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Just who was Andrew Jackson? Was he the first president to create a political following among the masses and ride that to power? Was he a shameless opportunist who pandered to the lowest common denominator? Was he a war hero? Was he a man who set into place a policy that turned out to be genocidal? Was he devoutly loyal to the United States and its Constitution? Did he interpret the Constitution as he saw fit?
According to Sean Wilentz, the answer to all these questions is “yes.” However, in Wilentz’s view, there was an explanation for all of Jackson’s actions, and, ultimately, they served to benefit the United States.
Andrew Jackson’s stock among historians has risen and fallen throughout the years like the Dow Jones 30 on a day when Timothy Geithner coughs. Wilentz traces these changes in the introduction to his book and then sets out, as best you can in 170 pages, to explain the complicated life of Andrew Jackson.
The future President was born near the South Carolina/North Carolina border in 1767 and was caught up in the tail end of the Revolutionary War, when he and his brothers were captured by British soldiers. The young Jackson refused to shine a British officer’s boots, claiming he was a prisoner of war, and for his insolence, Jackson received a gash in his head with a sword that never left him. That wound would be a constant reminder of Jackson’s distaste for Britain, aristocracy, and privilege.
Jackson’s father died before he was born, and his mother died when he was still in his teens. So, Andrew Jackson was very much a self-made man. In 1791, he married a woman named Rachel Donelson, who provided both love and some financial security for him. However, Rachel was not completely divorced from her husband. After a period, the two would marry again to make it official. This would end up being a significant event in American politics later. Jackson would also fight several duels to uphold his wife’s honor, and killed one person during one.
By 1796, Jackson, who had moved west to Tennessee, used his political connections to become that state’s first member of the House of Representatives, and, a few months later, moved on to the Senate. Jackson resigned from the Senate in 1798 to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court, and later took up farming at his plantation, the Hermitage.
However, Jackson was not bound for a quiet life. The War of 1812 gave Jackson the chance to serve in the military, and get some measure of revenge against the British who treated him so shamelessly during the Revolution.
Jackson’s first military encounters, however, were against the Creek Indians in Alabama. Responding to a massacre by a group of Creeks called the Red Sticks at Fort Mims in 1813, Jackson led his troops to extract vengeance. In two engagements, Jackson’s troops killed nearly every Red Stick Creek male and took all the women and children as prisoners. Additionally, Jackson was able to get a treaty ceding Creek land in Georgia and Alabama to the U.S. Jackson was prepared to do whatever it took to keep whites and Indians separate. He firmly believed that the two groups could not coexist peacefully.
After his success in Alabama (at least in the eyes of President Madison), Jackson moved on to New Orleans to defend that crucial port city against the British. On January 8, 1815, Jackson famously routed the British in what would be the last battle of the War of 1812, which was technically already over since a peace treaty had been signed about 10 days earlier. However, Jackson failed to receive a Tweet from @ghentytreaty in time that read “USA and UK say war over! Woo hoo! Henry Clay is totally wasted!”
Wilentz points out that Jackson’s victory at New Orleans was just as much the product of British bungling (there were numerous logisticial problems), but history judged that from then on, Jackson would be “The Hero of New Orleans.” And Jackson didn’t take kindly to anyone saying otherwise.
With the War of 1812 over, Jackson kept up his military adventures, moving on to Florida, which was still part of Spain. Jackson ostensibly had moved his troops to Georgia to deal with the Seminoles, but that soon morphed into a mission to take control of Florida. And with a few military victories and the executions of two British subjects, the United States was able to parlay this into buying Florida from Spain. Jackson became its first territorial governor.
In 1822, Jackson was nominated for President by the Tennessee legislature, which also elected him to the Senate. But in the election of 1824, Jackson, despite winning the most popular votes AND electoral votes, lost the election. With four candidates running, no one had a majority, and the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams as President. Jackson made Adams his enemy. And if you were an enemy of Andrew Jackson, that was a lifetime job. (Jackson would continually advocate for the direct election of the President. That has not worked so far.)
Adams turned out to be ill-suited for the presidency, and Jackson exacted his revenge with an easy win in 1828. However, the campaign was ugly, with numerous slurs brought up about Rachel Jackson, and her questionable first marriage. Rachel Jackson died of a heart attack in December of 1828. Andrew Jackson never forgave anyone for the slights on her reputation.
Crises hit Jackson almost immediately after his inauguration. Jackson, like most Presidents, removed many Adams supporters from their officers and replaced them with people loyal to him. Jackson referred to this as “rotation in office,” but it soon was dubbed “the spoils system.” While Jackson was not the first, or last, President to use the power of patronage, he became the most closely identified with it.
Jackson also faced a crisis within his own Cabinet. Secretary of War John Eaton, one of his closest friends, had married a woman named Margaret Eaton, who was not from upper crust society in Washington. Her first husband had reportedly killed himself while at sea. She was snubbed by many of the wives of the other Cabinet members along with the wife of Jackson’s Vice President, John Calhoun. Jackson backed Eaton, although by 1831, five members of Jackson’s cabinet had resigned in the fallout.
