I have never liked President’s Day. Why celebrate loser presidents like Jimmy Carter and James Buchanan, non-entities like Millard Fillmore, bad presidents, like Grant, with great presidents like Washington and Lincoln? We have had other great presidents, and one of them, although Republican as I am I bridle on bestowing the title upon him, was Andrew Jackson. No one was ever neutral about Old Hickory. He is described as the father of the Democrat party. Actually, both major parties owe their existence to him. The Whig party, the main ancestor of the modern Republican party, was founded in opposition to Jackson’s policies.
For his entire life he stormed through the pages of American history, and he was many things during his life but never dull. As a 13 year old POW during the American Revolution he refused to polish a British officer’s boots and received a saber slash across his head for his defiance, a scar he bore proudly for the rest of his life. Here we see Jackson’s life in miniature: a refusal to bend no matter what the consequences.
By the age of 14 his mother and immediate family were dead and he was left a penniless orphan. By the age of 20 in 1787 he was an attorney, still penniless. Restless and ambitious, he set out for the Tennessee frontier where attorneys were rare, but litigation was not. By sheer determination Jackson carved a name for himself, first as Solicitor, we would say state’s attorney, of the Western District of North Carolina now part of Tennessee, and then as the first Congressman for Tennessee in 1796, before being elected a US Senator for Tennessee in 1797. In 1798 he was appointed a judge for the Tennessee Supreme Court. When charging juries before their deliberations, he would always say: “Do what is right between these parties; that is what the law always means.” It was proper that he did that. Jackson’s knowledge of the law was so minimal, due to his lack of education, that he probably could not have instructed them on the actual law applicable in most cases in any event, and because Jackson throughout his life strove to do what was right, but only by his lights of what was right.
In 1791 he married Rachel Jackson. Theirs was the great presidential love match. Jackson loved “his Rachel” to idolatry, and in his eyes she was perfection. In 1794 they learned to their intense dismay that her first husband had not divorced her prior to 1791 as she and Jackson had thought. She had been separated from her first husand since 1788, but prior to her marriage to Jackson her first husband had merely filed a document with the court stating his intention to divorce her. The divorce was not granted until 1793. The Jacksons quickly remarried. His political enemies used the scandal against him for the rest of his life, to the intense and bitter anger of Jackson. He often said that he could easily forgive what his enemies said against him, but that he could never forgive their attacks against Rachel. As Rachel grew older she became more religious and caused Jackson to become more religious. By all accounts she was a very good and charitable woman, and it was the great tragedy of Jackson’s life that she died just before he left for Washington to assume his duties as President.
In 1802 Jackson, who was fascinated all his life with military matters, was elected a major general of the Tennessee militia.
Jackson throughout his various political and judicial duties had prospered as a merchant and a land speculator. In 1804 he purchased a plantation 12 miles outside of Nashville and named it the Hermitage, resigned from the Tennessee Supreme Court and spent the next decade as a successful planter.
Upon the commencement of the War of 1812, Jackson immediately volunteered for active service. Nothing happened. Jackson assumed he was not called to duty due to his vigorous opposition to many of the policies of Thomas Jefferson, Madison’s predecessor. ( It probably didn’t help Jackson that Aaron Burr, former vice-president and deadly enemy of Jefferson, had stayed three days with Jackson during his treasonous trip to the West in 1805, although there is no evidence of Jackson’s involvement in Burr’s plot.)
Jackson’s chance for military action came in 1813-1814 during the Creek War. After a very tough campaign, Jackson decisively defeated the Red Stick Creeks at the battle of Horseshoe Bend on March 27, 1814. On the battlefield, Jackson found a two year old Creek boy with his dead mother. Jackson adopted him as his son, named him Lyncoya, and brought him home with him to the Hermitage and raised him with his other adopted son, Andrew Jackson, Jr. Jackson planned to have him educated at West Point, because he believed it to be the best school in the nation, but the boy died of tuberculosis in 1828. Jackson, the great foe of the Indians, is the only American president to adopt an Indian child. Jackson was nothing if not complicated.
