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.
Yes Jackson and Jefferson were not perfect and did horrible things, but Jefferson gave us the declaration of independence the founding document that gave us our principles of freedom, Andrew Jackson, did equally horrible things but he also paid off our national debt for the first and only time in our history. The point! all humans are flawed, we all are capable of evil as well as great achievements. It’s always been that way and always will.
Well said Mr. Webb.
First, I have to say that Jackson’s paying off of the debt isn’t all it’s cracked up to be because his economic policies helped bring about the Panic of 1837. And I agree that nobody’s perfect, although that makes me imagine campaign posters for Andrew Jackson…”Andrew Jackson 1824: A Product Of His Time” and “Andrew Jackson 1828: Nobody’s Perfect.”
I appreciate your comment and agree that looking at both the accomplishments and faults of leaders is important, and I strongly feel that leaders should be held to high standards.
Thank you for this article. Your argument is certainly articulated a lot better than mine ever was. I have myself often used the “product of his time” blurb concerning Jackson, but if i may add context it would be this. It was used as a reply to the cancel culture that can see only the villain side of all our heroes. I have some (small) Cherokee ancestry myself, and am extremely critical of Jackson. But as you also pointed out, i do not for a moment want us to forget his achievements, good and bad. He was a great man.
If we cancel out people like Andrew Jackson because they do not hold up to our present standard of purity, what is to stop us from repeating the very sins we are protesting in them? What’s more, have these cancel culture puritans who feel so self-righteous in their iconoclasm, ever thought how the next generation, or the next century will evaluate them? I bet you Andrew Jackson was faultless in his own eyes too. Go figure.
Again, thank you for the article. I am at a place where i am so tired of talking to people who don’t want to discuss, that i don’t even try to frame it thoughtfully anymore. I am so overwhelmed with the vitriol of simple conversations that “he was a product of his times” is just an easy answer when i don’t expect to be heard anyway. I am quite impressed that you still bother to take the time to write a real post. Good work.
Thank you for your comment. I’m glad it struck a chord.
I can’t speak to Jackson. But what you say about Thomas Jefferson strikes me deeply. Many (white) people of the time believed that not only was slavery not immoral, it was benevolent; the Natural Order, ordained by the Almighty, blah, blah. But Jefferson DIDN’T. He knew that it was evil, pernicious, WRONG. BUT he was always juggling debts, and if he freed his slaves, losing thousands of dollars in their value, and then had to PAY freemen to work his land, he would have gone broke, losing his beloved Monticello. So he kept, and sold, and used, and BEGAT slaves, to keep his standard of living, and because he WANTED TO! I don’t know how much difference it makes to the victims, but surely that is a far more heinous blot upon HIS soul, to enslave others when he KNOWS that it is a sin, only so that HE would not be discomfited. 😢
Jefferson does attract a lot more scrutiny because he made it so very clear that he knew better. His combination of weakness and apathy was really devastating, because who knows how much it might have meant for the future of his country if such a powerful and influential southerner had done more to end the institution?
Jantique, i quickly looked up slave holding Presidents, and one detail i saw about Thomas Jefferson really feeds into what you are writing about here. Not only was he a slave holder, he was by far the largest slave holder of any US President: 600+. And yet his estate was constantly on the verge of bankruptcy. How many slaves do you need to keep an estate afloat before at some point you just call admit mismanagement? I am told that President Adams on the other hand, managed his Massachusetts estate very well compared to Jefferson, and without any slaves. Among the things he expressed concerning slavery was this. “I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence, that I have never owned a negro or any other slave, though I have lived for many years in times, when the practice was not disgraceful, when the best men in my vicinity thought it not inconsistent with their character, and when it has cost me thousands of dollars for the labor and subsistence of free men, which I might have saved by the purchase of negroes at times when they were very cheap.”
Great article Howard! And thank you to all participants for expressing yourselves in such a civil and thoughtful manner. We’re not seeing much of this these days. This is refreshing.
Thank you! And I agree on the civility. This isn’t even a category 1 shitstorm. (Although I did get muted from a different history group for sharing this post.) I guess maybe I should leave it up to my readers to share.
Nice article and I enjoyed the thoughtful conversation in the comments. See, we can have civil discourse and find a happy middle ground. Very little in life is black or white, no pun intended.