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You know how every action movie hero seems to have the same cliché backstory: rough childhood, learning lessons the hard way on the streets, earning respect, and dying in a flaming car that has just careened off a cliff? That was the life of Andrew Jackson (except for maybe the flaming car part, but that's really only because cars hadn't been invented yet).
As a president who came to power as the populist champion of democracy, Jackson was a man of firsts:
Never a dull moment in the Andrew Jackson Presidency (source).
Jackson was born in 1767 into a poor Scots-Irish immigrant family that settled in a region called the Waxhaws, near what's today the border between North and South Carolina. His father was only 29 when he died suddenly, three months before Jackson's birth. How's this for an origin story? While his very pregnant mother was trudging back from her husband's funeral, she went into labor and gave birth to the future president.
The border between the Carolinas hadn't been clearly delineated in 1767, and both states now lay claim to being Jackson's birthplace. For many years, two high schools on either side of the border played an annual football game—the winning school's state got to claim Jackson as its native son for the rest of the year. (Source)
Anyway, Jackson lived the life of a poor farmer in America until revolution broke out. Fightin' Andrew wanted a piece of the action and got a job as a courier for the Continental Army. The war was a disaster for the Jackson family. His oldest brother died during a battle in 1779, and Andrew and his brother Robert were captured and imprisoned by the British. They almost starved and they got smallpox while they were in prison. Their mother managed to get them released, but his brother died a few days afterwards.
His saintly mom went to work taking care of soldiers with cholera and died from it herself in 1781. At 14, young Andrew was alone in the world. If that wasn't enough to make him hate the British forever, he carried a scar from a British soldier, who'd cut him with a sword when he refused to shine his boots.
Jackson's uncles raised him. He didn't get much of an education, but he managed to get himself into law school as a teenager and was a practicing country lawyer by 21. Those were the days—no LSATs, no law school. In 1788, he moved to the then-frontier town of Nashville, Tennessee, and got rich settling land disputes and assault cases.
Not all of his wealth was on the up-and-up. He also made piles of cash buying and selling land that belonged by treaty to several native American tribes and used some of it to help found the city of Memphis. It was the first, but far from the worst, of many anti-Indian actions throughout his career.
In 1791, Jackson married Rachel Donelson, a Nashville woman who'd recently left an allegedly abusive marriage to Lewis Robards. What they didn't know is that her ex had never officially filed for divorce, and therefore the Jacksons' marriage was invalid. Robards finally divorced her on grounds of adultery and abandonment, and Rachel and Jackson legally married in 1794 (source).
Jackson's opponents in the 1828 election recognized a good story, dragging up Rachel's marital history to paint his beloved wife as a bigamist and adulteress; it was the first time in a presidential campaign that a candidate's wife was seen as fair game for public attack. Jackson never forgave Adams and his supporters; he blamed them for Rachel's death in 1828.
By all accounts, Jackson was a devoted husband. Although they had no children of their own, they adopted one of Rachel's nephews and took guardianship of several others. They also took in children of acquaintances—the Hermitage was a busy place. Rachel's contemporaries often said that she acted as a calming influence on her hot-tempered husband, helping him avoid getting into even more trouble than he usually did.
It's a truth universally acknowledged that a rich white American man in 1796 would get into politics. When Tennessee became a state that year, Jackson was elected as its first Congressional representative. The next year he was elected to the U.S. Senate, but quit after eight months to become a circuit court judge until 1804. By that time, he was rich enough to buy a big plantation—he named it The Hermitage, and by the time Jackson died, it had 150 slaves.
Even though his only military experience was as a courier during the Revolutionary War, Jackson was given the rank of Major General in the Tennessee Militia in 1802.
What was that we said about wealthy white American males?
During the War of 1812, Jackson led militia troops against the Red Stick Creek Indians, who were allied with the hated British. In 1814, he won a battle that resulted in the deaths of 800 Indian fighters and the grab of 20 million acres of tribal land in Georgia and what would become Alabama. For his trouble, the U.S. Army promoted him to be their own Major General.
