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Like another Andrew Jackson


History is way more complicated than they let on in the fourth grade. Every year in the state capital, some banker or real estate agent or other Chamber of Commerce worthy impersonates Andrew Jackson in our "Springtime Tallahassee" parade. Jackson was Florida's first territorial governor, true; he was also a slave owner and enthusiastic killer of American Indians. And he didn't like Florida.

Current Gov. Rick Scott doesn't seem to like Florida either. Nevertheless, the nice folks who put together Tallahassee's spring festival decided to make him "grand marshal" of this year's parade. He was not what you'd call warmly received.

Now, I realize reporting that Rick Scott got booed is about as newsworthy as "Sun Rises in East" or "Michele Bachmann Gets Facts Wrong." But Tallahasseeans are usually polite to everybody. We were even polite (mostly) to Jeb Bush. Still, expecting the state workers, educators and union members who make up much of our citizenry to cheer Scott makes as much sense as slaves throwing a pig roast for Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, or expecting the Tocobaga to be thrilled at the sight of Narvaez tearing through Tampa Bay with his Toledo blades and his smallpox.

"Springtime Tallahassee" missed a trick: They should have given Scott the role of Andrew Jackson. The two have a lot in common: both rich, both ambitious, both — how to put this? — possessed of a certain ethical flexibility.

Jackson was not big on regulations. In 1816, he ordered the destruction of what was called the "Negro Fort" on the Apalachicola River. Hundreds of people — free blacks, escaped slaves, American Indians, men, women and children — were slaughtered. Two years later, at St. Marks, he executed British subjects Robert Ambrister and Alexander Arbuthnot on the slimmest of legal justifications. He burned whole Seminole villages on the grounds that the laws of war "do not apply to conflicts with savages."

Jackson and his soldiers shouldn't have been in Florida in the first place; it belonged to Spain, and they had invaded sovereign territory. Not that he cared. He was fighting the Seminoles, and the Seminoles gave sanctuary in Florida to slaves fleeing American plantations. How can you make a decent profit when your unsalaried work force ups and runs off?

Jackson refused to let the U.S. Constitution impede him. Before he was elected to office, he offered to single-handedly start a war with Spain. "Give me another regiment and a frigate," he wrote to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun in 1818, "and I will insure Cuba in a few days." As president, he increased the power of the executive branch in a way that would surely inspire envy and admiration in the bosom of George W. Bush. Or Rick Scott.

Scott hasn't yet mounted any treaty-busting invasions, though his former company (often referred to as the "Walmart of hospitals") pleaded guilty to 14 corporate felonies and paid $1.7 billion in fines and penalties. Still, he's no more guided by constitutional limits than Jackson. Indeed, Scott seems entirely unfamiliar with the Constitution.

His bright idea about random drug testing of state employees? The Fourth Amendment, the one about "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures," prohibits it. Various federal courts, right on up the food chain to the Supremes, have said you can only drug test people in certain safety-critical jobs. That doesn't mean your average Clerk Typist II.

Scott came into office thinking being governor was like being CEO, only with lousy pay. He figured he'd tell the Legislature to pass his budget intact and they'd, you know, follow orders. The other day, he expressed bewilderment at "how long it takes things to get out of the Legislature." It might help if somebody gave him a copy of Schoolhouse Rock's "I'm Just a Bill" on how government actually works. It also might help if he had a lesson on the Constitution. Scott thinks that if he doesn't like settled federal law he can simply ignore it: health care reform, Roe vs. Wade, the Clean Water Act.

I'm sure Scott's not worrying about how history will portray him. But it's sort of bitterly fun to speculate. The "Springtime Tallahassee" version of Florida's past has always gone something like this: First, Spanish guys in puffy britches and pointy helmets "discovered" Florida and brought Jesus. Then Florida became "American" and safe for plug-hatted gents, belles in crinolines and, oh yeah, slavery. Then the Civil War came, and, eventually, NASA put a man on the moon and Disney put a Mouse in Orlando. Meanwhile, brave, unconquered Seminoles wrestled alligators and played football.

Maybe the parade could add a new float to commemorate our state in the 21st century, sponsored by "the Krewe of the Dispossessed." The old St. Augustine slave market, now stocked with unemployed state workers, would be the centerpiece, linking the old Florida and the new. There could be some tissue-paper renderings of algae-choked rivers and Krewe members could throw little bottles of spilled oil to spectators.

Andrew Jackson lasted all of three months as governor. He hated the pesky Spanish-speaking inhabitants of Pensacola, the humidity, the bugs. Despite dismal approval ratings, Scott will undoubtedly be around longer. After all, we now have air conditioning and insecticide. The real question is how much damage will Scott do before the mutual antipathy between him and Florida, and between him and constitutional government, drives him back to the gold-plated land whence he came.

Diane Roberts is author of Dream State, an historical memoir of Florida. She teaches at Florida State University.

Like another Andrew Jackson 04/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 16, 2011 4:31am]
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