Andrew Jackson

THE familiar labels "The Age of Jackson" and "Jacksonian Democracy" identify Andrew Jackson with the era in which he lived and with the advancement of political democracy. This honor may exaggerate his importance, but it also acknowledges the important truth that Jackson significantly contributed to shaping the American nation and its politics. Just as contemporaneous artists so often depicted him astride his horse overseeing the battlefield, Jackson bestrode some of the key currents of nineteenth-century American political life.

Jackson's presidency began on a sunny, spring-like day, 4 March 1829. Dressed in a simple black suit and without a hat, partly out of respect for his recently deceased wife, Rachel, and partly in keeping with traditions of republican simplicity, Jackson made his way on foot along a thronged Pennsylvania Avenue. From the east portico of the Capitol, he delivered his inaugural address—inaudible except to those close by—in which he promised to be "animated by a proper respect" for the rights of the separate states. He then took the oath of office, placed his Bible to his lips, and made a parting bow to the audience. With great difficulty, he made his way through the crowd, mounted his horse, and headed for the White House and what had been intended as a reception for "ladies and gentlemen."

What next took place has become a part of American political folklore. According to one observer, the White House was inundated "by the rabble mob," which, in its enthusiasm for the new president and the refreshments, almost crushed Jackson to death while making a shambles of the house. Finally, Jackson was extricated from the mob and taken to his temporary quarters at a nearby hotel. "The reign of King 'Mob' seemed triumphant," one cynic scoffed. There was little doubt that Jackson's presidency was going to be different from that of any of his predecessors. Daniel Webster put it best when he predicted that Jackson would bring a "breeze with him. Which way it will blow I cannot tell."

Webster's uncertainty is readily understandable because Jackson was a relative newcomer to national politics. Jackson was born on 15 March 1767, in the Waxhaw settlement, a frontier border area between North and South Carolina, where his early life was marked by misfortune and misadventure. His Scotch-Irish father had joined the tide of immigrants seeking improved economic and political conditions in the New World, only to die after two years, leaving his pregnant wife and two sons. The third son, whom she named Andrew after her late husband, was born just days later. As a young man during the Revolutionary War, Jackson also lost both his brothers and his mother.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, Jackson received some formal education at local academies and schools, and following the Revolution, he left the Waxhaw community to study law with two prominent members of the North Carolina bar. In the 1780s, after finding little legal work in North Carolina, he migrated to Tennessee, where he showed the good sense to identify himself with the BlountOverton faction, a group of prominent men bound together by politics, land speculation, and, increasingly, financial and banking interests.

The eager, hardworking, and talented young Jackson soon received a host of political rewards. He became a public prosecutor, attorney general for the Mero District, delegate to the Tennessee constitutional convention, a member of Congress, a United States senator, and a judge of the Superior Court of Tennessee. By the year 1800, he was the leader of the Western branch of the Blount-Overton faction.

Military positions also came Jackson's way, and he gradually advanced from his appointment as judge advocate for the Davidson County militia in 1792 to be elected major general of the Tennessee militia a decade later. At the same time, he accumulated significant amounts of property, establishing himself as a member of the Tennessee elite by purchasing a plantation, first at Hunter's Hill and then, in 1804, at the Hermitage, near Nashville.

Jackson's enormous military success during the War of 1812, culminating in the Battle of New Orleans, made him a national hero, and during the winter of 1821–1822, political friends placed his name before the country as a presidential candidate in the election of 1824. His first presidential bid fell short, for in a four-way contest, Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote but failed to receive an electoral majority. The decision rested with the House of Representatives, and John Quincy Adams emerged victorious after receiving the support of Henry Clay. When Adams appointed Clay as his secretary of state and heir apparent, Jacksonians alleged a "corrupt bargain." Jackson himself always believed that the will of the people had been corruptly overturned, and he denounced Clay as "the Judas of the West." Although it is unlikely that Adams and Clay actually made a secret deal, Jackson had a telling point in that Clay's action deprived the most popular candidate of the presidency. The incident strengthened Jackson's conviction that a republic should be based on the democratic principle of majority, not elite, rule.

Four years later, Old Hickory was vindicated. In the election of 1828, he received about 56 percent of the popular vote and carried virtually every electoral vote south of the Potomac River and west of New Jersey. Yet Jackson's victory was the product of a diverse coalition of groups rather than of a coherent political party. In addition to the original Jackson men from the campaign of 1824, there were the followers of New York's Martin Van Buren and Jackson's vice president, South Carolina's John C. Calhoun; former Federalists; and groups of "relief men," who during the Panic of 1819 had bucked the established political interests by advocating reforms to help indebted farmers and artisans.

