ndrew Jackson, U.S. president, founder of the
Democratic party, and hero of the War of 1812, was born in Waxhaw Settlement,
South Carolina, the son of Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson and Andrew Jackson, both
Irish-Protestant immigrants and farmers. His father died two weeks before young
Andrew was born, compelling his mother to move the family in with her invalid
sister, for whom she worked as nurse and housekeeper. As a boy, Andrew Jackson
received a sporadic education in Presbyterian academies, but had no interest in
fulfilling his mother’s dream that he become a Presbyterian minister. He quit
school when he was 13 to join the Revolutionary army, probably acting as a
courier. He and a brother, Robert, were captured in 1781, then released on a
prisoner-exchange. Andrew had contracted small pox in captivity but recovered;
his brother died, however, as did their mother, from cholera caught while
working as a nurse for prisoners of war.
Thus at the age of 14, Andrew Jackson was an
orphan. He lived with various relatives and worked at different jobs until he
moved to North Carolina in 1784 to study law under a prominent trial lawyer.
Jackson worked hard and played hard, gaining a wild reputation for his
boisterous leisure-time antics, yet passing the bar exam in September 1787. In
spring of the next year, he journeyed to Tennessee to accept a post as public
prosecutor. Along the way he fought his first duel, but neither man was injured.
A temperamental man, Jackson could love or hate with committed passion.
In Nashville, Jackson boarded with a widow, Mrs.
John Donelson, with whose daughter, Rachel, he fell in love. She was separated
from her husband, but her courtship with Jackson provoked her husband to sue for
divorce on the basis of desertion and adultery. The new couple claimed to
believe that a divorce had been granted (it had not) and to have therefore
married in 1791 (no record of the union survives). In September 1793 a jury
found Rachel guilty and a judge granted the divorce, thus allowing Andrew and
Rachel to (re)marry the following January. The full circumstances of Jackson’s
marriage are not known to this day, but the incident created much controversy
during his political career.
The Donelson family into which Jackson had
married were one of the most prominent in Tennessee, and that connection aided
his rise in Tennessee politics. In addition, he had accumulated a solid record
as prosecuting attorney, and his tall frame, piercing eyes, and shock of hair
cast him as an imposing presence. In 1795 Jackson won election as a delegate to
the state constitutional convention. After statehood (June 1, 1796), voters
chose him as Tennessee’s only representative in the U.S. House. In early 1797
the state legislature elevated him to the U.S. Senate, but he resigned the next
year, uncomfortable with the grandeur of the Senate and eager to sit on
Tennessee’s highest judicial body, the superior court. He was elected easily
to that post and served six years as state judge.
Shortly after he had moved to Tennessee, Jackson
became a land speculator in order to get rich quick. At first, his schemes
almost landed him in debtors’ prison, leading to a lifelong abhorrence of
debt, but he was able to purchase the "Hermitage" plantation in 1804.
He established a successful trading enterprise that did business over a wide
area, from Philadelphia to New Orleans. He engaged in several more duels, one,
against former Tennessee governor John Sevier, ended with neither man injured;
but in 1806, Jackson killed a man, Charles Dickinson, over a horse-race bet. A
bullet from the latter duel remained lodged in Jackson’s chest for the rest of
his life. In 1813 he was also shot in a gunfight against Jesse and Thomas Hart
Benton, and that bullet was not removed until Jackson was president.
In May 1805 U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr stayed
at Jackson’s Hermitage for a few days and discussed his plans against the
Spanish in the Southwest and Florida. Jackson promised to provide the vice
president with boats for his venture. President Thomas Jefferson believed that
Burr was conspiring to create a separate nation and so charged his vice
president with treason. Jackson considered Burr innocent, but the Tennesseean’s
involvement was raised as a political issue when he ran for president.
At the onset of the War of 1812, Jackson was
assigned by the Tennessee governor to fight the Creek Indians, British allies,
on the southern frontier. He proved to have excellent military leadership
skills, and his men affectionately nicknamed him "Old Hickory." He
defeated the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend, then forced them to accept a harsh treaty
depriving them of 23 million acres of land (about 1/5 of Georgia and 3/5 of
Alabama). Afterwards, he was promoted to major-general.
Next, Jackson gathered a large force to defend
New Orleans against a planned British invasion. In a spectacular victory, the
Americans held the city, losing only about a dozen casualties, while around
2,000 British were killed, wounded, or captured. The battle took place after the
Treaty of Ghent which ended the war had been signed. But word of the American
triumph at New Orleans spread throughout the country before news of the treaty
arrived from Europe. Such fortuitous timing made it seem like Jackson’s
victory had brought the war to a triumphant conclusion. Although that general
perception was misinformed, the battle was still highly important, since the
British might have repudiated the treaty if they had captured New Orleans.
Consequently, the Battle of New Orleans made Jackson an American hero, and he
would remain incredibly popular for the rest of his life.
