The Rise of Andrew Jackson
On May 30, 1806, Andrew Jackson, a thirty-nine-year-old Tennessee lawyer, came within inches of death. A duelist’s bullet struck him in the chest, just shy of his heart (the man who fired the gun was purportedly the best shot in Tennessee). But the wounded Jackson remained standing. Bleeding, he slowly steadied his aim, returned fire, and the other man dropped to the ground, mortally wounded. Jackson-still carrying the bullet in his chest-later boasted, “I should have hit him if he had shot me through the brain.”
The duel in Logan County, Kentucky, was one of many that Jackson fought during the course of his long and highly controversial career. And the tenacity, toughness and vengefulness that carried Jackson alive out of that duel-and the mythology and symbolism that would be attached to it-would also characterize many his later dealings on the battlefield and in politics. By the time of his death almost forty years later, Andrew Jackson would become an enduring and controversial symbol, a kind of cipher to gauge the ways that various Americans thought about their country.
The career of Andrew Jackson (1767-;1845) exemplified both the opportunities and the dangers of political life in the early republic. A lawyer, slaveholder, and general — and eventually the seventh president of the United States — he rose from humble frontier beginnings to become one of the most powerful Americans of the nineteenth century.
A child of Irish immigrants, Andrew Jackson was born on March 17, 1767, on the border between North and South Carolina. He grew up during dangerous times. At age thirteen, he joined an American militia unit in the Revolutionary War, but was soon captured, and a British officer slashed at his head with a sword after he refused to shine the officer’s shoes (Figure 20). Disease during the war had claimed the lives of his two brothers and his mother, leaving him an orphan. Their deaths and his wounds had left Jackson with a deep and abiding hatred of Great Britain.
After the war, Jackson moved west to frontier Tennessee, where despite his poor education, he prospered, working as a lawyer and acquiring land and slaves. (He would eventually come to keep 150 slaves at the Hermitage, his plantation near Nashville.) In 1796, Jackson was elected as a U.S. representative, and a year later he won a seat in the Senate, although he resigned within a year, citing financial difficulties.
Thanks to his political connections, Jackson obtained a general’s commission at the outbreak of the War of 1812. Despite having no combat experience, General Jackson quickly impressed his troops, who nicknamed him “Old Hickory” after a particularly tough kind of tree.
Jackson led his militiamen into battle in the Southeast, first during the Creek War, a side conflict that started between different factions of Muskogee (Creek) Indians in present-day Alabama. In that war, he won a decisive victory over hostile fighters at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. A year later, he also won a spectacular victory over a British invasion force at the Battle of New Orleans. There, Jackson’s troops—including backwoods militiamen, free African Americans, Indians, and a company of slave-trading pirates — successfully defended the city and inflicted more than 2,000 casualties against the British, sustaining barely 300 casualties of their own (Figure 21). The Battle of New Orleans was a thrilling victory for the United States, but it actually happened several days after a peace treaty was signed in Europe to end the war. News of the treaty had not yet reached New Orleans.
The Battle of New Orleans. General Andrew Jackson stands on the parapet of his makeshift defenses as his troops repulse attacking Highlanders, by painter Edward Percy Moran in 1910.
The end of the War of 1812 did not end Jackson’s military career. In 1818, as commander of the U.S. southern military district, Jackson also launched an invasion of Spanish-owned Florida. He was acting on vague orders from the War Department to break the resistance of the region’s Seminole Indians, who protected runaway slaves and attacked American settlers across the border. On Jackson’s orders in 1816, U.S. soldiers and their Creek allies had already destroyed the “Negro Fort,” a British-built fortress on Spanish soil, killing 270 former slaves and executing some survivors. In 1818, Jackson’s troops crossed the border again. They occupied Pensacola, the main Spanish town in the region, and arrested two British subjects, whom Jackson executed for helping the Seminoles. The execution of these two Britons created an international diplomatic crisis.
Most officials in President James Monroe’s administration called for Jackson’s censure. But Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, the son of former President John Adams, found Jackson’s behavior useful. He defended the impulsive general, arguing that he had had been forced to act. Adams used Jackson’s military successes in this First Seminole War to persuade Spain to accept the Adams-OnÃs Treaty of 1819, which gave Florida to the United States.
