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Andrew Jackson Reinvents American Democracy

August 2020

Jackson had deep flaws, but he left a lasting legacy, strengthening the executive office and striving to represent as many Americans as possible.

David S. Reynolds is Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York and the Bancroft Prize-winning author or editor of 15 books about American history, literature and culture, including Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America and Walt Whitman's America. Prof. Reynolds eloquently described the time of Andrew Jackson in Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson. We are grateful to him for giving us this thoughtful look at Old Hickory and his impact on our nation.
     --The Editors

andrew jackson
New York Public Library.

The years from 1815 through 1848 were arguably the richest in American life, if we view the whole picture of society, politics, and culture. The United States moved rapidly toward its eventual place as the world’s major power. Through treaties and the Mexican War, it gained vast western territories extending across the continent all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Its population nearly tripled, surpassing twenty-two million by 1848. Expansion was fanned by an intense nationalism that gave rise to Manifest Destiny, the phrase coined in John L. O’Sullivan’s Democratic Review that expressed the nation’s determination to move westward and spread democracy. The Monroe Doctrine solidified America’s place in the Atlantic, and the so-called Tyler Doctrine extended it in the Pacific.

Debates still swirl around the period’s central figure, Andrew Jackson, who rose to fame in 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans and later served two terms as president, aggressively defending average Americans against moneyed institutions. Was Jackson good or bad for America? A savior of the people or a reckless autocrat? Democracy’s champion or a lawbreaking white supremacist? 

Jackson had many deep flaws, but there was also much to admire about him, including his strengthening of presidential power essential to maintaining the American Union in a time of escalating sectional crises. His shortcomings reflected his era, as did those of other great leaders, from Jefferson to Lincoln. But understanding Jackson, perhaps more than most leading Americans of his time, requires an ability to resist either vilification or veneration, to see the man whole — his failings as well as his successes.

The son of Scotch-Irish immigrants, Jackson had been raised in the backcountry of South Carolina, where he received a haphazard education. During the Revolution he joined the patriots in the Battle of Hanging Rock and was taken captive. A British officer whose boots he refused to polish slashed him with a sword, leaving his head and his left hand scarred for life. He inherited money from his grandfather but wasted it on loose living. Impoverished, he studied the law — without reading a law book completely through, it was said — and was admitted to the bar, moving west to serve as a public prosecutor in Tennessee. He was married in 1791 to Rachel Donelson Robards, who mistakenly believed she had won a legal divorce from her first husband. Two years later a divorce was finalized, and he and Rachel were remarried; but they never escaped insults about allegedly having lived in adultery.

Understanding Jackson, perhaps more than most leading Americans of his time, requires an ability to resist either vilification or veneration, to see the man whole — his failings as well as his successes.

Jackson served briefly as Tennessee’s first congressman and then as a U.S. senator, but, disillusioned by the Washington scene, he abandoned politics, opting for a career in the law and the military. Financial success allowed him to establish the Hermitage, a plantation near Nashville on which he raised cotton and bred racehorses. He had bought his first slave in 1788 and in time owned 150 chattels. He treated his slaves with paternal kindness but responded savagely to disobedience, as when he ran a newspaper ad offering $50 for a runaway slave “and ten dollars extra for every hundred lashes any person will give to the amount of three hundred.”

Level-headed but tempestuous, Jackson followed the South’s code of honor, answering insults with violence. He attacked one enemy with a cane, battered another with his fists, and participated in a street gunfight that left him with a lead ball in his shoulder.

He also engaged in three duels. His 1806 duel to the death with the Nashville lawyer Charles Dickinson typified his attitude of Southern machismo. The duel originated in an obscure affront to Jackson involving a horse race and an insult about Rachel. Jackson challenged Dickinson to a duel with pistols, and the two met on a field, standing eight paces apart. Dickinson, an expert marksman, fired first. His bullet entered Jackson’s chest, shattering two ribs and settling close to the heart. Because of Jackson’s loose overcoat, Dickinson did not see the wound and, astonished, assumed that he had missed his foe. Although Jackson was bleeding profusely under his coat, he fired back. “I should have hit him,” Jackson later boasted, “if he had shot me through the brain.” Jackson’s bullet ripped through his opponent’s bowels, leaving a gaping wound. Dickinson died in a few hours. Although for the rest of his life Jackson suffered from abscesses caused by the bullet in his chest, he kept the pistol with which he had killed Dickinson, showing it off and recounting details of the duel.

