Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), seventh president of the United States, symbolized the democratic advances of his time. His actions strengthened the power of the presidential office in American government.
When Andrew Jackson emerged on the national scene, the United States was undergoing profound social and economic changes as the new, postrevolutionary generation pushed forward in search of material gain and political power. Jackson was a classic example of the self-made man who rose from a log cabin to the White House, and he came to represent the aspirations of the ordinary citizen struggling to achieve wealth and status. He symbolized the "rise of the common man." So total was his identification with this period of American history that the years between 1828 and 1848 are frequently designated the "Age of Jackson."
Andrew Jackson was born on March 15, 1767, in Waxhaw country, which straddles North and South Carolina. His father, who died shortly before Andrew's birth, had come with his wife to America from Ireland in 1765. Andrew attended several academies in the Waxhaw settlement, but his education was spotty and he never developed a taste for learning.
After the outbreak of the American Revolution, Jackson, barely 13 years old, served as an orderly to Col. William Richardson. Following one engagement, Jackson and his brother were captured by the British and taken to a prison camp. When Jackson refused to clean an officer's boots, the officer slashed him with a sword, leaving a permanent scar on his forehead and left hand. Jackson was the only member of his family to survive the war, and it is generally believed that his harsh, adventuresome, early life developed his strong, aggressive qualities of leadership, his violent temper, and his need for intense loyalty from friends.
After the war Jackson drifted from one occupation to another and from one relative to another. He squandered a small inheritance and for a time lived a wild, undisciplined life that gave free rein to his passionate nature. He developed lifelong interests in horse racing and cock-fighting and frequently indulged in outrageous practical jokes. Standing just over 6 feet tall, with long, sharp, bony features lighted by intense blue eyes, Jackson presented an imposing figure that gave every impression of a will and need to command.
After learning the saddler's trade, Jackson tried school-teaching for a season or two, then left in 1784 for Salisbury, N. C., where he studied law in a local office. Three years later, licensed to practice law in North Carolina, he migrated to the western district that eventually became Tennessee. Appointed public prosecutor for the district, he took up residence in Nashville. A successful prosecutor and lawyer, he was particularly useful to creditors who had trouble collecting debts. Since money was scarce in the West, he accepted land in payment for his services and within 10 years became one of the most important landowners in Tennessee. Unfortunately his speculations in land failed, and he spiraled deeply into debt, a misadventure that left him with lasting monetary prejudices. He came to condemn credit because it encouraged speculation and indebtedness. He distrusted the note-issuing, credit-producing aspects of banking and abhorred paper money. He regarded hard money—specie—as the only legitimate means by which honest men could engage in business transactions.
While Jackson was emerging as an important citizen by virtue of his land holdings, he also achieved social status by marrying Rachel Donelson, the daughter of one of the region's original settlers. The Jacksons had no children of their own, but they adopted one of Rachel's nephews and named him Andrew Jackson, Jr.
When Congress created the Southwest Territory in 1790, Jackson was appointed an attorney general for the Mero District and judge advocate of the Davidson County militia. In 1796 the northern portion of the territory held a constitutional convention to petition Congress for admission as a state to the Union. Jackson attended the convention as a delegate from his county. Although he played a modest part in the proceedings, one tradition does credit him with suggesting the name of the state: Tennessee, derived from the name of a Cherokee Indian chief.
In 1796, with the admission of Tennessee as the sixteenth state of the Union, Jackson was elected to its sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. His voting record revealed strong nationalistic tendencies. The following year he was elected U.S. senator but he soon resigned to become judge of the Superior Court of Tennessee. His decisions as judge were described by one man as "short, untechnical, unlearned, sometimes ungrammatical, and generally right." He resigned from the bench in 1804 to devote himself exclusively to his plantation, where he later built a graceful mansion called the "Hermitage," and to his other business enterprises, including boatbuilding, horse breeding, and storekeeping.
By the beginning of the War of 1812, Jackson had achieved the rank of major general of the Tennessee militia. He and his militia were directed to subdue the Creek Indians in Alabama who had massacred white settlers at Ft. Mims. At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (1814) Jackson inflicted such a decisive defeat that the Creek's power to wage war was permanently broken. During this engagement Jackson's men acknowledged his toughness and indomitable will by calling him "Old Hickory."
When the U.S. government heard rumors of an impending British penetration of the South through one of the ports on the Gulf of Mexico, Jackson was ordered to block the invasion. Supposing that New Orleans was the likeliest point of attack, he established a triple line of defense south of the city. After several minor skirmishes and an artillery bombardment, the British attacked in force on Jan. 8, 1815, and were decisively defeated. Over 2,000 British soldiers, including their commanding general, perished in the battle, while only 13 Americans were killed. It was a stupendous victory. Jackson became a national hero overnight, for he had infused Americans with confidence in their ability to defend their new liberty.