Any friendliness between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, however, did not survive long. In 1824, four nominees competed for the presidency in one of the closest elections in American history (Figure 22). Each came from different parts of the country — Adams from Massachusetts, Jackson from Tennessee, William H. Crawford from Georgia, and Henry Clay from Kentucky. Jackson won more popular votes than anyone else. But with no majority winner in the Electoral College, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. There, Adams used his political clout to claim the presidency, persuading Clay to support him. Jackson would never forgive Adams, whom he accused of engineering a “corrupt bargain” with Clay to circumvent the popular will.
Four years later, in 1828, Adams and Jackson squared off in one of the dirtiest presidential elections to date. Pro-Jackson partisans accused Adams of elitism and claimed that while serving in Russia as a diplomat he had offered the Russian emperor an American prostitute. Adams’s supporters, on the other hand, accused Jackson of murder and attacked the morality of his marriage, pointing out that Jackson had unwittingly married his wife Rachel (Figure 23) before the divorce on her prior marriage was complete. This time, Andrew Jackson won the election easily (Figure 24), but Rachel Jackson died suddenly before his inauguration. Jackson would never forgive the people who attacked his wife’s character during the campaign.
In 1828, Jackson’s broad appeal as a military hero won him the presidency. He was “Old Hickory,” the “Hero of New Orleans,” a leader of plain frontier folk. His wartime accomplishments appealed to many voters’ pride. In office over the next eight years, he would claim to represent the interests of ordinary white Americans, especially from the South and West, against the country’s wealthy and powerful elite. This attitude would lead him and his allies into a series of bitter political struggles. (3)
The Nullification Crisis
Nearly every American had an opinion about President Jackson. To some, he epitomized democratic government and popular rule. To others, he represented the worst in a powerful and unaccountable executive, acting as president with the same arrogance he had shown as a general in Florida (Figure 26). One of the key issues dividing Americans during his presidency was a sectional dispute over national tax policy that would come to define Jackson’s no-holds-barred approach to government.
Once Andrew Jackson moved into the White House, most southerners expected him to do away with the hated Tariff of 1828, the so-called Tariff of Abominations. This import tax provided protection for northern manufacturing interests by raising the prices of European products in America. Southerners, however, blamed the tariff for a massive transfer of wealth. It forced them to purchase goods from the North’s manufacturers at higher prices, and it provoked European countries to retaliate with high tariffs of their own, reducing foreign purchases of the South’s raw materials.
Only in South Carolina, though, did the discomfort turn into organized action. The state was still trying to shrug off the economic problems of the Panic of 1819, but it had also recently endured the Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy, which convinced white South Carolinians that antislavery ideas put them in danger of a massive slave uprising.
Elite South Carolinians were especially worried that the tariff was merely an entering wedge for federal legislation that would limit slavery. Andrew Jackson’s own vice president, John C. Calhoun (Figure 27), who was from South Carolina, asserted that the tariff was “the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things.” The real fear was that the federal government might attack “the peculiar domestick institutions of the Southern States” — meaning slavery. When Jackson failed to act against the tariff, Vice President Calhoun was caught in a tight position.
In 1828, Calhoun secretly drafted the South Carolina Exposition and Protest, a pamphlet that laid out the doctrine of “nullification.” Drawing from the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799, Calhoun argued that the United States was a compact among the states rather than among the whole American people. Since the states had created the Union, he had reasoned, they were still sovereign, so a state could nullify a federal statute it considered unconstitutional. Other states would then have to concede the right of nullification or agree to amend the Constitution. If necessary, a nullifying state could leave the Union.
When Calhoun’s authorship of the pamphlet became public, Jackson was furious, interpreting it both as a personal betrayal and as a challenge to his authority as president. His most dramatic confrontation with Calhoun came in 1832 during a commemoration for Thomas Jefferson. At dinner, the president rose and toasted, “Our federal union — it must be preserved.” Calhoun responded with a toast of his own: “The Union—next to liberty, most dear.” Their divorce was not pretty. Martin Van Buren, a New York political leader whose skill in making deals had earned him the nickname “the Little Magician,” replaced Calhoun as vice president when Jackson ran for reelection in 1832.
Calhoun returned to South Carolina, where a special state convention nullified the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832. It declared them unconstitutional and therefore “null, void, and no law” within South Carolina. The convention ordered South Carolina customs officers not to collect tariff revenue and declared that any federal attempt to enforce the tariffs would cause the state to secede from the Union.
