In the Tennessee State History Museum an exhibition on ‘The Common Man’ in the nineteenth takes pride of place, alongside artifacts belonging to the State’s most noted son, Andrew Jackson. It is an honest ensemble. Tennessee was founded by itinerant farmers who crossed the Smoky Mountains from South Carolina and developed a society and economy largely without the wealthy aristocracy imported into other States from Europe. It became the home of country music, with it’s mixture of traditional songs and acoustic instruments. And in Andrew Jackson, it had the political personification of the populist, some might say demagogic, course of the early nineteenth century United States.
Jackson served as the first Representative of Tennessee in Congress and later as Senator but was famous until reaching the Presidency for commanding the United States Army against the British in the Battle of New Orleans. That the battle might never have taken place and that history might have been somewhat different presents an interesting counterfactual. Not only did Britain win the overall war, forcing the US to sue for peace, but the battle, which Jackson won, took place three weeks after the peace treaty was signed in London due to the slow pace of communication in 1815.
Jackson ran for the Presidency first in 1824 and did not win an outright majority of electoral college votes over John Quincy Adams, despite almost certainly winning the popular vote, meaning that the decision rested with the House of Representatives, whose Speaker, Henry Clay, happened to detest Jackson and had said of him, “I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the Chief Magistracy.” Quincy Adams was duly elected President, and Henry Clay coincidentally became Secretary of State. The election of 1828 thereby became enlivened both by revenge, frenzied support for ‘Old Hickory’ Jackson and a virulent campaign against Washington – not the last – with Jackson winning outright.
Some historians see Jackson’s two terms as aiding the development of the American democracy, with its party system, support for universal male suffrage and generally hands-off approach to the States, while defending the Union itself. Others contend that these developments were already in progress, and point to Jackson’s abolition of the Bank of the United States and tariff policy as sending the economy into recession, while the Indian removal was accelerated. Either way, there is a good case for pointing to the Age of Jackson as the beginning of the populist form of US politics that is today represented by the Tea Party.
Jackson lived just outside of Nashville, on a plantation with some 150 slaves, while practicing law inside the City. Nashville is the State Capital of Tennessee, but is better known today as ‘Music City’ for its history of promoting country music through The Grand Ole Opry, a variety show broadcast live on radio. Country music in its time broke all kinds of taboos, liberating women and men from what was considered good taste, as well as showcasing the implosion and rehabilitation in fortunate cases of the likes of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Shows at the Ryman were common enough though – performers remembered the smell of fried chicken or Juicy Fruit gum would greet them on stage from the stalls.
That said, the Ryman itself had a peculiar history. Thomas Ryman was a local steamboat captain (a profession Mark Twain tried and failed to make a go of) who so detested a traveling preacher, Sam Jones, for his denunciations of everything from alcohol to baseball and bicycles that he went to a tent-meeting in Nashville. Not only was he converted within an hour, but he determined to build a tabernacle large enough that Jones would no longer have to preach in a tent. The resulting red-brick building, similar to Toronto’s Massey Hall, has pew-seating and a wooden balcony. Its acoustics are said to be amongst the best in the world. Tom Jones is testing them out on Saturday.
Tennessee is famous for plenty besides country music (including Jack Daniels, which is ironically brewed in a county that prohibits the sale of alcohol), but it is easy to forget that almost the whole of America has the potential to be affected by natural disasters, be they forest fires in Texas or California, earthquakes in San Francisco, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico or tornados as we have seen recently. Over three hundred have now died across Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi, just a few days after North Carolina was hit by storms. We spent a day in Nashville bars, switching between El Classico and various storm warnings, followed the next day by driving through some of the areas affected. Though the roads were cleared, the trees lining the road had been decimated.
The fervour with which Americans discuss the possible causes of even the inexplicable is matched only by their faith that they will overcome each obstacle. In situations where some people have lost everything, it is touching, but when the Federal Government becomes involved, as it must, it can be toxic. The past day has seen almost non-stop coverage of the Royal Wedding, (particularly on CNN, who seem to have abandoned Georgia en masse), suggesting that President Obama’s involvement will not become a political football at a time when almost all else is.