Sunday, February 9, 2014

America the Binary

Photograph of Chang and Eng Bunker in their later years.[]
"Siamese Twins," Brothers Chang and Eng Bunker, a symbol of America?

At protests, we often hear the phrase "the people united will never be defeated." But in America, we are wise to remember another phrase: "never say never."

Take the election of 1824. While first thought to unify the country, America's brief experiment with a one party system (1818-1824) led to a un-popular conclusion in 1824. With all four candidates representing the same party, the Democratic-Republicans, none received a majority of the electoral votes, and the US House of Representatives was left to decide.

Despite receiving a plurality of both the popular (43%) and electoral votes (99), General Andrew Jackson was defeated by his runner up, John Quincy Adams. Under what Jackson supporters later dubbed the "corrupt bargain," Congress elected Adams to be the sixth President of the United States on February 9, 1824.

Jacksonians were furious, and within months had nominated him to be the1828 presidential candidate (Hilary, what's the hold-up?).

During JQA's one-term Presidency--which was mostly marred with malevolence--the Chang and Eng Bunker Brothers, "Siamese Twins" born in Taiwan, first came to the United States in 1827. These conjoined twins would later reside in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, own slaves, and father 11 and 12 children respectively (with two different wives). In many ways, they were also a sign of the times, of America's unfolding, interdependent duality.

The controversial 1824 election paved the way for our two party system, with the Jacksonian faction becoming the modern Democratic Party, and the Adams faction absorbed by the National Republicans (aka Whig Party).

Culturally, the Adams/Jackson rematch in 1828 was a battle between America's emerging extremes. Adams hailed from the North (Massachusetts) Jackson from the South (Tennessee). Adams was from a long line of aristocrats, Jackson was born in poverty.

Jackson was charismatic, Adams dull. The son of the second President, John Adams' detractors called him "a chip off the old iceberg."

Adams was academic, Jackson a man of action. “J. Q. Adams can write” one slogan read, “Andy Jackson can fight”.

Adams was stately, Jackson characterized as a brute. Henry Clay once quipped "killing 2500 (?!) Englishman at the Battle of New Orleans" did not qualify Jackson for "the various difficult and complicated duties of the chief magistrate."

Adams was a deeply religious man, Jackson prone to vice. During the 1828 election, Adams supporters discredited Jackson for living with his wife before she was legally divorced from her first husband.

And where Adams favored a National Bank, Jackson pushed for independent state banks. Jackson won the election of 1828 by a landslide, and the dream of national banking was buried until the Republican, President Abraham Lincoln, signed the National Bank Act in 1863. (Today America is the only major economy that has a dual banking system, one that charters both state and national banks.)

Many of the Jackson and Adams' battles are echoed in today's cultural conversations. But today we have a new way to describe our binary nature: Red vs Blue.

Listen to a campaign song, "Hunters of Kentucky, or Half Horse and Half Alligator (another beautiful binary!)," sung by Jackson supporters in the 1824 election. It glorifies Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans.

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Flannery O'Connor

You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.