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Biography of Andrew Jackson

James A. Watkins is an entrepreneur, musician, and a writer with four non-fiction books and hundreds of magazine articles read by millions.



Andrew Jackson: Many Firsts

Andrew Jackson was the first Scots-Irish elected President of the United States, as well as the first westerner, the first not born into a prominent colonial family, the first born in a log cabin, the first born into poverty, the first nominated by a national political convention, the first to ride a train, and the first that a citizen tried to assassinate.

He is one of the few American presidents who was as popular at the end of his eight years as he was at the beginning. The term "self-made man" was invented to describe him. He made himself into a great and powerful man—a distinctly new American man.

Jackson was self-educated—he only attended school long enough to learn to read, write, and do arithmetic. He never mastered spelling and grammar. But he would become a deadly marksman, wealthy planter, sharp land speculator, brave Native American fighter, and a war hero.

In his own time, Jackson was "honored above all living men," according to an early biographer. He was a huge hero to my ancestors since they were from Tennessee. In fact, one of my great-grandfathers was named Andrew Jackson Mollett.

Jackson was seen as a leader sprung from the people rather than an aristocrat. He had been orphaned by the American War of Independence. He was a frontiersman of humble origin who made no pretense of profound learning. He was a manly man. He had scrambled up from the bottom of the pile through sheer will and tenacity.

When he was elected the President of the United States, one of his neighbors proclaimed: "If Andrew Jackson can become president, anyone can!"


Jackson was born to a widow in the western Carolinas in 1767. His father had died in a farm accident a few weeks before his birth. His mother went to live as a servant on the farm of her sister's husband. Jackson's parents were devout Presbyterians.

Andy's mother, Elizabeth, wanted him to be a minister but Andy had not the patience to sit still in school or church. He was mostly interested in outdoor life and rough-and-tumble activities.

Andy was an intense boy; restless, resentful of authority, picking fights, getting into trouble, courageous, and always ready to defend his honor. He was also proud, gritty, and short-tempered. Andy never ran from a fight and never cried uncle. His mother imbued in him her hatred for the British, who had long persecuted the Irish.



Young Andrew Jackson

By 1783, Jackson's entire family had died in one way or another. His two older brothers were killed by the Redcoats. Jackson had served as a courier for the Patriots and was taken prisoner by the British when he was thirteen. While imprisoned, he refused to shine the boots of a British officer, who slashed him with a saber. This left lifelong scars on his head and arm.

Elizabeth Jackson was able to rescue her son from the British prison because he had contracted Smallpox. They walked 40 miles back to the family cabin. She died of cholera in 1781.

Jackson, now a confused, angry orphan, quickly blew his one thousand dollar inheritance on a horse, a watch, pistols, and gambling. As a young man, he was a hard-drinking skirt-chaser. But he also noticed that the ladder to success was the law. A fellow law student described him as the "most roaring, rollicking, game-cocking, horse-racing, card-playing, mischievous fellow."



The Move to Nashville

Andrew Jackson moved to Nashville in 1784 when it was nothing more than a frontier fort. He was a hyperkinetic young lawyer—fierce in the courtroom—when he came under the mentorship of William Blount. Jackson helped Blount establish the State of Tennessee. Blount appointed the wily dynamo to the post of District Attorney, and soon thereafter made him a judge for the State Supreme Court. He also founded the first Masonic lodge in Nashville.

In 1791, Jackson fell passionately in love with and married the beautiful black-haired divorcee Rachel Donelson Robards. The Donelsons were one of the first families of Tennessee. Rachel had "dark lustrous eyes," was "irresistible," "the best storyteller, the best dancer," and "the most dashing horsewoman in the western country." Andrew was tall, six feet one; and thin, 145 pounds. He stood erect, his body topped by bright red hair, with blazing blue eyes peering out.

Rachel Donelson had married an army officer named Lewis Robards when she was 17, but he proved to be a jealous wife-beater. She petitioned for divorce and thought she was legally divorced from Robards when she fell in love with and married Jackson. But her divorce was not officially granted by the courts until 1793, at which time Rachel and Andrew were married again.