When the war ended, Jackson returned to his plantation. However, he soon resumed military duty to subdue Indian raids along the southern frontier emanating from Spanish Florida. In a series of rapid moves he invaded Florida, subdued the Seminole Indians, extinguished Spanish authority, and executed two British subjects for inciting Indian attacks. Despite an international furor over this invasion, President James Monroe defended Jackson's actions and prevailed upon Spain to sell Florida to the United States for $5 million. Jackson served as governor of the Florida Territory briefly, but he was highhanded, was antagonistic to the Spanish, and tried to exercise absolute authority. He quit in disgust after serving only a few months.
These exploits served to increase Jackson's popularity throughout the country, alerting his friends in Tennessee to the possibility of making him a presidential candidate. First, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in October 1823. Then, the following year four candidates sought the presidency, each representing a different section of the country: Jackson of Tennessee, William H. Crawford of Georgia, John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, and Henry Clay of Kentucky. In the election Jackson won the highest plurality of popular and electoral votes, but because he did not have the constitutionally mandated majority of electoral votes, the issue of selecting the president went to the House of Representatives. Here, on the first ballot, John Quincy Adams was chosen president. Adams's subsequent selection of Clay as his secretary of state convinced Jackson that a "bargain" had been concluded between the two to "fix" the election and cheat him of the presidency. For the next 4 years Jackson's friends battered the Adams administration with the accusation of a "corrupt bargain." In the election of 1828 Jackson won an overwhelming victory. During the campaign Martin Van Buren of New York and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina joined forces behind Jackson, and out of this coalition emerged the Democratic party. Supporters of Adams and Clay were now called National Republicans.
"Old Hickory" as President
Jackson's presidential inauguration demonstrated the beginning of a new political age as thousands of people swarmed into Washington to witness the outdoor inauguration, then poured through the White House to congratulate their hero, nearly wrecking the building in the process. Jackson appointed many second-rate men to his Cabinet, with the exception of Martin Van Buren, his secretary of state.
An initial estrangement between Jackson and his vice president, John C. Calhoun, soon grew worse because of their obvious disagreement over the important constitutional question of the nature of the Union. During a Senate debate between Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina, Hayne articulated Calhoun's doctrine of nullification (that is, the right of a state to nullify any objectionable Federal law). Although Jackson was politically conservative and a strong advocate of states' rights, he was also intensely nationalistic, and he regarded nullification as an abomination. At a dinner commemorating Thomas Jefferson's birthday, Jackson found the opportunity to express his feelings. When called upon to deliver a toast, he is said to have looked straight at Calhoun and said, "Our Federal Union. It must be preserved."
The final break between Jackson and Calhoun occurred when it was disclosed that, earlier, as secretary of war in James Monroe's Cabinet, Calhoun had sought to censure Jackson for his invasion of Florida. In self-defense, Calhoun gave his side of the controversy in a newspaper statement and ended by arguing that Van Buren had deliberately sought his downfall in order to eliminate him as a presidential rival. Van Buren there-upon resigned from the Cabinet, thus forcing the resignation of the remaining members, which gave Jackson the opportunity of reconstituting his Cabinet and ridding himself of Calhoun's friends. Later, however, when Jackson made Van Buren U.S. minister to Great Britain, confirmation of this appointment resulted in a tie vote in the Senate, and Calhoun, as vice president, gained a measure of revenge by voting against it. This action prompted Jackson to insist on Van Buren as his vice-presidential running mate in the next election.
The presidential contest of 1832 involved not only personal vindication for Van Buren but also the important political issue of the national bank. The issue developed because of Jackson's prejudice against paper money and banks and because of his contention that the Second Bank of the United States (established in 1816) was not only unconstitutional but had failed to establish a sound and uniform currency. Moreover, he suspected the Bank of improper interference in the political process. Jackson had informed the Bank's president, Nicholas Biddle, of his displeasure in his first message to Congress back in December 1829. Following this, Biddle, at the urging of Henry Clay and other National Republicans, asked Congress for a recharter of the Bank 4 years before it came due. In this way the issue could be submitted to the people during the 1832 election if Jackson blocked the recharter.
Although the bank bill passed Congress rather handily, Jackson vetoed it in a strong message that lamented how "the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes." This veto message broadened presidential power because it went beyond strictly constitutional reasons in faulting the bill. By citing social, political, and economic reasons, Jackson went beyond what all his predecessors had considered the limit of the presidential veto power.
