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Andrew
Jackson
ANDREW JACKSON
Biography

Andrew Jackson, (1767-1845), jak's[sch ]n, 7th PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. A rough-hewn military hero, he was regarded by many as the symbol and spokesman of the common man. Jackson entered the WHITE HOUSE in 1829 after winning the second of two vigorously fought ELECTION campaigns. Through his forceful personality, he restructured the office of the president and helped shape the DEMOCRATIC PARTY as the prototype of the modern political organization.

Less educated and less schooled in government than many of his political opponents, Jackson had leaped to national fame in the War of 1812 as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and had captured the imagination and dedicated loyalty of a vast segment of the American population. He was widely acclaimed as the symbol of what the new American thought himself to be--a self-made man, son of the frontier, endowed with virtue and God-given strength because of his closeness to nature, and possessed of indomitable will and moral courage.

The nation found its old way of life being reshaped by the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the flood of settlers into the West, the rise of great urban centers, and dramatic advances in transportation. Old political, social and economic folkways were annihilated by these fundamental changes, and the old leadership seemed unequal to the task of mastering these vast new forces, which promised riches and political advancement to the many instead of the few. The traditional, almost professional, politician now appeared impotent and aristocratic, determined to continue men in the accustomed condition of their lives and to maintain political and economic power in the hands of those who had enjoyed it in the past. Thousands of Americans sought a leader who would admit all men to the exciting contest for the good things of life. They turned to the "Hero of New Orleans."

The results of the election of 1824 gave credibility to the idea that Jackson was indeed the champion of a popular majority besieged by selfish and corrupt interests. In such fashion was born the concept of Jacksonian Democracy, which Jackson brought to fulfillment with his election as president in 1828 and which continued to be the dominant issue in American political life through his two administrations and until his death in 1845.

Jackson's administrations were highlighted by the frustration of sectional attempts to weaken the central government by state nullification of federal law, and by the President's confrontation with the Bank of the United States.

In a positive sense Jackson profoundly affected the development of the U.S. presidency. He concentrated power in that office through wide use of the veto and through his insistence that the chief executive alone represented the will of the whole nation. Committing presidential power to the protection of the people against the threat of constantly expanding governmental authority and corrupt private interests was a traditional Jeffersonian principle. In carrying it out, Jackson took what was for his period an advanced position on civil equality and thus eventually came to be regarded as an equal to JEFFERSON as a founder of the Democratic party ideology.

Early Life

Andrew Jackson was born at a settlement on the banks of Crawford's Branch of Waxhaw Creek in South Carolina on March 15, 1767, the third son of immigrant parents from northern Ireland, Andrew Jackson and Elizabeth Hutchinson. His father died a few days before Andrew's birth. Bereft of his mother and two brothers by sickness during the American Revolution, in which he had himself served as a mounted courier when he was 13 years old, Jackson spent the postwar years in North Carolina. There he devoted himself to legal studies and was admitted to the bar at the age of 20.

Marriage

The next year, 1788, he followed the Cumberland Road to the rude frontier settlement of Nashville, carrying with him an appointment as public prosecutor of the western district of North Carolina. Here he prospered, dabbling in his first land and slave speculations, and here he met Rachel Donelson Robards, who was to be the consuming passion of his life. The daughter of Jackson's landlady, she was also the unhappy wife of the coarse and violently jealous Capt. Lewis Robards, whose temper had driven her to the refuge of her mother's house. Immediately smitten, Jackson devoted himself to her protection, and they were married in 1791 in the false, but honest, belief that Captain Robards had been granted a legal divorce by the Virginia legislature.

