HIST 442: We’ve Been Talkin’ ‘Bout Jackson Ever Since the Fire Went Out

25 February 2020

HIST 442: We’ve Been Talkin’ ‘Bout Jackson Ever Since the Fire Went Out

In his age, Andrew Jackson’s military career and administration left a weighty and widely interpreted mark on the American mind. During the immense changes of the time, Jackson represented a strong and unbending force which rallied the common-man and the patriot and the businessman alike. Through his vast popularity during and beyond the War of 1812 and his controversial actions in office, Jackson symbolized an all-American, non-European, self-made and natural man who stood with his iron will for democracy—and a man plucked out and elevated as the instrument of Providence.

Markedly and to his great success, Jackson was the effective opposite of European refinement. His campaign against John Quincy Adams proved to be, as Ward puts it, a problem of the “simple West versus the effete East; …the United States versus Europe” (67). The two pitted together, with an ivy-league, allegedly elitist, Northeastern, wealthy Adams on the one hand and a rugged, ‘unlettered’ man of the South on the other, made for a clash of ideals, of two distinct cultures in America, the professor against the plowman, as Ward says (46). Jackson, of course, won largely because of his lack of refinement and his distance from all the classical learning of the East. However, it should be noted—and Watson does not—that Quincy Adams still won nearly half of the popular vote in the election of 1828; there was substantial support on Adams’ side for the traditional presidential ideal and substantial antagonism towards Jackson thereafter, as we can see in Ward’s account of the case of the decapitation of Jackson’s wooden figurehead (Watson 94; Ward 116-122). Watson points out that it was not a hot issue or a favorite candidate that got voters to the polls, but a scintillatingly close race in which one felt like his vote would really count, e.g., the case of 1828 (94). Moreover, Jackson represented a return to the Founding Fathers’ intentions, a conquering of corruption or our fall from grace—a grace which need not be learned or cultivated, but which is God-given. Ward asserts, “Underlying the rejection of education and training, which were personified in John Quincy Adams, was the assumption that, at best, training was unnecessary and, at worst, it corrupted reason, which is intrinsic and not acquired” (Ward 71). Served a bitter reminder of the taste of dependence and British control in the War of 1812, self-conscious and wary America called for a revival of mores.

Jackson was a man of intuition, and he didn’t wait for the government’s approval. Americans in the nineteenth century had a desire for “the law [to] conform to deeds rather than that deeds conform to the law” (Ward 77). He justified his means by his ends, and this philosophy promoted a “freedom of action” (Ward 77). This is evident in the Seminole scandal and Jackson’s execution of two British officers before any substantive approval from above, which, Ward points out, was an issue of both “the philosophy of American expansionism as well as international law” (Ward 58). One could stipulate that the people flailed so in search of a higher, intrinsic set of morals which every man possesses—confident and unapologetic morals embodied by Jackson—because the law was failing them so basically.

In this way, Jackson was a “self-made man” whose reputation preceded him. This success and this evidently dramatic opportunity for social mobility appealed to the common man. His individualism was shown in the victorious Battle of New Orleans and the various legends and tales that resulted. Much like the miasmic myth that followed Tennessee Congressman David Crockett, Jackson was told about. This is evident in Samuel Woodsworth’s poem, “The Hunters of Kentucky,” subsequently made a song which exalted Jackson-the-symbol: “But Jackson he was wide awake, and /wasn’t scared with trifles, /For well he knew what aim we take /with our Kentucky rifles;…” (qtd. in Ward 14). Such folkloric songs and tales paint Jackson as both a larger-than-life figure and a common man who well knows the American people and their hardships, which aided his push for democracy. Watson points to this understanding in the case of broadened enfranchisement under the Jackson administration:

“In a rapidly changing economic environment, it was hard for conservatives to convince others that one form of property was more influential than another in persuading an owner to defend free government…Reform did not supplant republicanism in American political thinking, but significantly shifted its emphasis toward majoritarian democracy” (Watson 50-51).

