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Who Was Andrew Jackson?
Nicknamed “Old Hickory” after the tough hardwood tree, Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, in office between 1829 and 1837. Although he had a successful legal career and was involved in public life for years, Jackson’s political career flourished only after he gained notoriety from his involvement in important military campaigns. In the Creek War of 1813-1814, Jackson and his troops won the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, gaining control of vast lands that were formerly occupied by the Creek Indians. In 1815, he and his army defeated a much larger British force at the Battle of New Orleans. The event prompted his rise to power and transformed him into a national hero. In spite of his popularity, Andrew Jackson had to face numerous crises that threatened his reputation and the strength of the union during his presidency.
Although he was widely esteemed by Americans of his time, Jackson’s reputation has dwindled since the rise of the civil rights movement, due to his support for slavery and his leading role in Indian dispossession after the signing of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. He is still admired for being a promoter of American democracy and for creating a strong presidency.
Andrew Jackson was born in the backwoods of the Waxhaw River community in South Carolina on March 15, 1767. His parents, Andrew and Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson, were Scots-Irish who emigrated two years before Andrew’s birth and settled in the Waxhaw region between South and North Carolina. Just a few weeks before Andrew was born, his father died in an accident. Finding herself unable to support the family, Elizabeth and her three sons moved in with their relatives. Due to his modest origins, Jackson’s first years of education were guided by local priests. He did not excel in school and did not have a natural attraction for academic pursuits, yet was a very active and strong-willed boy.
When the Revolutionary War started, Andrew and his brother Robert helped the local militia by delivering messages. In 1781, both were taken as war prisoners by the British and almost died of starvation. Andrew refused to shine the boots of a British solider and was badly beaten; the wounds he suffered would leave permeant scars on his face and body. Before their mother could secure their release, they contracted smallpox and because of their frail health and the terrible weather conditions, the journey back home was exceedingly difficult. Robert died within two days after their return, and Andrew remained gravely ill for several weeks. After Andrew recovered, Elizabeth volunteered as a nurse for American prisoners of war, but soon lost her life after being infected with cholera. Since his eldest brother Hugh had died in battle, Andrew Jackson found himself with no family at the age of fourteen. The crushing loss of his mother and brothers made him cultivate an intense hatred of the British. He also developed fervent patriotic and nationalistic values.
Early Legal and Political Career
After the Revolutionary War, Jackson resumed his education at a local school. He moved to Salisbury in North Carolina to study law in 1784. At the end of his studies, he won admission to the North Carolina bar and was selected for a prosecutor position that had just become vacant in the small frontier town of Nashville (now in Tennessee). There, Jackson became friends with Rachel Donelson Robards, the young married daughter of his neighbor, the widow Donelson. Since Rachel’s marriage was very turbulent, she wanted to divorce her husband. Slowly, she developed feelings for Andrew. Unaware that her divorce from Robards had not been finalized yet, Rachel married Andrew Jackson in August 1791. From a legal standpoint, however, their marriage was invalid.
Three years later, when Rachel’s divorce from Robards was finally completed, she and Andrew had to retake their vows. Although the incident had been the fault of Rachel’s ex-husband, the fact remained that Jackson had courted and wed a married woman, which was used against him by his political opponents for years to come. Jackson fiercely defended his wife’s honor, often with his fists and sometimes with duels.
In Nashville, Andrew Jackson quickly befriended some of the most affluent families in the area, which accelerated the advancement of his career. In 1791, he was appointed attorney general and his influence within the Democratic-Republican Party grew steadily. In 1797, shortly after Tennessee entered the Union, Jackson was elected U.S. Senator by the state legislature and thus became the state’s first congressman.
In Congress, Andrew Jackson assumed a radical, anti-British position. He had a strong antipathy for the John Adams administration and because of this, he found his job hardly satisfying, which compelled him to resign within a year. Upon returning to Tennessee, Jackson was elected as a judge of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Gradually, his legal career reached new heights and he earned a reputation for uprightness. In 1804, Jackson resigned his position, preferring to focus on personal ventures. His health had also deteriorated, forcing him to reduce his responsibilities.