He then went down to Pensacola, a city in Spanish-controlled Florida, where the starved, sick Creek survivors had fled and were being protected by the British. Remember the grudge he had against the British? It was payback time. He wanted to drive the British out of Florida, but Secretary of War James Monroe ordered him to stay out of Florida—he didn't want to to drag Spain into the war.
Jackson didn't get the message until after he was already there. After a brief skirmish, the British blew up the Spanish fort they were using and left town. They wouldn't be able to use Pensacola as a staging ground for their planned assault in New Orleans. It was a small battle, but an important strategic victory for Jackson.
When Jackson heard about British plans to attack the critical seaport of New Orleans, he headed down there with his militiamen, arriving on December 2, 1914. He declared martial law and assembled a motley band of fighters that included regular Army, some Marines and seamen, free Blacks, and Choctaws; he even made a deal with the pirate Jean Lafitte, a smuggler operating out of a nearby bay. U.S. warships stood by on the Mississippi River.
This not-ready-for-prime-time crew of about 4500 fighters was up against 8000 professional British soldiers. His troops loved the guy: "strong as old hickory," they said. The name stuck.
With the help of slaves, Jackson widened a canal for a defensive trench and quickly established a mile-long defensive line. The British, confident of victory, launched a major assault on January 8, 1815. Jackson's frontier marksmen mowed them down. Assault after assault resulted in huge British casualties, including most of the officers leading the charge. Redcoats began to retreat by the hundreds, and the British gave up hope of taking New Orleans.
In a battle lasting about 30 minutes, Jackson only lost thirteen men. About 300 British soldiers died and another 1300 wounded (source). The Americans took 500 prisoners.
Jackson instantly became a national hero.
The Army put Jackson in charge of their Southern division and sent him into the First Seminole War in 1817 to pursue runaway slaves who were hiding out in Spanish Florida and allied with an amalgam of Indian tribes called the Seminoles. This time he totally overstepped his bounds, invading Spanish Florida, executing two British citizens for helping the Indians, and throwing the Governor of Florida out of office. Spain wasn't happy, Congress wasn't happy, but Old Hickory came out of it just fine. By 1819 Spain had handed over Florida and guess who was made the military governor?
Jackson came out of the War of 1812 a celeb and a rising political star, so in 1822 he ran for the Senate again as a springboard for an 1824 presidential race. Running against three other candidates in 1824, his prospects looked pretty good. Charismatic, preaching "power to the people," he got more popular votes and electoral votes than any candidate, but not a majority in the four-way race. That threw the decision to the House of Representatives, who sent John Quincy Adams to the White House. When Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House and noted Jackson hater, became the new Secretary of State, Jackson and his supporters were outraged at this "Corrupt Bargain."
Jackson left the Senate the following year and began plotting for the 1828 election. If he'd learned anything during his military exploits, it was to double down against your enemies and hang your opponents. Jacksonians pulled out the stops in attacking Adams as a man on the government payroll his whole life and coming from an aristocratic elite Eastern family, Harvard educated, out of touch with the common man, etc., etc. They even accused Adams of procuring sexual favors for the Czar during one of his diplomatic tours of Europe. They suggested that spending all that time in Europe had left him with "European" morals, and that he and his wife had slept together before marriage.
Jacksonians, avid supporters of limited authority of the central government, were also suspicious about Adams' drift toward nationalist policies like the Bank of the United States and federal funding of education and building projects. Remember that at the time, there was only one political party—the Democratic-Republican party of Thomas Jefferson. As Jacksonians pulled away from the Adams wing of the party, they started to forge a new political identity.
Jackson's supporters carried out the nation's first real grass-roots campaign, holding parties and rallies, starting "Hickory Clubs" around the country to raise money and persuade voters. They were media geniuses, making good use of the growing number of partisan newspapers being published around the country. One newspaper editor wrote:
Although General Jackson has not been educated at foreign courts and reared on sweetmeats from the tables of kings and princes, we think him nevertheless much better qualified to fill the dignified station of president of the United States than Mr. Adams. (Source)
Jackson fashioned himself as the man of the people, with the campaign slogan, "Let the people rule." He wanted to abolish the Electoral College; have judges and senators be elected by popular vote; get rid of institutions like the central bank that he felt were taking financial power away from the people and concentrating it in the hands of wealthy elites. He promised to rotate government appointees in and out of office to avoid having corrupt career politicians.
