Andrew Jackson, Our Nation’s 7th President: A Dueler, a War Hero, and a “Dangerous Man”
You could say Andrew Jackson was a little rough around the edges. He grew up in the back country of the Carolinas, running around barefoot and using his fists to solve problems (a recurrent theme throughout his life). Thomas Jefferson considered him an “able general” but a “dangerous man” because of his temper and lack of respect for laws and the constitution.
Luckily for Jefferson, Andrew Jackson wasn’t elected president until two years after his death so he wasn’t around to see what was to come.
For those of you new to our blog, this post is part of our U.S. Presidents 101 series. If you’ve been following along with us, you may remember one of my goals this year is to learn all the U.S. Presidents, some facts about each one, and to teach it all to my kids. Here are our previous presidents: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, in case you want to follow along.
The Facts: Andrew Jackson served from 1829-1837. He was 61-years-old, from Tennessee. He considered himself a voice of the “common man.”
His campaign against John Quincy Adams in 1828 will go down in history as one of the dirtiest elections of all time. Both men dug deep to bring to light numerous scandals from both their public and personal lives. Afterall, Jackson, who had the overwhelming popular vote, felt he was robbed of the presidency four years earlier, so he had a lot riding on this election.
The worst attack from the Adams camp was on Jackson’s wife Rachel who, it was discovered, had “courted” Jackson while she was still married. This attack hit hard for the Jacksons. In fact, shortly before Andrew Jackson took over the office of president, Rachel died of a heart attack. Her suffering was most likely because of all the stress and inner turmoil she experienced from the campaign.
Jackson was well-known for his short fuse. He had such a temper and could be so hard to work with that he went through more cabinet members than any other president. His lack of being able to keep a “formal” staff led him to have a group of friends who served as informal advisers who were nicknamed the “Kitchen Cabinet” because they usually came in through the kitchen door.
There is SO much that went on during Jackson’s career and presidency that it was hard to sort through it all. Historians call it hands-down the most complicated presidency in history. Here are some of the key issues . . .
What he accomplished: He was the first man elected from Tennessee to serve in the House of Representatives. He became a military war hero when he served as major general in the War of 1812, defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans.
Under Andrew Jackson, the United States was debt-free for the first and only time in the entire history of our country.
He started what is considered a “spoils system” in Washington. This basically means that whichever political party is in power in Washington has the right to hire its supporters and kick out those who oppose it. Those in Washington who are part of this system are often referred to as “political appointees.”
He expanded the power of the executive office. He was the first president to use a veto for policy preference reasons. Before Jackson, presidents only used the veto if a bill was unconstitutional. This essentially gave the executive branch equal, or at least more balanced, power with the legislative branch.
Problems facing his presidency: The “Battle of the Petticoats.” Oh my goodness. This might be where “mean girls” got its start. The wife of Jackson’s Secretary of War, was found out to have started a relationship with her husband while she was still married to another man. This did not sit well among the elite ladies of Washington. They shunned her.
President Jackson, whose late-wife Rachel had been criticized for those very reasons, was super sympathetic to the situation and demanded that the wives of his Cabinet members include her. They wouldn’t. He gave them a chance and then fired their husbands over it. Seriously. He went through four Secretaries of State and five Secretaries of the Treasury during his presidency, partly over this scandal.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was his first major piece of legislation that passed. It gave him the power to forcefully evict all tribes living east of the Mississippi River (five of them). The Cherokees fought back by taking Jackson to trial. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor. Jackson didn’t care. He knew they couldn’t enforce it. They were basically rounded up at gunpoint and forced west. One out of every four Cherokees died in this process, earning it the name the “Trail of Tears” and is one of the saddest chapter in our nation’s history.
It was definitely the most controversial act of Jackson’s presidency.
The “South Carolina Nullification Crisis” was another huge dilemma in Jackson’s first few years. They were furious over the high-federal tariff on imported goods, which came at a huge price for southern planters. Jackson would have been understanding to this, but John Calhoun, his vice president, supported South Carolina and Calhoun was considered an enemy of Jackson’s so Jackson used force instead. Eventually South Carolina backed down on their own and all was well.
