Andrew Jackson

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Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson.jpg
Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson made such a lasting impression upon his times that the period when he was president is usually called the Age of Jackson or the Era of Jacksonian Democracy. As the victor in the battle of New Orleans, during the War of 1812, he was one of the nation's most famous military heroes. As president he stood for equality of opportunity and for the right of ordinary Americans to better themselves. The average American responded by taking a far more active interest in politics than ever before. When Jackson was first inaugurated, in 1829, one admirer wrote, "It was a proud day for the people--General Jackson is their own president!"

Jackson's hardiness when marching with his troops and his unwavering devotion to their welfare led them to nickname him Old Hickory. The name stuck and well fitted Jackson's vigor and determination as president. A visitor to the White House in 1832 wrote of him, "In person he was tall, slim and straight. His head was long, but narrow, and covered with thick grey hair that stood erect, as though impregnated with his defiant spirit; his brow was deeply furrowed, and his eye…was one to threaten and command.…His whole being conveyed an impression of energy and daring."

Early Years

Andrew Jackson was born on March 15, 1767, in the Waxhaw settlement on what was then the frontier of South Carolina. His parents, Andrew and Elizabeth (Hutchinson) Jackson, were immigrants from Northern Ireland. Young Jackson's father had died a few days before his birth, and he was raised, with two older brothers, by his widowed mother, who lived with relatives. He acquired some schooling and grew up a tall, lanky boy with reddish sandy hair and a quick temper.

During the Revolutionary War, Jackson, at the age of 14, fought with the patriots against the British at the Battle of Hanging Rock. Taken prisoner, he was slashed with a sword by a British officer whose boots he had refused to clean, receiving a scar he bore for the rest of his life. He was soon released but saddened by the death of his surviving brother and his mother.

At 16, Jackson occupied himself in Charlestown, South Carolina, spending a substantial legacy from his grandfather. He returned to the frontier with a horse and no money. He tried schoolteaching and then studied law.

Law, Marriage, and Politics

In 1787, Jackson passed his bar examination, enabling him to practice law. The next year he moved westward with the first group of pioneers to travel the Cumberland Trail to Nashville, which was then a cluster of log cabins within a stockade on the Cumberland River. There his fortunes flourished with those of the town and the territory, which in 1796 became the state of Tennessee.

In 1791, Jackson married Rachel Donelson Robards. Both he and Rachel believed that she was legally divorced at the time. But the divorce decree was not granted until two years later, and they were remarried early in 1794. Jackson was devoted to his wife and furiously resented any gossip about the marriage. In 1806, an insulting comment about Rachel led to a duel between Jackson and a fellow attorney, Charles Dickinson, in which Jackson was wounded and Dickinson was killed. Jackson's hot temper would involve him in many such duels.

Jackson improved his fortunes by speculating in land, or buying and then selling the property. In 1795, he obtained a tract of land where he raised cotton and built his handsome and graceful home, the Hermitage, completed in 1819. While his personal fortunes were improving, he was advancing equally well as a lawyer-politician. Whatever Jackson may have lacked in legal knowledge, he made up for with forthright common sense. He served as a prosecuting attorney, and when Tennessee became a state in 1796, he was elected its first representative in Congress. He resigned in 1797 to seek, and win, a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Business problems forced Jackson to resign from the Senate in 1798 and return to Nashville. He was appointed to the state superior court, where he was regarded as a fair and energetic judge. In 1802, he was elected major general of the Tennessee militia. Returning to private life in 1804, although he kept his militia command, he devoted himself to developing his property and to breeding and racing Thoroughbred horses.

Military Hero

Outbreak of War.

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson Battle of New Orleans.jpg
Battle of New Orleans

The outbreak of the War of 1812 with Britain opened a new chapter in Jackson's life and set him on the path to fame. In 1813, in command of his militia forces, he was sent to subdue Creek Indians who had massacred settlers in what was then the Mississippi Territory. At the subsequent Battle of Horseshoe Bend, in 1814, he routed the Creeks and gained his first military reputation. Commissioned a major general in the regular army, he was given responsibility for the defense of New Orleans, the port city that was the key to the Mississippi River.

Battle of New Orleans.