Since hard money was scarce on the frontier, Jackson accepted land as payment for legal services and soon built up 650 acres on which he built his magnificent mansion and plantation, the Hermitage. Though Jackson became a respected and wealthy citizen, he was also known as a killer. He fought many duels over insults and always shot to kill. He was seriously wounded in several duels, suffering wounds that would plague his health for the rest of his life. After the deaths of Blount and the chieftain of East Tennessee, John Sevier, leadership in the state shifted from Knoxville to Nashville—and to Andrew Jackson.

Jackson would serve in Congress twice before he found his true calling in 1802: military commander. He served in this capacity until 1815 when he retired back to his Nashville home. During military campaigns, he contracted malaria and dysentery. Doctors prescribed sugar of lead and huge doses of calomel—horrible remedies, the latter of which rotted out his teeth. He tolerated living a life of constant pain but his psyche was scarred and his rages intensified. The first to feel the impact of his fierce bitterness were the Native Americans.

Jackson and the Native Americans

Jackson did not hate Native Americans. He had in fact adopted an orphaned Native American child as his own son. But Native Americans often attacked frontier settlers with success, and the prevailing view of Americans in the early 19th Century was that Native Americans must assimilate or move further west.

This was less a racist idea than a political one. The United States was organized into parishes, townships, counties, and states. The Native Americans were organized by tribes. Americans would no more have approved of the Irish, Germans, or English organizing themselves into tribes.

The Native Americans must detribalize to fit into this great, young nation. They were offered US citizenship and many accepted the offer, taking European names and vanishing into the growing mass of ordinary Americans. There were tens of thousands of mixed ancestry, most of whom identified with whites, but some of whom wished to remain tribal. If Native Americans wanted to remain tribal they must move west of the Mississippi.

Both the War of American Independence and the War of 1812 soured relations between Native Americans and Americans because most of the Native Americans fought for the British. In virtually every war in history, there is a price to pay for choosing to ally oneself with the eventual losing side. The British armed and trained thousands of Native American warriors to fight against Americans in those two conflicts.

In 1811, the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who had been recently named a General in the British Army, said, "Let the white man perish! . . . burn their dwellings—destroy their stock—slay their wives and children that their very breed may perish! War now! War always!"

The militant Creeks—the Red Sticks—got the message and murdered many of the white settlers in Ohio in 1812. They attacked Fort Mims in Alabama, and slaughtered nearly every white person inside—553 men, women, and children. "The children were seized by the legs and killed by battering their heads against the stockading, the women were scalped, and those pregnant were opened while they were still alive and the embryo infants let out of the womb."

Major-General Andrew Jackson was told to take the Tennessee militia south to avenge this massacre. He relished the opportunity. With him were two young men named Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, along with 5,000 other soldiers, including pro-assimilation Creeks and Cherokees. Jackson attacked the main Creek fortress at Horseshoe Bend, a peninsula surrounded by deep water, in 1814.

Jackson, as always, devised a brilliant plan to breach the walls of the fort. The 1,000 warriors inside refused to surrender and 857 of them died. He lost 70 men. For this victory, he was made a Major General in the United States Army.

Battle of New Orleans

Andrew Jackson became a national hero after George Washington by winning the 1815 Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. In the battle, he had under his command militias from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Louisiana; free Black volunteers whom he recruited and paid the same as Whites; a few Native Americans, and the merry men of the pirate Jean Lafitte.

The British intended to take control of the Mississippi River. They had humiliated the Americans one year earlier when they captured and burned down Washington City, including the White House, the Capitol, and all other US government buildings except one. Jackson rode with 2,000 men from Pensacola, Florida to New Orleans—which he found totally undefended upon arriving—against a coming British invasion force of sixty ships and 14,000 troops.

