The two-hour DVD Andrew Jackson is a well conceived historical account of the life and presidency of our seventh president. The story of Jackson is of great personal interest to me because as a school boy I was routinely taken on school field trips to his home and burial site in Tennessee: The Hermitage. What a boy sees, a man must come to understand. So it has been with my lifelong interest in Major General Andrew Jackson, born in backwoods North Carolina, but an adopted native of my home state of Tennessee.
Jackson was orphaned at age 13 and scarcely educated in any formal sense. By his late teens he had read law and became a Tennessee attorney. He was fiercely jealous of his honor and even killed in a duel a man who cast an unjustified slur on his wife Rachel. Jackson prospered in Tennessee so much so that he was able to buy slaves and would own nearly 150 slaves at the Hermitage. (He had no concept of freedom for his slaves and was a fierce racist, a sad but very real irony that marked the Democratic Party for well over 125 years, until the 1960s. Moderns have no understanding of this reality or of how African-Americans became Democrats in time.) He was elected to the House of Representatives and served for a short time in the Senate.
He became a military hero for his role in the War of 1812, an all but forgotten war that would have ended the new American nation before it developed had not leaders like Jackson been successful. The Battle of New Orleans made Jackson’s reputation with people all across the nation. His treatment of the Cherokee nation was more than despicable, and his slaughter of over a thousand American Indians in a battle in the South is almost beyond modern imagination.
Jackson ran against John Quincy Adams in 1824 and lost, because none of the four candidates in the field was able to secure a majority of electors in the Electoral College. When Henry Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams, Jackson was defeated. But in 1828 Jackson created a popular coalition and defeated Adams in his second try for the White House. His inauguration was a great populist event, so he invited ordinary people into the White House, a decision that not only brought about property destruction to the “people’s house,” but also a scandalous response from the Eastern establishment. Jackson’s impact on the next eight years (1829-1837) created what historians call to this day “Jacksonian Democracy.” His mark on the country and the presidency changed the nation into what it would become in the course of time.
Some historians conclude that Andrew Jackson was really the first popularly elected president of the United States, or at least popularly elected as we understand the process at the present time. Before he served his second term he formally began the Democratic Party. And when he left Washington he virtually picked his successor (Martin Van Buren), who succeeded in following him as the eighth president. The new party that grew up around Andrew Jackson, was originally called the National Democrats, and was opposed by the National Republicans, or the Whigs. (The modern Republican Party really began with Abraham Lincoln more than twenty years later.)
Jackson’s biggest political battle was over the National Bank. He hated the idea of a government-owned banking system. Jackson eventually crushed the bank. He used both partisan loyalty and his veto to establish his presidential powers and to create the modern presidency. He was fiercely opposed by Henry Clay, of whom Jackson said his greatest regret as president was that he did not shoot Clay. Jackson’s other great enemy was John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who actually led the state to secede from the Union until Jackson intervened militarily in Charleston. Jackson became known to many as King Andrew I because of the immense power he gained and used to govern the young nation.
One of the most painful parts of the Andrew Jackson story is his love and marriage to Rachel.
She was engaged to Jackson, and likely living with him, while still legally married to a bad husband who had left her. This created such a scandal that Rachel died after the campaign of 1828, and just before Jackson went to Washington as the seventh president. A heart-broken president never forgave those he believed killed his wife, such as Henry Clay. The attacks on Rachel as an adulteress were normal for the time but sickening when they are read by modern readers.
Jackson’s first biographer, James Park, wrote of him in 1859:
Andrew Jackson was a patriot and a traitor. He was the greatest of generals and wholly ignorant of the art of war. He was the most candid of men, and capable of the profoundest dissimulation. He was a democratic autocrat, an urbane savage, an atrocious saint.
If you study Jackson’s life you will see why Park’s statement is true. Jackson was a man who lived in conflict and who was continually contradictory to the end of his life.
Over the past few weeks I have reflected on this era, and the struggles brought about during the age of Jacksonian Democracy. In so many ways we are still experiencing the same struggles, yet without the bloodshed and the crass, murderous threats of that time. Our political system, with all its angry partisanship and intense nature, comes from this era. From 1828 on, the nation was marked by this in a way that Britain, for example, has never been.
While we decry the modern debates and character attacks, we at least ought to know where this comes from historically. Our present election is tame and civil by any comparison. To assume otherwise is to not understand our historical development as a nation.