The main British attack against the city came on January 8, 1815. Jackson's forces included U.S. troops reinforced by militia from Tennessee and Kentucky, some civilians, and a band of pirates led by Jean Laffite. Concealed behind hastily built fortifications, they concentrated a deadly fire upon the advancing columns of British infantry. Three times the British attacked, and three times they were driven back, suffering more than 2,000 casualties, including the death of their commander, before breaking off the battle. American casualties totaled less than 100.

Actually, the Treaty of Ghent ending the war had already been signed, although the news had not yet reached New Orleans. But had the British taken the city, they would have been in a position to make new demands rather than ratifying the treaty. In any event, in a war that had seen few American successes, Jackson became a national hero. 

Florida Campaign.

Jackson returned home but was recalled to service in late 1817 to deal with attacks by Seminole Indians near the Florida border. He provoked an international incident in 1818 by pursuing the retreating Seminoles into what was then Spanish Florida, capturing two towns and executing two British subjects suspected of hostile actions. The United States purchased the territory the following year, and Jackson briefly served as its governor in 1821.

The Road to the White House

After he returned to the Hermitage, Jackson's old political friends began to promote him for the presidency. The first step was to have him regain his seat in the U.S. Senate, which was accomplished in 1823. The next was to launch him nationally as a candidate in the presidential election of 1824, to succeed the retiring James Monroe.

Election of 1824.

Jackson's rivals were John Quincy Adams, secretary of state under Monroe; Representative (and later Senator) Henry Clay of Kentucky; and William H. Crawford, Monroe's secretary of the treasury. Jackson won 99 electoral votes, as well as a plurality of the popular vote, to 84 for Adams, 41 for Crawford, and 37 for Clay.

Since none of the candidates had received a majority, the election, as provided for in the Constitution, had to be decided by the U.S. House of Representatives. Clay gave his support to Adams, who was elected president. When Adams later appointed Clay secretary of state, Jackson's followers raised the cry of "bargain and corruption." Four years later, however, Jackson was to even the score.

Election of 1828.

The 1828 election was marked by an enormous increase in the number of voters, with three times as many people going to the polls as had in 1824. The campaign itself revolved more around personalities than issues. Enthusiastic voters, although lacking any clear-cut idea of his views, turned overwhelmingly to Jackson, giving him 56 percent of the popular vote. He carried 15 of the then 24 states, winning 178 electoral votes to 83 for Adams.

Jackson's pleasure in his election was overshadowed by the death of Rachel, in December 1828. Her niece, Emily Donelson, would serve as White House hostess for much of his presidency.


Jacksonian Democracy.

Great crowds hailed Jackson's inauguration and jammed the White House to shake his hand. One observer, however, lamented, "The reign of King Mob seemed triumphant." The small but powerful group of men who held federal offices also shuddered, for the ambitious politicians who had promoted Jackson's candidacy hoped to obtain positions for themselves and their lieutenants. Senator William L. Marcy of New York asserted, "To the victor belong the spoils."

Jackson agreed to some political concessions to his followers. In so doing, he made officeholding somewhat more democratic. He informed Congress that official duties could be made "so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance." Jackson adopted the principle of rotating offices among deserving candidates. Although his opponents charged him with introducing a "spoils system," most of the people he appointed were not any less qualified than their predecessors.

During Jackson's administration, another device of democratic politics came into existence, the national nominating convention. Originated by the Anti-Masonic Party, a short-lived third party, it was also used by the Democrats--as the Jacksonians now called themselves--in 1832.

Indian Removal.

Indian Removal & Andrew Jackson
Cherokee Removal & President Andrew Jackson.jpg
Cherokee Removal & President Andrew Jackson

Jackson's interest in western settlement and his feelings as a former Indian fighter led to his policy of moving all eastern Indian tribes to lands beyond the Mississippi River, under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Although the U.S. Supreme Court tried to prevent the state of Georgia from expelling the Cherokees in 1832, Jackson would not enforce the court's decision. The removal policy was popular with white settlers who acquired the valuable land, but it proved tragic for thousands of Indians (Cherokee Trail of Tears: A History).

Internal Improvements.

