Two Tough Guys and “The Course of Empire”

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By Friday, Nov 24 Viewpoints
Natural-born hairdresser presidents Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump.

Thanks to Trump’s tutor in the field of American history, Steve Bannon, the country’s forty-fifth president became convinced that he was cast in the mold of Andrew Jackson, number seven, known as Old Hickory because he was a fierce warrior and a shrewd dealmaker, adding a lot of real estate — both in the northwest and in the southwest — to the ever-expanding United States. Today, at least among coastal elites, Jackson lives in infamy as the chief executive who ordered the expulsion of roughly 50,000 Native Americans from their homelands in the cotton-kingdom states east of the Mississippi to the hostile terrain of the Oklahoma Territories. The militia-driven exodus, during which nearly one quarter of the Cherokee population perished, is known today as the Trail of Tears. Jackson’s twenty-first century avatar shows a similar scant regard for Native Americans, allowing fracking and mining in areas the tribes regard as sacred and boosting pipelines that imperil the tribes’ drinking water.

Thanks, again, to the tutelage of Steve Bannon, a portrait of Old Hickory hangs in a prominent place in the Oval Office, so that photos of Trump often show Jackson in the background. Jackson’s upswept silver coif seems to foreshadow Trump’s layered goldilocks arrangement – the two tough guys revealed as natural-born hairdressers.

The artist who painted the Jackson portrait Ralph E. W. Earle – was a crony who, as Peter Grier pointed out in The Christian Science Monitor, “churned out a stream of images aimed at convincing voters that the seventh president was a worthy member of America’s founding pantheon.”

Thomas Cole, a contemporary artist regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School of painting, took a dimmer view of Jackson and what he stood for. Starting in 1833, as Jackson began his second term as president, Cole set to work on an ambitious series of five paintings titled “The Course of Empire.” The series, completed in 1836, depicts a pastoral world becoming a populous city with grandiose buildings and triumphal processions that then crumbles into ruins, overgrown and turned into a wilderness. In announcing his series, Cole quoted two lines from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

First freedom and then Glory – when that fails,

Wealth, vice, corruption.

Cole’s commentary on the state of the Republic in the Age of Jackson echoes a statement drafted by the frail, eighty-one-year-old Benjamin Franklin and read aloud for him by a friend at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787: “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such, because I think a General Government necessary for us…and I believe farther that this is likely to be well-administered for a Course of Years and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”

Franklin was frail and crippled by gout, but his vision was unimpaired by wishful thinking.


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