Sunday, February 21, 2010
ANDREW JACKSON, 1767-1845
The word "controversial" surrounds the life and presidency of Andrew Jackson. For reasons that extend far beyond this small post, I don't think he would have had it any other way. He was the son of Scots-Irish immigrants from Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland. His father died before he was born in what was the border area between North and South Carolina. In other words, things didn't start well for Jackson in his life.
Jackson was the last president with any connections to the American Revolution. He, at the age of 13, enlisted himself as a courier for the Revolutionary forces. He and his brother were captured by the British and interned in a prisoner-of-war camp where they both contracted a fever. Their mother, who was to put it mildly feisty, met with the British commander and demanded their release which was granted. She walked them back home, but lost her older son in the process to the fever. Andrew survived. His mother went onto nurse soldiers and herself died from fever. Jackson had lost his whole family to the revolution and he emerged with a healthy hate for the British.
Jackson was basically a self-trained lawyer and he advanced quickly through the politics of Tennessee. In 1796, he was instrumental in Tennessee becoming a state. He spent years as a frontier lawyer in the rough and tumble world of that trade. You would think that Jackson learned to think on his feet.
During the War of 1812, Jackson became a national hero. He defeated the Red Stick Indians, one of whom was Tecumseh, an Ohio hero, who was an ally of the British, at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. Tecumseh was trying to form an alliance of Indians in America in order to stop the tide of American expansion to the west. In this regard he was following in the footsteps of Metacom, or King Phillip, in the the King Phillip's War in 1675-76. I'll get back to my thoughts on Native Americans later.
Jackson became the hero of the War of 1812 when he was the victorious commander in the Battle of New Orleans in January of 1815. He outsmarted the British commander Packenham by setting his troops in an impenetrable fortress and forcing them to attack it head-on. The topography of the battlefield contributed, but Jackson was able to use that to his advantage. Read up on this, it was a masterful battle and Jackson was a great battle commander. He proved himself in the War of 1812 and in the Florida battles with the Seminoles and the Spanish that resulted in the annexation of Florida in 1819 in the Florida Purchase Treaty. The other results of this treaty were in the west Oregon and southwestern US, that solidified the borders of Louisiana Purchase by setting a definite border between the US and British claims.
As president, Jackson was successful in changing the focus of the office from the Revolutionary elites to the common man. Was he a common man? Absolutely. He was orphaned by the death of his parents and he was able to survive and be successful despite his plight. In the 1824 election he garnered more popular votes than his opponents, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and to a lesser extent, Crawford. But in the quirkiness of the American electoral system, he didn't get a majority of the electoral vote. Therefore, the election went into the House of Representatives where it picked JQA and strangely enough, Henry Clay, Speaker of the House, became the Secretary of State. It was rightfully called the "Corrupt Bargain."
He was elected in one of the most partisan, evil campaigns in 1828. His wife Rachel, died before he took office and Jackson forever blamed the vitriol of the campaign, in which she was accused of adultery with Jackson, as she was accused of being married to her former husband when she married Jackson. That aside, he took office as the first president of the common man and the eponymous leader of the Jacksonian era.
I'll write about a couple of Jackson's greatest controversies as president and then we'll talk of his problems with Native Americans (NAs). First, the Nullification Crisis. Jackson's VP was John Calhoun, who by all accounts was a strong state's rights advocate and a big supporter of slavery. Jackson's hands were not clean in this regard. In 1828, the Tariff of Abominations became an issue. It caused the prices of southern goods, which it bought from the north to rise in price. It also caused the British to pay less for cotton, a southern staple. Calhoun came out for nullification of the tariff, based on the compact theory and nullification, put forth by Jefferson and Madison in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. In other words, Calhoun felt that the tariff was in violation of the rights of the citizens of the south and they should nullify it.
Jackson wasn't really in tune with this and threatened to lead a column of miltia to enforce the tariff and hang anyone who violated the law. In Jackson's mind, the constitution did not allow seccession, and he equated this action with seccession, therefore he would have to enforce the law. Calhoun backed down. It tells a lot about Jackson and his fealty to the constitution. I'm not saying I agree with him, but I see his point.
The Bank of the US was a fixture at the founding of the country. It served as an anchor of the early economy. Alexander Hamilton was an advocate of assumption of the debt of the states from the Revolutionary War. First approved in 1791 for twenty years. It expired in 1811. It was renewed in 1816 for twenty more years and was set to expire in 1836. For political purposes Henry Clay required that it be brought up in 1832 for renewal. Jackson vetoed the Bank and it stood as an act that struck for the common man against the rich eastern money interests. Clay wanted to defeat Jackson and in fact, ran as a National Republican in 1832 and tried to defeat him. Clay lost, but in 1833 the Whig Party was created in opposition to Jackson. They elected two candidates but they both died. The Whigs became the Republican Party and elected Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
Jackson vetoed the Bank of the US in 1832 and it was killed to never rear its ugly head again. The downside was there was no regulation of money until the dawn of the Federal Reserve in 1913. We see where this has got us. The Fed is an abject failure and will be for years to come. That's an argument for another day. Jackson vetoed the Bank because he thought it was unconstitutional and put too much power in the hands of an unelected group to control the economy of the US. He was right.
As for the Indian Removal Act of 1830, let's talk. I want to defend Jackson, but that is difficult. Jackson was a slaveholder and didn't much care for Native Americans. His thoughts were a product of his class. He was a white protestant and that gave him a certain point of view that wasn't very different for his place and time. Remember, that Manifest Destiny was rampant and the NAs were in the way. The problem for the NAs was that they had a long history of intertribal warfare. From the time of the pilgrims, they were unable to join in opposition to the Europeans. Had they been able to do so, they would have driven them back into the sea.
Two great NA heroes tried to pull their people together to the extent that they put some serious pressure on the whites and represented the high water mark of the opposition. The first was Metacom, the second was Tecumseh. They never could overcome the intertribal warfare and their efforts failed. I would say that the NAs failed to capitalize on their advantage due to the fractiousness of the tribes.
The "nobel savage" paradigm is something I don't buy. The NAs appear to be similar to their predecessors throughout history. Their time had passed and they were overcome by a superior people. I don't want to intimate that I feel that the Europeans were better or smarter, but I feel they were more advanced and technology wills out. In this case it did. The NAs were a brave foe, but they lost out to a technologically superior people and that's the key. Right or wrong it happened. You can't relive history.
When it's all said and done, Jackson was an important president. He took the US to a new level and his influence extended through the subsequent elections of 1836, and 1844. In 1836, his VP Martin Van Buren won. He had a tragic presidency including the Panic of 1837. William Henry Harrison was elected on the Whig ticket, however, he died early in 1841 and John Tyler took over. (Thanks to Carl for noticing I made a mistake with the date. I knew it but, didn't edit properly.) With the help of Jackson, James K. Polk was elected in 1844 on the expansionist, Manifest Destiny platform. I will talk about Polk later. Suffice it to say that he expanded the US to its present boundaries.
Jackson died in 1845. His home, the Hermitage, is one of the most visited locations in America. I've always wanted to go there and I will this summer. Polk's house is about 60 miles from there. Two great American presidents and I'll visit their houses this summer. History is good.