In December 1817 President James Monroe
authorized a military campaign against the Seminole Indians who had been
crossing the border from Spanish Florida to raid settlements in Georgia and
Alabama. General Jackson, who had gained a reputation as a fierce
Indian-fighter, was placed in charge of the mission. He not only defeated the
Seminoles but seized Spanish Florida, executed two British subjects for aiding
the Seminoles, and deported the Spanish governor and his troops to Cuba. Most of
Monroe’s cabinet wanted the administration to repudiate Jackson, but Secretary
of State John Quincy Adams defended him and used the American military success
to negotiate the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819. In it, Spain sold Florida to the
U.S. for $5 million, and gave up claims on the Oregon Territory while
recognizing America’s Louisiana Territory as extending to the Pacific Coast.
In June 1821 Jackson resigned from the army to accept Monroe’s appointment as
Florida’s territorial governor. He was effective in a difficult transitional
period, but within a few months (November) he resigned in exhaustion and
returned to Tennessee.
Urged on by many supporters, Jackson decided to
run for the presidency. In July 1822 the Tennessee legislature endorsed his
presidential candidacy, then in October 1823 elected him to the U.S. Senate to
boost his chances for the nation’s highest office. In the 1824 race Jackson
faced three other presidential candidates: Secretary of State John Quincy Adams,
Speaker of the House Henry Clay, and Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford.
(A fifth candidate, John C. Calhoun, had dropped out of the race to run
unopposed for vice president.) Although Jackson received a plurality of the
electoral and popular votes, no candidate had a majority of the electoral
college, so the U.S. House was constitutionally mandated to decide the election
between the top three candidates—Jackson, Adams, and Crawford. Clay endorsed
Adams, who was duly selected by the House, then the new president appointed Clay
as his secretary of state. Jackson and his supporters were furious and charged
that there had been a "corrupt bargain."
Jackson resigned from the Senate and returned to
Tennessee to begin campaigning for the 1828 presidential election. In the
process, he and his key supporters, especially Martin Van Buren, formed a
political organization that became known as the Democratic party. The 1828
campaign was hard-hitting, with Jackson’s opponents raising the personal
issues of his allegedly-adulterous marriage, dueling, Burr conspiracy
participation, rabble-rousing, and lack of political experience. But Jackson won
by a landslide with 56% of the popular vote and 178 (or over 68%) of the
electoral college total. His wife Rachel died unexpectedly of a heart attack the
next month, and Jackson blamed his political opponents for her death.
Jackson presided (1829-1837) over an America that
was rapidly changing. The ongoing market revolution was underwriting tremendous
economic expansion and transformations, the institutions and attitudes of mass
democracy were spreading, and numerous reform movements were vying for
influence. Although Jackson did not have a role in or even approve of all the
changes, he came to symbolize that dynamic era, especially the increasing
democratization of politics. His administration sought to open government
employment to all citizens under the concept of rotation in office and the
patronage system, which detractors labeled as the "spoils" system. The
Jackson administration cut back on federal expenditures to retire the $60
million national debt, which it accomplished in 1835 with help from larger
Jackson invigorated executive power in a number
of ways. He wielded the veto power more than all previous presidents combined,
was the first president to use a pocket veto, and the first to veto a bill for
non-constitutional reasons. During the "Nullification Crisis" of
1832-1833, Jackson sent federal troops to South Carolina, which was threatening
to secede from the Union because of the federal government’s high tariff
policy. Although he was a Southerner who was sympathetic to their plight, the
president was an ardent nationalist who forcefully denied a state’s right to
nullify a federal law or to secede from the Union. South Carolina backed down
and Congress revised the tariff downward on a gradual basis. Jackson also took
firm control of the Democratic party, dictating the party’s nomination in 1836
of his preferred successor, Martin Van Buren.
In 1832 Jackson vetoed a bill rechartering the
National Bank because he considered the institution to be unconstitutional and
elitist. His veto became an issue in the presidential campaign of 1832 in which
Jackson won reelection by a landslide over Senator Henry Clay. Since the current
National Bank charter would not expire until 1836, the president hastened the
institution’s demise by withdrawing federal monies from it and depositing them
in select state banks, which critics called "pet" banks. In response,
Clay convinced the U.S. Senate to censure the president for that action (the
censure was expunged from the record three years later).
The worst legacy of the Jackson administration
was the forced removal of thousands of American Indians from their tribal
homelands. Several Southern states desired the fertile lands of what were called
the Five Civilized Tribes—Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and
Seminoles. In 1830, with Jackson’s approval, Congress passed the Indian
Removal Act which allocated federal funds to pay the expenses of negotiating
treaties with tribes and relocating them west of the Mississippi River. During
the eight years of the Jackson administration, the Senate ratified a record
number of treaties with various tribes (often unrepresentative factions) and the
U.S. Army removed 46,000 American Indians from their homes. The trek from
Georgia and other Southern states to the new Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) was
called the "Trail of Tears."
After his second term ended, Jackson retired from
politics and lived at the Hermitage. Upon his death, he was buried there next to
his wife Rachel.