"I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President. He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place. He has very little respect for laws and constitutions [...] His passions are terrible. [...] His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; [...] but he is a dangerous man." - Thomas Jefferson (1824)
A few years ago, I walking through through Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom with my wife and mother-in-law. Seeking a break from the Florida heat, we decided to check out an attraction I'd never seen before: The Hall of Presidents. I would no doubt enjoy the show for two reasons. First of all, I'm a history teacher who enjoys the study of U.S. Presidents. Secondly, the theater was air conditioned. The show features audio anamotronic models of all former presidents. It is a celebration of the Constitution and the men who have led our nation. While all presidents are featured, a few have extended video tributes because of their disproportional positive impact on our country. Much to my surprise, featured along side Lincoln and Washington was Andrew Jackson; the champion of the common man. I couldn't help but glance over at the robotic Mr. Jefferson to see if he shared my surprise at the reverence paid to General Jackson. Sadly, Imagineering has yet to advance far enough to capture our 3rd president's astonishment.
Opinions regarding Andrew Jackson are numerous and passionate. A review 20th century history books will portray him as a hero for the common man, a military genius, and a titanic figure on the pages of American history. Modern day critiques, will regard him as emotionally unbalanced, a wild man, a racist, a brutal military commander, and a stain on the American presidency. Which vision of Andrew Jackson is correct? Both, depending one's point of view.
After the war, Jackson studied law and moved to the territory that would become Tennessee. He quickly found that he a knack for the legal circuit and for politics. He became a delegate helping to draft Tennessee's constitution in its bid for statehood. Jackson's successes led to wealth and he soon overcame his modest beginnings and began his transformation into one of the planter aristocracy. He acquired numerous slaves and a a plantation known as the Hermitage. Jackson was elected to the United States House of Representatives and later the Senate, where he made a less than positive impression on then Vice President Thomas Jefferson.
For all of his political successes, it is for his success on the battlefield that made Andrew Jackson a national figure; and a controversial one at that. Upon the outbreak of hostilities between the U.S. and Great Britain during the War of 1812, Jackson organized a group of volunteers to defend the western lands from the British. Most of Jackson's fighting was done on the frontier against Native American allies of the British. On the battlefield he proved to be a skilled and successful commander of men. This was also where his cruelty began to show through. Not only was Jackson incredibly ruthless toward his enemies, he had little stomach for disloyalty or insubordination. He is known to have had at least 6 of his own men executed for refusing to follow orders. This was against the recommendation of the soldier's court martial. Despite his harshness as a leader, it seems men were willing to rally behind the general and give their all for him. Nowhere was this more evident than the famed Battle of New Orleans.
When Jackson's men arrived in the Crescent City, they knew that holding the city was crucial. Whoever controlled New Orleans, controlled the Mississippi. Whoever controlled the Mississippi, controlled access to the west. The General controversially declared martial law in the city and began preparations for battle. Jackson's ragtag group of volunteers from many different walks of life, joined together with American regulars and awaited for the British attack. The British arrived with roughly 10,000 soldiers, nearly double the American forces. In a shockingly one-sided affair, Jackson's forces decimated the British invaders. The red coats suffered more than 2,000 casualties. The Americans only 71. New Orleans was defended, the British forces retreated, and Andrew Jackson became a national hero. The fact that the war officially ended with the Treaty of Ghent two weeks before the battle, mattered little to American public (news traveled very slowly in 1815). The War of 1812, was by any military measure, a draw. But to Americans at the time, it was viewed as a Second War of Independence and Andrew Jackson was viewed as this generation's George Washington. Jackson's march toward the White House was launched on the banks of the mighty Mississippi in 1815.
Thirteen years would pass between the Battle of New Orleans and Jackson's election to the presidency. In the interim, General Jackson continued leading troops throughout the southern United States fighting Indians. He created an international incident and nearly started a war with two countries when he overstepped orders, invaded Spanish Florida, and executed two British citizens. In 1824, Jackson was denied the presidency despite winning the popular vote and securing the most electoral votes, but failing to get a majority. Will discuss this event in more detail in future posts, but Jackson's "loss" in 1824 helped to mobilize political factions of everyday Americans into what would become the Democratic Party. In 1828, Jackson had his party were back with a vengeance.