While pursuing his professional goals in law and politics, Andrew Jackson amassed large tracts of land and expanded his activities to include several business endeavors. He built the first general store in Gallatin, Tennessee, and helped in founding several towns, including Memphis, Tennessee. In 1804, Jackson purchased a large plantation close to Nashville, called the Hermitage. He quickly became one of the most prosperous planters in the area and as he expanded his plantation, he increased the number of slaves in his ownership, going from 15 in 1798 to 44 in 1820, and more than one hundred by the time he reached the presidency. The slaves at Hermitage had living conditions that exceeded the standards of the time. Jackson also supplied them with hunting and fishing equipment and paid them with coins available on the local markets. They were, however, punished harshly for misdemeanor offenses and Jackson was notorious for his violent temper.
Military Career and the Creek War
By 1812, the conflict between the United States and Great Britain had escalated to formal hostilities. When the declaration of war was signed into law, Jackson fully supported the decision of Congress, sending an enthusiastic letter to the capital in which he offered a contingent of volunteers.
Convinced that the war was a great opportunity for his ambitions, Jackson personally led a force of more than two thousand volunteers to New Orleans on January 10, 1813, to protect the place against the British and Indian attacks. Things did not go as expected when, after a dispute with General Wilkinson, Jackson received a prompt order from the secretary of war to dismiss the volunteers and hand in his provisions to the general. Jackson stood his ground and asked permission to accompany his men home. On the way back, many volunteers feel ill and Jackson paid for their supplies from his personal funds, which almost caused his financial ruin but brought him the respect and admiration of his solders.
A few months later, Andrew Jackson got his chance at military fame when he was ordered to regroup his volunteers and crush the hostile Creek Indians known as Red Sticks. On August 30, 1813, an alliance of Creek Indians attacked white settlers and militia at Fort Mims, north of present day Mobile, Alabama, killing hundreds. The attack on Fort Mims, and particularly the killing of civilian men, women, and children in the aftermath of the battle, outraged the U.S. public and prompted military action against the Creek Indians, who controlled much of what is present day Alabama. By November, Jackson had won the Battle of Talladega, but over the winter, his campaign suffered a severe crisis due to a shortage of troops. Many volunteers deserted or left as soon as their enlistment expired.
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In March 1813, Jackson led around 2,000 soldiers to the south and confronted the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Three weeks later, the Red Sticks were defeated and humiliated. The crush was so severe that the Indians found it almost impossible to recover. Following his victory, Andrew Jackson became major general and commander of his own military division in the U.S. Army. From his new position, he pushed for the signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson, through which the Creeks, regardless of their involvement with the belligerent faction of the Creeks, were forced to pass millions of acres of land into the possession of the United States.
After the favorable end of the Creek affair, Jackson focused on defeating the European forces. He blamed the Spanish, who controlled Florida, for offering military supplies to the Red Sticks and for allowing the British forces to pass through Florida after proclaiming themselves neutral. On November 7, Andrew Jackson confronted an alliance of British and Spanish at the Battle of Pensacola, where his victory came quick and easy. Jackson discovered soon that the reason the British hadn’t put too much effort into the battle was that they were planning a larger attack on New Orleans because of the city’s great strategic value.
Battle of New Orleans
Andrew Jackson arrived in New Orleans at the beginning of December 1814 and quickly enforced martial law, fearing the betrayal of the non-white inhabitants of the city. Alongside his soldiers, he recruited volunteers from the surrounding states, placing military units all over the city. He managed to gather a force of around 5,000 people, but many of them had no military experience and had never been formally trained. On the other hand, the approaching British force consisted of 8,000 soldiers.
On December 23, the British force reached the Mississippi River, but was quickly repelled. The British retaliated with a major frontal assault on January 8, 1815, but the attack ended in a total disaster for them due to Jackson’s solid defenses and the loss of several senior British officers. The American force reported less than one hundred total casualties while the British suffered the loss of over two thousand. The crushing defeat forced the British to retreat, and the hostilities ended as the news of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent finally reached New Orleans and put an official end to the War of 1812.
Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans transformed him into a hero, earning him the adoration and esteem of Americans all over the United States. In February of 1815, he received a Congressional Gold Medal from Congress for his outstanding military achievements.
Invasion of Spanish Florida
Andrew Jackson’s military career did not end with the War of 1812. He remained a commander of U.S. Army forces, fighting against the Seminole, a group of Native American tribes who raided American settlements at the southern border of the country. Because both the Seminole and all runaway slaves from American plantations were finding protection in Spanish Florida, Jackson believed that the conflict could only end if the United States invaded and seized Florida.