Actually, Robards did not have the marriage dissolved until 1793, and it was news of this valid divorce that revealed to Jackson and Rachel the illegality of their relationship. Stunned, they promptly remarried in January 1794, but Robards and later enemies of Jackson were wont to charge him with having stolen another man's wife and, worse, having lived with her in adultery from 1791 to 1794. They did so at their peril, for the most oblique hint at any lack of virtue on the part of Rachel was sufficient to spur Jackson to violent action with horsewhip or dueling pistol. The most famous of his encounters of this sort was the duel in which he killed Charles Dickinson, a fellow Nashville lawyer, in 1806. This deed gave wide fame to Jackson's iron will and determination but also provided his enemies with the claim that he took pleasure in violence and brutality.

Congressman and Judge

The quiet effectiveness of Jackson's initial political experience as a member of the Tennessee constitutional convention of 1796 brought him election that year as the state's first representative in CONGRESS. Then his strong anti-British sentiments put him in opposition to the WASHINGTON administration. An alliance with William Blount, U.S. senator from Tennessee, against the Tennessee faction led by Gov. John Sevier resulted in Jackson's rise to the U.S. Senate in 1797, but personal financial difficulties led him to resign that post in April 1798. Appointment to the superior court of Tennessee in September 1798 relieved his economic situation and soon brought him respect as a jurist whose opinions, though unsophisticated, reflected his often expressed charge to the jury: "Do what is right between these parties. That is what the law always means."

Jackson's judicial career lasted until 1804. It was a placid and pleasant period in his life, during which he expanded his holdings and achieved recognition, in 1802, as the new major general of the Tennessee militia. Then, having retired from the bench, he dedicated himself to development of a new home at the Hermitage, a few miles northeast of Nashville, where the uncertainties of cotton growing were partly forgotten in the joys thoroughbred horses. Here he received Aaron BURR as his guest in 1805, deceived like so many others into believing that the adventurer was engaged in a simple project to seize Spain's Mexican possessions. Jackson soon became suspicious of Burr's actions, but in later years he was to reaffirm his faith that Burr was a misunderstood patriot beset by the pursuing enmity of Thomas Jefferson.

Military Career

Indignant at what he identified as cowardly submission to Britain in Jefferson's and Madison's foreign policy, Jackson rejoiced in the eruption of war in 1812 and eagerly offered his services for invasions of Canada or Florida. But his past activities had hardly endeared Jackson to the "Virginia Dynasty," and he had to be content with a commission as major general of U.S. volunteers, ordered to lead a force to Natchez, Miss., in support of Gen. James Wilkinson. Jackson's command was soon disbanded as useless, without once having seen its foe, but his political adversaries had unwittingly given Jackson yet another hold on fame, for his tough efficiency in the grueling march back to Tennessee won for him the appellation "Old Hickory."

The Creek Indian massacre of settlers at Fort Mims, Mississippi Territory, in September 1813 brought Jackson back into the field. Despite serious problems of supply and a mutinous spirit among his militia troops, he crushed the Creeks in a series of engagements that culminated in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on March 17, 1814. On May 1 he was commissioned a major general in the regular army with command of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Perceiving the danger of a British move against New Orleans after a strike along the Gulf Coast, he wrecked any such plan by a decisive repulse of an attack on Mobile, Ala., in September. By November he had driven the enemy from its position in Pensacola, Fla., and was free to journey to New Orleans to inspect the defenses of that key to the Mississippi.

Battle of New Orleans

He arrived none too soon, for in mid-December the British anchored their fleet in Mississippi Sound and deposited their troops on the banks of the Mississippi some 10 miles (16 km) below New Orleans. From their position on the Plains of Chalmette they launched a series of strikes against the city. Jackson countered with a polyglot mixture of Louisiana militia, Tennessee and Kentucky riflemen, and Baratarian pirates. The campaign culminated in the British frontal assault on Jackson's lines on Jan. 8, 1815, in which the attackers were cut down by concentrated rifle and cannon fire with losses of almost 2,000 dead and injured. American casualties were 6 killed and 10 wounded.

The Battle of New Orleans was the last campaign of the War of 1812, actually fought after the signing of the Peace of Ghent on Dec. 24, 1814. There is no merit, however, in the frequent assertion that Jackson's great victory was won after the war was over, for the Ghent treaty specifically called for continued hostilities until ratification by both governments, which was not effected until February 1815.

