"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.