntington, who was a professor at Harvard of United States History and Politics, wrote in effect that most of our politics is about setting great goals for ourselves, we, the American people, and then the struggle we have with the disappointment we feel when we don't reach those high goals, like all men are created equal. Ben Hooks, who was from Memphis and a well-known citizen of our state and a good friend, and once president of the NAACP, used to tell his students at the University of Memphis, “remember that our country, America, is a work in progress. We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go.”
It's in light of those three comments that I would like to discuss the effort that some people made last night to tear down President Andrew Jackson's statue in Lafayette Square across from the White House. I believe it's always appropriate to review the monuments and the places that we name to see if there's a more appropriate name in the context of today's times. For example, in this Capitol, every state has two statues. From Tennessee, it's Andrew Jackson and John Sevier. Senator Blunt, who is Chairman of our Rules Committee, tells us that at any given time, some of those statues are in rotation because the state of Mississippi, or Tennessee, or Oregon, or some state may have decided instead of those two individuals, we'd like to send up another statue. We'd like in the context of today's times to name somebody else. And as we think about statues that are already named for Generals in the Confederacy or the Union, a war that was fought a long time ago, it's appropriate, I think to keep in mind, we've had a lot of wars since then: two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam. We've had a lot of very distinguished Generals. We've had courageous Congressional Medal of Honor winners, maybe in the context of today's times, there's a place for a camp McArthur or camp Eisenhower or Alvin C. York who was a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and hero from Tennessee.
It's always appropriate to review the places that are named and the monuments we put up, to see if there should be a better name or a better place for a monument in the context of today's times. But what about Andrew Jackson, whose statue is one that the state of Tennessee has sent here. Whose statue is on a horse, is outside of the White House in Lafayette Square. A similar statute is in Jackson Square in New Orleans. What about Andrew Jackson? Well, let's make the case for Andrew Jackson.
Presidential historians almost without exception, put him in the top ten of America's presidents. They see him as a sophisticated, often subtle, political actor that he really was. What they realized, and unfortunately, what only dedicated students of the American presidency often realize, is that Jackson was arguably the most important American president between Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, because much like Lincoln, he preserved the Union. If not for Jackson's devotion to the Union against his own local political interests, the Union might well have fallen apart in 1832 or 1833.
Jackson risked everything to keep our Union together instead of siding with South Carolina United States Senator, John Calhoun's Doctrine of Nullification. When a serious constitutional crisis arose, when South Carolina decided following Calhoun's Doctrine of Nullification that it could decide which federal laws it would follow, it was Jackson who stood up and said our federal union must be preserved. And Jackson who had the political will and the skill to make sure it was preserved. Jackson's decision as President gave us an additional three decades to form what Lincoln eventually called the Mystic Chords of Memory in his first inaugural address. Surely that is worth recognition. Andrew Jackson was our first non-aristocratic president. When he was born in 1767, it was not possible or plausible that the young boy orphaned at 14 could someday rise in an emerging Republic. Jackson wasn't born rich. He wasn't born to privilege. He fought for everything he had and he rose to our government's highest office through the sheer force of personality and political courage. That is the case for Andrew Jackson.
Let us also recognize that Andrew Jackson was not perfect. In fact, he was at the center of the two original sins of this country: slavery and the treatment of Native Americans. But if we're looking for perfection, we're not likely to find it in American history, or the history of almost any country, or in human nature. The historian Jon Meacham, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Jackson, and who wrote a biography of Thomas Jefferson, said that when Jefferson wrote the words, “all men are created equal,” he was almost certainly writing about all white men. Those were the context of the times for Thomas Jefferson.
So what do we do about Jefferson? If he was writing that all white men are created equal, in the context of those times. What do we do about Jefferson, who the only slaves that he freed, apparently, were those that he fathered with his slave mistress, Sally Hemings. What do we do about George Washington, and Mount Vernon, and the slaves that he owned? What do we do about Abraham Lincoln? Who some people say was slow to act on emancipation? What about Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his internment of American citizens who were Japanese in camps during World War II? Or more recently, what do we do about Bill Clinton who signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which would not be in the context of today's times, if two recent Supreme Court decisions are to be followed, as they will be.