After so many distressing months of failure in a war in which the enemy had burned and sacked the federal capital and which had led disaffected citizens to question the value of the Union itself, Jackson's victory at New Orleans seemed to wipe away the nation's memories of incompetent leadership. Overnight, Old Hickory was transfigured into a symbol of distinctive American strengths and virtues, and his path was turned inevitably toward the White House. But for the moment the Virginia Dynasty still commanded, and Jackson retired with his honors to his beloved Hermitage.

Florida Campaign

Continued attacks on the Georgia frontier by Seminole Indians and runaway slaves based in Florida led to Jackson's recall to active service in December 1817. He pursued the retreating foe into Spanish Florida, captured St. Marks and Pensacola, and in the process executed two British subjects.

The invasion caused an international furor. President MONROE and Secretary of War John C. CALHOUN denied having authorized Jackson's deeds, and for a while the cabinet considered apologizing to Spain and Britain and even debated possible disciplinary measures against Jackson. Secretary of State John Quincy ADAMS strongly demurred, however, and persuaded Monroe to justify his general's behavior as having proceeded from Spanish negligence. Adams succeeded in exploiting the whole affair to win, in 1819, the final cession of the Floridas to the United States, together with a favorable definition of the western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase.

Return to Politics

Jackson's military career closed on June 1, 1821, when he resigned his commission to become provisional governor of Florida. His activities there were again surrounded with conflict, highlighted this time by his jailing the former Spanish governor, José Callava, for refusal to transfer official documents to U.S. custody. Displeased by Monroe's neglect of his recommendations, particularly those concerning appointments, Jackson resigned as governor on Dec. 1, 1821.

The Campaign of 1824

He soon became involved in the presidential campaign of 1824, largely as the result of a plot to exploit his fame for the local advantage of a Tennessee political faction headed by John Overton and other old cronies of the Blount clique. Their plan was to bring out Jackson as a presidential candidate, attach Pleasant Miller to his coattails as a senatorial candidate, and thus guarantee Miller's victory over incumbent Sen. John Williams, the protégé of the rival faction headed by Gov. William Carroll. Once Miller was elected it was expected that the Jackson candidacy would simply die of inattention.

Jackson was duly nominated for the presidency by the Tennessee legislature in July 1823. Immediately there was an enthusiastic response from all sections of the nation. The authors of the plan to elect Miller began to back off from Jackson, uneasy at the support he was eliciting from debtor classes by urging adoption of relief measures to ease the economic hardships resulting from the panic of 1819 and by other proposals antagonistic to the creditor and banking interests represented by the Overton faction. As the Miller candidacy faltered, a few of Jackson's unshaken allies, notably William B. Lewis and John H. Eaton, salvaged the general's position by presenting his own name in opposition to Williams, and in this fashion Jackson found himself returned to the U.S. Senate in November 1823. Continued endorsements by political conventions in other states put him in the front rank of contenders for the presidency.

Chief among Jackson's rivals were Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and William H. Crawford, all of them, like Jackson himself, members of the Jeffersonian Republican party, which had ruled unchallenged during the Era of Good Feelings. Basically, the appeal of the candidates rested on personality and sectional identifications, though Clay and Adams represented some greater dedication to internal improvements and national economic planning than did their competitors. For his part, Jackson claimed adherence to a "judicious tariff" and to those internal improvements necessary to guarantee national defense.

The final canvass gave Jackson 99 ELECTORAL votes, against 84 for Adams, 41 for Crawford, and 37 for Clay. In the absence of a majority for any candidate, the election was thrown into the U.S. House of Representatives.

