Pre-service occupations: general, senator, planter
Key events during his administration: Nullification crisis (1828-1833); Indian Removal Act and court cases (1830, 1832, etc.); end of the Second Bank of the United States (1833); states admitted to the Union: Arkansas (1836) and Michigan (1837); Texas war for independence (1836)
Presidential rating: Successful and very popular
Before beginning my investigation of Andrew Jackson, a strange thought came unbidden to mind: Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry approaching a bleeding bad guy, .357 magnum drawn, and saying “Go ahead, make my day.”
The image actually fits. For Andrew Jackson really was the first tough SOB to sit in the White House. He was at once completely different, yet very similar, to his predecessors. He had a love of country rarely matched by presidents, and enjoyed a popularity equally rarely matched.
Yet he is not fully understood. Ask “the man on the street” about President Andrew Jackson and you’re most likely to hear about his treatment of the Indians and maybe, if you’re lucky, how he slapped down the attempted secession of South Carolina.
Harry Truman considered Jackson the greatest president besides FDR, and there is some merit to his thinking, but today’s Democrats don’t really understand Jackson any more than did the late, great historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. He wrote The Age of Jackson, a love letter to Jackson’s presidency that was so fawning that Schlesinger later repudiated large sections of it.
Historians have argued over Jackson more than most other presidents: was he the first great champion of the people, a great leveler who destroyed the hydra of aristocracy and privilege that controlled the young nation with eastern money and influence? Was he an uneducated bully, handled roughly by the British, who lashed out at anyone who got in his way—Indians, more British, Floridian Spanish, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Nicholas Biddle and the Second National Bank, etc.? Was he the second coming of George Washington, as admirers insisted and enemies scorned?
I’ll confess: I like Andrew Jackson—a lot. I found myself cheering for him even when I strongly disagreed with him. He could be pushy, a jerk, even, an some of his policies wee more like vendettas than actual agendas. But Jackson had a knack for sticking it to the powerful, whether they were British soldiers, political rivals, other presidents, Congress or the Supreme Court. He always believed he was in the right, but it wasn’t he, himself, that he believed was the source for that right, but the country itself—specifically, the Constitution.
It may seem odd that an uneducated Westerner would set himself up to be a great champion of the Constitution, but Jackson did just that. At the same time, he saw himself as rescuing the Republic from the elitism that was keeping men like him from having a say in the country’s affairs. There was no doubt that the people themselves looked upon Jackson as the second coming of George Washington, an idea that the established political elite viewed with much disdain. After all, Jackson’s election heralded the “age of democracy,” which was a euphemism for the masses having more of a say in government.
A few “firsts”
So who was Andrew Jackson? He was a soldier and planter, but first and foremost a westerner. He rose to fame during the War of 1812, first for defeating many Western Indian tribes and then, of course, for winning the crucial battle of New Orleans. He later remained in the news by winning the first Seminole War during the Monroe administration (causing Monroe some consternation due to “miscommunications” between the two) and securing Florida for the Union.
However, Jackson’s greatest claim to fame in his rise to power came in losing the 1824 election to John Quincy Adams. The subsequent outrage over the “corrupt bargain” directly led to the split in the Republican party and the formation of the Republican-Democratic party (soon just the “Democratic Party”).
Jackson subsequently crushed the hapless Adams in 1828, but at a price: his beloved wife, Rachel, died just before he was inaugurated. Despite this tremendous personal loss, Jackson assumed his duties—albeit with less enthusiasm.
The new president established a few “firsts,” the first of which has never been repeated.
- He was the only president to have been a prisoner of war: during the Revolution, 13-year-old Andrew served as a courier for a regiment until he was captured. He nearly starved in prison. An officer struck him with a sword when he refused to shine the Englishman’s shoes. Jackson’s brother, a fellow prisoner, died of smallpox soon after their mother had them released. Most of Jackson’s family died form the war, causing him to hate the British ferociously.
- He was the first “commoner” elected president. Every man before him came from aristocratic lineage or high society, and had an educated background.
- The first attempted assassination of a president was made against Jackson. Both of the would-be assassin’s pistols misfired, even though in subsequent repeated tests, the pistols worked perfectly every time. The attacker stood a mere eight feet from the president and had a clear shot both times.
- The U.S. government was debt-free for the first time—and last time—in U.S. history during Jackson’s administration.
- His first vice president was the first to ever resign the office.
