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Andrew Jackson


"Andrew Jackson, I am given to understand, was a patriot and a traitor. He was one of the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. A writer brilliant, elegant, eloquent, and without being able to compose a correct sentence, or spell words of four syllables. The first of statesmen, he never devised, he never framed a measure. He was the most candid of men, and was capable of the profoundest dissimulation. A most law-defying, law-obeying citizen. A stickler for discipline, he never hesitated to disobey his superior. A democratic aristocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint."

James Parton, the "father of American biography", writing a few years after Jackson's presidency, was tempted to throw up his hands over Jackson - an apparent bundle of contradictions. It is not just that his friends and enemies see two different men; the very facts make one wonder whether he was pragmatic or dogmatic, a great statesman or a bull in the china shop.

Likewise the "Jackson Era" is bewildering in its complexity. A period of the strangest of strange bedfellows in politics. Of Anti-Masonic Parties and utopian communes. Of theological religious obsession such as most Westerners can hardly conceive today. A nation doubling in size, and moving from the age of wood and animal power to that of iron and steam power. The speed of change was very comparable to that of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, the United States was dividing along regional lines, with the established Northeast and Southeast each trying to put their stamp on the West.

Summary of Jackson's Life Prior to the Presidency

He lived from 1767 to 1845. The child of poor Scotch-Irish immigrants; he was orphaned by the ferocity of the American Revolution in the Carolinas. He got a reasonable education for his day, being qualified to practice law (educational requirements were low).

In his early 20s, he went to the territory of Tennessee, not yet a state, where he achieved prominence as a lawyer, moderate sized plantation owner and judge. By about 30, he had been a member of the U.S. House of Representatives of the new state, and was elected Senator but resigned after one year.

He was appointed, on his return from the Senate, a Superior Court Judge, where he proved capable and flamboyant. While remaining on the bench, he sought and won the position of Major General of the Tennessee militia.

During the War of 1812, he managed - with difficulty due to some enemies he had made - to get into action in important theatres. In between subduing various Indian tribes, he won, in New Orleans by far the greatest American victory in the war. Americans badly needed cheering up after the war, in which much of the Capitol city of Washington was burned by the British.

Jackson, early in the war, became a U.S. Major General - vastly different from a state militia Major General. He continued to have military successes - though in his invasion of Spanish Florida he got the reputation with some people of being a kind of Caesar.

Summary of the Quest for the Presidency

In the 1821, Jackson, at 54 was in very precarious health. He had, like many Southerners, defended his "honor" in a two or three duels and one shoot-out, and had sustained a bullet lodged beside his heart, and another which smashed his arm.

At about this time, the "Hero of New Orleans" was perhaps the most popular man in the country, and he received a "favorite son" endorsement for the presidency from his state of Tennessee. Believing that Washington had become a sink or corruption, he felt called upon to work for the office. To gain credibility, he ran for and won a seat in the Senate. This time, in his maturity, he handled the job well, making a favorable impression on old government hands, many of whom expected a wild man in buckskins. He immediately made peace with Thomas Hart Benton, whom he once said he would thrash in the streets of Nashville, and who, with his brother, left a bullet in Jackson's arm. They became close allies.

Jackson was bitterly disappointed in 1824 by a 4-way race in which he won a substantial plurality, but lost to John Quincy Adams in the house of Representatives.

In 1828, Jackson won a landslide victory. The new Democratic Party, which he helped forge, brought to an end the temporary vacuum of parties in American politics sometimes called the "Era of Good Feelings". They created a new style of political campaign, aimed at the newly enfranchised masses (property requirements for voters were passing from the scene at this time) - with barbecues, parades, identification devices.

On the eve of his inauguration, Jackson was thrown into deep mourning by the death of his wife, whom he believed, with some reason, to have been driven to her grave by scurrilous attacks by newspapers of the other side.

Summary of Jackson as President

Jackson would use his reputation as a hot-headed man at times, going into simulated rages. At other times, he could appear the most courteous "gentleman".

The major events of the Jackson presidency included:

Refusal to submit to South Carolina, which said they would "nullify", or not pay, high Federal tariffs. He rejected the principal they tried to establish that a state could decide on its own whether Federal laws applied to it or not.

The elimination of the Second Bank of the United States; a very dubious move; the bank had done much to provide a stable environment in which business could operate. On the other hand, they were a private monopoly given an enormously privileged place in the economy, and they did use their influence to try to affect elections.

General strengthening of the presidency. He established the veto as an unqualified prerogative of the presidency. Up till his time there was a notion that the president could only veto a measure on the grounds of its unconstitutionality. Also, the power to freely make and remake the cabinet was established.

He carried on a strong and generally successful diplomacy, getting reparations from countries which had damaged U.S. shipping during the War of 1812.

He did much to help push the Indians to the West of the Mississippi.

His government eliminated the National Debt for the first time. The did a great deal of belt-tightening and elimination of corruption by public officials. Mostly though, they benefited by the massive migration to the West, and consequent profits from the sale of public lands.

He greatly slowed the rate of Federal involvement in internal improvements.

Because of the strong opposition he generated in Congress and elsewhere, a cohesive new party of opposition, the Whigs, was created. Thus for a while, America was given a new two-party system.

The 1832 campaign for Jackson's reelection was fought in the midst of two crises. One was triggered by Jackson's veto of the bill to renew the Bank's charter. It did not have to be renewed until 1836, and was brought up for renewal in 1832 out of political considerations by Jackson's opposition. The other crisis was South Carolina's pending rebellion. Jackson's Vice President John C. Calhoun, a South Carolinian went into opposition to the administration, and actually resigned before his term ended, to assume a seat in the senate.

Jackson again won by a landslide, with the New Yorker and expert political manager Martin Van Buren.

Van Buren won the Presidency in 1836, but served only one term, growing unpopular when, in 1837 a depression struck, which many blamed on Jackson's slaying of the Bank.

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