Despite this idea of Jackson as a folklorish mystical man who also understood the backwoods-grit of the common man, just like in the case of Davy Crockett the figure never really belonged to Jackson. As Ward points out, “[i]f ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ reflects a prevailing assumption about the positive force of nature in the universe, it only indirectly connects Andrew Jackson with that force” (       30). Arguably, Jackson happened to be the symbol for an age and a spirit which was riding the natural pendulum of things; the British were again on American soil, only about 40 years after the Revolutionary War, fighting for the resources and the land, and there was some uncannily threatening déjà vu at hand. The Americans needed to distinguish themselves finally from the British, and Andrew Jackson was as different from the British as anyone. In other words, the Jacksonian movement could have gone by any other name. All that mattered was to stand with a man as vividly different from the European tradition as possible (—but not a savage, by any means.)

On top of that need for a distinct all-American leader was the Panic of 1819 which put the people in a certain eponymously obvious state, and Jackson-the-symbol swept the newspapers with his victorious battle which had defeated the British. Although somewhat contradictory in light of his repertoire as the “self-made man,” it is not going too far to compare Jackson to a savior of sorts, a deliverer. The Jacksonians shared this sentiment: “in [the age of Jackson], the people of the United States were predisposed to find God’s special favor in nearly every passing event…The nation, expanding violently, needed confidence to carry on its gigantic task” (Ward 110). The idea of Jackson as a savior was partially the need for such confidence and partially some sort of hangover following the sweep of intense (albeit short-lived) nationalism in America; like the saccharine taste of spiritual medicine Jackson lingered after a disappointingly short Era of Good Feelings. This was the pillar of fire by night, and pillar of cloud in the day; God was believed to have chosen the American people and would see to it that they went on (Ward 111). Jackson was God’s strong, rugged instrument to carry out His Divine Justice (and His Divinely Profitable Topographical Schemes.)

Jackson was not a mute and hollow symbol, however. During his campaign and presidency, there developed the second party-system, enfranchisement of more men, and campaigns for Indian relocation, among other things. One could argue again that these could have and probably would have taken place under any other administration, but they are proof nonetheless of Jackson’s fusion of self-sufficiency and unbending will. Alongside the symbol of Jackson as the instrument of Providence was Jackson as the man of iron will on whom “adversity can make no impression” (qtd. in Ward 190). In a time of such turmoil, when profits were largely concentrated in the hands of few, during the rapid and turbulent Market Revolution, in pervasive desperation for real, true executive action on the behalf of the majority, “[t]hought was made subordinate to action” (Ward 210).

Such a broad set of shoes to fill, it seems. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if Jackson made a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ administrative or military decision, or if he won the Battle of New Orleans, or if he kicked out the Indians as long as he confidently did so and “’had no thought of failure’…because Jackson was a Hercules of action’” —the people needed this Andrew Jackson and so created him (Ward 212). This natural and divinely chosen and unbending idea of a man need not be true as long as these traits were ascribed to him, and thus it was feasible for America to go on, cutting itself finally from Europe and its traditions, believing in the individual, pushing West under God’s pointing finger.

Works Cited

Ward, John William. Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age. Oxford University Press, New York,

  1. pp. 14-212.

Henry Watson. Liberty and Power. Hill & Wang, New York, 1990. pp. 50-94.

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A Lesson from Donald W. Gately on Making the Hard Choice

David Foster Wallace’s gigantic novel Infinite Jest is centrally about America’s disastrous addiction to pleasure. The novel is a cacophonous and beautiful assessment of American values: where are we going? why are we going there? and are we really going anywhere at all? That the work is genius and complicated and splendid is indisputable, but one particularly splendid instrument Wallace uses in the novel, one of its best and most moving parts, one of the best characters ever thought into fictional existence, is Donald W. Gately, 29, chief counsellor at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, ex-burglar, ex-narcotic-addict, and one of the novel’s main protagonists. Gately makes Infinite Jest optimistic—you have to dig, really dig to find it, the optimism in the sad and lonely and creepily-prophetic novel, but it’s there: Gately is the model, the paradigm, what Wallace strives for and suggest we strive for, a man with simple and aware and melancholy honesty with himself and the world.

