President Donald Trump visited The Hermitage on Wednesday on the 250th anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s birth to lay a wreath at his grave. UT history professor Daniel Feller stood 50 feet from him as he delivered a speech from the home’s front porch.
“He began his speech with some remarks about President Jackson, but then he turned the direction to list ways in which the two [Trump and Jackson] are similar,” said Feller, who is director of the university’s Papers of Andrew Jackson project.
Feller said Trump drew a series of analogies between himself and Jackson, saying they were both men of the people, loved by common folk, and disliked by the Washington elite.
“Trump mentioned Jackson’s invocation of the ordinary American—the planter, farmer, laborer—and said that he was looking after those people, too,” said Feller. “He also mentioned Jackson’s purge of federal office holders and promised more of the same.”
Feller said Trump has embraced a certain part of Jackson’s legacy and downplayed or ignored other parts.
Several presidents have visited The Hermitage throughout the years. President Ronald Reagan was the last president to visit.
Feller noted that all presidents are invited to The Hermitage but that recent Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had declined, perhaps because of the awkwardness it would have brought to them.
“Jackson’s reputation has been pretty low recently, especially among Democratic constituencies,” said Feller. “It would have been awkward for Clinton or Obama to visit because controversial issues surrounding Jackson would have been front and center—race relations and Indian removal, to name two. Trump circled around those issues by simply not mentioning them.”
As a historian, Feller considers himself solely a keeper of the facts.
“I don’t usually take sides unless facts about President Jackson are used incorrectly,” he said. “The president got some things right, but one he got spectacularly wrong was claiming that Jackson imposed tariffs to protect American workers. Jackson strongly favored reducing tariffs.”
Feller said the speech ended on a partisan note. When Trump closed by saying he’d “make America great again,” some in the crowd cheered loudly while others remained silent.
“In appearance, manner and tone, the President Trump you see on TV is the exact Trump you get in person,” added Feller.
The analogies between Trump and Jackson are being used widely, but Feller says the most fascinating part is that a Republican president is likening himself to the founder of the Democratic Party, while Democrats are essentially distancing themselves from him.
“There’s a role reversal going on here because a Republican president is embracing a Democratic predecessor, though Lincoln and the Republicans had also embraced Jackson as a defender of the Union during the Civil War,” said Feller. “Jackson has multiple legacies, and people will always pick and choose which legacies they wish to remember.
“As historians, we are guardians of the record. If there is any value in looking at historical precedent, it’s important to get it right. Historical analogies have great power, but they can also lead you to disaster.”
Feller said that it was his first time to be in the presence of a U.S. president. He was invited as a guest of the Hermitage Museum Foundation.
Tyra Haag (865-974-5460, firstname.lastname@example.org)