Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, is perhaps more relevant today than most of the other Presidents of the early nineteenth century. In the wake of the contested election of 2000 and amid growing complaints of the "dirtiness" of politics, we might do well to look back to Jackson's dirty and hotly contested race for the Presidency in 1824, in which he won the popular vote but subsequently lost the Presidency after the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. When Jackson was finally elected, he pushed to have the Electoral College abolished and railed against life tenure for government workers. Throughout his life, Jackson was criticized for his steadfast opinions and autocratic manner, but he nonetheless proved himself a savvy and thoughtful politician. It was only after he had fully considered his options that he made a decision–once that decision had been made, however, he pursued it relentlessly, gradually grinding away at his opponents until he got what he needed. In doing so, he helped modernize the nation and forever define his term of office as the mini-Enlightenment now known as Jacksonian America.
Andrew Jackson, son of Irish immigrants, Andrew and Elizabeth Jackson, was born in the backwoods of the Carolinas–what was then considered the frontier of America. His father died shortly before Andrew's birth and his mother tried to raise him to be educated. Jackson resisted, and without a father figure, he became a wild young boy who liked to bully his peers.
The Revolutionary War affected the teenage Jackson in an intensely personal way, leaving him forever bitter towards the British. When the war came to his area, his oldest brother, Hugh, volunteered to fight and died soon thereafter during the Battle of Stono Ferry. Jackson worked as an errand boy for the commander of the local patriot regiment, but nothing could have prepared him for the ordeal of being taken captive by British troops along with his other brother, Robert. After both were severely wounded by the sword of a British officer, Jackson and his brother were herded into a prisoner-of-war camp where they contracted smallpox. This stint as a captive would cost Jackson's brother his life. Jackson's only remaining relative, his mother, died of cholera while helping soldiers in Charleston. Thus, when the war ended, it left Jackson orphaned and alone.
As Jackson grew older, he became engaged in a wild lifestyle of betting, horseracing and partying before eventually settling on law for a career. He traveled west into the new Tennessee territory. After establishing himself as an able politician there, he rose quickly through the political ranks. When Tennessee joined the Union in 1796, Jackson became a Congressman and was promoted to the Senate a year later. He soon found himself engaged in military affairs, and won the election to be Major General of the state militia in 1802. Throughout his time in Tennessee, he engaged in various duels when he felt someone had threatened his honor–even killing a man once.
When the War of 1812 began, it fell to Jackson to crush the Creek Indian tribe in a series of brutal battles in which the general gave no quarter to the Indians. Once the tribe had been almost extinguished, Jackson imposed a harsh treaty on the Indians, stripping them of most of their lands and rights. Then he was ordered to help save the city of New Orleans from attack. His daring defense of the city exacted massive casualties on the British and made him a national hero. However, the autocratic manner in which he led the defense angered many citizens and led a New Orleans court to fine him $1,000 for contempt.
Two years later, Jackson–now a major general in the U.S. Army–received orders to put down Indian attacks near Spanish Florida. His invasion of Spanish territory and his execution of two British nationals sparked an international incident–but he again successfully defeated the Indians. President James Monroe appointed Jackson governor of Florida after it was bought from the Spanish, but Jackson resigned after only a few months to seek the Presidency.
The elections of 1824 and 1828 stand as some of the dirtiest campaigns ever waged for the Presidency. Jackson won the popular vote handily in 1824, but, after failing to win a majority of the electoral vote, lost the Presidency in a runoff in the House of Representatives. Jackson quickly turned his attention to 1828 and won a solid victory in that year.
Jackson's Presidency was marked by four major issues: The Second Bank of the United States, the Tariff of 1828, the Nullification Crisis, and Indian Removal. Jackson signed over ninety treaties with Indian tribes and moved them all west of the Mississippi–killing thousands in the process. The Nullification Crisis arose after Vice President John C. Calhoun furthered the idea that a state could refuse to obey a federal law, "nullify it," if that state wanted to. South Carolina voted to nullify the Tariff of 1828, and for a while it looked like the nation might go to war with South Carolina, as Jackson massed military forces on the state's borders. However, Jackson's shrewd handling of the situation and strong appeals to the American people prevented a disaster and killed the nullification movement.
Jackson spent much of his eight years as President trying to destroy the national Bank, which had been chartered by Congress in 1816 as a national center for fiscal policy. Jackson felt that the Bank was an unfair monopoly and that it abused or might abuse its significant power–a power that had partly caused the disastrous Panic of 1819. Jackson went to great lengths to destroy the Bank, a crusade that almost cost him the presidency in 1834 and earned him an official censure by the Senate. Nonetheless, by 1837, he had killed the Bank. As part of his lifelong distrust of credit, he retired the nation's debt to boot.
Jackson left office in 1839 wildly popular. His appeal rose from his backwoods past: he appeared to be an "everyman" who had risen to the nation's highest office. Furthermore, time and again he had shown that he would not be bullied, by the Senate or by foreign governments. When Jackson endorsed Martin Van Buren to succeed him as president, Van Buren won overwhelmingly. Jackson, meanwhile, retired to his family plantation in Tennessee, the Hermitage, where he died at age seventy-eight.
Take a Study Break!