We mainly see Gately in one setting, a very important one: the Boston, MA’s Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic.) The House, just down the hill from the Enfield Tennis Academy which is arguably the second-most important setting in the novel, is a halfway house for recovering addicts, acting as a sanctuary from the harsh world (and often from the law) for those who live there, as a moronic and dull and repetitive prison for those who live there and don’t want to, and as a fascinating bacteria-like cultivation of various substance-abusers in the novel. It’s an amalgamation of ex-coke-addicts, ex-alcoholics, ex-etcetera’s, which leaves the House chaotic and tense and constantly neurotic. When the novel begins, Gately is serving as counsellor of the House, working the night shift and a janitorial job at a homeless shelter where he has to, seriously, clean up shit.1 Gately arrived at the House roughly fourteen months prior and has been totally, painfully sober since.

One of Gately’s main struggles and one of the main motifs of the novel is the system, the actual mechanics of the largely cultish Alcoholics Anonymous2 program. Wallace spends a lot of time explaining, through Gately, AA clichés, their repetitiveness, shallowness, simplicity, cheesiness. Mantras like ‘Here But For The Grace Of God,’ ‘The truth will set you free, but not until it’s finished with you,’ ‘My worst day sober is better than my best day drinking,’ ‘Have an attitude of gratitude,’ etc., and the stages of the system—all proper nouns, of course—like ‘Coming In’ and being ‘in Denial’ and, as Wallace says in footnote 132, “The word Group in AA Group is always capitalized because Boston AA places enormous emphasis on joining a Group and identifying yourself as a member of this larger thing, the Group. Likewise caps in like Commitment, Giving It Away, and c.,”—all of these clichés Gately has an enormously difficult time accepting, blindly believing in, trusting his life and sobriety in. He’s a practical guy, and it’s very hard for him to dedicate himself to this seemingly impossible and overly-simple system.

But it works. In his article on the mechanics of Gately’s character from a mental health perspective, Allan Wood writes:

When he first Came In, Gately dedicated himself to “this unromantic, unhip, cliched AA thing”, but had no clue how “corny slogans and saccharin grins” and “the limpest sort of dickless pap” could actually make him forget about Substances and remove his overwhelming desire for them. And then maybe four months in, when he out of the blue realized he had not thought of oral narcotics or even “a cold foamer” for several days, Gately ‘hadn’t felt so much grateful or joyful as just plain shocked. The idea that AA might actually somehow work unnerved him. He suspected some sort of trap’ (qtd. in Life And How To Live It).

And that’s where Gately’s nobility lies, I think, in his working day in, day out, trusting the honesty and simplicity of the system, trusting his elders,3 following the rules, stoically, humbly. He realizes that he has a choice between doing it, devoting himself to AA, or falling back in and presumably eventually dying, and it’s a hard choice, believe it or not, in an addict’s mind. The addicted human brain sans-substance is so insectile and impulsive, and is boiled down by said addiction to the more simple and primitive human state, one completely controlled by the substance, like a rat on cocaine, constantly getting high, crashing down, going back for more, living every day for the substance, finding it, finding the money for it, through whatever means, ingesting it, and ingesting it, and ingesting it, and anything that comes between the ingester and the ingestion must be removed one way or the other.

And that’s why it’s such an amazing feat, for Gately, for any addict, to hit rock bottom and conquer his addiction the hard way. It is so difficult for Americans to take the hard way. In any addiction, whether drugs, alcohol, sex—geez, television, consumerism, Americans4 seem to have a really impossible time conquering it. Whether an inevitable cultural trend, a softening of the mind and willpower, a technologically advanced and easier lifestyle, I don’t know, but the normalcy of this weakness is growing, and Gately unfortunately is a representative of the few.

Admittedly, most Americans do not share the intensity, drug-wise, of Gately’s addiction. He was a frequent ingester of Dilaudids, a form of opium two to ten times the strength of morphine. The Addiction Center says the drug is “one of the more powerful synthetic narcotics in the opioid class of drugs and an addiction to Dilaudid can rapidly develop through continued use…It is not uncommon for Dilaudid abuse to lead to criminal activities in their search to get more of the drug” (Dilaudid Addiction and Abuse). That last bit is a very important part of Gately’s past, when he would burgle houses for drug money. Wallace writes:

But he was a gifted burglar, when he burgled — though the size of a young dinosaur, with a massive and almost perfectly square head he used to amuse his friends when drunk by letting them open and close elevator doors on, he was, at his professional zenith, smart, sneaky, quiet, quick, possessed of good taste and reliable transportation — with a kind of ferocious jolliness in his attitude toward his livelihood (60).

