Oval Office Portraits

That Donald Trump has chosen to replace the unamazing Obama drapes in the Oval Office with gold ones was unsurprising given that the former real estate mogul’s brand is synonymous with luxury, especially the ostentatious type. Perhaps a more telling signal as to the kind of President Trump wants to be is the selection of the portrait of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States (1828-1836). The changes in the décor of all chief executive offices are freighted with symbolic value, each item examined by the tea-leaf readers for some clue to the character and ambitions of the man.

Obama, coming into office in the midst of a financial crisis, chose not to change much of the décor established by his predecessor. The portrait of Lincoln remained. As did the bust of Martin Luther King and the Fredrick Remington sculpture.

Trump, the self-proclaimed populist, has paid tribute to the first “disrupter” in the American presidency, the Tennessean who was the first president from the trans-Appalachian region, a popular military hero who believed that his defeat in 1824 was “rigged,” a man who opened up the White House to the common man and fed their anti-elitist aspirations for democratic participation and dreams of prosperity. Jackson’s inability to deliver much for the common man may presage Trumps failure to deliver on his promises to his minions of disaffected citizens.

Jackson has been the subject of numerous biographies, including the widely recognized American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2009) by John Meacham, formerly of Newsweek. And he was the subject of a 2010 Broadway musical, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, that garnered positive review but has since been dwarfed by a musical about Alexander Hamilton. That Jackson’s star is falling (rather than rising as Trump would wish) can be found in the liberal movement to remove his visage from the $20 bill and to replace it with that of Harriet Tubman.

In light of the Trump’s proclivity for banning and deporting people who are alleged threats to liberty and security, it might be instructive to look at Jackson through the special lens of scholarship on the history of the indigenous peoples of North America. One such work is Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014). Ortiz’s work is a sweeping account of America as a settler nation that through its entire history practiced a distinct form of colonialism that involved the subjugation, forced relocations, and exterminations of Native America peoples, estimated by some historians as 40 to 50 million people on the North American continent at the time of the discovery of a “barely populated” and virgin land. One sign of the endurance of this mindset is the continued use of “in country” (read “in Indian country”) as a designation for any territory in which America has a military outpost, and there are close to 200 around the world.

In the chapter “The Last of the Mohicans and Andrew Jackson’s White Republic,” Ortiz is primarily interested in Jackson as “Indian killer.” He’s one of the principal advocates of a manifest destiny that demanded, indeed required, the violent eradication of relatively sophisticated tribes with long histories of habitation in now contested territories. The Scot-Irish Jackson family came to Pennsylvania from Northern-Ireland in the years before the revolution; in Tennessee in the early part of the 19th century, the future president was a wealthy land speculator and slave owner. Much of the land that he acquired through forced and through dubious legal procedures was land occupied and farmed by tribes like the Chickasaw and Muskogee.

While novelist James Fenimore Cooper was fashioning novels like The Last of the Mohicans which providing the animating mythology of the new American character, a creative blend between the savvy European and the nature-wise but expendable native American, Jackson was defining an American patriotism based on white supremacy.

Ortiz cites Cherokee Wilma Mankiller who claims that “more than any other President, he used forcible removal to expel the eastern tribes from their land.” From Mankiller’s point of view, Jackson was enacting a vision for empire formulated by Jefferson, a vision in which “any hope for tribal autonomy was cursed. So were any thoughts of peaceful coexistence with white citizens.”

Ortiz agrees with Jackson biographer Michael Paul Rogin that most historians of the Age of Jackson conveniently avoid following the most important angle in knowing the man, the perspective of Indian destruction. Or at least downplay the Indian Removal policy that drove thousands of Native Americans into the trans-Mississippi territories, the demographic shift known as the Trail of Tears.

Ortiz’s Jackson is “the Dark Knight in the formation of the United States as a colonial, imperialistic democracy, a dynamic formation that continues to constitute the core of US patriotism.” This patriotism is espoused by every American president, even liberal Democratic ones; all “refer back to [Jackson] on what is acceptable, how to reconcile democracy and genocide and characterize it as freedom for the people.” Ortiz would probably come to the conclusion that the 45th president goes about the task more brazenly and openly cynical than previous presidents, that he exposes, perhaps unwittingly, the ugly truth behind American exceptionalism. When Bill O’Reilly asked Trump asked about Putin as a killer, Trump said “Lotta killers. We got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”

It’s doubtful that Trump knows much about the English novelist D.H. Lawrence who lived in New Mexico in 1922 and who wrote an insightful analysis of the 19th Century American Novel, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). His conclusion after reading Cooper and Melville and Twain is that in the works of these writers you have the “myth of essential white America.” All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never melted.” A fair description of Mr. Trump?





About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

One thought on “Oval Office Portraits

  1. Mic
    January 31, 2018 at 1:36 am

    What are the rest of the portraits? Is Jefferson up? I appreciate your in depth opinion on the Jackson portrait but if there are others too? Why cheat the reader or at least acknowledge them in passing if not the time or space? Now I need to read more sites in the hopes of answering the question what was chosen.

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