In the 1832 election Henry Clay, running against Jackson on the bank issue, was decisively defeated. Jackson interpreted his reelection as a mandate to destroy the Bank of the United States. He therefore directed his secretary of the Treasury to remove Federal deposits and place them in selected state banks (called pet banks). Biddle counterattacked by a severe contraction of credit that produced a brief financial panic during the winter of 1833/1834. But Jackson held his ground, Biddle was finally forced to relax the pressure, and the Bank of the United States eventually collapsed. With the dispersal of government money among state banks and, later, with the distribution of surplus Federal funds to individual states, the nation entered a period of steep inflation. Jackson unsuccessfully tried to halt the inflation by issuing the Specie Circular (1836), which directed specie payments in the purchase of public land.
At the beginning of his second term, Jackson informed Congress of his intention to pay off the national debt. This goal was achieved on Jan. 1, 1835, thanks to income the Federal government received from land sales and tariff revenues. Jackson also advocated a policy of "rotation" with respect to Federal offices. In a democratic country, he declared, "no one man has any more intrinsic right to official station than another." He was accused of inaugurating the spoils system, but this was unfair for, actually, he removed only a modest number of officeholders. Jackson also advocated moving Native Americans west of the Mississippi River as the most humane policy the government could pursue in dealing with the Native American problem. Consequently he signed over 90 treaties with various tribes, in which lands owned by Native Americans within the existing states were exchanged for new lands in the open West. Jackson's veto of the Maysville Road Bill as an unwarranted exercise of Federal authority was widely interpreted as an expression of his opposition to Federal aid for public works.
Jackson also sought to modify tariff rates because they provoked sectional controversy. The North advocated high protective rates, but the South considered them a way of subsidizing northern manufacturers at the expense of southern and western purchasers. With the passage of the Tariff of 1832, South Carolina reacted violently by invoking Calhoun's doctrine of nullification. At a special convention in November 1832, South Carolina adopted the Ordinance of Nullification, declaring the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 null and void and warning the Federal government that if force were used to execute the law, the state would secede from the Union. In response to this threat, Jackson issued the Proclamation to the People of South Carolina that blended warning with entreaty, demand with understanding. "The laws of the United States must be executed," he said. "Those who told you that you might peaceably prevent their execution deceived you…. Disunion by armed force is treason."
Meanwhile a compromise tariff was hurried through Congress to reduce the rates schedule over a 10-year period, while another bill was passed giving Jackson permission to use the military to force South Carolina to obey the laws. The state chose to accept the compromise tariff and repealed its nullification ordinance, thereby averting a national crisis. Jackson's actions during the controversy were masterful. Through the careful use of presidential powers, by rallying the public to his side, alerting the military, and offering compromise while preparing for possible hostilities, he preserved the Union and upheld the supremacy of Federal law.
Jackson also exercised forceful leadership in his relations with foreign nations, and he scored a number of notable diplomatic victories. He obtained favorable treaties with Turkey, Cochin China, and Siam (the first United States treaties with Asiatic powers), and he was also able to reopen American trade with the British West Indies. Furthermore, he forced France into agreeing to pay the debts owed to American citizens for the destruction of American property during the Napoleonic Wars. However, when the French chamber of deputies failed to appropriate the money to pay the debt, Jackson asked Congress to permit reprisals against French property in the United States. The French interpreted this as a deliberate insult, and for a time war between the two countries seemed unavoidable. The French demanded an apology, which Jackson refused to give, although in a message to Congress he denied any intention "to menace or insult" the French government. France chose to accept Jackson's disclaimer as an apology and forthwith paid the debt; thus hostilities were avoided.
At the end of his two terms in office, having participated in the inauguration of his successor, Martin Van Buren, Jackson retired to his plantation. He continued to keep his hand in national politics until his death on June 8, 1845.
Further Reading on Andrew Jackson
The most scholarly, but not the most interesting, study of Jackson's life is John Spencer Bassett, The Life of Andrew Jackson (2 vols., 1911; new ed. 1916). More colorful is Marquis James, The Life of Andrew Jackson (1938), but its analysis of Jackson's character is superficial. James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson (3 vols., 1860), is old but extremely valuable, particularly since it was researched among many people who actually knew Jackson. A brief biography is Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson (1966).
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., is generally sympathetic to Jackson in The Age of Jackson (1945), while Glyndon G. Van Deusen in The Jacksonian Era (1959) and Edward Pessen in Jacksonian America (1969) are more critical. See also Harold Coffin Syrett, Andrew Jackson: His Contributions to the American Tradition (1953), and Leonard D. White, The Jacksonians: A Study in Administrative History, 1829-1861 (1954). For the elections of 1828 and 1832 see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections, vol. 1 (1971).