This substantially taints Gately’s nobility and morality as a character, and Wallace structures his development so that this exposition comes first, and we gradually see how Gately has progressed and grown bigger than his substance, so we still end up admiring him in spite. But when he details Gately’s burglary, we are both frustrated with the early Gately and sympathetic with how truly awful the whole situation turns out. Upon one catastrophic burglary, Gately accidentally kills5 Guillaume DuPlessis, a significant leader in the anti-O.N.A.N. Organizer north of the Great Concavity,6 during a botched robbery, which is a grotesque scene that has to do with gagging the Québecer and really very unfortunate nasal congestion and torn rib ligaments, all very Wallacean and sick and far too detailed for the gentle-stomached.

And so post-botched-robbery Gately ends up in the House to avoid jail. He’s at rock bottom. He finds the house to be disgusting and unnerving and full of absolute freaks who have no sense of pride, personal space, or really any sense that there is anyone else in the world besides them, a common trait among addicts, it turns out. Except the people aren’t necessarily the most characterizing parts of the house, Spencer Baum argues, but the lessons Gately learned there:

Ennet House is, arguably, the most important location in Infinite Jest, so when it comes time to introduce it in the reader’s mind, Wallace takes his time, allowing himself multiple pages to introduce the setting…Wallace gives the reader a moving and beautiful list of the things one learns while living there…: “If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield, MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts. You will find out that once MA’s Department of Social Services has taken a mother’s children away for any period of time, they can always take them away again, D.S.S., like at will, empowered by nothing more than a certain signature-stamped form. I.e. once deemed Unfit — no matter why or when, or what’s transpired in the meantime — there’s nothing a mother can do…That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack.” (qtd. in Writing Lesson).

This is where we abide with Gately for a long time as he lives in the House and manages his daily charges, putting his head down and continuing on. He has no idea what the future holds and has major doubts that it holds anything at all. He’s a complicated character in his despair and ultimate pessimism, but the very fact that he lives on, substance-free, admittedly, yes, with a lot of fear, but without pride or laziness or rat-on-cocaine-type daily life, all the pieces of modern American life, that is what is optimistic, if not Gately himself. He is the one character who learns what to say yes and no to. Wallace holds him up as the ideal, although not an incredibly happy, colorful, bright, spirited man, he lives life honestly, without depending on booze or drugs or television or sugary, vacuously constant pleasure to make life something else. He can look life straight in the eye and assess it truthfully.

And so, sweetly vulnerable Gately leaves us with his fate in question. He ends up in the hospital nursing a gunshot wound and the last we hear of him is his final struggle, his supremum certamen, to communicate to the doctors that he is a drug addict and to not, under any circumstances, even if he begs them to, put pain-killers in his IV bag. Wallace ends the novel with a dream of unconscious-hospital-Gately’s, of which Fiction Advocate makes the analysis:

The book ends with Don Gately on a beach after a massively unpleasant experience with his old crew and some Dilaudids…If this isn’t rock bottom, it’s hard to imagine any experience tough enough to chip down to lower level of shittiness than watching your friend get his eyes sewn open while you lay in a puddle of piss and M&M dye listening to Linda McCartney vocal tracks…Of course, Gately is actually in his hospital bed dreaming of all this…I have wondered (but found no firm supporting evidence) whether Gately was given painkillers in the hospital against his uncommunicative will. On the one hand, it would explain why he dreams of taking massive doses of substances. On the other hand, if reintroducing Dilaudid into his system sends him straight back to memories of his rock bottom, let’s hope it means he won’t be getting back on the horse when he wakes up (The Infinite Jest Liveblog).

A toughly-swallowed pill with a character we’ve invested so much hope in. On this singular section of Gately’s story rests the significance of his entire role in the book, all of his meaning, whether he turns rat-like and falls back in to the deep, dark hole, whether that reflects absolute and total despair in the real future in America. And it leaves us questioning, if he did fall back in, whether he’ll ever be able to brave it back out again. Or if he’d even have any strength or desire left to get back out. But a little hope lies in the back of our minds as we think of our favorite square-headed shit-cleaner curled in the floor in the numbing and seizing and skull-shattering pain of withdrawal, focusing on trying to abide in the pain that each passing second brings, gritting his teeth, and making the hard choice.