President Monroe ordered Andrew Jackson to lead several campaigns against the Indians in Georgia. On March 15, 1818, Jackson invaded Florida and quickly captured Pensacola, defeating a coalition of Spanish and Seminole forces. However, his actions caused a lot of turmoil in the Monroe cabinet, some accusing Jackson of violating the Constitution by attacking the Spanish when the United States did not have any intention of starting a war with Spain. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams defended Jackson, considering that his actions in Florida created the context for the United States to negotiate the purchase of the province from Spain. Indeed, in 1819, Spain sold Florida to the United States, but Jackson never forgave those who had criticized him.
The Presidential Election of 1824
Around 1822, Andrew Jackson’s health deteriorated severely, and he began to fear that his body had grown too exhausted after years of harsh military conditions. After months of convalescence, he finally recovered, and his attention turned once more towards politics. He refused to run for governor in Tennessee but found the idea of running for president of the United States very appealing.
On July 22, 1822, Jackson received the official nomination from the Tennessee legislature, and emerged as one of the five major presidential candidates. Although Jackson was very popular all over the country and managed to win 99 electoral votes, more than any other candidate, he was short of the 131 votes required to win the presidency. According to the electoral rules, the House of Representatives held a contingent election to choose between the three candidates with the highest number of votes. Speaker of the House Henry Clay already had a history of conflict with Jackson and thus favored John Quincy Adams. With Clay’s support, Adams easily won the election. Jackson accused Clay and Adams of stealing the presidency from him through a “corrupt bargain,” since afterwards Adams appointed Clay as his secretary of state. Bitter and disappointed, Jackson resigned his Senate seat and returned to Tennessee.
President of the United States (1829–1837)
On October 1825, three years before the next presidential election, Jackson was nominated for president by the Tennessee legislature, and his supporters launched his campaign immediately. Jackson waited eagerly for the 1828 election, meanwhile spending his time attacking Adams’s policies. However, even without Jackson’s involvement, Adams faced strong opposition everywhere due to his political agenda. Andrew Jackson won the 1828 presidential election with an electoral vote of 178 to 83 and established himself as the leader of the emerging Democratic Party. However, the campaign had been very harsh, Jackson being repeatedly accused of being an illiterate slave trader. On December 22, 1828, tragedy struck as Jackson’s wife, Rachel, died of a heart attack as they were packing to move to Washington, D.C.
Jackson was sixty years old when he took office, grief stricken from the death of his wife and enduring nearly constant pain from old war wounds and other ailments. He was tall and very thin, with a scar on his face and two bullets from past duels still in his body, which had also been racked by tuberculosis. His close friends wondered if he would finish this first term. His triumph at the polls and his desire to serve his country gave him the will to become one of history’s great presidents.
Andrew Jackson’s presidency became known as “The Age of Jackson” because of his shift towards democracy. By allowing political power to pass from the elites to the ordinary voters, who had the freedom to choose their political affiliation, Jackson supported the expansion of American democracy. He believed people should have the right to choose their representatives. He was also a fierce combatant against corruption and feared that business interests could corrupt the values of society. However, in his attempt to gain loyalty, Jackson appointed members of his own party to federal jobs, which his opponents criticized vehemently, blaming Jackson for creating a “spoils system.” In return, Jackson defended his choices, saying that rotation in office prevented corruption. He initiated investigations into all members of the federal offices and departments, wanting to make sure everyone was hired on merit. He urged Congress to pass laws to improve the transparency of all government operations, contracts, and services. He also made many proposals for greater efficiency at the administrative level.
One of the most important and controversial aspects of Jackson’s presidency was the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which resulted in the forced dislocation of several Indian tribes from their traditional territories. During his eight years in office, Jackson signed numerous treaties with Native American tribes, and initiated a policy of Indian removal, allocating the land west of the Mississippi River to the Indian tribes. On May 26, 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which Jackson quickly signed into law. To gain the submission of the tribes, Jackson and his subordinates frequently bribed the chiefs. The forced removal of the tribes caused more than 10,000 deaths in six years, and most of the dispossessed Indians suffered from starvation and freezing cold, besides the misery inflicted by the dissolution of their communities and the loss of their homes.
