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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - April/May 2004
Andrew Jackson

By Hugh Brogan and Charles Mosley
From Americal Presidential Families, available online at

Andrew Jackson decisively transformed the presidency. In this respect he ranks with Washington, Lincoln and very few others. Yet his overall achievement is shot through with ambiguities and contradictions, making his rank as a statesman exceptionally hard to judge. At least there can be no doubt that he was an outstandingly gifted politician, and one of the most colourful figures in American history.

He was not what he seemed. To his numerous enemies he was a demagogue, a military chieftain, 'King Andrew the First', who would overthrow all the rights and liberties of Americans, a wilful, illiterate backswoodsman. To his even more numerous admirers he was a Washington for valour, a Jefferson for his love of freedom and equality, a hero who beat the British and then came from the West to overthrow the oligarchy of the East, champion of the Union, foe of privilege, tribune of the people. It was a simpler age than ours; people took the parade and hyperbole of presidential elections more seriously than they do today, for they had had much less experience of them.

In cold fact Andrew Jackson, born in a log cabin, was the heir of a respectable Scots-Irish family, and had made his way to eminence by his close association with influential circles in South Carolina, his native state, and Tennessee, where he settled as a young man. It makes no sense to talk of his early life in terms of aristocracy or democracy; everyone on the frontier shared the same values and wanted to get ahead in the same way. Jackson became a planter quite young, and though his financial position was shaky for most of his life he maintained his status as a gentleman lawyer, militia officer and politician quite easily. What was unique about him was his indomitable will and his military talent. He displayed both amply during his campaigns against the Creek Indians (when his great powers of endurance won him the nickname 'Old Hickory') and of course against the British. His military reputation made him an extremely valuable political property. Lots of people stood to gain if Jackson could be induced to run for the presidency, and still more if he could get elected. He was long reluctant “I am not fit to be President”), but eventually his competitive spirit was aroused, and after a long struggle he won the White House, as we have seen.

He was welcomed to Washington by something like a carnival. Thousands of enthusiastic supporters crowded the streets on Inauguration Day and invaded the White House. Jackson had to retreat from the crush to a boarding house, and the only way the mob could be got out of the mansion was by putting out large tubs of punch for them on the lawn. The Jacksonians were convinced that a new day had dawned; their opponents feared that the destruction of society was at hand.

Jackson himself, mourning the recent death of his wife (the victim, he was sure, of campaign slanders) and beset by officeseekers, seemed little disposed to gratify expectation. His Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren, on arriving in Washington, found him weary and melancholy. If Jackson was a volcano, he was apparently going to be a dormant one.

But the old hero proved very easy to stir into eruption. It only needed someone to challenge his will. Did Congress propose to pay for a national road across the state of Kentucky? He vetoed it. Did the Senate refuse to confirm Van Buren's appointment as American minister to London? “By the Eternal”, he said, “I'll smash them”, and made Van Buren Vice-President. Did Nicholas Biddle, the President of the Second Bank of the United States, ally himself with Henry Clay? Jackson vetoed the bill to renew the Bank's charter, denouncing 'the Monster' as a conspiracy of the rich against the poor, and unconstitutional into the bargain. Was the King of the French withholding compensation due to US citizens because of incidents during the Napoleonic Wars? Jackson took the country to the brink of war to compel France to climb down. Did Chief Justice Marshall, speaking for the Supreme Court, try to put a stop to the process by which Indian tribes were being driven from their lands in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia? The President defied him (“John Marshall has made his law, now let him enforce it”). Was South Carolina, led by Calhoun, trying to nullify the US tariff and threatening secession? Jackson would march at the head of an army into the state, and was only restrained from doing so by the swift negotiation of a compromise. Whatever else may be said of Jackson's presidency, it was never for a moment dull.