Jackson won in a landslide. He had captured the vote of the common man. However, it is important to understand what this term meant in 1820s America. The "common man" only applied to the common white man. Women, slaves, free blacks, and Native Americans were certainly not included in this number. Jackson was the first President who attempted to appeal to the average white man, because for the first time their votes were important. By 1828, there was nearly universal white male suffrage. Early Presidents didn't worry about the votes of average Americans, most states didn't even count them. Common people didn't vote for Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, or Monroe, These leaders were chosen exclusively by the Electoral College without consideration of the common person's wishes. This was perfectly in line with the Framer's intentions. But now, with the removal of property requirements and an ever expanding male electorate, being a champion for the "common man" became a political necessity. So, Andrew Jackson, who lived in one of the finest homes in the nation, and possessed more wealth than most Americans could ever dream, was viewed as a working man's President. The transition of power from educated elites to ordinary white American males signaled the rise of mass democracy in America and came to be known as the Age of Jackson. Thousands of everyday Americans descended upon Washington to celebrate the inauguration of "Old Hickory" as President. Though the streets were filled with excitement, Jackson was in mourning as he took the oath of office. Just weeks after his election, Jackson's wife Rachel died suddenly of a heart attack. She was buried at Jackson's Tennessee plantation wearing the dress she had recently purchased for the inauguration. Yet again, Andrew Jackson had lost the most important person in his life.
Andrew Jackson was claimed to be a Jeffersonain, which is to say that he believed in a limited role for the federal government. Yet, much like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson expanded the power of the government once he was in power. In particular, Andrew Jackson expanded the power of the presidency itself. To Jackson, he represented the common man, therefore anything he wanted to do was something the common man must also want. Any personal slight against him, was a slight against the common man. More than any previous President, Andrew Jackson's temperament, or lack thereof, defined his actions in the White House. The policies he pursued can best be understood as settling a personal score between himself and a political opponent or as an attempt to further the cause of the common white man; sometimes both.
One of the first actions taken by the new President was to fire dozens of civil servants; many of whom had served through several previous administrations. Jackson called his policy "rotation in office." Jackson argued that civil service jobs belonged to the people, not to the current office holders, and it was only healthy that more citizens should have an opportunity to serve their country. In reality, Jackson was hiring his friends and firing his enemies. Critics called this form of political patronage the "spoils system" and it came to define the federal government for the next 60 years, leading to decades of corruption and inefficiency. Jackson may have wanted to drain the swamp, but instead he simply made it more stagnant.
Early in Jackson's first term he faced the prospect of a national crisis as the state of South Carolina claimed that it had the authority to nullify a federal law. The federal tariff (a tax on imports) was a law that primarily benefited northern industry and merchants at the expense of southern planters. The reason being that, because of their refusal to diversify their slave-based economy, southerners imported all manufactured goods. Therefore, they resented the higher price they had to pay because of the tariff. When the southern economy began to falter (do to a fall in cotton prices), South Carolinains blamed the Yankee "tariff of abominations." Advocates of nullification, refusal to enforce a federal law within a state's borders, took control of the South Carolina statehouse, a full on crisis was born. The biggest and most ardent supporter of this policy was Jackson's own Vice President, John C. Calhoun. South Carolina voted to nullify the federal law.
Jackson rejected South Carolina's claim. The supremacy clause of the Constitution prohibits nullification. Jackson prepared to raise an army, invade The Palmetto State, and personally hang the leaders of the movement. Such a threat is very real when it comes from a man who has killed men in duels and executed his own soldiers. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and a compromise was orchestrated in Congress. The tariff was gradually lowered, Jackson didn't invade South Carolina, and Vice President Calhoun decided he would be better suited (and safer) in the U.S. Senate. To his supporters, Jackson was a strong Unionist. To his critics, President Jackson's heavy handedness seemed to resemble that of a king.
When Andrew Jackson learned of the decision written by Chief Justice John Marshall, he supposedly said that John Marshal had made his decision, "now let him enforce it." Over time, some during the next President's term and in violation of the court's order, the Cherokee were rounded up at gun point, removed from their homes, and forced to march westward. This forced march of thousands of Cherokee men, women, and children, came to be known as the Trail of Tears. Thousands of people died, but in the mind of Jackson, and a great many Americans, it was progress. The forced removal of Native Americans not only had tragic consequences for the thousands of families displaced, but also for generations of slaves to come. By opening up the Deep South to white settlement, the cotton industry was able to spread into the fertile, profitable soil of Dixie. With one single act, Jackson and Congress further advanced America's two original sins: the eradication of Native American society and the institution of slavery.