Adams' supporters fought right back. They painted Jackson as a reckless, violent, uneducated head case. They called him "Jackass" for his democratic ideas about power to the people. Jackson's attitude was "Bring it on." He kept the nickname and used it himself. There could have been worse comparisons, he pointed out. Think about it: donkeys are loyal, persistent, and humble—and they always carry the load (source). Jackson put the jackass on his campaign posters and it eventually became the symbol of his new political organizations—the Democrats.
Jackson and his fans had another trick up their sleeve: what would come to be known as the Tariff of Abominations. As you can see in our "Historical Context" section, this complicated Tariff was proposed by Jackson supporters as a way to draw in support from the middle states like Pennsylvania and Kentucky by protecting certain products manufactured there. They gambled that southerners, even though they hated tariffs, would never vote for a northern blueblood like Adams.
It was a winning strategy. Adams signed the tariff, everyone hated him, and the Caped Crusader won the election in a landslide. John C. Calhoun was his vice president.
The Tariff would come back to bite him.
Nobody with Jackson's powerful personality and take-no-prisoners approach to governing could avoid being a highly controversial president. After surviving a raucous inauguration night that sent him climbing out a White House window to Gadsby's Tavern to avoid the drunken crowds trashing the place, Jackson began two very eventful terms as the nation's seventh POTUS. From the start, he left no doubt who was the boss.
He'd been elected on a promise the drain the swamp—get rid of the entrenched political establishment and be the people's president—so just about the first thing he did was toss out about 10% of all government employees.
He used his veto power to trash legislation left and right, including vetoing the bill that renewed the charter of the Second Bank of the United States, which he saw as just another tool of the corrupt wealthy establishment to rob the people. He chose a cabinet he could control, and relied on informal advice from personal friends and loyalists (which his detractors called his "kitchen cabinet").
During the 1820s, the right to vote had been extended by most states to all white males, property owners or not. Voter turnout in 1828 was more than double that in 1824, and the average American man saw Jackson as his guy. It scared the eastern political establishment to death. They saw mob rule on the horizon. The glory of the common man was okay in the abstract, but here's one who actually ascended to the presidency. It couldn't be good. One guy observed:
No one who was at Washington at the time of General Jackson's inauguration is likely to forget that period to the day of his death. To us, who had witnessed the quiet and orderly period of the Adams administration, it seemed as if half the nation had rushed at once into the capital. It was like the inundation of the northern barbarians into Rome, save that the tumultuous tide came in from a different point of the compass. (Source)
As the person voted for by all the (white male) people, Jackson saw the president, and not Congress, as the real seat of power. After all, members of the House were elected by residents of their districts, and senators back then were elected by state legislatures. "Before Jackson," wrote his biographer Jon Meacham "it was possible to think of America without putting the people at the center of politics; after him, such a thing was inconceivable." (Source)
Most of his policies were designed to limit the power of the federal government, and one of the best ways to do this, he thought, was to give people, not the electors, the power of the vote.
Jackson thought that if presidents and senators were elected by the people, then the people could hold them accountable. And if they didn't like them, they'd vote them out of office. The founders' intent had been to protect the people from the federal government, but in practice, a small political elite held much of the power since the early days of the nation.
The founders were actually afraid of democracy—they thought that a majority of unschooled rabble could cause trouble for the more politically educated, savvy citizens. It would be mob rule, a disaster. Like if Oscar nominations were decided by popular vote, you'd have blockbusters like Finding Dory and Batman vs. Superman duking it out for Best Picture every year.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, according to Andrew Jackson. He had an unshakeable faith in the American people:
Never for a moment believe that the great body of the citizens of any State or States can deliberately intend to do wrong. They may, under the influence of temporary excitement or misguided opinions, commit mistakes; they may be misled for a time by the suggestions of self-interest; but in a community so enlightened and patriotic as the people of the United States argument will soon make them sensible of their errors, and when convinced they will be ready to repair them. (Source)
Jackson, who as a relative political outsider from humble origins, was in a perfect position to get in the face of the Adamses of the world who'd been running the country for forty years and institute needed reforms. So what did he actually do?
