When he was 13, but more man than boy, Andrew Jackson got his first taste of war, helping his mother tend to the casualties after the Battle of Waxhaws. The May 1780 battle became, in legend, a massacre of defenseless colonials by British redcoats under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Continentals who attempted to surrender were run through and slashed by the men under Tarleton, who was everything that Jackson was not. An aristocrat cavalryman and a fop, Tarleton eventually went back to England and became a member of Parliament and a general, and had his portrait painted by both Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. He was ultimately made a baronet and in 1820 a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath.
Jackson, a hardscrabble rebel born somewhere close to the border between North and South Carolina, was penniless, proud, and tough. And there were much bigger things than baronetcies in his future.
The following year, Jackson and his brother were captured by the British. One of the officers holding Jackson—but not the hated Tarleton—had picked up some mud on his boots and ordered Jackson to clean them. When Jackson refused, the officer slashed at him with his saber. Jackson deflected the blow, slightly, with his hand but still took a deep cut to his scalp. The wound healed, but the scar was still plainly visible, many years later, when Jackson stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to take the oath of office as president, and a breeze lifted his hair just enough to expose the angry mark left by the wound.
The psychic scar remained also. Jackson would recall, later, how on one occasion he had watched, from concealment, as Tarleton rode by and how easily he could have shot the man they called "the Butcher" out of his fine saddle. But Jackson would get his revenge on the British, and then some, at the Battle of New Orleans, where his soldiers killed so many redcoats that he would write, about looking over the dead scattered there, "I never had so grand and awful an idea of the resurrection as on that day."
Even in his dying years Jackson was convinced that the British were plotting to get a foothold in the free state of Texas and wrote of the need to "take and lock the door against all danger of foreign influence."
Jackson was a fighter, in a sense that makes the contemporary politician, bragging on himself as "always fighting" for one great cause or another, come off as something of a joke. Jackson was what we would call the real deal. He spilled blood, his own and his enemy's. The saber cut was just the first of several serious wounds. When he took the oath of office as seventh president of the United States, there were two bullets embedded in his body. One was the result of a duel he had fought with a man who insulted Jackson's wife, accusing her of infidelity and bigamy. She and Jackson had married thinking, mistakenly, that she was legally divorced. When the divorce was finalized, Jackson and Rachel had quickly gone through the rituals again. For the rest of his life, Andrew Jackson would tolerate no insult aimed at her.
He met Charles Dickinson, who was known to be a good shot, near the Red River in Logan, Kentucky, on May 30, 1806. Dickinson got off the first shot and the ball hit Jackson in the chest, very close to the heart. But he remained upright, though bleeding heavily and in pain. Jackson steadied himself and took his time with his aim. So much time, in fact, that witnesses later called it dishonorable. His shot, when he finally took it, hit Dickinson, who died later that day. The ball in Jackson's chest lay too close to the heart to risk extracting it. So it remained there for the rest of his life.
In 1813 a feud between Jackson and the Benton brothers boiled over in the streets of Nashville. Jackson was shot again. This time in the shoulder. Doctors wanted to amputate Jackson's arm but he said that he would "just as soon keep it." That bullet stayed with him until 1832, when a doctor removed it—without anesthesia. By then, Jackson and Thomas Hart Benton had patched up their differences. Jackson was president of the United States and Thomas Hart Benton was a senator from Missouri, and they were political allies in one of the many epic political battles of the Jackson presidency. This one over the Bank of the United States.
But before he and Benton could become allies and before Jackson could take on the bank and its supporters, there were many more fights. These were political, not physical, but still intense and remorseless, leaving scars that were real if not so visible as the one on Jackson's head.
Andrew Jackson remains one of the more troubling figures in American political history: the original populist, maker of the modern Democratic party, defender of the common man. . . and a defender, also, of slavery, who owned slaves himself and treated them with his customary hard hand. And then there were the Indians whom he fought mercilessly and subdued in battles like the one at Horseshoe Bend in Alabama, in 1814, and whose exile to the lands beyond the Mississippi River he engineered. The Trail of Tears was his doing, although the worst of the death march took place after he had gone home to Tennessee.
The fight that defined his place in American political history was the election of 1824. Jackson, the frontiersman, was one of four candidates and received the greatest share, but not a majority, of the electoral votes cast. Jackson's 99 electors gave him a plurality and put him ahead of John Quincy Adams at 84. But 131 were needed to win. Jackson also ran ahead of the others in the popular vote. Which counted for nothing—except to stir passions in arguments about fairness. Of which there were to be many.