Jackson enunciated and enacted a new theory of the presidency: that, as the electoral college was little more than a fiction, and the real choice was made by ordinary voters (universal white male suffrage was by then more or less the rule) the President, more than any other organ of government, represented the whole people, and spoke for them. In effect he claimed for the presidency the first place in American government, and popular support made the claim good. It has never been forgotten since, even during eras of weak Presidents. But paradoxically, Jackson, while strengthening the presidency within the federal government, weakened the federal government within the nation. He was a better Jeffersonian than Jefferson, genuinely believing that Washington should interfere as little as possible in the lives of the people, whose state governments were their truest representatives. Not for him the 'American Programme' of a Henry Clay or John Quincy Adams. In this respect Jackson was a true son of the South. But unlike many Southerners he was an unqualified supporter of the Union. One of the most dramatic incidents of his presidency was the Jefferson Day banquet in Washington, which Calhoun wanted to turn into a demonstration in favour of states' rights, but which Jackson, present as the guest of honour, turned into a demonstration of a very different kind by the simple device of proposing the toast “Our Federal Union; It Must Be Preserved”;. In the eyes of many Southerners, Jackson was being wildly inconsistent, but anyone who tried to tell him so would have got a stormy reception indeed.

Undoubtedly Jackson's most important legacy was the Democratic Party that he and Van Buren together founded. Jackson, was an admirer of the mediaeval Scottish chieftain William Wallace, especially in the matter of rewarding his followers, but he was well aware that rewarding followers with jobs in the Federal government was a matter of securing zealous election workers, as well as of patriarchal generosity. Even the great battles of the Jacksonian period had a party purpose. By splitting the party they exposed the discontented and the weak; they bound the loyal more tightly together; and since Jackson was a very shrewd judge of the attitudes that would attract maximum popular support, they attracted new hordes of voters to the Democratic standard. Thus the cry of 'corrupt bargain' helped to win the battle in 1828; the declaration of war on 'the Monster' won re-election in 1832; and so much happened in the next four years that the opposition (now beginning to call itself the Whig party) decided in despair not to nominate a single candidate for the presidency in 1836, but to let anyone run under the Whig banner who thought he might win. As a result, Van Buren, Jackson's chosen heir, had an easy ride into office. Jackson himself respected the two-term tradition laid down by Washington and reinforced by the rest of the Virginia Dynasty and retired to Tennessee, saying his only regret was that he had not hanged Calhoun and shot Henry Clay. As a last gesture to the gallery, he made part of the journey by railroad, the first, but by no means the last, President to exhibit himself from the rear platform of a train. The immense crowd that assembled for his departure watched him go in a total silence more impressive than any applause.

He left Van Buren a strong but not impregnable political position. Two weaknesses were soon to show themselves. First, Jacksonism had no weapons with which to deal with economic crisis; second, and in the long run more important, it had made party discipline so strong that Presidents in the future, less dynamic and authoritative than Jackson, would find that the party, brought into being to serve them, was now their master, or at best their rival for power.


Andrew Jackson could have been called a man of no family in two senses. He was the first President of indisputably humble birth and not only was he born posthumously but by the time he was 15 his mother and both brothers had died too. He begot no children and in later life, after he had become famous, discouraged approaches from a numerous body of cousins scattered throughout the Carolinas. Even his wife was somebody else's at the time he married her.

Such observations tend to the glib of course. Andrew and Elizabeth Jackson, his father and mother, were simply typical settlers, dying young because that is what most settlers did. They seem to have worked their way down from Pennsylvania to the Waxhaw settlement, where like them most of the other settlers were from Northern Ireland. They brought with them from Ireland both their elder sons Hugh and Robert. Andrew had been a poor tenant farmer, Elizabeth a weaver. Several close relatives of hers had already settled in the Waxhaw area: one sister, Jane, was married to a man called James Crawford or Crafford, another, Margaret, to a man called George McKemy or McCamie and two others to men by the name of Leslie. On her husband's death Elizabeth abandoned the family smallholding of some 200 acres — the Jacksons probably had barely a squatters' right to it and title to it was disputed— and went to live with her relatively prosperous sister Mrs Crawford, keeping house for her as the latter was in poor health. On her way to the Crawfords' she stopped off at her brother-in-law McKemy's cabin, where she may have given birth to the future President. He was born either there or at the Crawfords'.

Jackson's mother was a pious woman who is said to have wanted her son Andrew to take holy orders. He was not parson timber, however, although as he grew older he put up less resistance to religious feeling. The first brick building he put up on his 1,000-acre Tennessee plantation, long after he was married, was a Presbyterian church intended specially for his wife Rachel, who had just joined the Presbyterians. And when Governor of Florida — a position he had wanted to refuse as Rachael loathed the thought of living there — he acquiesced in her promptings to him to crack down on Sunday opening for shops, gaming houses and dancing. The result was to make the Spanish Domingo as dreary as the Sabbath in northern Protestant countries. It seems to have been at her prompting also that he became a Presbyterian, though it took him till 10 years after her death.

