JER Co-Editor Andy Shankman’s Response to the #SHEAR2020 Plenary

Centre Square Philadelphia, published by S. C. Atkinson for the Casket.

I am the Co-Editor of the Journal of the Early Republic.  I write understanding that my position as editor will not be viewed separately from my personal thoughts.  The SHEAR Plenary on July 17th, organized around Dan Feller’s paper denying arguments for connections between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump, did not articulate enough why I think there are powerful connections between the nineteenth century and the twenty first century.  I have learned how to understand those connections in part from the work of scholars such as Dawn Peterson and Laurel Clark Shire.  In my view, the experience of Lyncoya, and the scholarship of Peterson and Clark Shire, shows that Jackson’s slaughter of this child’s parents and community, and then seizure of his person, was part of the larger process of U.S. nation and state formation and citizen identity.  Elites such as Jackson zealously promoted this identity as democracy, shaping it as an ethic of equality among independent households headed by producer-citizen-white-patriarchs.  This democracy, which idealized independence and rough equality among patriarch-heads of household, was constitutively inseparable from deep structural hierarchy within each household’s walls, hierarchy organized legally, socially, culturally, and economically by race and gender.

Land was the foundation of this culture and political economy.  Endemic to the preservation and spread of a citizen-patriarch republic, in which economic and social relations among citizen-patriarchs always threated to grow insupportably unequal, was the violent seizure of additional land.  Jackson and so many others seized the lands of Indigenous peoples as a crucial means to avoid confronting the sources from within the U.S. republic that endangered white male equality.  This understanding of the sources of U.S. (and so Jacksonian) democracy allows us to see democracy in the United States at its inception as deeply embedded in the demands and expectations of white men, in their sense of grievance, and in the impact their expectation and claim of grievance had on all others.  Andrew Jackson was a crucial figure playing a central role in a long, broad, and deep, historical process where the United States built its institutions and wealth through slaughter and racist contempt for Indigenous peoples.  I simply don’t know how else to explain the process of U.S state formation, capital accumulation, territorial seizure, and continental hegemony.    I believe we must think about how the period still called in some textbooks and course catalogues The Age of Jackson connects to our moment, one in which the Trump movement also stokes a racist claim of white male victimhood, grievance, and the alure of rights denied and entitled expectations unmet as the foundation for everything it seeks to do.

I would also like to explain my thinking about the use of racial epithets.  We all encounter this language in our sources.  We all struggle with how to bring students and colleagues to this work without normalizing and prolonging categories and terms that have justified, and continue to justify, violence and contempt, and that seek to deny full and equal membership in a loving community.  In my view, knowing that many people feel pain when they hear words that force them to recall wrongs done to them and those they cherish, and to recall them not at a time of their own choosing, is reason never to use such words.

Andy Shankman

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