In the War of 1812, Jackson served as a U.S. army colonel and a major general in the Tennessee militia. A competent but not brilliant strategist, he proved himself a potent killing machine. He led a series of strikes on hostile Creek Indians that culminated in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, which resulted in the deaths of some eight hundred Indians. Having defeated the Creeks, he forced on them a treaty by which they turned over to the United States more than twenty million acres of their land, including large sections of Alabama and Georgia.

Jackson next drove allied Spanish and British forces out of Pensacola, Florida, before proceeding to New Orleans, which was threatened by a 60-ship fleet carrying more than ten thousand veteran British redcoats. He cobbled together a small force of army regulars, militiamen, Choctaw Indians, liberated Haitian slaves, and Baratarian pirates. A series of skirmishes against the British led to the major encounter at Chalmette, Louisiana, on January 8, 1815. Jackson’s troops, protected by a wall of earth, wood, and cotton bales, fired at will on the swarming redcoats, who had forgotten to bring the ladders they needed to scale the American ramparts. By the time the battle ended, nearly two thousand British had been killed, wounded, or captured, compared to about sixty of Jackson’s men.

The American victory at New Orleans had tremendous repercussions. The Treaty of Ghent, ending the war with England, was not finally ratified until February 1815. Had the British won the Battle of New Orleans, they would have been in a position to claim the southern Mississippi River Valley, which, combined with their holdings to the north, would have given them virtual control over large portions of America’s vast western territory.

Jackson at New Orleans boosted the nation’s morale, reviving the spirit of 1776. His ragtag army compensated for America’s lackluster performance through much of the war by defeating the world’s greatest military power. Jackson himself, already known as Old Hickory for his toughness in battle, earned another nickname as well: The Hero. At forty-seven, Jackson cut an imposing figure in the saddle. Wiry and ramrod straight—he never weighed more than 145 pounds despite his six-foot frame—he had a look of severe earnestness, with gray hair that formed a V on his forehead and swept upward from his gaunt, weather-beaten face.
Jackson’s triumph inspired the war-weary nation. “ALMOST INCREDIBLE VICTORY!” crowed a Washington newspaper. “This Glorious News . . . has spread around a general joy, commensurate with the brilliance of this event, and the magnitude of our Victory.” Patriotic illustrations of the battle proliferated through the rest of the century, many of them picturing Andrew Jackson on horseback in the midst of battle scenes.

The war had forged a true democratic hero, who went on to become the first American president from a non-gentry background, the first not born in either Virginia or Massachusetts, and one who seemed driven by deep passions. “His temperament was of fire,” wrote a contemporary, “always more attractive than one of marble.”

The United States emerged from the War of 1812 battered but confident. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written late in the war by the poet-lawyer Francis Scott Key, caught the nation’s mood of cockiness in the face of ordeal, with its words about the American flag waving proudly in “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.”

Jacksonian America was a place of turbulence and excess. Its youthful vigor gave rise to brashness and a sense of experimentation. Most overviews of the period slight its bumptious, nonconformist, roistering elements, its oddities and cultural innovations — its Barnum freaks, crime-filled scandal sheets, erotic pulp novels, frontier screamers, mesmeric healers, half-mile-long paintings; its street-fighting newspaper editors, earth-rattling actors, incarcerated anarchists; its free-love communes, time-traveling clairvoyants, polygamous prophets, and table-lifting spirit-rappers — all of which created social ferment and provided fodder for energetic American literary and artistic masterpieces.

These phenomena, usually relegated to the fringe, actually characterized the unfettered, individualistic spirit fostered by small government and a zest for expansion. Such excess was visible not only in the general culture but in its leading figures — in Jackson, bullet-riddled from brawls and duels; in Henry Clay, a gambler, duelist, and drinker; in John Randolph of Roanoke, the eccentric Virginian who guzzled alcohol as he harangued in the Senate; in a writer such as Edgar Allen Poe, who dismissed the era’s reformers as “Believers in everything Odd” but was himself the oddest figure of all. The period’s favorite slang expression spoke volumes: Go ahead!