A scandal of distraction
It seems presidents never escape scandal—but scandals almost always never rise to a level worthy of the word “scandal.” Jackson’s first occupied much of his first year in office, but, due to the particularly leisurely nature of American government at that time—Jackson was inaugurated in March 1829 but would not deal with Congress in a meaningful way until its next full session in December—the scandal occupied the hearts and minds of gossips and newspapers.
Margaret “Peggy” Timberlake, wife of a naval officer who was usually away at sea, was beautiful, vivacious and flirtatious and gained a reputation for infidelity in Washington. She and one of Jackson’s longtime friends, Major John Eaton, fell in love. Word came that the husband died at sea apparently of a suicide. Jackson urged Eaton to marry young Peggy, which he did; Jackson then made Eaton secretary of war. “Polite” Washington society shunned Peggy Eaton, notably the wife of Vice President Calhoun and wives of other cabinet members and legislators.
Jackson, a self-styled defender of womanhood and fresh off the attack against his late wife during the recent campaign, was outraged. It’s fortunate that Congress didn’t meet until December because the matter threatened to derail his presidency—and even occupied one entire cabinet meeting with Jackson proclaiming that Peggy was as “chaste as a virgin.”
The Eaton affair ended in early 1830 when Jackson, seeking in part to end the matter and also rid himself of cabinet members he had deemed less than reform-minded as he was, “fired” his entire cabinet. “Fired” is not quite the right word as Jackson also compelled his allies Eaton and Martin Van Buren to resign, with the former taking the post of Florida territorial governor and the latter minister to England. (Van Buren would return to be secretary of state and, in Jackson’s second term, vice president and chosen successor.)
The episode worsened the relations between Jackson and Calhoun, who would leave the administration before the term was up.
Reform and the birth of the “spoils system”
Andrew Jackson hated privilege, and believed that passing bureaucratic offices from one administration to the next was an open invitation to corruption. He believed that the Adams administration had been a machine of corruption—a gross exaggeration, though despite Jackson’s magnifications of the problems, he did uncover theft in the treasury department.
Jackson’s ultimate goal was to rid government offices of “unfaithful or incompetent hands,” as he said in his inaugural address. He set about instituting a “rotation” of appointive offices, which, laudable though it was, was no less susceptible to corruption than the system it replaced.
Jackson’s system still relied upon appointing individuals recommended by friends and political allies.
His enemies seized on Jackson’s reform as evidence of his backwardness and called removal of longtime public servants a “terror,” but Jackson’s removals were actually only about one out of every 10 government servants—no different than the last time there was a major political shift in the White House, when Jefferson defeated the first Adams. But the “terror” put everyone on notice: if you’re drunk on the job and/or incompetent, watch out. A Jackson ally in New York, trying to be helpful, played into anti-Jackson hands by remarking that reforming government service was something to be expected to the winner of the presidency.
“To the victor go the spoils,” he said, whereupon Jackson’s enemies coined a new term for sacking government officials and replacing them with your own men: the spoils system.
Felling a “giant:” The Second Bank of the United States
Reform of government appointments was but one victory for President Andrew Jackson. His attack on privilege took aim at the biggest target of all: The Second Bank of the United States.
The Bank of the United States, reconstituted during the second Madison administration, was a powerful entity that held sway over the American economy. Under the capable leadership of Nicholas Biddle, the Bank served as the official depository for United States funds, and a steadying influence on the economy. Unlike today’s Federal Reserve, however, the Bank of the United States was a private organization, with very limited government oversight. It accounted for almost 20% of all loans in the nation and up to 40% of all notes in circulation.
Jackson’s big problem with the Bank was that he believed it unconstitutional because it placed so much power into the hands of a few unelected, unaccountable moneyed men. It also seemed to favor the East over the West and South. At first, he wanted to replace it with something constitutional, but that was before his political enemies, notably Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, convinced Biddle to seek reauthorization of the Bank’s charter a few years early and before the 1832 election.
By turning the Bank into an election issue, and convincing Biddle that Jackson would have no choice but to reauthorized it, the Bank’s supporters made a big mistake. Much to their surprise, Jackson vetoed the bill and turned it into a cornerstone of democracy that the Bank be killed.
Jackson easily defeated Clay in the election. When it came time for the Bank to close, Biddle refused; Jackson used an executive order to withdraw all federal funds from the Bank and deposit them in selected state banks. With the Bank strapped for cash, Biddle started calling in loans across the nation. A serious financial crisis ensued, with Jackson and Biddle blaming the other. Outraged, Clay and Webster and other anti-Jacksonians formed the Whig party with its first goal being to over-ride Jackson’s veto. They failed, and the bank died in 1836.