The campaign against the Red Stick Creeks had made Jackson a national figure. It also almost killed him. Suffering from a chronic stomach disorder, Jackson could only get relief from the pain by bending a sapling and leaning over it with the sapling pressed against his stomach. The campaign was arduous for his troops also, a mixture of militia and regulars. On one occasion the militia decided they had had enough and began to march home. Jackson used the regulars to stop them. On another occasion the regulars decided they were through, and Jackson used the militia to force them to return to their duties. When both militia and regulars decided to leave on yet another occasion, Jackson rode to the head of the troops, aimed a musket at them and made it quite clear that he would kill the next man to take a step. The men looked at Jackson, Jackson gazed back at them, and they returned to camp. Afterwards, Jackson ordered that the musket be repaired as it couldn’t have fired in any case. Most of the men Jackson led were frontiersmen and had a great deal of experience in cutting down trees. The toughest wood they knew of was Hickory, and Old Hickory, and doubtless some other unprintable ones that have not come down to us, is the nickname they gave their determined general.
While Jackson was crushing the Red Sticks, the War of 1812 was going badly for the country. With the abdication of Napoleon, hordes of British veteran troops were sent across the Atlantic to teach the Yankees a lesson. The burning of Washington in August 1814 was part of the lesson, and the American government had intelligence that a mighty British fleet and army were on their way to seize New Orleans. In August 1814 a British fleet established a base, with the consent of the Spanish government, at Pensacola, Florida, and used it to supply Indians hostile to the US. On November 7, 1814, Jackson seized Pensacola, chased the British troops out and destroyed the fortifications. The British fleet sailed off and Jackson marched to New Orleans.
Jackson arrived at New Orleans with his rough frontier army of militia and regulars on December 2, 1814. Space in a blog post does not allow me to detail the very interesting moves and counter-moves of the British commander General Edward Pakenham, brother in law of the Duke of Wellington and a peninsular war veteran, and Jackson. Suffice it to say that at the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815, Jackson and his men, out-numbered three to two, handed the British the most lopsided defeat in their history, inflicting a little over 2000 casualties in exchange for 71 American casualties.
The Battle of New Orleans is sometimes called a useless battle because it was fought before news of the treaty of Ghent ending the war, which had been signed on December 24, 1814, reached America. This view is erroneous. The battle was a shot in the arm to American morale after a lack-lustre war, ensured that the British would abide by the terms of the treaty, and gave the British something to ponder on the few occasions during the nineteenth century when America and Britain again came close to war. Besides all of that, it produced one of my favorite songs from the Fifties.
After New Orleans Jackson was a national hero, just below George Washington in stature. Jackson received the thanks of Congress and a gold medal. During the First Seminole War, Jackson invaded and seized West Florida from the Spanish to cut off military supplies to the Seminoles. This caused a first class diplomatic furor which only ended with the purchase of Florida in 1821 by the US from Spain negotiated by John Quincy Adams. Jackson briefly served as military governor of Florida before resigning, largely at the request of his wife who was homesick.
Jackson returned to the national political stage after he was elected a US Senator by the Tennessee legislature in 1822.
Running for president in 1824, Jackson, who won a plurality of the electoral votes, lost the election as a result of Henry Clay convincing the House of Representatives to elect John Quincy Adams. Jackson denounced this corrupt bargain, and leaving the Senate in 1825 began a non-stop campaign, albeit without his personally campaigning as was the custom at the time, for the White House in 1828.
The 1828 campaign was one of the most vituperative in our nation’s history. Jackson was accused, among many other things, of being a traitor, murderer, bigamist, adulterer and jackass. Jackson was rather fond of the jackass appellation and used it as a symbol for him for a while. During the campaign the Democrat party was created by Jackson and his supporters as a revival of Jefferson’s Republican party, and the self-proclaimed party of the common man. Jackson won with 56% of the vote and an electoral landslide.
Considering that this post is already approaching 2000 words I will be very brief as to Jackson’s presidency. Jackson at his worst in his presidency were his actions regarding the expulsion of the Cherokee from Georgia which led to the Trail of Tears. I trust it is not only the fact that I am part Cherokee which causes me to view this episode as a stain on our national honor.
Jackson at his most ignorant in his presidency was his war on the Second National Bank. He “won” that war which directly led to the Panic of 1837 and a five year depression, second only in severity to the Great Depression. Thanks a lot Old Hickory. Economic illiteracy and the presidency always spells disaster for the economy.