President Jackson responded dramatically. He denounced the ordinance of nullification and declared that “disunion, by armed force, is TREASON,” vowing to hang Calhoun and any other nullifier who defied federal power. He persuaded Congress to pass a Force Bill that authorized him to send the military to enforce the tariffs. Faced with such threats, other southern states declined to join South Carolina. Privately, however, Jackson supported the idea of compromise and allowed his political enemy Henry Clay to broker a solution with Calhoun. Congress passed a compromise bill that slowly lowered federal tariff rates. South Carolina rescinded nullification for the tariffs but nullified the Force Bill.
The legacy of the Nullification Crisis is difficult to sort out. Jackson’s decisive action seemed to have forced South Carolina to back down. But the crisis also united the ideas of secession and states’ rights, two concepts that had not necessarily been linked before. Perhaps most clearly, nullification showed that the immense political power of slaveholders was matched only by their immense anxiety about the future of slavery. During later debates in the 1840s and 1850s, they would raise the ideas of the Nullification Crisis again. (3)
The Eaton Affair and the Politics of Sexuality
Meanwhile, a more personal crisis during Jackson’s first term also drove a wedge between him and Vice President Calhoun. The Eaton Affair, sometimes insultingly called the “Petticoat Affair,” began as a disagreement among elite women in Washington, D.C., but it eventually led to the disbanding of Jackson’s cabinet.
True to his backwoods reputation, when he took office in 1829, President Jackson chose mostly provincial politicians, not Washington veterans, to serve in his administration. One of them was his friend John Henry Eaton, a senator from Tennessee, whom Jackson nominated to be his secretary of war.
Old Cigar box lid depicting Margaret (Peggy) O’neal who became the wife of the Secretary of the Navy under Andrew Jackson.
On the left we can see the President Jackson offering flowers to Margaret O’neal after the scandal with the Washington wives. On the right picture, we can see her husband during a duel with a man who insulted her.
A few months earlier, Eaton married Margaret O’Neale Timberlake, the recent widow of a navy officer. She was the daughter of Washington boardinghouse proprietors, and her humble origins and combination of beauty, outspokenness, and familiarity with so many men in the boardinghouse had led to gossip. During her first marriage, rumors circulated that she and John Eaton were having an affair while her husband was at sea. When her first husband committed suicide and she married Eaton just nine months later, the society women of Washington had been scandalized. One wrote that Margaret Eaton’s reputation had been “totally destroyed.”
John Eaton was now secretary of war, but other cabinet members’ wives refused have anything to do with his wife. No respectable lady who wanted to protect her own reputation could exchange visits with her, invite her to social events, or be seen chatting with her. Most importantly, the vice president’s wife, Floride Calhoun, shunned Margaret Eaton, spending most of her time in South Carolina to avoid her, and Jackson’s own niece, Emily Donelson, visited Eaton once and then refused to have anything more to do with her.
Although women could not vote or hold office, they played an important role in politics as people who controlled influence. They helped hold official Washington together. And according to one local society woman, “the ladies” had “as much rivalship and party spirit, desire of precedence and authority” as male politicians had. These women upheld a strict code of femininity and sexual morality. They paid careful attention to the rules that governed personal interactions and official relationships.
Margaret Eaton’s social exclusion thus greatly affected Jackson, his cabinet, and the rest of Washington society. At first, President Jackson blamed his rival Henry Clay for the attacks on the Eatons. But he soon perceived that Washington women and his new cabinet had initiated the gossip. Jackson scoffed, “I did not come here to make a cabinet for the ladies of this place,” and claimed that he “had rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation.” He began to blame the ambition of Vice President Calhoun for Floride Calhoun’s actions, deciding “it was necessary to put him out of the cabinet and destroy him.”
Jackson was so indignant because had recently been through a similar scandal with his late wife Rachel. Her character, too, had been insulted by leading politicians’ wives because of the circumstances of her marriage. Jackson believed that Rachel’s death had been caused by those slanderous attacks. Furthermore, he saw the assaults on the Eatons as attacks on his authority.
In one of the most famous presidential meetings in American history, Jackson called together his cabinet members to discuss what they saw as the bedrock of society: women’s position as protectors of the nation’s values. There, the men of the cabinet debated Margaret Eaton’s character. Jackson delivered a long defense, methodically presenting evidence against her attackers. But the men attending the meeting — and their wives — were not swayed. They continued to shun Margaret Eaton, and the scandal was resolved only with the resignation of four members of the cabinet, including Eaton’s husband. (3)