The first governor of Louisiana, William Claiborne, warmly greeted his fellow Freemason. Old Hickory was worn out by a year of non-stop fighting in the war. He looked gaunt and far older than his forty-five years. He had two weeks to train his fighting force before the British would arrive. His engineers placed barricades and batteries on both sides of the Mississippi River, the only avenue the British would have to advance upon New Orleans.

In the Battle of New Orleans, more than two thousand British soldiers were killed—including all three British general officers—but Jackson lost only 21 men. It was one of the shortest and most decisive battles in history. Britain and America soon made peace.

The War of 1812 crushed the Native American tribes around the Great Lakes—who fought for the British—which led to white settlers coming in big numbers to settle in Indiana and Michigan. During and after this war, Jackson broke the power of the Creek and Seminole tribes, which led to White settlers moving into parts of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi.




In 1817, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, asked Jackson to come out of retirement to "punish" the Seminole tribe (Seminole means renegade Creek). Jackson rode to Florida—then part of the waning Spanish Empire—with 2,000 men, captured the strongholds of the Seminoles, hung their prophet and chief, and knocked out the Spanish garrisons. The entire campaign took four months.

It had long been assumed by Americans and foreign governments that Florida would eventually become part of the United States. Spanish sovereignty over it was a mere technicality. Spain did not control Florida beyond the villages of St. Augustine and Pensacola. Florida was a haven for Native Americans, Black escaped slaves, pirates, and fugitive criminals. In 1819, Spain relinquished it to the United States for $5 million. The first governor of the new Florida Territory was Andrew Jackson.

U. S. Presidential Election of 1824

The Tennessee legislature nominated General Andrew Jackson for president in 1822 (for the 1824 election). A mass meeting in Pennsylvania two years later seconded that motion. Jackson responded that while the presidency should not be sought, it could not with propriety be declined. Thus it was his public duty to campaign for the presidency. He called for a "general cleansing" of Washington City.

Henry Clay was one of the men who opposed Jackson. He publicly called Jackson an ignorant, adulterous murderer. Jackson's men responded by calling Clay a habitual gambler and a drunkard. Some newspapers portrayed Jackson as a hot-tempered barbarian, a man whose fame rested on his reputation as a killer in duels and frontier brawls.

Andrew Jackson was the first major figure in American history to believe wholeheartedly in the popular will. He sought to liberate and empower the common man by appealing to him directly over the heads of the entrenched, ruling elite. He called Washington City "The Great Whore of Babylon."

Jackson shocked the East Coast Elites when he gathered enormous support for his candidacy. He was handsome, charismatic, and something about him made women feel protected. It was said he had overwhelmingly courtesy, which greatly surprised those who met him for the first time, in light of his reputation. Daniel Webster said: "General Jackson's manners are more presidential than those of the other candidates . . . my wife is decidedly for him."

Jackson won 43 percent of the popular vote—which made him the clear winner by that count—against three opponents. John Quincy Adams polled 31 percent while Clay and William Crawford of Georgia tallied 13 percent each. Crawford was the sitting Secretary of the Treasury. Jackson also won the Electoral College with 99 votes. Adams won 84, Crawford 41, and Clay 37.

Andrew Jackson was the only candidate who had supporters in each part of the nation. Adams' support was nearly all from New England; Clay's from out West; Crawford's from the South.

Since no candidate won a majority, the House of Representatives had to decide on the victor, according to the Twelfth Amendment. After months of backroom deal-making, the House selected John Quincy Adams as the Sixth President of the United States. Henry Clay of Kentucky—the Speaker of the House—provided the winning margin for Adams. In return, Adams named Clay Secretary of State. Jackson supporters were furious. Their man had won 153,544 votes and carried eleven states to 108,740 votes and seven states for Adams—but Adams was going into the White House.

Jackson had traveled to Washington—a 28 day journey from Nashville—expecting to be the new president. Henry Clay did send an emissary to see Jackson, to ask what post Clay would get if he threw the election to Jackson. Jackson smoked "a great Powhatan Bowl Pipe with a long stem" and said, "Tell Mr. Clay that if I go to that chair, I go with clean hands." The vote that clinched it for Adams was cast by Clay himself on behalf of the State of Kentucky—a state in which Adams received zero popular votes.