So the thing went to the House of Representatives where Henry Clay, one of the presidential candidates, was the speaker. The House was to determine which of the three top finishers would become president. This cut Clay out, since he had finished fourth. But he had those electoral votes, and he had his own agenda, namely, denying Jackson the presidency, which he believed would be "the greatest misfortune that could befall the country."
When the House voting was done, John Quincy Adams was the new president. He promptly named Henry Clay his secretary of state.
This became, in the minds of Jackson and his supporters, the "corrupt bargain." Jackson put it colorfully, "So you see, the Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver—his end will be the same."
It was all done within the rules and wasn't corrupt in the sense that favors or cash were exchanged. Clay was arguably the right man to be secretary of state. And John Quincy Adams was certainly qualified to be president. More qualified, perhaps, than anyone in the land. Well bred, well educated, experienced in government, and enlightened in his views.
But while Jackson had been fighting the British and getting his scalp laid open by that officer's saber, John Quincy Adams had been in Europe, at his father's side while he conducted diplomacy for the would-be republic. Jackson and Adams could not have been more different. Adams understood the rituals of court. Jackson knew war on the frontier. That was his essence. Adams had his eye on the enlightened future of America, Jackson on the country's immediate and tumultuous expansion.
The bitterness and anger over the "corrupt bargain" ate like acid into the Adams presidency. He had entertained visions of an era in which "the spirit of improvement is abroad upon the earth." He had plans for, among other projects, a national university and saw government as the duty and calling of educated and enlightened men. He despised the kind of partisan politics that had come into being around the figure of Jackson, who would be running again in 1828.
Congress would not go along with Adams's plans, and his administration failed and floundered. Jackson wrote of Adams's big vision, "I shudder for the consequence—if not checked by the voice of the people, it must end in consolidation and then in despotism."
But if Jackson feared the consequences of a strong and energetic executive, it was an opinion based not on principle but on the current occupant of the White House. When it was his time, he would bring more energy to the executive than John Quincy Adams or anyone else could have dreamed of.
Well before the election of 1828, Jackson's supporters were organizing and preparing. Martin Van Buren, then a congressman from New York and the most able of Jackson's supporters and lieutenants, assembled a coalition of "the planters of the South and the plain Republicans of the north." What this coalition became was a formidable political party.
The campaign, from which Jackson remained aloof, was unambiguously dirty. His supporters floated stories about how, when he was a minister to Russia, John Quincy Adams had procured women for the czar. The Adams forces brought up all the old rumors about Jackson's wife. She was a bigamist, and Jackson's mother, by the way, a whore.
For all the sleaze, there was an important and essential subtext to the campaign. It was a fight between what Lincoln might have called two "conceptions" of the new and growing nation. What it was and would be. The conception represented by Adams was of a nation led by natural aristocrats who would see to the general welfare. That of Jackson and his supporters was of a nation in which the people ruled, through the instrument of those they elected. The distinctions were between the urban and rural. The yeomanry and the aristocracy. The common people and the elite.
Jackson won decisively. Turnout was heavy, four times that of the election of 1824. Jackson won just under 70 percent of the electoral votes and 56 percent of the popular vote. But the price was heavy. His wife suffered intensely from the attacks against her during the campaign. "The enemies of the General have dipped their arrows in wormwood and gall and sped them at me," she wrote. Her husband's election did not relieve a heavy sense of melancholy. Three days before Christmas, she died of a heart attack. They had been together for nearly 40 years.
"My mind is so disturbed," Jackson wrote to a friend, and "my heart is nearly broke."
Jackson left Tennessee for Washington still grieving over her death and angry at the slanders directed at her during the campaign. His enemies had cost him first the presidency and then his wife. It had never been the plan for him to go to Washington and preside over another "era of good feelings." Compromise and civility were not high on his list of virtues. He was going to Washington as he went everywhere in his life, to fight.
His inaugural address was almost cryptic. He promised to "keep steadily in view the limitations as well as the extent of the executive power, trusting thereby to discharge the functions of my office without transcending its authority." He would, as well, "observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy" and would "give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people."
And, finally, he promised to undertake "the task of reform, which will require particularly the correction of those abuses that have brought the patronage of the Federal Government into conflict with the freedom of elections, and the counteraction of those causes which have disturbed the rightful course of appointment and have placed or continued power in unfaithful or incompetent hands."
Pedants might argue that he was 0-for-3 on those promises. Especially as regards the Indians.
