It’s time to retire this tired phrase.
A few years ago I wrote about how Andrew Jackson was seemingly unkillable, like a real-life horror movie monster. I shared the post in a Facebook group about American history, and based on the reactions you would think I had thrown a rabid raccoon into a cocktail party. The comments got out of control and the post was removed because it was causing “a shitstorm.”
Among those heated comments I saw a lot of people, when confronted with some of the horrible things Jackson did, resort to the common defense that he was “a product of his time.” They used it as an excuse for any criticism you could level against him.
This tired phrase needs to be retired.
Andrew Jackson cannot and should not be chalked up to being “a product of his time.” It’s a lazy excuse and a useless cliché, and it grossly underestimates his power and place in history.
I acknowledge that on one hand, it’s true. Jackson was, literally, a product of his time, inhabiting and being shaped by the same world as his contemporaries from 1767 – 1845; he was not some kind of renegade Time Lord from Doctor Who.
And it is true that his actions can only be understood in the context of that world and that time. After all, it would, I hope, be much more difficult to systematically remove and cause the deaths of thousands of Native Americans today.*
But on the other hand, chalking Andrew Jackson’s actions up to him being a product of his time is insulting, not only to the millions of people affected by his policies, but to Jackson himself.
For one, it downplays just how controversial his Indian removal policies were at the time. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was not something that just came across his desk – it was something he championed and forced through because of land he had lusted over for decades. Of course he was not the only person complicit in drafting and enacting these policies, but offering excuses for his role absolves him of responsibility for something he championed with all his might.
Calling Jackson a product of his time also underestimates just how exceptional he was, for his time or any. And this argument isn’t limited to Andrew Jackson. Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant enlightenment thinker who wrote the Declaration of Independence and declared that all men are created equal, and he also happened to keep hundreds of people enslaved – a practice he knew fully well was barbaric and immoral – and did next to nothing to end the institution because it would have been inconvenient for him.
We are not talking about doctors prescribing mercury because they didn’t know any better; we are talking about people in power doing heinous things when the human cost of those actions was well known.
Maybe your grandfather, whose vocabulary might have included horribly racist terms, was a product of his time, shaped by his peers. I’ll buy that. The very phrase implies a kind of inevitability, as though the product is the only possible result of certain parts assembled a certain way. But there is something so common, so average about that idea – “a product” – like a mass-produced commodity. People like Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were anything but average. They rose to the very top of the national government. The American president should in theory represent the best America has to offer on all fronts. Including morality.
I can already anticipate a plethora of comments about “presentism” from people who didn’t even bother to read this far. Presentism is the idea that you can’t impose the morals of the present on the people of the past, but I’ve had enough of internet cretins regurgitating that argument as an excuse for why it’s okay to revere Jackson as a faultless hero. These people either wrongly believe that immoral practices like slavery were totally cool and universally supported in their time, or worse, some of them seem to wish those immoral practices were still legal.
Please don’t misunderstand me: this is not a call to “cancel” Jefferson or Jackson, but it is a call to stop excusing their evils. The shitstorm of comments my article caused were not just from apologists. There are many who seem to think Andrew Jackson should not be studied at all due to his worst actions, and I disagree. I believe he can and should be studied, warts and all. American history is not a fairy tale. It can handle criticism.
If you want to discuss the context of a historical figure’s actions, then all I’m asking is that you try doing it thoughtfully.
Historian Kevin M. Kruse recently said, “History that exalts a nation’s strengths without ever examining its shortcomings, that prefers feeling good rather than thinking hard, that seeks simplistic celebration over a full understanding – well, that’s not history; that’s propaganda.” That reminds me of something John Adams said in 1818: “Why should we not honestly and candidly investigate the errors and crimes of our ancestors that we may correct, reform, and avoid them?”
It’s time to stop writing off behavior that was clearly understood as immoral even during its time by saying the perpetrators were products of their time.
If you want to add context and scrutiny to a discussion, pull up a chair. If all you’re bringing to the discussion are excuses, then please excuse yourself.