Instead of the church he chose war. His mother may not have succeeded in imbuing him with religious feeling but she certainly did with her strong anti-British sentiments. She is said to have told her young sons stories of the siege of Carrickfergus, back in Ireland, where their grandfather had suffered at William III's hands. That was back in 1690, however, which would have made Andrew's grandfather Hugh Jackson very young at the time since he is known to have died in 1782.

Andrew Jackson was little more than 13 when he joined the Revolutionary Army in the summer of 1780. The next year he and his elder brother Robert were captured by the British. He only spent two weeks as a prisoner-of-war, being included in an exchange of prisoners after his mother pleaded for him with his British captors, but the experience did nothing to lessen his anti-British attitude. Robert died of the small-pox that was so prevalent during the Revolutionary War shortly after his younger brother was released, though his death may also have been brought on by a sabre wound a British officer inflicted on him during his captivity. The eldest Jackson boy Hugh had died near the beginning of the war following the battle of Stono Ferry. Only a few months after Robert's death their mother died. She had volunteered to go and nurse American prisoners aboard British ships in the harbour at Charleston (they included her nephews William and James Crawford) and succumbed to what was then called prison or ship fever, more specifically either cholera or yellow fever. And so Andrew Jackson became an orphan aged 14. His was not an unusual case; only because this particular orphan became President does it stand out.

He seems as the surviving son to have inherited money from his grandfather Hugh Jackson. This supports the argument that his father was an eldest son. A nest-egg would have been useful when at the age of 17 he started reading for the bar. In fact it seems he had already spent his inheritance from his grandfather by then. After qualifying as a lawyer he moved to Nashville (at that time still part of North Carolina) and found lodgings with a Mrs Donelson, a widow. His relations with Rachel Robards, née Donelson, his landlady's daughter, were for the next few years part melodrama part sentimental comedy. They became increasingly attracted to each other, but unfortunately she had a husband already in Lewis Robards. Jackson was involved in several altercations with him — and with others, for he was a quarrelsome man. Andrew Jackson and the society he lived in were undoubtedly crude and violent, but his frequent duels were conducted according to a gentlemanly code that had its counterpart in the very highest of aristocratic circles in Europe (for instance Canning, a future British Prime Minister, fought a duel with Lord Castlereagh, a future Foreign Secretary). Jackson was capable of a certain delicacy when not fighting duels. He moved out of Mrs Donelson's boarding house rather than compromise Rachel; Lewis Robards was a nasty, jealous and brutal man anyway so that paying court to her could be represented as doing her a good turn, provided his ultimate intentions were honourable (which they proved to be); and there was a certain chivalrous touch about his stepping forward to escort Rachel to Natchez, in what was still then Spanish-held territory, when she determined to travel to a foreign jurisdiction so that she might escape Robards.

One could look at it another way. Duelling was a fatuous way of settling quarrels, whether indulged in by titled European personages or frontiersmen; Jackson had no business interfering between husband and wife, particularly when he was the cause of much of Robards's jealousy; it looks suspiciously as if he began living with Rachel before Robards even applied for legal permission to initiate divorce proceedings, let alone start the proceedings themselves, not least because there is no record of a marriage in Natchez; and he showed a very poor grasp of the law, particularly for a lawyer, when he married Rachel (if he did marry her that first time in Natchez) after grabbing at the flimsiest hearsay evidence that she had obtained a divorce &emdash; hearsay which proved false. It stands in Jackson's favour that he made Rachel a good husband. His Byronic, almost Celliniesque escapades were confined to the period before his marriage. He went through a proper marriage with her (the Justice of the Peace who performed the ceremony being Rachel's brother-in-law Robert Hays) as soon as she became indisputably free.