Further, there were few clear-cut issues dividing the candidates. Instead, popular attention was captured by a host of scurrilous charges that dragged the contest down to the level of mud-slinging. Rachel, for example, was accused of bigamy in marrying Jackson while she was legally attached to another man. Jackson men, in addition to harping on the corrupt-bargain charge, accused Adams of pimping for the czar while he was minister to Russia.

Nevertheless, there were signs even in that campaign of Jackson's future course. The Jackson men of 1828 already displayed elements of the political organization that would emerge during his presidency. Significantly, his followers showed themselves more adept than the opposition at appealing to the people and organizing grassroots sentiment. The center of the Jackson campaign was the Nashville Central Committee, whose key members were Jackson's earliest and closest associates in Tennessee politics, such as John Eaton, John Overton, and William B. Lewis. This committee linked together the numerous state and local Jackson organizations and worked closely with political leaders in Washington.
The Jackson committees encouraged a more popular and democratic style of politics by organizing rallies, parades, and militia musters; helping to sustain Jackson newspapers; and encouraging voters to cast their ballots for Jackson on election day. This was the first election in which gimmicks such as campaign songs, jokes, and cartoons were extensively used to arouse popular enthusiasm. Years before, Jackson's soldiers had given him the nickname Old Hickory to signify both his toughness and their affection for him. During the 1828 campaign, his followers ceremoniously planted hickory trees in village and town squares, and sported hickory canes and hats with hickory leaves. Hickory poles, symbolically connecting Jackson to the liberty poles of the revolutionary era, were erected "in every village, as well as upon the corners of many city streets." Jackson himself, while avoiding overt electioneering displays, carefully supervised this political activity.

The election of 1828 also hinted at Jackson's future program. Until recently, Jackson was rarely considered a man with any coherent political views. Most accounts treated him as a confused, opportunistic, and inconsistent politician. Jackson, to be sure, had no formal political philosophy, but he adhered to certain underlying values and ideas with a degree of consistency throughout his long political career.

Jackson's philosophy owed much to the teachings of Thomas Jefferson and to the tradition of republican liberty of the revolutionary generation. One of the unique products of the American Revolution was the new and distinctive definition it gave to classical and Renaissance traditions of republicanism. Revolutionary thinkers taught that liberty was always jeopardized by excessive power and that a proper balance and limitation of governmental powers was essential to assure freedom. In addition, this ideology of republicanism also emphasized that the character and spirit of the people—what was called public virtue—were fundamental to maintaining a free society. A virtuous citizenry was necessary to liberty, and whatever corrupted the people thereby corrupted their institutions. Rooted in an agrarian, premodern society, traditional republican thought warned of the competing dangers inherent in an expansive market economy, such as stockjobbing, paper credit, funded debts, powerful moneyed interests, a swollen bureaucracy, and extreme inequality of condition.

During the nineteenth century, Americans accommodated republicanism's precapitalistic bias to the dramatic changes in transportation, communication, and economic activity that have been called the Market Revolution. Especially after the War of 1812, Americans acknowledged that it was no longer possible or even desirable to maintain a rigid agrarian social order. They increasingly accepted as beneficial certain material and moral aspects of a developing economy. Economic ambition, for example, need not breed only luxury and corruption; it could also promote industriousness, frugality, and other republican virtues. Nevertheless, many Americans continued to harbor anxieties that the emerging world of commerce, banking, and manufacturing endangered the conditions essential to maintain liberty. In short, the language of republicanism remained potent throughout the Jacksonian era, but its diagnosis of the condition of the American republic was subject to different interpretations.

These ideas left their mark on Jackson. It was evident in his highly moralistic tone; his agrarian sympathies; his devotion to the principles of states' rights and limited government; and his fear that speculation, moneyed interests, and human greed would corrupt his country's republican character and institutions. At the same time, he was not a rigid traditionalist. He accepted economic progress, a permanent and expanding Union with sovereign authority, and democratic politics. His philosophy, therefore, brought together the not entirely compatible ideals of economic progress, political democracy, and traditional republicanism.

In the campaign of 1828, Jackson's sentiments distinguished him from Adams. While Adams viewed an active and positive government as promoting liberty, Jackson preferred to limit governmental power and return to the path of Jeffersonian purity. The comparison was by no means perfect. Jackson intended no states' rights crusade, and he dissatisfied some idealists, particularly in the South, by endorsing some tariff protection and the distribution of any surplus revenue back to the states. Yet it was evident that, compared to his opponent, Jackson would qualify federal activity. He considered his victory a moral mandate to restore "the real principles of the constitution as understood when it was first adopted, and practiced upon in 1798 and 1800." His specific program was to become clear only as his presidency unfolded.