Voter participation in elections soared to over 80%. Jackson's supporters were "feeling the Bern," and he was resoundingly re-elected in 1832.
But nothing good is 100% good, and there was a flip side to Jackson's populism—most obviously that the "people" he was constantly referring to were all white and mostly male. But more on that later.
That draining the swamp that got rid of government employees? He replaced them with his loyal cronies, qualified or not. In fact, some historians see the Jacksonian era as a time when ethics in government began to deteriorate in favor of a patronage system and expanding partisan bureaucracy. And putting federal revenues into the state banks only encouraged the proliferation of banks and lending that eventually led to an economic boom that crashed spectacularly in 1836.
Jackson's love of the veto, and his generally heavy-handed approach to governing, got him a reputation as a tyrant as bad as George III. He was the first president to veto legislation just because he disagreed with it, even if the Supreme Court had upheld it. That may sound like business as usual today, but prior to Jackson, a president only vetoed a piece of legislation if he found it to be unconstitutional.
Jackson's disregard of Congress and the Supreme Court—particularly in the Bank matter—enraged his opponents. They took to calling themselves Whigs. Fighters against George III during the Revolution had taken that name, likening themselves to the British who had opposed the Stuart monarchs in the 17th century. The new Whig party called Jackson "King Andrew" for ignoring the legislature and Court and trampling on the constitution like Godzilla. During Jackson's presidency, power was concentrated in the Executive branch like never before.
People elected a warrior and they got one.
By the time he was elected president, Jackson was a wealthy slave owner. His slaves were the source of his wealth, and when he died, over 150 slaves were working his plantation, The Hermitage, and other properties. Like many wealthy plantation owners, he was a slave trader as well as an owner—he bought and sold slaves throughout his lifetime.
Jackson's earliest biographers soft-pedaled the question of his slave ownership. They described him as a "benevolent and gracious master," who only had his slaves' best interests at heart. One overseer said that Jackson told him "that he was to treat them with great humanity, feed and cloath them well, and work them in moderation." (Source)
However, the future prez was known for using the whip on "rebellious" slaves, and in 1804, he offered a $50 reward in the newspaper for a runaway slave and "ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred" (source). In 1821, he ordered his nephew to give a female slave 50 lashes if she persisted in "putting on some airs" (source).
Give us a sec while we look up the words "benevolent" and "gracious."
Jackson's attitude towards his slaves may have softened later in his life. When another overseer killed one of Jackson's slaves, Gilbert, in 1827, Jackson tried to have the overseer indicted for murder even though an inquest had decided it was self-defense. Nobody's sure about his motivation for this. He seemed to have affection for Gilbert, whom Jackson had refused to punish before even though he'd run away many times. On the other hand, Jackson was in the midst of a presidential campaign, and wouldn't it look great to northern voters to be compassionate?
Up until the middle of the 20th century, Jackson's biographers still didn't condemn him for owning slaves. The consensus was that he wasn't someone who was particularly hostile to African Americans; rather, he was just doing what wealthy white plantation owners in the South did. They owned slaves. Slavery as an institution was so entrenched in the south that they didn't see it as a moral issue, just a business model. Slaves were expensive, and if one of them ran away, well, there had to be consequences.
During Jackson's presidency, abolitionist sentiment was growing in the north, and plenty of northerners were Democrats like Jackson. These abolitionists were more radical than their earlier counterparts; they wanted slavery ended immediately and sent constant petitions to Congress about it. They flooded southern post offices with anti-slavery literature. Jackson allowed postmasters to refuse to deliver the abolitionist literature—he even encouraged Congress to pass a bill prohibiting its distribution. The Senate eventually passed a bill prohibiting postmasters from detaining the mail, but it didn't do anything to prevent the southern states to nullify that law.