Jackson returned to the U.S. Senate in 1823 and soon allowed supporters to advance his name as a candidate for President, running against John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and William Crawford of Georgia. A widely reprinted newspaper article proclaimed that Jackson “will be the President of the whole people, the enlightened ruler of an undivided empire, and not a sectional magistrate devoted to the ‘universal Yankee nation’ of the east, or the mixed, mingled, confused population of the South.”  Although Jackson won 41% of the vote to 31% for Adams, 

Overall, what was the significance of Andrew Jackson’s presidency? Jackson powerfully influenced politics and culture. He strengthened the executive office. He frequently exercised the veto power. He decisively replaced government officials. He stood firm during the nullification crisis and the bank war. He did not cower, whether facing a hostile Congress or the commanding Nicholas Biddle or a would-be assassin who fired at him twice from point-blank range.

Jackson was the main catalyst behind the growth of a viable two-party system, a defining feature of American democracy. His supporters, the Democrats, successfully presented themselves as champions of the working class and became ardent promoters of westward expansion. His opponents, the Whigs, emphasized scientific advance, improvements in infrastructure, and an economy guided by centralized institutions. 

Although it is tempting to side retrospectively with either the Democrats or Whigs, as some have done, it is important to recognize that both parties had a major impact on politics, economics, and culture. Both parties ushered in techniques of popular campaigning that have become integral to the competitive two-party system. Leaders such as Jackson and William Henry Harrison introduced the now-familiar notion that personal magnetism and public image sometimes are among the most important factors in elections.

Jackson improved America’s infrastructure. Under him more than twice the amount of federal money went yearly toward internal improvements—roads, canals, lighthouses, and dredging rivers and harbors—than under John Quincy Adams or any of the Whig presidents (Harrison, Tyler, Taylor). This calls into question the view that the Whigs rather than the Democrats were mainly responsible for fostering advances in transportation and communication.

He was the quintessential rugged individualist. He ushered onto the public stage a new kind of self-confidence, soon to find echoes in Emerson’s self-reliance, in Whitman’s self-singing, and in the determined outlook of a whole range of Americans convinced they had the answers and could make a difference. Jackson was also a new kind of democrat. He stood for both the single self and the collective self, both the individual and, in Whitman’s phrase, America “en masse.” He was the people’s president to a degree that few other presidents have been. He not only provided a fresh spirit and language for average workers, he also made them feel more truly American than those they increasingly regarded as the idle rich.

Along with self-confidence went a stubbornness that was visible, for instance, in his defense of Peggy Eaton. Some of his appointments, especially early on, were ill-advised. Jackson was also intractable on the Native American issue. He was convinced to the core that he was doing right by removing Indians from the East, where he thought their proximity to whites meant needless bloodshed, and so he provided what he saw as a haven for them in the West. He resorted to chicanery, removing many against their will. That his policy resulted in great suffering is one of the tragedies of American history.

His actions against the Native Americans reflected his racism. He believed that whites were endowed by nature with gifts superior to those of other races. But he was hardly alone: virtually all white Americans felt the same way. To single out him or his fellow Democrats for racism, as some have done, is misleading. One has to look long and hard — among a tiny group of avid abolitionists and other progressives — to find Americans who completely rejected the racial prejudice of the day. Jackson’s backward attitude on race was, alas, the rule rather than the exception, as was his condescending pose as the caring father of blacks and natives.

On slavery as a national policy, Jackson established the middling course that his immediate successors would also adopt. Despising both proslavery fire-eaters and rabble-rousing abolitionists, whom he saw as equally threatening to the Union, he took whatever steps he could to quiet this inflammatory issue. His positions on Texas and the mails may strike some as indecisive, but they were, in fact, pragmatic compromises reached after weighing the violent results that more extreme positions might create.

An inveterate believer in rule by majority, Jackson strove to represent as many Americans as possible. It can be said that he did manage to represent many Americans always and most Americans often. 

Perhaps the most important legacy of the Jacksonian period was an intensified national self-confidence, qualified by a painful sense that America still hadn’t settled on a unified vision of what a just democracy should be. The Puritan notion of America as a city on a hill took on aggressive meaning when it became fused with Manifest Destiny. The nation’s mission was no longer just the passive one of being a model for others to see but a forceful one of actively spreading America’s democratic principles — peacefully if possible but militarily if necessary. Manifest Destiny grew mainly from expansionists within the Democratic Party who carried forward the dynamic spirit of Andrew Jackson. If many Democrats associated America’s mission with territorial expansion, Whigs often linked it with scientific progress and strong economic institutions. 

Taken together, the Democratic and Whig visions defined what America eventually became: an economic and creative dynamo as well as a world superpower, buttressed by a military-industrial complex, that was prepared to defend democracy abroad when it saw fit.

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