NPR's Steve Inskeep speaks about his book "Jacksonland" and what it says about America’s democratic traditionHistorians in the News
tags: Andrew Jackson, Trump
An interview with Steve Inskeep, author of Jacksonland, and an NPR correspondent.
What parallels do you see in the changes happening in Andrew Jackson’s era and the changes in America today?
One of the things I learned that I felt instinctively, but I feel that I can now document, is the way that we build upon our political traditions without necessarily even knowing it. When people today make certain statements that seem a little paranoid or that they're worried about who's really running the government, and, sometimes in legitimate ways, talking about how the government has been captured by outside forces, worrying about foreigners, worrying about unelected judges, things like that. You hear those same patterns of argument in the 1820s and ’30s. The issues are different but the attitudes are quite similar.
I wrote an article for The New York Times in February, it compares Jackson to Trump. I want to be really, really careful about that comparison, I waited for months before I came around to writing that article because they're very different people in terms of their resumes and so forth. What Trump captures is Jackson's attitude, which you could probably say of a lot of other politicians through the generations; there's this political tradition of talking a certain way, assuming a certain fighting stance. ‘The people who are on my side, I'm going to do everything to defend them and I don't care who gets hurt.’ That was Jackson's approach, it is Trump's approach and it is a particular American political attitude.
It was fascinating to see Andrew Jackson's relationship with the newspaper reporters of his day in Jacksonland. You point out that he drew a circle of them in as advisers, and also point out the elite newspaper he didn’t trust, The National Intelligencer. Did it surprise you how similar the president’s relationship with the press was back then compared to how it is today?
In the early 1800s there was this paper, The National Intelligencer, and people would say it was The Washington Post of its day, it was The New York Times of its day, but there's really no comparison because it was the newspaper. Sure, there were other newspapers across the country, but this was the established newspaper. Because there was basically one ruling party (that had its different factions and wings) for a couple of decades after the Federalists faded away, you only needed one newspaper.
By the 1820s, people like Jackson were concluding that they needed their own outlets to get their own views out and not rely on this establishment paper. Not just powerful men like Jackson thought like that. African Americans recognized in this period that they needed their own newspapers, and the very first black-owned newspaper was founded in 1827. The Cherokees realized they needed a newspaper and founded theirs in 1828.
We worry a lot about the fragmentation about media today because we fear that everybody is just tuning into stuff that confirms their biases. I think that happens, but generally speaking, the increase in the number of outlets is great—you can throw any idea out there in the marketplace and if people are interested in it you can find an audience.
You have mentioned that one of the toughest questions you were asked while doing your book tour came from a Cherokee man who asked, "Are you just another white man making money off us? Or will you help us get our land back?" How did you approach researching and writing the Cherokee side of this story?
You've put your finger on one of the hardest things, because Indian history is extraordinarily complicated. The sources in those early years are really, really difficult because so many of the people involved were illiterate. You're relying not on Indians in their own words, but on Indians' words and customs as interpreted by white men who I guess were sympathetic, because they were hanging out with Indians. Or they might be patronizing. There's so many opportunities for misinterpretation there.