It is perhaps a mercy that Rachel died a few months before her husband was inaugurated President. As early as 1815, after years of outdoor life managing the Tennessee plantation while her husband was away at war, she had grown fat and dumpy; she smoked a pipe (it was said Jackson's mother had done so too), though Rachel did so on doctor's orders to counteract her pthisis; she was ill-educated and provincial. It is possible that the back-biting prevalent throughout Jackson's tenure of the White House would have killed her even if the scurrility of the 1828 campaign had not (she died two weeks after reading for the first time some of the appalling things said about her during the election, and though no direct cause and effect can be proved, it is not implausible given her weak heart toward the end). Yet she was an asset to Jackson. She was from a highly distinguished family in western Tennessee, perhaps the second most prominent in the entire area. She was a good mother to their adoptive son Andrew Jackson Jr. In marrying Rachel, Jackson took on a whole family, an agreeable replacement of the family he had lost as a child. Her sister Jane's husband Col Robert Hays, the Justice mentioned above, was a friend and adviser to Jackson throughout his life; her niece Rachel married John Coffee, Jackson's best cavalry commander in the War of 1812 and one of his most competent comrades in arms generally. The Donelson connection helped him rebuild his finances when after some unfortunate land speculations he went into business with two of Rachel's nephews.

Even after Rachel's death Jackson continued to derive pleasure in having his wife's family revolve about him. He and Rachel had adopted a nephew of hers, one of the twin sons of Severn and Elizabeth Donelson, the boy's natural mother being too weak in health to look after both children. The boy was christened Andrew Jackson Jr, and although he spent too much money on clothes and was inept in business, Jackson cheerfully paid his debts, even though not legally obliged to, advising him meanwhile to steer clear of banks. Andrew Jr managed the Hermitage plantation while the President was away in Washington but made rather a hash of it. He left the place to look after itself for lengthy periods and inevitably the plantation failed to prosper. On one occasion while he was away the house burnt down. Nothing seemed to put the President off. He even bought a plantation on the Mississippi and turned that over to Andrew Jr's management. The President also felt obliged to sort out the young man's entanglements with prospective brides. On at least one occasion he wrote to the girl's father to clarify the situation. He was just as fond of his adoptive son's wife Sarah York, with rather more justification since she obligingly acted as hostess in the White House during part of his time there, for all that her Quaker background might have been thought to sit uneasily with such an aggressive man.

As well as adopting a son the Jacksons had numerous wards. They included John Samuel Donelson and Daniel Smith Donelson, sons of Rachel's dead brother Samuel, and Mary Eastin, Rachel's great-niece. There may have been an element of atonement with John S. and Daniel S., for Jackson had encouraged their father to elope with their mother Mary against the wishes of her father Daniel Smith, Jackson's successor as US Senator from Tennessee. When President, Jackson employed yet another nephew of his wife's, a man called Andrew Jackson Donelson, as his private secretary. Jackson had had Donelson educated at Transylvania University and nursed a high regard for him. Donelson's real position was more than that of a secretary, for his genuine ability and the favour in which he was held by Jackson elevated him to the President's kitchen cabinet. Donelson's wife Emily, whom Rachel Jackson had asked to accompany her when she went to Washington as First Lady and help out as hostess at the White House, took on the responsibility single-handed when her patroness died. She was not quite 21 when she became substitute First Lady but grew (literally perhaps as well as metaphorically) in the job. She and Donelson left the White House for a time at the height of the Eaton Affair, an episode that revolved around the wife of John H. Eaton, Jackson's Secretary of War. Margaret Eaton, who had already had one husband (he committed suicide), was thought to have had sexual relations with her second husband before their marriage. The wives of the other Cabinet members ostracized her. Jackson stood by Eaton, however, as with his marital history he was almost bound to do (he also knew that Rachel had not objected to her). Eventually he grew so irritated with the grundyism of his Cabinet members' womenfolk that he replaced most of the Cabinet, though he could well have been going to do something of the sort anyway. In particular he now transferred his support to Martin Van Buren as heir apparent away from John C. Calhon, who had been his Vice-President during his first term but whose wife strongly disapproved of Margaret Eaton.

Emily's attitude certainly seems to have bordered on the petty. She agreed to receive Mrs Eaton on her uncle-in-law's behalf but she drew the line at visiting the woman. Her scruples caused her to stay away from the White House from May 1830 to September 1831 after the President had given her and her husband the choice either of staying and extending the ordinary courtesies to the Eatons or of surrendering to their prejudices and going elsewhere. Andrew Donelson moved back into the White House at the end of the summer of 1830 but Emily remained obdurate for another year. Jackson evidently fretted at the loss, for despite his pugnacity in the political field the old warrior was a bit of a softy at heart, even attending to Andrew and Emily Donelson's children when they cried at night. The fire-eating victor of New Orleans had turned into Colonel Newcome, and all because he had become mellowed by a teeming family, in the best 19th-century novel tradition.

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