The Seminole were among the few Indian tribes who refused to move, and this refusal led to the second Seminole War, which began in December 1835 and lasted over six years. Another conflict erupted between the white settlers and the Creeks, leading to a second Creek War. The conflicts between the American settlers and different tribes and fractions continued over the years, well beyond Andrew Jackson’s presidency.
Another key moment of Andrew Jackson’s presidency was the nullification crisis, which put the unity of the country in danger. When Congress passed a high tariff, known to its detractors as the "Tariff of Abominations,” several influential leaders from South Carolina, led by Vice President John C. Calhoun, urged their state to nullify it for being unconstitutional. Feeling that his nationalistic principles were challenged, Jackson was outraged by the revolt in South Carolina, and considered that the union could not exist if each state could choose which federal laws suited them and which not.
Jackson urged Congress to lower the tariff but at the same time, he prepared the army to punish South Carolina and to discourage other states to join the protest. Eventually, Calhoun resigned and Jackson called for new tariff revisions, while officially declaring the nullification a violation of the Constitution. The nullification crisis found a resolution at the beginning of 1833 with a compromise tariff. However, Jackson remained hostile to Calhoun, accusing him of treason. In the election of 1832, Jackson took as his running mate his former secretary of state, Martin Van Buren.
Later Life and Death
Andrew Jackson retired to the Hermitage in 1837, after serving two terms as president. He remained highly influential in politics as a firm advocate of the federal union of the states. At age seventy-eight, the old war hero and Indian fighter who had defied bullets, swords, arrows, and tomahawks died in his bed on June 8, 1845, at the Hermitage. His last words to those of his household at his death bed were: “I hope to see you all in Heaven, both white and black, both white and black.” Perhaps the words of the poet William Bryant summed up this man of complexities and contradictions aptly: “Faults he had, undoubtedly; such faults as often belong to an ardent, generous, sincere nature—the weed that grows in rich soil. Notwithstanding, he was precisely the man for the period, in which he well and nobly discharged the duties demanded on him.”
Ranking as President
In the ranking of presidents as listed in the book by Brian Lamb et al, historians rank Andrew Jackson at the middle of the list (#18). He was placed behind James Madison and ahead of John Adams. Jackson ranked low in pursuit of equal justice for all, above only the antebellum presidents and Andrew Johnson.
- Andrew Jackson. Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress. December 18, 2013. Accessed April 23, 2017.
- Andrew Jackson (1767–1845). Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. Accessed April 23, 2017.
- Andrew Jackson. The Hermitage. Andrew Jackson Foundation. Accessed April 23, 2017.
- White House biography. Accessed April 23, 2017.
- Hamilton, Neil A. and Ian C. Friedman, Reviser. Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. Third Edition. Checkmark Books. 2010.
- Lamb, Brian, Susan Swain, and C-SPAN. The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best – and Worst – Chief Executives. New York: PublicAffairs, 2019.
- West, Doug. America’s Second War of Independence: A Short History of the War of 1812 (30 Minute Book Series 29). C&D Publications. 2018.
- West, Doug. Andrew Jackson: A Short Biography: Seventh President of the United States. C&D Publications. 2018.
- Whitney, David C. and Robin Vaughn Whitney. The American Presidents: Biographies of the Chief Executives, from George Washington through Barack Obama. 11th edition. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. 2009.
Questions & Answers
Question: How did Andrew Jackson die?
Answer: Jackson died at his plantation on June 8, 1845, at the age of 78, of chronic dropsy (fluid build up) and heart failure. He wrote shortly before his death "I am swollen from the toes to the top of the head."
© 2018 Doug West
Doug West (author) from Missouri on May 05, 2018:
Thanks for the comments. Jackson has to be one the most fascinating presidents I have written about. He was both a hero and villain, depending on which side of his sword you were on.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on May 05, 2018:
It is interesting to know more about the life of one of the great Presidents of the U.S. He was a man of his time.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on May 05, 2018:
Thanks, Doug. Andrew Jackson was an interesting president. I wonder if the Nullification crisis helped Lincoln in his stance that the Union should not perish. If so, then Lincoln was able to use the words of a slave holder to justify the protection of an "imperfect union," meant to be perfect over time. That's one crisis we don't hear much about.
I like reading about his military excursions; Jackson had every reason to not like the British. He reminds us that in spite of personal crisis we can achieve.
Thanks again for a well told story of an important American figure.