Jackson's followers insisted that his plurality in both the electoral college and the popular vote was a mandate to the HOUSE, but it was soon evident that Clay, speaker of that body, was unconvinced. (Clay had been eliminated from the contest, after placing fourth in the Electoral College.) Mindful of the probable delay in his own prospects for the presidency should a fellow Westerner be chosen in 1825, and apparently sincerely doubtful of Jackson's qualifications for the office, Clay turned to Adams. Although it is unlikely that Clay and Adams reached any quid pro quo arrangement, it is clear that Clay was soon busily lobbying for Adams in the House. When the fateful tally was recorded on February 9, Adams had won the required vote of 13 states as against 7 for Jackson and 4 for Crawford.

At first Jackson accepted the result with good grace, but the appointment of Clay as Adams' secretary of state convinced him and his followers that "bargain and corruption" had produced his defeat. Jacksonians across the country cried "thievery" and voiced what became the main tenant of the Jacksonian credo: The Hero of New Orleans had been chosen by the people, a choice blocked by an aristocracy of professional politicians, whose corrupt control must now be wiped out by the rising force of an outraged public. Jacksonian Democracy was born.

The Campaign of 1828

The Adams administration was immediately confronted by a combined opposition of Crawford's "Old Republicans," Jacksonians, and adherents of John C. Calhoun, now VICE PRESIDENT. The chief architects of this coalition were Martin VAN BUREN of New York, Calhoun, and a group of Jackson men making up the so-called "Nashville Junto." They brought Duff Green to Washington as editor of the Telegraph, attacked the Adams-Clay mission to Panama, pilloried the President's nationalist policies as neo-Federalism, and seized upon the tariff controversy as a major weapon. In this instance, however, Van Buren deceived his Southern allies by arranging the passage of the highly protective "Tariff of Abominations" of 1828, which aided Jackson in pivotal industrial states but outraged the agrarian interests.

Exploiting all of these issues was a highly organized Jacksonian party, recruited from all segments of American society--urban workers, Western frontiersmen, Southern planters, small farmers, bankers, and would-be entrepreneurs. The spokesmen for the group were a band of vigorous newspaper editors, such as Isaac Hill of New Hampshire, newcomers who saw their future in the changes that would accompany a Jackson presidency.

The campaign preceding Jackson's victorious election was perhaps the most unscrupulous in American history. Administration hacks revived the stories of Rachel's adulterous alliance with Jackson, while the general himself was portrayed as an ignorant barbarian, covered with the blood of helpless Indians, of murdered militiamen falsely condemned for desertion, and of countless victims of his dueling pistols. In return, Jacksonian champions accused Adams of such fantastic crimes as pimping for the Czar of Russia and purchasing pool tables for the White House with public funds. Their most telling charge was the old cry of "bargain and corruption."

Jackson swamped Adams by an electoral-vote margin of 178 to 83. The popular vote was less decisive, 647,292 to 507,730, revealing little of that great surge of voters to the polls that has been cited so frequently as the explanation of Jackson's success. Yet the people claimed him as one of their own, as they demonstrated by an inaugural reception that left the White House a shambles.

The Presidency

The new President honored his chief backers with representation in his official cabinet, but he felt personally close only to his secretary of war, John H. Eaton of Tennessee. Inexpressibly saddened by the death of Rachel in December 1828, he turned in his loneliness to a group of trusted unofficial advisers, the famous "kitchen cabinet," made up of such men as Lewis, Hill, Green, Amos Kendall, and Jackson's nephew, Andrew Jackson Donelson. The old "aristocratic corruption" theme claimed their first attention, and with pledges of "reform" and "rotation in office" the Jacksonians began a wholesale turnout of their opponents from federal jobs to make way for those who had been long awaiting their turns. Though hardly the first use of the "spoils system" in American history, these dismissals unquestionably intensified a process that was to become a plague of American democracy.