Let's not just pick on our presidents, what are we going to do about the Congress, the Senators, the Members of the House. They approved the Trail of Tears, Andrew Jackson's removal of the Cherokees to Oklahoma, the Congress did. And they approved the laws requiring segregation. The Congress did. And what about the people who elected the Congress? They approved those members of Congress, who approved of segregation, who approved of internment of Japanese in camps. What are we going to do about us? The people of the United States. Do we pretend we didn't exist during that history? When decisions were made that we would not make today, or we would not approve of today, some of which would be abhorrent today, do we try to burn down all the monuments, burn down Mount Vernon, burn down the Jefferson Memorial, Hyde Park for Franklin Roosevelt? Do we try to erase all that from our history? That's not what we should do. We should not try to erase our history. We should not try to pretend it doesn't exist. We shouldn't ignore our history.
Here's what I think we should do. Number one, as I said earlier, recognize that it's always appropriate to review the places that we have named or the monuments that we've put up. Just like the monuments that states send here, to see if there's a more appropriate monument or name place that is appropriate in the context of today's times. Remember as Ben Hooks said “America is a work in progress.” It’s always changing. And our monuments and the places that we name can change with that. That's an appropriate, healthy exercise to go through, that's number one.
But number two, with a history that includes things we today abhor, we should try to learn from those things and build a better future. And let me give an example. Each year, I bring onto the floor of the Senate, teachers of American history who have been selected to attend academies for teachers of American history that I helped to create when I first came to the Senate. I thought it was important to learn American history, so children could grow up knowing what it means to be an American. When they come to the floor, they look for the various desks, because the desks of the Senate are what best describes it. They'll go to find Daniel Webster's desk, which is still there. They'll go to the back over there and find the desk that the three Kennedy brothers used, where they sat. The ones from Tennessee will come here because Howard Baker had my desk, and so did Fred Thompson, the desk that I now have. They're interested in the desk of Senator McConnell and Senator Schumer because they're the Leaders. And they go to Jefferson Davis's desk.
Jefferson Davis was a United States Senator who had a great deal with the building of this Capitol, but he like many other United States Senators from the South, resigned from the Senate and joined the Confederate army. Jefferson Davis became president of the Confederacy. When I take them to Jefferson Davis’s desk, these teachers of American history, this is what I tell them: There’s on that desk what looks like a chop mark. The story that is told is it was created by a Union soldier who came into this chamber when the Union soldiers occupied Washington, D.C., and began to destroy the desk of the man who was the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Until he was stopped by his commanding officer, who told him, “Stop that. We're here to save the Union, not to destroy it.”
What do we do with Jefferson Davis’s desk? I say, keep it there. I say to learn from it. To learn from the fact that there was a Civil War. That there was a Confederacy. That senators left this body. That Union soldiers were here. That one wanted to chop it up. And another one’s commanding officer said, let's build a better future. “Stop that. We're here not to destroy the union, but to save it.”
There are lessons in American history. There are lessons that we should learn. The lesson of Ben Hooks: “We’re a work progress. We've come a long way. We have a long way to go.”
The lesson of Samuel Huntington: that most of our politics is about setting high goals for ourselves, “all men are created equal,” and then dealing with the disappointment, struggling with the disappointment, of not reaching those goals, and deciding what to do about it.
Do we dishonor Andrew Jackson's effort to keep our country together between Jefferson and Lincoln? Do we dishonor Thomas Jefferson's eloquence? Do we dishonor George Washington's probity and character, or Lincoln's courage, or FDR’s grand leadership during World War II, all because they weren't perfect? All because they did things and lived things and said things that today we wouldn't say? I think not. Doing any of this would be a terrible misunderstanding of American history and of human nature. It would be ahistorical.
In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln appealed to the better angels of our nature. If there are better angels of our nature, I guess that means there must be worse angels in us as well. Not just in Washington and Jefferson and Jackson and Roosevelt and great men or great women, but in all of us. There are better angels, there are worse angels. And in this country, our goal is to bring out the best of us, which does not mean ignore the worst. We need to be honest about our weaknesses. We need to be proud of our strengths. We need to learn from both to create a better future for the United States of America.