And a belated happy New Year to all readers!
Yesterday saw the close of the first of the Public Theater’s two shows to make it to Broadway in 2010 (the other, the company’s production of Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino, continues). Jackson‘s untimely end raises its own questions of Broadway’s place in the arts, and its ability to innovate (or its lack thereof). But to send off the show, this brief analysis of its central premise.
That idea, related through satire and emo rock, is that America, secure in its place on the continent and in the world, is the beneficiary of bad decisions, decisions modern generations may revile and regret, but without which we would not exist as we are.
Alongside broader commentary on the nature of democracy and corruption in the early Republic, Jackson highlighted the seventh President’s dealings with the Native American tribes he first conquered, and then expelled from his newly expanded country. But if Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears was the first sin against basic morality, committed to ensure the long-term security of an American continent, it was hardly the last.
Benjamin Walker’s Andrew Jackson begins the show as a blood-soaked conqueror delighting in the death of his enemies, but walks the audience through his moral calculus late in the show, as a sobered, emotionally defeated president, resigned to the inevitability of the crimes he must commit. The expulsion of the native Americans and concurrent genocide, he explains to his native friend and ally Black Fox (a Cherokee Josephus character), were together foreordained the minute Europeans set foot on the new continent. All that was left for Jackson and the Natives of his day was to negotiate the least bad outcome: continued war, in which all Indians would die, or their expulsion and relegation to reservations, where only the majority would. Peace is off the table, not because the newly moderated Jackson is out for blood, but because even if Jackson wanted to restrain American growth to preserve the Natives’ exceptionalism and their territories, he could not. Jackson’s “manifest destiny” isn’t a command that the American people live up to their inherent greatness; it’s a resignation to the inexorability of bloodshed between the expanding Americans and the Native peoples, the latter denied a fair fight by the forces of history.
By bowing to inevitability, Walker’s Jackson becomes less a villain than a man playing out the part that history and an expansionist, unreasoning people demand of him. Agency ultimately comes to rest in Jackson’s constituents who, in the very next scene, decry his brutal treatment of the Native peoples, while celebrating their new home in recently-vacated Florida. “It is nice it doesn’t snow…!”
You can take this account of history or leave it. But, as the show expertly points out, there’s very little to be gained from simply demonizing Jackson, and his role in the Trail of Tears, and walking away. We are heirs to a great legacy, but one built on no small amount of bloodshed, all of it perpetrated for us, the ultimate beneficiaries, and therefore in our name. None of these wrongs can now be righted — and we probably wouldn’t want them righted, if we could. The best we can do is to use for good that which we’ve received by questionable means. Ultimately, this is what the show’s closing song demands of us:
What was it for, this country?
The farms, and the blood across the prairie?
The nation we become, as we build a second nature…
The grass grows. We take it. We want it.
It’s second nature to us.
What was it for? That question remains ours to answer, and if we can answer it well, maybe we can understand (if not excuse) our bloody history, and be worthy of the sacrifices made not just for us, but to us. Our history does not just confer greatness; it requires it, as well as the highest degree of honor in our current and future dealings. Sometimes you have to take the initiative.