Jackson bade it good riddance, as it offended his beliefs in democratic equality. While Jackson didn’t go so far in believing in equality between races—far from it—as far as (white) men were concerned, he believed that:
“…distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth cannot be produced by human institutions… When the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages … to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers—who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustices of their Government.” (W.H. Brands, pp 470-471)
Jackson’s campaign against the Bank of the United States had a serious unintended consequence that didn’t manifest fully until after he left office. States began unrestrained issuing of notes, which fueled rampant commodities speculation. Jackson was only able to take on step against this: to curb land speculation, he required that purchasers of federal lands pay in gold or silver.
The land boom went bust, which in turn chilled the economy, which didn’t nosedive until 1837, after Jackson was out of office.
So Jackson, hell-bent on helping the people, actually wound up hurting many of those same people who could no longer afford to buy land. It may not be fair to say that the bank war caused the Panic, but it certainly played a major role.
And if Jackson's term had ended a year later, would history remember him as a bum?
The nullification crisis
My image of Andrew Jackson that most likens him to Dirty Harry is his stance on nullification.
The breach that began with Vice President John C. Calhoun over the Peggy Eaton affair magnified over the renewal of the tariff of 1828. The tariff, which seemed to be bringing prosperity to the nation, was, in southerners’ views, hurting them—and them only—unfairly, enriching northerners at their expense. The chief concern was that the South’s cotton crop would suffer considerably, and thus would the economy of the South.
Calhoun anonymously attacked the “tariff of abominations” in his 1828 South Carolina Exposition and Protest, though it was obvious to Jackson who the author was. The Exposition revived the Jefferson-era concept that a state could negate or nullify a federal law that it deemed hurtful to a state. The revised and lessened tariff of 1832 did little to alleviate southern concerns. Jackson, although sympathetic to the South, his home, nevertheless viewed nullification as a direct threat to Union.
The crisis between Jackson and Calhoun came to a head at an April 1830 dinner honoring Jefferson. All present were to rise and give a toast. Jackson gave a memorable toast while looking straight at his vice president, as if issuing a final challenge—which in fact he was.
In one of the most dramatic showdowns in all American politics, Jackson cried, “Our Federal Union: It must be preserved!”
Calhoun rose and replied, “The Union: Next to our liberty, most dear!”
The battle lines were drawn, and within a year and a half, Calhoun resigned the vice presidency to serve as South Carolina’s senator.
South Carolina threatened secession if it were not permitted to nullify laws. To his credit, Calhoun actually only wanted nullification, not secession, but he was in the minority of nullifiers. But Jackson either didn’t know or care, because to him, Calhoun and the rest were plotting treason. Jackson boasted he could send 200,000 soldiers to South Carolina to put an end to their plans, and Congress gave him the wherewithal to do just that by passing the Force Bill in early 1833, authorizing the president to use whatever means necessary to put down an insurrection. The crisis abated when Jackson sent a fleet of seven warships to Charleston, and the nullifiers backed down.
Explaining that the Constitution forms a government and not a league, Jackson said that “To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union is to say that the United States is not a nation.”
The threat of a state leaving the Union was no more vexing to Jackson than the threat of Indians to the states. Of all the things that modern America associates with Andrew Jackson, nothing is more prominent than the unpleasant subject of Indian removal. Every president in the 18th and 19th centuries dealt with this to some extent, but Jackson gets more credit—or damnation—than all of the others because of his policies. His policies today are either roundly condemned or grudgingly praised, but rarely are they understood or thought of in the context of their times.
After the state of Georgia thoroughly played John Quincy Adams over Indian lands, it was inevitable that the question of states versus Indians would come before President Jackson—and Jackson was no stranger to Indian affairs. But he was a president now, not a general in the field who could have his way with hostile tribes.
From the president’s point of view, Indian matters concerned two things:
1) obeying and interpreting the Constitution as it related to the federal government and states rights, and
2) giving the tribes the option to either move west of the Mississippi where they would be out of state control but under federal protection; or remain where they were and live under state laws and adopt white ways; or be wiped out.
No option was pleasant for the tribes.