Still, he was now president, and it was time to celebrate. Throngs of spectators followed President Jackson to the White House, which, in those days, was open to the public on inauguration days. The numbers overwhelmed good order. People climbed in through the ground floor windows, broke some furniture, and left a mess. Jackson was obliged to leave by a back entrance until order was restored. Accounts of the episode exaggerated it until it became a kind of drunken brawl and served to confirm the worst fears of Jackson's political enemies, who believed that with his election, the age of mob rule had arrived.
Jackson quickly went to work on those patronage abuses he'd spoken of. He believed the government was full of corrupt officeholders who had been given their jobs as political favors. He seems to have been sincere in this belief and in his conviction that "rotation" of these positions would be good for the health of the republic. So his administration began removing people from their positions, replacing them with, inevitably, its "own people." One of his supporters in the Senate, William L. Marcy, of New York, made the case about as succinctly as possible, saying that in politics, as in war, "to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy."
If the aim was to weed out corruption, the new administration came up short. Particularly in the case of one Samuel Swartwout, who had served with Jackson in the Army and was made collector of customs for the New York City port, a post he used to line his own pockets. By the time he'd fled the country and landed in Europe, Swartwout had embezzled more than a million dollars, which was real money in those days.
Such was the spoils system. Jackson's defenders argue that his intentions were good, that the bureaucracy of the day had grown sclerotic where it wasn't corrupt and that the changing of personnel was a good and invigorating thing. And maybe so. The age of Jackson introduced the tradition of office-seeking and politically inspired appointments that eventually led to the creation of the civil service system. So perhaps Jackson had it right. If it was too easy for him to replace a federal officeholder, sometimes on a whim and often for reasons of raw politics, it has since become far too difficult, as a result of reforms, to get rid of the incompetent and even the plainly corrupt. One wonders how Jackson would handle, for instance, the Department of Veterans Affairs of today.
The "rotation" of officeholders was just the first of many battles Jackson carried out during his two terms in office. It was one fight after another, and Jackson picked many of those fights. A few were forced on him, and he did not back down. One suspects that Jackson's plans did not include dealing with a sex scandal of the 19th-century sort. But in this, as in many other things, he and his administration were ahead of the times.
The "scandal" involved Jackson's secretary of war, John Henry Eaton, who was the president's only personal friend among his cabinet officers. Eaton had married a young widow named Margaret O'Neale Timberlake, considered by the proper ladies of Washington a bit, well, loose. The wives of his cabinet members shunned Peggy Eaton, and Jackson viewed it as the same kind of treatment that he believed had driven his Rachel to her grave.
He was convinced, too, that his vice president, John C. Calhoun, was using the situation to push Eaton out of the cabinet and strengthen his own position in the administration. Jackson and Calhoun feuded to the point of severing all but the most necessary relations.
Among the members of Jackson's cabinet, only Martin Van Buren, the secretary of state, sided with the president. When he and Eaton offered to resign, Jackson accepted, and demanded the resignations of the rest of the cabinet. Jackson then named Van Buren ambassador to Great Britain, but the Senate deadlocked on approving the nomination. Calhoun broke the tie by voting against Van Buren, who then became Jackson's choice for vice president in 1832, which may have been the most significant consequence of the entire business. That and the enduring and mutual loathing between Jackson and Calhoun.
The feud became something more than a clash of two formidable personalities and, in fact, anticipated the great crisis and tragedy of American history, the Civil War.
The question of union had not been settled. Not, anyway, in the minds of some whose loyalty was to their state and, usually, to the institution of slavery. This was nowhere more true than in South Carolina, Calhoun's home state.
Southerners in general and South Carolinians in particular were opposed to high tariffs that favored New England at their expense. Congress had legislated some reductions in tariffs in 1832, but this was not enough in the view of South Carolinians, who called a convention where they declared the tariff unconstitutional—a move known as nullification. The state would block the collection of the tariff at its ports and also organize to defend itself if the government in Washington intervened.
Jackson wasn't opposed to further reductions in the tariff. This was negotiable. But on the business of "nullification" he was, well, Jacksonian. He made threats, in private, to march on South Carolina and hang John Calhoun.
He had also taken such prudent steps as warning the forts guarding South Carolina's coast to prepare for attacks, thus anticipating by almost 30 years the firing on Fort Sumter. Jackson also arranged for the stationing of vessels off the coast that would be charged with stopping shipping for the purpose of collecting the tariffs. And, finally, he delivered a conciliatory message in which he proposed further lowering the tariff and called for "moderation and good sense."
Then, a few days later, he came down like thunder with a proclamation on the issue of "nullification," which he called a "metaphysical subtlety in pursuit of an impractical theory." The Constitution, Jackson declared, "forms a government, not a league."