 Another of Jackson's policies was less popular--his refusal to allow federal money to be spent on internal improvements unless they were interstate, or between states, in nature. In 1830, he vetoed as unconstitutional the Maysville Road Bill, which would have provided a federal subsidy to help build a turnpike in Kentucky. However, Jackson did sign bills providing far more government funds than earlier presidents had for the building of interstate roads and for improvement of rivers and harbors.

The Clash with Calhoun.

 On the question of states' rights versus supremacy of the federal government, Jackson clashed sharply with his vice president, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Calhoun had earlier proposed a theory of nullification, under which a state could refuse to obey acts of Congress it considered unconstitutional (South Carolina Nullification). Congress then would either have to drop the disputed act or obtain its approval through a constitutional amendment. Calhoun hoped to win the president to this states'-rights view. But Jackson revealed his strong feelings on the issue at a banquet in 1830, when, looking directly at Calhoun, he offered the toast, "Our Federal Union--It must be preserved."

The Eaton Affair: Cabinet Breakup.

 At the same time, Jackson was engaged in a troublesome personal dispute with Calhoun and his followers over their refusal to treat with respect the wife of Secretary of War John H. Eaton. Scandalous rumors were circulating concerning Mrs. Eaton. Jackson furiously defended her, for he had suffered much from rumors concerning his own wife, and he believed they had been a factor in her death. The combination of political and personal complications led in 1831 to the breakup of Jackson's cabinet. As a result, Calhoun's followers were eliminated from the cabinet. Martin Van Buren, the secretary of state, who had loyally backed Jackson, replaced Calhoun as the president's "heir."

The Nullification Crisis.

This issue came to a head the next year, when South Carolina adopted an Ordinance of Nullification declaring that the high protective tariffs, or taxes on imports, of 1828 and 1832 were invalid within its borders. Privately, Jackson threatened to hang Calhoun. Publicly, he prepared to use military force against South Carolina. In a proclamation he denounced nullification as treason: "I consider the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it is founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed."

In the Senate, meanwhile, Henry Clay arranged a compromise that gradually lowered the tariff. The crisis ended, and the doctrine of nullification was dead. See the article on Henry Clay.

The Bank of the United States.

With equal force, Jackson moved during these same years against the second Bank of the United States. The bank, which had received a 20-year charter in 1816, was three-fourths privately owned and was privately managed, but it was the depository of government funds. Because of its size and through its branches in several states, it operated as a large and profitable monopoly and was able to dominate banking throughout the United States. In 1832, Jackson vetoed a bill to recharter the bank, denouncing it as unconstitutional and dangerous.

Second Term

Jackson was re-elected overwhelmingly in 1832, winning 219 electoral votes to 49 for his opponent, his old political enemy Henry Clay. His popular vote totaled more than 56 percent. Martin Van Buren became vice president, Calhoun having resigned to enter the U.S. Senate. See the article on John C. Calhoun.

The Bank War Renewed.

During his second term, Jackson continued his war against the Bank of the United States, whose original charter still had three years to run. He removed federal deposits from it and placed them in state banks, or so-called pet banks. Jackson's destruction of the bank led to a vast increase of "cheaper" paper money in circulation, a growth in land speculation, and inflation. To combat this, in 1836, he issued the Specie Circular, which required payment in gold or silver (specie) for public land, but this policy contributed to an economic depression in 1837, after he left office.

Foreign Affairs.

In foreign affairs, Jackson was successful in ending disputes with Britain and France. He formally recognized Texas' independence (Republic of Texas) from Mexico in 1837, in the closing days of his administration, although he rejected calls for its joining the United States, because of the inevitable controversy over slavery that would ensue.


With the inauguration of Martin Van Buren as president in 1837, Jackson left the White House, his popularity undiminished. He lived on for some eight more years in the Hermitage, still erect in his 70's and still interested in national politics. Illness gradually weakened him, and his last years were troubled by financial problems. When he died on June 8, 1845, one of his admirers declared, "He was the embodiment of the true spirit of the nation." He was buried in the Hermitage garden, next to Rachel.

Frank Freidel
Harvard University

Content provided by the New Book of Knowledge, Copyright 2007 Scholastic Library Publishing

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