Jackson’s attitude was certainly paternalistic, and superior-minded, as, like most white people at that time, Jackson believed that “savage” tribes lived a way of life far below “civilized” society and that way of life was not worth preserving. At the same time, Jackson truly was concerned that Indians were in danger of being wiped out by encroaching whites and duplicitous state governments wanting land. Therefore, he believed that the best solution was removal from state control to west of the Mississippi where they could be under federal control only.
Case in point: of all tribes, the Cherokee had most adapted to white ways, including developing an alphabet, schools, farming, etc. But they petitioned to remain an autonomous nation within Georgia, something Jackson could not allow, because he saw such autonomy as a threat to the integrity to the United States. (Had the Cherokee disbanded as a tribe, Jackson would have held them up as a model.)
Over the protests of northern Christians, northern Democrats and national Republicans—and of course the tribes themselves—Jackson pushed for and Congress approved legislation ordering the removal of the Cherokees, Choctaw, Creek and Chickasaw tribes to west of the Mississippi. The “Trail of Tears” would not actually occur until Van Buren’s administration but the deed was done. More than 45,000 Indians were moved West during Jackson’s administration; he authorized the purchase about 100 million acres of tribal land in exchange for $68 million and 32 million acres west of the Mississippi. Critics decry the inconsistency of Jackson’s democracy as being for one type of man and not for another, and it is true—but it’s the same inconsistency that would continue to plague the nation until the next man to be elected to two terms as president.
Andrew Jackson changed the face of the nation. He became president to make the nation more democratic and he succeeded.
Of course, to the modern American, “more democratic” seems like it should come with an asterisk, considering Jackson was a slave owner who suppressed abolitionists and took actions to expel Indian tribes from the eastern half of the nation. But “more democratic” truly is his legacy,” because he represents a major milestone of the transition from elitism as exemplified by federalism to democratic popular sovereignty.
Jackson was no leveler; rather, he despised how people used rank, lineage or wealth to trample the rights of others. He hated elitism for the sake of elitism. In the words of biographer Sean Wilentz,
“Jackson dedicated his presidency to vindicating and expanding [a government in which the citizenry and not royalty were sovereign] by kidding the nation of a recrudescent corrupt privilege that he believed was killing it. His victories as well as his imposing presence have stamped his name on an entire period in American history…[But] he was deeply paradoxical. (p. 7)Jackson’s paradoxes are such that today, both conservatives and liberals would find things to cheer and hiss in his presidency.
But in his own time, Jackson met each challenge and succeeded—sometimes wildly so. Almost very challenge he looked at as some degree of Union preservation, which is why it came sometimes seem like he lashed out and took a hard line on almost every issue. But amazingly, he succeeded. Not always for the best, and not always the best for the people involved (namely the Indians), but his overall success is undeniable.
Final rating: Successful, and very popular. I would call him highly successful, but for the unintended consequences of taking out the Bank of the United States, which definitly contributed to the Panic of 1837.
President Jackson evokes many strong feelings in professional and lay America, both positive and negative. For this study, I used H. W. Brands, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, the most recent full-length biography and celebrated as being on par with David McCulloch’s Truman and Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency: George Washington. Not being an expert on Jackson, I can only attest that it is a beautiful and easy read. However, Brands is a little too one-sided concerning the election of 1828. Brands makes the Jacksonians the victims in that sordid affair, and not equal instigators in gleeful mudslinging. (None of the Jacksonian mud is even mentioned.)
A slightly better book on Jackson’s presidency is Sean Wilentz’s Andrew Jackson in The American Presidents series. And if you want to indulge in a work of pure fawning, read Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Age of Jackson, which he wrote in 1945 in part to justify/illuminate the age of FDR.
All images are public domain and from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division unless otherwise noted.
1. Official White House portrait, painted by Ralph E. W. Earl circa 1835 (White House Historical Association)
2. Alexander Hay Ritchie engraved this image of Andrew Jackson circa 1860
3. President's Levee, or all Creation going to the White House, by Robert Cruikshank, 1841. A huge crowd mobbed Jackson at the White House on his first inaugural reception in 1829.
4. Andrew Jackson drawn from life and engraved by J.B. Longacre
5. Chief Justice John Marshall is shown administering the oath of office to Andrew Jackson on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1829, on this ceiling mural of the east central portico of the U.S. Capitol.
6. In this Edward Clay political cartoon from 1833, Andrew Jackson destroys the Second Bank of the United States with his “Removal Notice” (removal of federal deposits). The Devil himself is depicted as a supporter of the collapsing Bank.
7. This daguerreotype of Andrew Jackson was taken circa April 1845.