There is no event that serves as a better example of Andrew Jackson's stubbornness, unwillingness to compromise, and the personal nature of his politics, than the Bank War. The Bank of the United States served as a stabilizing force in the American economy. By law, it is where federal deposits were kept. I could provide loans, issue bonds, and do all of the things that one might expect a bank to do. However, much of the interest in the bank was controlled by eastern elites. With branches in places like New York, the bank brought great financial power to the cities of east. In the early nineteenth century, proximity mattered. The further away a person, business, or government was from a power center (financial or otherwise) the less influence they had. The "common man" of the frontier who Jackson claimed to represent had little to say when it came to the nations finances. They also felt like they received little benefit from the Bank of the United States. To Jackson, the Bank represented what he called "corrupt privilege." Jackson's rhetoric against the Bank of the United States would be similar to modern day critiques of Wall Street, hedge fund managers, and lobbyist. The Banks wielded too much power and didn't serve the interests of the people.
That being said, it doesn't appear as if reforming the Bank was going to be a hallmark of Jackson's administration; he doesn't mention it in his first inaugural address. The bank had a 20 year charter, that wouldn't need to be renewed until 1836. As is customary throughout most of American history, Presidents and Congress do not go about the business of repealing the acts of previous administrations. If, in 1836, the Congress felt the Bank did not need to continue, they would allow it to expire. However, the existence of the Bank became to primary issue in the Election of 1832, four years before it needed to be discussed.
The newspaper that had published the damning story about Jackson's late wife in 1828 was run by a personal friend of Henry Clay. Jackson believed Clay was responsible for besmirching his wife's honor just before her death and he hated him for it. If Clay was for something, Jackson regardless of politics, was against it. Perhaps, the President did exactly what Clay wanted. Clay pushed the Bank recharter through Congress and the President vetoed it. Now Clay could use the rechartering of the Bank as his signature cause as he ran against Jackson in the Presidential election of 1832 under the banner of the National Republicans. Clay set a trap and Jackson took the bait. But the plan didn't work. Jackson destroyed Clay in the election and then set his sights on killing the Bank of the United States.
Early in Jackson's second term, while Congress was out of town, the President ordered his Secretary of the Treasury to withdraw all federal deposits from the Bank. The Secretary refused. That would be illegal. Jackson fired him. He then appointed Attorney General Roger Taney to lead the Treasury Department. Taney agreed to remove federal deposits and send them to state banks run by Jackson's political allies. When Congress returned to D.C. they censured Jackson and Taney was no longer allowed to stay at the Treasury Department. It didn't matter, the deed was done, and the Bank would soon be dead. For his loyalty, Jackson nominated Taney as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taney would serve on the Court for many years, issuing some of the most controversial and infamous rulings in American history regarding slavery. It is Taney that wrote the opinion in the Dred Scott case that ruled that African Americans were not people that had rights worthy of protection.
Hoping to stabilize the economy, Jackson issued the Specie Circular which required that the federal government would only accept payment in the form of money backed by gold or silver. Most people didn't have access to this and credit dried up. It is ironic that a man who hated the idea of paper money is now on the $20 bill. Shortly after Jackson left office, the Panic of 1837 hit. It was the greatest economic downturn in the nation's short history. It would be left to Jackson's former Vice President, Martin Van Buren to handle the crisis.
Andrew Jackson is a controversial figure to say the least. His policies were aimed at helping the "common man" but many times these came at a great cost to the nation. The Indian Removal Act is one of the great unpaid sins in American history, yet at the time few saw anything wrong with it. Jackson came into office beating the drum of limited government and yet he used the power of the presidency to issue a record number of vetos, break federal law, and ignore the orders of the Supreme Court. His presidency, unintentionally led to the expansion of slavery and a national economic crisis. But in his day, he was loved. Yes, he had his critics (the Whig Party was formed in opposition to his policies), but he was viewed a champion of the "common man" until his dying day. For generations, the negative impact of his decisions were viewed by the public as unfortunate side effects of progress. It is only with time that we have been able to gain a clearer view of the long term consequences of Jackson's presidency.
On the podcast "Presidential" historian John Meacham had this to say about how Andrew Jackson should be remembered. "His legacy has shifted through time. [...] As our awareness of the plight of Native Americans, and the experience of enslaved people grew, Jackson's historical stock fell. [..] While his views on those matters were on the extreme edge of the mainstream of his time, they were still within the mainstream. And his sins were the nation's sins. And so to condemn him without condemning the nation itself is sort of a cop out. We can't simply blame Andrew Jackson for Native American removal and the endurance of slavery. The nation was complicit in those tragedies as well."
It's been 180 years since Andrew Jackson left the White House and he is still being studied, discussed, debated, beloved, and vilified. I'm confident that 180 years from now, we will still be talking about Old Hickory. Perhaps that's because Americans, then and now, see something of themselves in Andrew Jackson. He overcame tremendous hardship to achieve something great. He was tough, firm, and uncompromising. He loved, served, and defended his country. But upon closer examination, Jackson reveals unfortunate characteristics that we'd rather not admit.