Jackson exploded: "So you see the Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver." Around most of the country, the outcry against this "Corrupt Bargain"—trading the presidency for a high appointment—was to ring out for the next four years. Jackson and the electorate had been swindled. However, there is no clear evidence that Adams and Clay made any deal. It would have been out of character for John Quincy Adams to do so. Clay was very open about the fact that he considered Andrew Jackson unfit for the office.

The vote would not be split amongst four parties in the next election. Those for Jackson and Crawford united to form the Democratic Party; those for Adams and Clay formed the Whig Party soon thereafter.

1828 U. S. Presidential Election

In early American history, only men who owned land were allowed to vote. As archaic as this sounds to us now it was based on sound reasoning. Only men who had a stake in society—a voting share in the corporation, one could say—should decide its policies. Otherwise, once un-propertied men could vote they could vote themselves the property of others that they had not earned. But by the election of 1828, property restrictions had largely been abolished and this paved the way for ordinary men of modest or no means to vote.

Andrew Jackson had long been known as Old Hickory—"the hardest wood in creation." His supporters planted thousands of hickory trees and handed out untold numbers of hickory sticks, brooms, and canes at raucous political rallies in 1828. They soon began to call themselves Democrats, and thus a new political party was born—the oldest one in our nation today.

Jackson didn't take a stand on hardly any issues other than that he hated "brokers and stock speculators," and promised to destroy the national bank, the Second Bank of the United States. It was understood that Jackson stood for individual liberty, states' rights, and limited government.

Besides his abiding suspicion of banks and especially paper money, Jackson believed the states—not the federal government—should be where most all legislating took place. He was against federal efforts to shape the economy or interfere in the private lives of individuals. The national government should remove itself from the economy so that ordinary Americans could test their abilities in the fair competition of a self-regulating market. Jackson was extremely popular among aspiring entrepreneurs.

Democrats believed that liberty was a private entitlement best secured by local governments but endangered by a powerful national authority. A leading Democratic newspaper wrote: "The limitation of power, in every branch of government, is the only safeguard of liberty.

Catholic Irish and German immigrants began arriving in the United States in huge numbers in the late 1820s, and they flocked to the Democratic Party. They did not wish to have Protestant moral standards imposed on them by the government, such as Sabbath laws and especially Temperance—the restriction or prohibition of alcohol. One Catholic newspaper declared, "Liberty is understood to be the absence of government from private affairs." Individuals should be free to make their own decisions, pursue their interests, and cultivate their unique talents without governmental interference.

Opponents of Jackson set new records for slander. The National Journal published this: "General Jackson's mother was a Common Prostitute . . . She afterwards married a Mulatto Man, by whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson is one!" Jackson burst into tears when he read this newspaper article. There was more to come. The notorious "Coffin Handbill" was widely circulated and displayed, which claimed Jackson was guilty of eighteen murders.

John Quincy Adams even entered the filthy fray this time, publicly calling Jackson—not to his face, you can bet—"a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar." In fact, Jackson was capable of genuine eloquence in his public statements.

It was Martin Van Buren who put together the political apparatus of the Democratic Party, complete with state and local party units overseen by a national committee and a network of newspapers devoted to the party.

The vast majority of artists, writers, and intellectuals supported Jackson's campaign, including James Fennimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Bancroft, and William Cullen Bryant. A notable exception was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thus Jackson had the support of not only the underprivileged but also of "the men of genius."

Andrew Jackson was elected the seventh President of the United States, winning 56 percent of the popular vote and more than doubling the Electoral College votes of John Quincy Adams. His election caused euphoria among farmers, mechanics, laborers, and immigrants who saw it as the triumph of democracy over the elites of New England and Virginia.

Many attributed the margin of victory to the new political power wielded by Irish immigrants. The Irish loved Jackson because he was Irish—and because he had whipped the hated British.