First Administration

Jackson's first term was dominated by a contest between Van Buren, his secretary of state, and Calhoun, who had been reelected vice president, to secure position as Jackson's successor. Few ideological distinctions separated the two from each other or Jackson at first, for all adhered to the philosophy of a national government limited in powers. Of the three, Calhoun had previously given the greatest support to the drive for tariffs and internal improvements, but by 1828 his nationalist fervor had cooled as a result of the growing anti-protectionist sentiment in his native South Carolina. This had led him to anonymous but well-known propagation of the theory of nullification, which affirmed a state's right to nullify an act of the national government that it felt to be unconstitutional. Van Buren and his supporters played on this issue and maneuvered Jackson into a defiantly nationalist toast at the Jefferson Day dinner of April 13, 1830: "Our Federal Union: It must be Preserved!"

Calhoun and the Eaton Affair

Jackson's split with Calhoun was widened by the opening of the old question of Calhoun's antagonism to Jackson during the debates on his Seminole campaign. It was made finally unbridgeable by the so-called Eaton affair. Jackson became convinced that Calhoun and his cabinet friends were trying to drive John Eaton from his side by socially ostracizing his wife, Peggy O'Neill Eaton, on malicious charges of immorality that reminded the President of the hateful cruelties done to his own Rachel. The whole cabinet was reorganized in 1831 as a consequence, with Van Buren emerging as heir apparent.

Nullification Controversy

South Carolina's attempts to nullify the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 brought the President and Calhoun into deeper conflict. Calhoun, now a senator after his resignation as vice president, defended his state's Nullification Ordinance of Nov. 24, 1832, and Jackson responded with a forceful Nullification Proclamation and a call for a force bill to authorize military suppression of any defiance of federal law. Only Clay's Compromise Tariff of 1833 prevented a final confrontation.

Economic Policy

Jackson's fiery defense of national sovereignty was balanced by repeated reminders of the rights of states and the danger inherent in reckless federal spending or incursion of the central government into areas constitutionally closed to national action. Thus his Maysville Road veto of 1830 discouraged the champions of nationalist economic policy, as did his frequent attacks on the Bank of the United States as an agency of "stockjobbers" despoiling honest workmen and corrupting the democratic processes of the state. Behind these sentiments lay a dedication to traditional hard-money principles and a fundamentally conservative economic persuasion.

Second Administration

The opposition party, the National Republicans, seized on this issue to oppose Jackson in the presidential election of 1832, a challenge that the President accepted by vetoing a measure seeking extension of the bank's charter beyond 1836. The outcome was a smashing Democratic party victory, Jackson defeating Clay by 219 electoral votes to 49 (popular vote 688,242 to 473,462) and carrying Van Buren along into the vice presidency.

War on the Bank

Jackson now pursued the bank with a vengeance. In 1833 he forced the removal of the federal deposits from its vaults, distributing them among a select group of "pet banks," a move that led the Senate to adopt formal resolutions censuring his actions as arbitrary and unconstitutional. Excessive retrenchment by the bank's president, Nicholas Biddle, created a financial depression in 1834 sufficient to win Jackson another victory over a new opposition party, the Whigs, which in the congressional elections of 1834 represented themselves as the combined forces of all anti-Jacksonians protesting the tyrannies of "King Andrew I."

Foreign Policy

Jackson was equally successful in foreign affairs. In 1830 a long dispute with Britain was ended with the reopening of British West Indian ports to American commerce. France was brought to heel in 1836 after resisting payment of spoliation claims dating from 1815, and in 1837, Jackson formally recognized the independence of Texas, although he resisted attempts at annexation to avoid splitting the Democratic party on the slavery question.

Financial Crisis

Jackson's last months in office were clouded by the consequences of his destruction of the bank. That had been followed by wildcat expansion of paper money, land speculation, and inflation, which Jackson attempted to halt with the Specie Circular of 1836, requiring payment of federal obligations in gold or silver. This measure probably helped precipitate the Panic of 1837, but by that time Jackson had yielded office to his successor, Van Buren, whose victory in 1836 over a disorganized Whig party was in large measure a testimony to the political invincibility of his patron.