After this, three major domestic events defined Jackson’s presidency.
First, Jackson, in agreement with Georgia’s government, ordered the removal of Cherokees from that state to western territories, such as Arkansas. The removal was not voluntary, and the Seminoles would be subject to attacks by settlers along the way. Approximately 8,000 Cherokees died on the journey west (called “The Trail of Tears”). However, Jackson stood by his decision. He believed that it was better for all parties if Native Americans lived in Federal territories where they would receive more protection than they did from local authorities. This turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes of the Jackson administration.
Jackson’s second major crisis was the Rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson greatly distrusted banks and paper money. Jackson especially disliked the way the Bank of the United States was run. He felt that it’s director, Nicholas Biddle, was creating an aristocracy who made money from the hard work of people who needed to use the bank to buy land or get credit.
In 1831, Henry Clay pushed forth a bill that would extend the bank’s charter for another 20 years. This was done four years before the charter expired for two reasons: 1) to remove the issue from the upcoming election, and 2) to make the bank an issue in the upcoming election. Clay assumed that the Bank, which was well run, would get its recharter.
However, Jackson shocked the political establishment by vetoing the bill rechartering the bank. His veto message used populist themes to explain why he took his action. Jackson felt that the bank was unconstitutional (although the Supreme Court had already said otherwise), and in his duty as President, he couldn’t allow it to continue. He did not want the Federal Government to sponsor an institution that benefited a group of wealthy Easterners.
The third crisis Jackson faced was the Nullification Crisis. The state of South Carolina believed that tariffs were too high (one bill was named “The Tariff of Abominations”), preventing residents from buying cheap goods from Europe, instead having to rely on more expensive goods made in other parts of the country. Also, South Carolina felt that too much of the revenue from tariffs was being used to build canals and roads in the North and East.
South Carolina believed that that the Constitution was a contract among the states. And if a state believed that a law was too onerous to uphold, the state had the right to declare it null and void within its borders. Or, if it was really offended, the state could secede all together.
Jackson was not going to allow one state to opt out of the country that he believed in so much. He used a two pronged approach to the crisis. In a message to Congress, Jackson offered to work with South Carolina to adjust the tariffs to more appropriate levels. And in another bill, Jackson authorized the use of force to collect tariffs. Jackson began sending ships out to sea to meet ships and collect tariffs there before the ships would dock in Charleston.
South Carolina eventually backed down as a compromise tariff was reached. But the crisis would be revisited again, with more deadly implications over the issue of slavery in 1860.
Jackson campaigned for reelection in 1832 using the Bank Veto as something of a campaign platform. His opponent, Clay, tried to use the Veto against Jackson. But the people loved Jackson, and he was easily reelected. Jackson also had a new Vice President in Martin Van Buren.
Jackson’s second term saw him put the finishing touches on the Bank of the United States. Not content to wait for the charter to expire, Jackson ordered all Government deposits to be withdrawn from the Bank of the United States and redistributed to a series of state chartered banks. Biddle reacted to this by greatly curtailing credit, creating a brief financial panic. However, Jackson won the battle of popular opinion over Biddle. Credit markets loosened up, and the economy grew.
Wilentz spends a chapter examining Jackson’s views on slavery. And Jackson doesn’t come out well here. Jackson was a slave owner and profited greatly from having slaves. But during Jackson’s Presidency, the nascent Abolitionist movement was starting to grow from fringe level into a major political force. Abolitionists attempted to send through the mail to nearly everyone in South Carolina, political materials advocating their side. Jackson had to figure out which was more important: maintaing the Federal Government’s duty to deliver the mail, or to keep South Carolina happy by not delivering “objectionable materials.” Jackson ultimately sided with South Carolina on this point, allowing local postal officials to skirt any obligation to deliver all the mail.
At the end of Jackson’s administration, Texas split away from Mexico. Texas had been settled by many slaveholding Americans. Jackson saw Texas as a natural part of the United States, believing that John Quincy Adams had negotiated it away in 1819. However, Jackson was not able to negotiate any method to annex Texas. That would wait until 1845.
What stands out the most for Wilentz in his view of Jackson is that Jackson was a champion of democracy. He firmly believed in democratic ideals. Wilentz acknowledges that, according to today’s standards, Jackson can look like a monster. However, Jackson was a product of his time. And in many ways, Jackson was ahead of his time in his reliance on the people to make the right choices in a democracy. Jackson believed that the President had a job to lead the country. And leadership was not something he was afraid of.
Does America need another Andrew Jackson? Probably not. Did America need Andrew Jackson in its past? It’s hard to envision the country otherwise.
Jackson’s portrait has appeared on the $20 bill since 1928 (the year of a major redesign of American currency). He replaced Grover Cleveland. Of course, in 1928, not many people had $20 bills.
Andrew Jackson was the first President to be subject to an assassination attempt. A man named Richard Lawrence tried to shoot Jackson with a pistol at close range in January of 1835. Both of Lawrence’s pistols failed to fire and Jackson subdued Lawrence by hitting him with his walking stick. Lawrence was sent to an asylum for the mentally ill.