Andrew Jackson certainly had a background tailor made to be president. But why is he on the twenty-dollar bill? Born in the Carolina wilderness, he was a true son of the American Revolution. His frontier life changed forever when the British Redcoats invaded in 1780.
At only 14, he volunteered in the local militia, serving as a rebel courier. Captured once by the British, the boy brazenly refused to shine a Redcoat officer’s boots. The red-faced officer drew his saber and struck him across the cheek, leaving a permanent scar. Such hot-headedness would get Jackson into many a fight. Tall and thin, with fiery red hair and ice blue eyes, he certainly looked the part.
After the war, Jackson decided to become a lawyer and moved to Nashville to practice law. There he met and married Rachel Robards, a woman leaving a very troubled marriage. To his shock, he later learned her divorce had not yet been finalized! It was a detail that would hound him the rest of his public life.
The press accused Rachel of bigamy and Jackson of adultery!
Jackson’s willingness to fight any of his wife’s accusers earned him a reputation as an angry man with a VERY short-temper. He even challenged one critic to a formal duel. Despite being wounded in the chest by the 1st shot, Jackson stood his ground and fired a round that killed his opponent. He’d carry that lead bullet in his chest the rest of his life.
In 1798, the Jacksons acquired The Hermitage plantation and became slave owners. The gregarious Jackson was popular amongst menfolk, fond of both drinking, dancing and gambling. Though at first reluctant, Jackson was convinced to enter politics, becoming Tennessee’s first U.S. House Representative, followed by its U.S. Senator.
The Hero of New Orleans
When the War of 1812 erupted, Jackson was appointed Major General of the Tennessee militia, though lacking any military experience. Nevertheless, he led 1500 troops on a 5 month campaign against the Creek Indians (who were British-allies). He forced the Creeks to sign a treaty ceding 20 million acres to the US, over half their territory in Georgia and Alabama.
Jackson was then ordered south to defend New Orleans from a British invasion. The two sides clashed in January 1815. Although outnumbered 2-to-1, Jackson led 5,000 soldiers to a surprise victory over the British in The Battle of New Orleans (Jackson Square ring a bell?). The British suffered 2,000 casualties while the Americans only 70.
Jackson received a Congressional medal and his status as a national war hero was forever solidified. He was so popular amongst his troops they gave him a nickname he carried the rest of his life.
They called him “Old Hickory” because he was “as tough as hickory wood” in battle.
Jackson’s exploits made him a political star, and Tennessee nominated him for President. In the election of 1824 against John Quincy Adam, Jackson won the popular vote, but neither won the electoral college. The Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, threw his support behind Adams, who later made Clay his Secretary of State, once Congress chose John Quincy as the winner.
Jackson raged against what he called a “corrupt bargain” and resigned from the Senate in protest. Undeterred, he spent the next 3 years campaigning for president as a representative of “the common man.”
His campaign slogan was “Andrew Jackson, the Will of the People.”
In 1828, after a 2nd ugly campaign where bigamy and adultery charges rose up against him again, Jackson defeated the incumbent Adams by a landslide. His pious wife Rachel though had been deeply affected by the cruel campaign and died of a heart attack before entering the White House. He loved her dearly and never remarried.
Jackson became America’s 1st frontier president, calling himself “the “The People’s President.” His opponents called him an unstable jackass, a name he took a liking to. So much so, the donkey became the emblem of the Democratic Party. Jackson was the 1st president to invite the public to attend the White House inaugural ball. A large and rowdy mob arrived, got promptly drunk, and began to break furniture and dishes!
Early in his first term, Jackson dismissed his entire cabinet as he watched them slowly distance themselves from him. So he relied on a group of close advisors instead— his opponents calling them the Kitchen Cabinet. He would eventually replace much of the executive branch, charging them with either incompetency or corruption.
“One man with courage makes a majority.” – Andrew Jackson
Despite his popularity, Jackson’s presidency had its share of controversies. Still angry that he lost the 1824 election, he believed in the popular vote and attempted to abolish the Electoral College. His opponents coalesced into a new political party, united in their aversion to Jackson. The Whigs were formed to defend liberty and protest the despotic policies of “King Andrew.”
While prior presidents vetoed bills they deemed unconstitutional, Jackson vetoed bills he simply did not like. He vetoed the bill to renew the Second Bank of the US, which he felt favored “the elites.” His opponent for re-election in 1832, Henry Clay, believed the bank fostered a strong economy, making it his central campaign issue. The public supported Jackson’s populism and he won re-election with 56% of the popular vote and five times as many electoral votes.
Jackson faced another opponent however in his own VP. South Carolina believed new federal tariffs favored the North and vowed to secede. A furious Jackson threatened to use the military to enforce the law. John C. Calhoun supported his home state and became the first US VP to resign. A compromise was passed, the crisis averted, but it foreshadowed the coming of The Civil War 30 years later.
During Jackson’s 2nd term, he was the target of the 1st assassination attempt against a US President.
A deranged painter fire a pistol at the president. When the gun failed, he pulled out a second pistol, which also misfired. An irate Jackson charged the shooter, and hammered him with his cane until others subdued him. Of course, this only added to his legend.
Jackson is perhaps best known for his controversial policies toward Native Americans, who were being pushed slowly westward. Jackson believed the backbone of America was family farms—so to maintain growth – new farmland was needed.
He signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
It gave him power to force treaties on tribes, resulting in their forced displacement to the Oklahoma territory west of the Mississippi. Jackson let Georgia violate a treaty and seize 9 million acres of Cherokee land. Although the Supreme Court ruled Georgia had no authority to do so, Jackson refused to enforce the decision. The Trail of Tears forced the westward relocation of an estimated 15,000 Cherokees, claiming the lives of 4,000 who died along the way of starvation, exposure and illness.
Jackson was a 2 term president. Democrat Martin Van Buren defeated the Whigs and won the 1836 election. Due to Jackson’s often erratic fiscal and banking policies, he left his successor with an economy on the brink, leading to The Panic of 1837 and the ensuing depression.
After leaving the White House, Jackson returned to his Hermitage, where he died in 1845, at the age of 78. The cause of death – lead poisoning from the bullet still in his chest after all these years. Jackson continues to be regarded as one of the most influential, aggressive and controversial US president. He is a personal favorite of the 45th president, Donald Trump, who hung a portrait of Old Hickory in the Oval Office.