History is more complicated than a simple listing of good events vs. bad events. The Eisenhower-led victory over racism in Little Rock schools 50 years ago was good, because the Bible is colorblind. The flip side of that victory was an increase in federal power that laid the groundwork for, among other things, nationwide abortion on demand. Good mixed with bad.
Many of us are having a hard time picking a favorite in the presidential sweepstakes because many candidates combine strong positives with strong negatives. But that's no surprise, since the mix is evident when we look at even great presidents from the past-and one of my favorites, Andrew Jackson, is a prime example.
Jackson was a strong Christian and a faithful husband who, like Dwight Eisenhower, valued the fighting ability of people of different races. Jackson had beaten the British at the Battle of New Orleans by enlisting black soldiers (and making sure they were paid) alongside pirates led by the part-Haitian, part-Jewish Jean Lafitte.
Jackson respected Indians-he even adopted one-but had no vision for integrating them into the rest of America. Even though the Cherokees had settled down and built schools and churches, he thought that they and white folks could never get along. When the Georgia legislature in 1828 passed a measure that stipulated the state's dominion over Cherokee law, he didn't try to do an early Eisenhower and assert federal authority.
Of course, the feds in Jackson's time were much weaker in respect to the states than they were in the 1950s, but Georgia's new law was truly obnoxious. It stipulated that Cherokees could not even try to hold onto their rights in court, for no Indian "shall be deemed a competent witness, or a party to any suits . . . to which a white man may be a party."
Jackson knew that was wrong. In his first annual message to Congress, in December 1829, he noted that the Cherokees' "present condition makes a most powerful appeal to our sympathies." But he believed that since most citizens of Alabama and Georgia wanted all Indians out, bloodshed would be inevitable unless they left.
Jackson offered the Cherokees two alternatives. One was "submitting to the laws of the States, and receiving, like other citizens, protection in their persons and property." That was wildly over-optimistic, since Georgia had just denied Indians protection. The other alternative was segregation: "I suggest for your consideration the propriety of setting apart an ample district west of the Mississippi"-a district that became Indian Territory, and eventually much of Oklahoma.
Some white Christians backed the Cherokees, and Jackson defended himself by taking a states-rights position: He wrote that a state could not be "restricted in the exercise of her constitutional power." But Jackson's heart wasn't truly in that defense, because in many ways he was a nationalizer who fought the true states-righters like John C. Calhoun. Jackson's major motivator was his sense that separation of whites and Indians was inevitable.
In the 1950s and the 1960s, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy restricted states by dispatching federal troops to preserve the rights of minorities. It's not inconceivable that Jackson could have done the same in the 1830s, but when he did not the eventual result was the "trail of tears" in which soldiers forced thousands of Cherokees to head west without adequate provision. Between 1,000 and 4,000 perished.
Was Jackson wrong? Yes, as were most 19th-century Americans who saw integration as impossible. Should we treat Jackson as an evil man? (Or, should we excoriate all antebellum Americans who owned slaves?) No, they were sinners who by God's grace were able to conform their thinking to His in many areas, but not all. We have our own blind spots today.
Racial integration from our vantage point 50 years after Little Rock appears to have been inevitable, but in 1957 it wasn't. Eisenhower deserves credit for advancing the American experiment of e pluribus unum, an impossible mission according to most cultures in world history. He also deserves credit for understanding that he was creating a troublesome precedent, but from the Fall onward mixed motives and results have been our lot.