In 1835, the slavery issue popped up again when abolitionists pressed Congress about making slavery illegal in the District of Columbia and federal territories. The feds couldn't do anything about the states, but what about in federal territories like D.C.? The upshot was a "gag rule" passed in 1836 that prohibited the topic of abolition of slavery in the U.S. to even come up on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Yep, that really happened.
Throughout both of these controversies, Jackson's goal was to calm the political waters. While he was of course sympathetic to southern interests, historians believe that he was more concerned about the danger of regional conflict than about the abolition of slavery itself (source). Some even thought that he believed that the institution would eventually die out on its own; rather than tear the country apart about it, people should just wait and see what God intended. That was easy for a wealthy white guy to say.
By all accounts, Jackson was never one of those sadistic slave masters who starved and tortured his workers. He didn't defend slavery as a moral good or the will of God, as some did. Still, he was an unrepentant slave owner and trader. He may have believed that an increasingly industrialized economy would spell the end of slavery, but he sure didn't do anything to help that along.
The inscription on a monument near the site of the 1813 Battle of Tallushatchee reads:
At this site … Gen. Andrew Jackson found a dead Creek Indian woman embracing her living infant son. … Because of his compassion, Gen. Jackson took the infant to Fort Struther … where he nursed him back to health. Gen. Jackson then took the baby to his family home, the Hermitage, in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Rachel named the child Lincoyer and adopted, raised, loved, and educated him as their son. (Source)
Jackson said that his own tragic history gave him "unusual sympathy" for the poor orphaned boy, and he brought him home as a companion for Andrew, Jr. (source).
What the inscription doesn't tell you is that the child's mother was killed in a battle that slaughtered his entire village, and was part of a campaign led in major part by Jackson to get government hands on Creek territory.
So there's that.
Adopting an Indian child may have made Jackson look compassionate and magnanimous, but it didn't stop him from continuing his bloody campaigns against the tribes.
Jackson had spent much of his military career in battle against the Creek and Cherokee tribes in Georgia and Alabama. In 1814, after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend that killed 800 Indian warriors, he forced them to sign a treaty in a land grab that opened up about 23 million acres of Indian-held land for white settlers. It got him a promotion to Major General of the U.S. Army. When he invaded Florida in 1817 while chasing runaway slaves, he burned Seminole villages along the way and forced the tribes into a reservation in the center of the state.
Between 1814 and 1824, General Jackson arranged nine of the Indian treaties that annexed tribal lands in the east in exchange for lands in the west. The tribes had little choice in the matter if they wanted to retain what lands they could and avoid being attacked by white settlers (source). Residents of the southeast U.S. would get their land to plant cotton (on the backs of slaves, of course), and the Indian nations would live in bliss—far, far away from them.
Yeah, how'd that work out?
It didn't get any better when Jackson became president.
Since the founding of the Republic, Indian tribes had always been viewed by the federal government as a major obstacle to westward expansion, but earlier presidents hadn't done much about it. Andrew Jackson would change that.
As the population of the south grew, settlers pressured the federal government to get rid of the tribes residing there so they could plant cotton. Jackson supported the appropriation of tribal territories; he stood by as Georgia overruled a Supreme Court decision that acknowledged the Cherokee as a sovereign nation who were entitled to their lands. Jackson was alleged to have said, "Chief Justice John Marshall has made his decision, let's see him try to enforce it" (source).
In May, 1830, after three months of Congressional debate, Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act, which forced relocation of the tribes west of the Mississippi in exchange for their land within the boundaries of the states. In his annual address to Congress, Jackson said:
It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation. Two important tribes have accepted the provision made for their removal at the last session of Congress, and it is believed that their example will induce the remaining tribes also to seek the same obvious advantages. (Source)
Wait—didn't we just look up "benevolent"?
The President wrote to the chief of the Chickasaws, asking him to, essentially, self-deport: "Brothers! If you are disposed to remove say so, and state the terms you may consider just and equitable" (source).
What a guy.