The Bank of the United States and Jackson basically declared war on each other. The bank needed to be rechartered and Jackson saw a threat in the bank (it had too many foreign stake-holders, which he thought posted a threat to national security, among other reasons). He wanted it dismantled–it eventually was but not before a lot of drama.
Jackson vetoed the bill to recharter it and went through three Secretaries of the Treasury over a whole slew of fiascoes related to this “war” including ordering them to redirect funds from the bank to various state banks (which no one was sure was legal). He was censured by Congress over it–making him the first and only president to be censured.
Why he’s cool: He changed the make-up of the executive power by marching to his own tune when it came to the veto power.
He had a brilliantly common-sense approach to foreign affairs: “to ask nothing that is not clearly right, and to submit to nothing that is wrong.” Easy as that.
He may have been the president that issued the order for Native Americans to settle westward, but he was the first and only president to raise a native-American child. Lyncoya, who was found orphaned after the Battle of Tallushatchee in 1813, was sent to live with Jackson after he was found in his dead mother’s arms. In fact, Jackson was the adopted father of numerous children.
He was opposed to paper money. Why? There’s a reference to coins in the constitution and he took it quite literally. He much preferred gold and silver as currency and would probably have hated seeing his face on the $20 bill. Oddly enough, no one knows why he’s even on there in the first place. The Treasury Department, who decides who goes on our money, has no record on why the decision was made back in 1928. Though historians do know that back in 1928, Jackson’s legacy read differently than it does today. In fact, FDR was a huge Jackson fan and often quoted him.
Political Party: Democrat
When “Andrew Jackson ran for President in 1828, his opponents called him a “Jack-ass.” The joke was on his opponents. Jackson actually quite liked the image and guess what animal became the new mascot for the Democratic? You guessed it!
- He was a well-known dueler. As in gun stand offs. As in he was shot at. When he became president he had two bullets in him from these duels.
- He asked to be called “General,” not “Mr. President.”
- He was the first president to be born in a log cabin and is considered the first “poor boy” elected to the presidency.
- He was the last president to balance the budget. So, you could say it has been awhile . . .
- He was the first president to be born in a state other than Virginia or Massachusetts.
- First president to have an assassination attempt.
- He was the only president to have been held a prisoner of war.
- He was the first president to install running water and indoor toilets to the White House.
First Lady: Rachel Jackson was his spouse who passed away (likely of a heart attack) just weeks before he was inaugurated, so he used his wife’s niece Emily Donelson as hostess and de facto First Lady. She was 21. It was believed that she had been planning to move to the White House anyway, at the request of Rachel Jackson, to assist with hostess responsibilities. Her husband (also her first cousin) served as President Jackson’s personal secretary. She got caught up in the “petticoat scandal” and after retreating to the Hermitage (Andrew Jackson’s personal residence in Tennessee), she never resumed her duties full-time. Sadly, she passed away at the age of 29 from tuberculosis and became the shortest-lived First Lady in American history.
The hostess that replaced her was Andrew Jackson’s daughter-in-law, Sarah Yorke Jackson. She was married to his adopted son Andrew Jackson, Jr. Accounts are a bit unclear as to when one hostess officially resigned and the other took over, but it’s thought the two ladies overlapped somewhat, which makes it the only time in history there have ever been two White House hostesses.
Vice President: John C. Calhoun, representative from South Carolina (he also served as John Quincy Adam’s vp, ironically) and Secretary of War. Was a personal enemy of Jackson’s, ironically and only served until 1832, then Martin Van Buren took over.
Sources: History Channel has an awesome documentary on our U.S. Presidents. You can watch portions of it on YouTube but you can get all of it on Amazon. There’s a shorter version, here that is also fascinating.
For Kids: Here’s a fun fact your kids might enjoy: Andrew Jackson will be 250-years-old in just a couple weeks! His birthday is March 15th. The Hermitage, his personal residence, is having a huge celebration in his honor, including an appearance by his great-great-great-grandson, a concert by the Tennessee National Guard, and all the birthday cake you can eat! Find the birthday festivity info here.
Next up: Martin Van Buren
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.