"Be not deceived by names," he threatened. "Disunion by armed force is treason. Are you really ready to incur
Civil war and armed conflict was avoided, and the inevitable was postponed for a few years. The cooler heads were those of Henry Clay and, oddly, Calhoun who may, rightly, have feared that Jackson would indeed march on South Carolina. The crisis passed. Clay and Calhoun claimed credit, which Jackson didn't seem to mind. Though years later, when he was out of the White House and back in Tennessee, the story is told that he regretted he "didn't shoot Henry Clay and . . . hang John C. Calhoun."
Of all the fights in which he so robustly engaged while president, the one that most engaged and typified the man was fought over the rechartering—and, indeed, the existence—of the Second Bank of the United States.
Jackson's opposition to the bank was as much visceral as cerebral. He made Jeffersonian arguments but he also, plainly, just didn't like the idea of fancy bankers getting their fingers on public money and prospering thereby. He once said, "Ever since I read the history of the South Sea Bubble, I have been afraid of banks."
It was of no consequence to Jackson that the bank was doing what it was designed to do: namely, providing some financial stability to the economic affairs of a chaotic young nation. Jackson wanted it gone.
So when, after much maneuvering, a bill to recharter the bank arrived on his desk in July 1832, he vetoed it. The arguments and the personalities of the fight have long since died off, but the language of Jackson's veto message resonated down the years and might well be taken as a populist manifesto.
It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers—who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.
Because it was Jackson, and his spirit had so permeated that of the age, the fight not only went on but intensified. The veto became an issue in his campaign for reelection against his old enemy Henry Clay. Jackson won the election, but opposition to him ran hot enough to forge a new party, the Whigs.
Having won the fight against rechartering the bank and the election, Jackson might have been content to let things run their course. The bank's charter would, after all, run out in 1836.
But Jackson was never one to pass up a fight or to show leniency to an enemy who needed to be punished. The president of the bank—Nicholas Biddle—had worked hard against Jackson's reelection, so Jackson determined to withdraw the deposits of the government from the bank. Either on principle or out of pique, or both.
But this was not so easy as it might have appeared. According to the bank charter, only the secretary of the Treasury could authorize such withdrawals and he needed, first, to clear them with the House. When his Treasury secretary refused to make the withdrawals, Jackson fired him and eventually replaced him with someone who would, and who got it done while Congress was not in session.
This was too much even for some of Jackson's allies in Congress. He was acting, they said, as though he were above the law. Indeed, and it was a precedent for much that has followed. And it was the essence of the Age of Jackson.
The Senate in 1834 was controlled by the new Whig party. It refused to confirm the appointment of Jackson's new Treasury secretary, and it passed a resolution of "censure" against Jackson for having assumed "authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and laws, but in derogation of both."
Jackson fired back. The Senate, he said, had done a backdoor impeachment, neglecting the formalities of a trial and a two-thirds vote.
Jackson supporters launched a campaign to overturn this constitutional curiosity and were successful in the waning days of his second term. The effort was led by Thomas Hart Benton, who had brawled with Jackson in Nashville all those years before. Henry Clay reacted to the expungement of the censure resolution saying, "The Senate is no longer a place for any decent man."
Thus, the Age of Jackson. He had fought many fights, won more than he lost, and changed the conception of the presidency. And he presided over the creation of the strongest and most durable political party in American history.
There is no contemporary Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to write The Age of Jackson today and win a Pulitzer for the book. Jackson fails to excite and rightly repels the contemporary imagination for what he did to the Indians and did not do for the slaves. Nor is there any point in arguing that he was a man of his times or anything of that sort. He owned slaves and enabled the expansion of slavery even as he was pushing the exile of the Indians. Case closed.
But it is fascinating to think of the old frontier brawler who could fight nearly to the death with Thomas Hart Benton over an insult to honor and then become his political ally. Fascinating, also, to consider how he was seen in the consciousness of his times. There was, for instance, this from Tocqueville:
General Jackson, whom the Americans have for the second time chosen to be at their head, is a man of violent character and middling capacities; nothing in the whole of his career indicated him to have the qualities needed for governing a free people; moreover, a majority of the enlightened classes in the Union have always been against him. Who then put him on the President's chair and keeps him there still? It is all due to the memory of a victory he won twenty years ago under the walls of New Orleans.
And then there is this more spirited appraisal from the pen of Herman Melville:
Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! . . . who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons.
He was, then, the apotheosis of the common man. The first great American populist. And Donald Trump couldn't polish his boots.
Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.