The Indian Removal Act was aimed at tribes in the north as well as the southeast. Some of the tribes went along with the plan, but many resisted giving up their homes and their land. But Jackson thought he knew what was best for them, since they could never hope to assimilate and succeed if they tried to live with whites. In a letter that's probably in the Condescension Hall of Fame, he wrote to John Pitchlynn, his liaison to the Choctaws:
[Removal] was a measure I had much at heart & sought to effect because I was satisfied that the Indians could not possibly live under the laws of the States. If now they shall refuse to accept the liberal terms offered, they only must be liable for whatever evils & difficulties [sic] may arise. I feel conscious of having done my duty to my red children and if any failure of my good intention arises, it will be attributable to their want of duty to themselves, not to me. (Source)
So if the tribes weren't happy with the benevolent plan, it was their own fault for not realizing what was in their best interests.
The resulting relocation wasn't the "happy consummation" described by Jackson. More than 45,000 Indians—Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, and Chickasaw—were forced from their own lands. In 1838, almost a third of the 15,000 expelled members of the Cherokee Nation died during the "Trail of Tears"—their forced trek from their ancestral homeland to territory in what's now Oklahoma. This humanitarian disaster was a direct result of Jackson's Indian Removal Act, even though he wasn't president at the time.
Just as some historians excused Jackson's slave ownership as just "business as usual" for men in his position, some have had a similar belief about his lifetime of war with the Indian tribes. It's not that he hated Indians or thought they were inferior to whites—he admired their bravery and wrote of respecting their strategic battle skills. The only reason he spent his lifetime killing and displacing them was that he was convinced that the only way for the young nation to prosper was to have plenty of cheap land available for farmers. In fact, that was one of the major platforms of his Democratic party.
In this reading, the Indians were just an inconvenient obstacle to that priority, so they had to go. Nothing personal.
Seriously? Tens of thousands of people were cheated, massacred, starved, and driven out of their homes and land, regardless of the motivation. Does it matter why?
For his lifetime devotion to killing and relocating the tribes of the southeast, the Cherokee called Jackson "Sharp Knife." As far as modern-day Indian nations are concerned—adopted Creek son or not—Jackson was a "genocidal maniac" (source).
Jackson left the presidency in 1837. His last act was to recognize the territory of Texas after it won its independence from Mexico. Always the clever politician, he put off recognizing Texas because he knew it would anger northerners who opposed Texas' slave economy. So he did it on his way out the door.
In his farewell address, he told the nation that he could look upon a country of peace and prosperity, free of the "evil" of Indian tribes that interfered with the states' economic progress; free of the tyranny of the Bank of the United States, which concentrated financial power in the hands of a few; free of oppressive tariffs.
He warned the states to play nice with each other and to guard against any chance that the Union would break up over regional differences. That meant avoiding discussion of "delicate and exciting topics—topics upon which it is impossible that a large portion of the Union can ever speak without strong emotion" (source). We're guessing he meant slavery here.
After he left office, Jackson couldn't stay away from politics and was a close advisor to his successor, Martin Van Buren. And when Van Buren opposed the annexation of Texas, he dumped his old buddy and worked to elect his opponent, James K. Polk, to the White House.
People made pilgrimages to the Hermitage to meet him, and he schlepped to New Orleans to be honored on the 25th anniversary of his military triumph in the battle against the British.
For all his imposing presence and tough-guy image, Jackson had never been a healthy man. A bullet lodged in his lung from one of his duels gradually ruined his health, and he died at the Hermitage in 1845.
The Nullification Crisis was just one a very long list of disputes that dogged the presidency of Old Hickory. Like any president with a strong, forceful personality, Jackson left office as one of the most controversial. On his last day in office he was quoted as saying, "I have only two regrets: I didn't shoot Henry Clay and I didn't hang John C. Calhoun" (source).
Maybe he said it, maybe he didn't. But you get the picture.
Was Jackson a war hero who was the voice of the common man; whose aggressive defense of the Union during the Nullification Crisis saved the nation from being torn apart; the devoted husband who shot and killed a man who dared insult his wife's virtue; the skilled politician who promoted democracy and fought against the political establishment?
Or was he an Indian-slaughtering, slave-owning tyrant who ignored Congress and the Supreme Court, bullied his political enemies, and ushered in an era of partisan politics and questionable ethics in government?
Whatever you think of the guy, save that $20 bill. It could be worth something one day.