Jackson was almost seventy years old when he retired to the Hermitage. He found comfort in the presence of his family and relations, particularly the children of his adopted son, Andrew Jackson, Jr. The Hermitage again became a seat of hospitality for friends, as well as a shrine to the Democratic faithful who made pilgrimages to visit the General. Jackson gave careful attention to his plantation, which had been poorly managed by Andrew, Jr., in his absence. He also put his religious house in order when, in 1838, he joined the Presbyterian Church. His religious affirmation was not followed by a noticeable decrease in the number or intensity of epithets he hurled at opponents.

But problems also plagued Jackson's retirement. His health, always precarious, deteriorated, leaving him increasingly weak and feeble. He suffered from tuberculosis and dropsy, complaining of headaches, coughing, and swelling. Yet Jackson carried on, giving credit for his continued life to the restorative powers of Matchless Sanative, a cough medicine that he claimed made "a new man" of him. Most likely it was Jackson's will and spirit, not Matchless Sanative or the ministrations of physicians, that held death at bay.

Equally worrisome were the debts that cast a shadow over the Hermitage. They were almost entirely the result of his adopted son's bad business judgment and immaturity. Jackson assumed these obligations, selling land and borrowing money, using the valuable Hermitage as collateral. His indebtedness eventually ran to over $25,000, and the Hermit-age began to look neglected.

Ever a politician, Jackson continued his involvement in public affairs. The Panic of 1837 brought hard times until the early 1840s. Whigs and conservative Democrats blamed Jackson's banking and hard-money policy, and urged Van Buren to repudiate the Specie Circular. Jackson responded by denouncing the "perfidy and treachery" of the banks, and he pressed Van Buren to hold firm on the circular. When Van Buren refused to rescind the order and recommended to Congress an independent treasury system by which the government would divorce itself from banks and place its funds in separate repositories, Jackson fully approved. His endorsement strengthened Democratic resolve to pass the so-called divorce bill in 1840.

Jackson also took a keen interest in Van Buren's reelection campaign of 1840. He roundly condemned the Whig party's log-cabin and hard-cider tactics as "an attempt to degrade our republican system," and he even stumped for Van Buren in western Tennessee. When the Whig ticket of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler won, Jackson's spirits temporarily sagged, but they quickly revived as he urged Democrats to unite around Van Buren.

Jackson's greatest influence on public affairs during his post-White House years came after Tyler assumed the presidency following Harrison's sudden death. When Tyler made the annexation of Texas a leading administration measure, Jackson bent his energies toward its accomplishment. Although the Texas issue had volatile political and sectional overtones, Jackson focused only on what he deemed "national" considerations, particularly the benefits of checking English influence over Texas and securing American borders.

Jackson's enthusiasm for expansion strained his political relationship with Van Buren, Thomas Hart Benton, and other Democrats who balked at immediate annexation. But Jackson would not relent; he was "for the annexation regardless of all consequences." In April 1844, Van Buren published a letter opposing immediate annexation, and Jackson reluctantly and painfully withdrew his support and advocated the nomination of "an annexation man." He worked behind the scenes to push the candidacy of his fellow Tennessean James K. Polk, who eventually emerged with the Democratic presidential nomination in 1844.

Increasingly weak and debilitated, Jackson summoned up his reserves of strength to promote Polk's election, scrawling letters of advice and encouragement to party leaders and helping to secure Tyler's withdrawal as an independent candidate. He called Polk's victory "glorious," and when news of the Democratic triumph was followed at the end of February 1845 by word that Congress had passed a joint resolution annexing Texas, Jackson rejoiced. In May he advised the newly inaugurated "Young Hickory" also to uphold American claims to Oregon. "No temporising with Britain on this subject now, temporising will not do ," he counseled.

The strong words belied the physical deterioration that had set in. "I am I may say a perfect Jelly from the toes to the upper part of my abdome [ sic ]," he informed Blair toward the end of May. Surgery on 2 June brought only temporary relief from the drop-sy, and on Sunday, 8 June, Jackson died. He was seventy-eight years old. In accordance with his "republican feelings and principles," he was buried two days later alongside his wife in the Hermitage garden after a service that was as simple as possible. There were nationwide ceremonies in honor of Jackson, and while a few embittered partisans refused to attend, most Americans genuinely sorrowed at the passing of a man who, for half a century, had shaped the nation's destiny.