Jackson was at his finest during the Nullification Crisis, the first attempt by South Carolina to start a Civil War. Jackson made his policy clear on April 13, 1830 when he gave a toast at a Jefferson dinner of the Democrat party: “Our Federal Union, it must be preserved”. John C. Calhoun, Jackson’s Vice President and the very embodiment of South Carolina, responded: “The Union, next to our liberty most dear.”.
The crisis came to a head in 1832 and it looked as if war was in the offing. On December 10, 1832 Jackson issued his Nullification Proclamation which attacked both nullification and secession. Jackson threatened to hang every leader of the nullification forces if a drop of blood were shed in opposition to the laws of the United States. When Senator Hayne of South Carolina told Senator Benton of Missouri that he doubted if Jackson would really hang anyone, Benton, a good friend of Jackson and a man who had shot him in a brawl, one of many such affrays Jackson was involved in during his life, in 1813 before they became friends, told him that “When Jackson begins to talk about hanging, they can begin to look out for ropes”. South Carolina ultimately backed down and our Civil War was reserved for a later generation.
On January 30, 1835, Jackson survived the first assassination attempt on an American president. Firing two pistols at Jackson, both of which misfired, the would be assassin found himself on the receiving end of the presidential cane, since the reaction of Jackson, although elderly and ailing, was to charge in the face of mortal danger.
As already noted, Jackson, through the influence of his wife, became more religious as he grew older, although his religion always had a bit of his rough edges about it, as this vignette demonstrates:
“young Nashville lawyer: “Mr. Cartwright, do you believe there is any such place as hell, as a place of torment?”
Rev. Peter Cartwright: “Yes, I do.”
young Nashville lawyer: “Well, I thank God I have too much good sense to believe any such thing.”
Andrew Jackson: “Well, sir, I thank God that there is such a place of torment as hell.”
young Nashville lawyer: “Why, General Jackson, what do you want with such a place of torment as hell?”
Andrew Jackson: “To put such damned rascals as you are in, that oppose and vilify the Christian religion.””
Jackson was no bigot on matters of religion as this passage in a letter to Ellen Hanson on March 25, 1835 indicates (the spelling is all Jackson):
“I was brought up a rigid Presbeterian, to which I have always adhered. Our excellent constitution guarantees to every one freedom of religion, and charity tells us, and you know Charity is the reall basis of all true religion, and charity says judge the tree by its fruit. all who profess christianity, believe in a Saviour and that by and through him we must be saved. We ought therefor to consider all good christians, whose walk corresponds with their professions, be him Presbeterian, Episcopalian, Baptist, methodist or Roman catholic.”
Jackson proved that this was no mere verbiage by his actions. He and his wife served as the guardian for Mary Anne Lewis, a Catholic. They made certain that she attended Mass and received instruction in the Faith. When she married, Andrew Jackson hosted the wedding on November 29, 1832, and her Catholic wedding was the first Roman Catholic ceremony performed at the White House. Next year the second Roman Catholic ceremony took place at the White House, the baptism of her son, Andrew Jackson Pageot. When the priest asked if the baby renounced Satan, President Jackson, who thought the query was being addressed to him, said in a loud voice: “I do! Most indubitably!” (Hattip to Thomas J. Craughwell for the details of this incident.)
Jackson died in 1845, death being the only adversary he could not overcome by grit and determination. His dying was long and painful and Jackson bore it with the same stoicism he had met the many illnesses and injuries that beset him throughout his long life. He made one remark that indicated his very deep faith:
“When I have Suffered sufficiently, the Lord will then take me to himself — but what are all my sufferings compared to those of the blessed Saviour, who died upon that cursed tree for me, mine are nothing.”
Jackson had been a slave holder most of his adult life, and if he ever said a word about the essential injustice of slavery, except to condemn the international slave trade as “illegal and inhuman”, history has not recorded it. On his death bed he did make the following statement:
“God will take care of you for me. I am my God’s. I belong to him, I go but a short time before you, and I want to meet you all in heaven, both white & black. ” His white and black listeners burst into tears at this, and Andrew Jackson said his final words:
“What is the matter with my Dear Children, have I alarmed you? Oh, do not cry — be good children & we will all meet in heaven.”