Learning Lessons of Leadership from History (Part 2 of 2)
On a recent vacation, I read two books:
“CHURCHILL & SEA POWER” – Christopher M. Bell (2013, Oxford University Press, ISBN 987-0-19-969357-3) – Bell, is an Associate Professor of History at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia..
“AMERICAN LION – ANDREW JACKSON IN THE WHITE HOUSE” – Jon Meacham (2008, Random House, ISBN 978-0-8129-7346-4) – Meacham, is executive editor and executive VP at Random House. He is also a former editor-in-chief of “Newsweek.”
Both books had their own unique story to tell, but from my perspective they provided me with some interesting insight into what made Churchill and Jackson effective leaders. In Part One I discussed the Churchill book. In Part Two, herein, I will address the Jackson book and make some conclusions about both leaders.
“AMERICAN LION – ANDREW JACKSON IN THE WHITE HOUSE”
This book has been out for a few years already, but I purchased it as I see a parallel between the pre-Civil War years of the United States and today. Jackson was the most influential president of this period. Naturally, I wanted to know why. This book also received some excellent reviews. Meacham’s new book on Thomas Jefferson was recently released, which I hope to read soon.
The first half of “American Lion” reminded me of television’s “Downton Abbey” filled with gossip and faux pas of protocol. Coming from the western frontier, Jackson was initially considered a country bumpkin by the Washington elite. He surprised them by his observance of poise, etiquette, intelligence, and understanding of politics. The Washington establishment quickly learned not to underestimate him.
Jackson possessed a paternalistic quality, whereby he considered the citizens his kin. Not surprising, Jackson is regarded as the founder of the Democratic Party, “the party of the people.” He had a strong sense of family probably because he came from a broken one himself. Jackson never knew his father as he had died prior to Andrew’s birth. The three Jackson brothers, all in their teens, served in the Revolutionary War which ultimately claimed the lives of Andrew’s brothers. Young Andrew was close to his mother, Elizabeth, but alas she too perished during the war. Jackson thereby became an orphan at age 14.
Years after her death, Jackson was fond of quoting the advice his mother gave him shortly before she died:
“Andrew, if I should not see you again, I wish you to remember and treasure up some things I have already said to you: in this world you will have to make your own way. To do that you must have friends. You can make friends by being honest, and you can keep them by being steadfast. You must keep in mind that friends worth having will in the long run expect as much from you as they give to you. To forget an obligation or be ungrateful for a kindness is a base crime – not merely a fault or a sin, but an actual crime. Men guilty of it sooner or later must suffer the penalty. In personal conduct be always polite but never obsequious. None will respect you more than you respect yourself. Avoid quarrels as long as you can without yielding to imposition. But sustain your manhood always. Never bring a suit in law for assault and battery or for defamation. The law affords no remedy for such outrages that can satisfy the feelings of a true man. Never would the feelings of others. Never brook wanton outrage upon your own feelings. If you ever have to vindicate your feelings or defend your honor, do it calmly. If angry at first, wait till your wrath cools before you proceed.”
This became the law of his life and gives us great insight into his personality.
His nickname became “Old Hickory” which denoted his toughness, particularly during the War of 1812, where he earned his celebrity as general by defeating the British in New Orleans. This propelled him to a political career. Even though he was defeated in his first campaign for president, he went on to win two consecutive terms from 1829 to 1837. Although his wife, Rachel, saw him win election, she died just before Jackson was installed as president. Feeling lonely, Jackson recruited his nephew, Andrew Donelson, to become his personal secretary and by doing so the Donelson family took up quarters in the White House. Donelson’s 21 year old wife, Emily, thereby became the official hostess of the White House. This particularly agreed with Jackson as he desperately craved a family environment.
Prior to Jackson’s arrival at the Capitol, the executive branch was considered weaker than the legislative branch (Congress). This all changed under Jackson. Because of his strong personality, coupled with toughness and perseverance, Jackson expanded the role of the presidency, much to the consternation of Congress. Three points were of particular interest to him: a love of country, a commitment to the Union, and the people. These three elements were the variables Jackson considered as he conquered many difficult challenges of the day, to wit:
* He paid off the federal debt. He considered being beholden to creditors a dangerous policy to pursue (something I wish today’s government would embrace).
* He eliminated the Bank of the United States. To Jackson, the bank had become too influential and catered to the rich as opposed to the people (again, another parallel to today).
* He upheld American interests abroad when threatened. He took retribution from Sumatran pirates who attacked and plundered the American merchant ship, “Friendship.” He also stood up to France who initially refused to pay off a war debt of $5 million. Fearing Jackson would go to war with France, the French paid off their debt.
* He moved the Indians west of the Mississippi, a highly controversial move as Jackson subverted existing treaties. Nonetheless, he felt obliged to bring safety and security to the country.
* He put down an uprising in South Carolina to secede from the Union. Jackson believed in states rights, but he was deeply committed to maintaining the Union. 32 years later, South Carolina would secede thereby marking the beginning of the American Civil War.
All of these matters were difficult and needed to be addressed. As in war, Jackson rose to the occasion and he tackled them head-on. Although he could be political, Jackson would be confrontational after his mind had been made up: “Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”
Jackson’s legacy was expansion of the power of the presidency thereby earning him the wrath of the Congress. His adversaries were primarily John C. Calhoun of South Carolina (and his first Vice President), and Henry Clay of Kentucky, both of whom characterized Jackson as tyrannical. Jackson was ultimately censured by the Congress which chaffed him greatly, causing him to spend years to expunge the decision which was done shortly before his death. Despite the Congress, the American people loved him, which baffled the congressmen of the day. His dominance as president was such that Jackson overshadowed all of his successors until Lincoln who became the first president since Jackson to be elected to consecutive terms of office. All others had been elected to just one.
Churchill and Jackson
Reading these two books, back-to-back, I marveled at the skill of Churchill and Jackson as leaders. Both were intelligent and decisive men; they abhorred indecisiveness and understood the necessity of tackling a problem immediately as opposed to waiting and allowing it to fester. They both knew how to improvise, going so far as to bend the rules as long as the means justified the end result. Both were men of integrity where their word was their bond and they assumed responsibility for their actions even in the face of disaster. And they both possessed a strong sense of family. Perhaps their most important attribute was their sense of morality; that they always tried to do what was right and honorable.
As Jackson wrote an acquaintance in 1826: “You cannot have forgotten the advice I give to all my young friends, that is to say, as they pass through life have apparent confidence in all, real confidence in none, until from actual experience it is found that the individual is worthy of it – from this rule I have never departed… When I have found men mere politicians, bending to the popular breeze and changing with it, for the self-popularity, I have ever shunned them, believing that they were unworthy of my confidence – but still treat them with hospitality and politeness.”
I only wish our political leaders of today possessed such strength of character.
Keep the Faith!