Last Years

Even in retirement at the Hermitage, Jackson remained a potent force in the Democratic party. But his last years were primarily preoccupied with financial distress resulting from his assumption of the debts of his improvident adopted son, Andrew Jackson, Jr. His remaining political efforts were in support of U.S. annexation of Texas, a policy that forced him to switch his backing from Van Buren to James K. POLK in the contest for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1844. Jackson lived to rejoice in the passage of the Texas annexation treaty and the victory of Polk over his old foe, Clay. Death came on June 8, 1845, at the Hermitage, where he was buried beside Rachel.

Jackson in Retrospect

In robust life Jackson had stood six feet one inch tall, slender of build, with a self-assured bearing and a commanding air. His unwavering steely blue eyes looked out from a long-jawed, high-browed face topped with a bristly mass of hair that gradually turned from a sandy color to gray. Inured to suffering, he spent much of his adult life in pain from the bullets left in his body by past antagonists and from the hemorrhaging and dysentery that so frequently drained his strength.

Despite the fame of his temper, he was essentially a kind and tender man, especially toward women and children. Of the latter there were none of his own, but he and Rachel had one adopted son and a large number of wards, including a young Creek Indian boy, upon all of whom they poured out an unquestioning love. But his reputation for ferocity was not unfounded, for Jackson hated with single-minded intensity those he considered his enemies, and his suspicion of those at odds with him frequently approached the limits of paranoia.

In social intercourse he showed little of the rough soldier who had been the terror of the Creeks and the British, his gallant but unostentatious manner frequently delighting the most fastidious of hostesses. Above all, there was the inexplicable and inescapable magic of his personality. All who approached him, said his old adversary Clay, were fascinated by him. His educational attainments were obviously far below those of Adams or Calhoun, but the common representation of him as semiliterate is without foundation. Inattention to spelling was not unusual among the men of his day, and his correspondence displays a direct and vigorous style that several of his more polished contemporaries might have studied with profit.

Historical Interpretation

Historians have debated the significance of Jacksonian Democracy for many decades. Those of the 19th century emphasized mob vulgarity and the spoils system as its hallmarks, only to yield to Frederick Jackson Turner and his disciples of the Progressive Era, who saw Jackson and his policies as the reflection of the frontier spirit, which they considered the essence of American democracy. Modern study of the phenomenon has stemmed primarily from Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s evaluation of the Jacksonian movement as basically an attempt by Eastern wage earners to constrain the business community. In rebuttal, Joseph Dorfman and Bray Hammond saw Jacksonians not as working-class enemies of business--as symbolized by the attack on the U.S. Bank--but as would-be entrepreneurs anxious to dismantle existing vested interests in order to establish their own capitalist fortresses. It is likely that succeeding generations will make their own judgments on the Age of Jackson.

Joseph G. Tregle, Jr.
Louisiana State University in New Orleans

For Further Reading

Belohlavek, John M., Let the Eagle Soar: The Foreign Policy of Andrew Jackson (Univ. of Neb. Press 1985).
Bugg, James L., Jr., and Stewart, Peter C., Jacksonian Democracy, 2d ed. (Univ. Press of Am. 1986).
Ely, James W., Jr., and Brown, Theodore, Jr., Legal Papers of Andrew Jackson (Univ. of Tenn. Press 1987)
Feller, Daniel, The Public Lands in Jacksonian Politics (Univ. of Wis. Press 1984)
Hietals, Thomas R., Manifest Destiny: Anxious Aggrandizement in Late Jacksonian America (Cornell Univ. Press 1985)
Moser, Harold D. and others,, eds., The Papers of Andrew Jackson (Scholarly Research 1987)
Remini, Robert V., Andrew Jackson, ed. by Carol Fitzgerald, 2 vols. (Meckler Pub. 1990)
Remini, Robert V., The Legacy of Andrew Jackson (La. State Univ. Press 1988)
Remini, Robert V., The Life of Andrew Jackson (Harper 1988)

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