An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States – Andrew Jackson

Oct 22, 2012 by

Andrew Jackson

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Professor Elder, thank you for agreeing to do this series of interviews to let students all across the United States know a bit more about the men who have led this country for more than 200 years. We are up to the seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events?)

Andrew Jackson was born in the Waxhaws region of South Carolina on March 15, 1767, on a farm owned by his aunt and uncle. He was born there, rather than on his father’s farm, because Jackson’s father had died in February of 1767 and his mother had gone to live with her sister. Jackson was able to occasionally attend a local academy run by a minister, but he received far less formal education than any of his presidential predecessors. As a child he helped his relatives tend to the family farm, but his life changed dramatically when he turned 13 in 1780. At that time (five years into the Revolutionary War) a British military force captured Charleston, South Carolina, and began to move into the hinterland.

Jackson volunteered for military service in the South Carolina militia, and became a courier. One night he and his older brother Robert were captured by the British when visiting a cousin, and were confronted by the enemy commander. He ordered Andrew to clean his boots, and Jackson refused. Enraged by the insolence of the 13-year-old, the officer drew his sword and swung it as Jackson’s head. Jackson instinctively raised his arm to shield his face from the blow, but still received a head wound as a result of the attack. He and his brother were then led off to a prisoner-of-war camp, where both contracted small pox. The boys’ mother journeyed to the camp and pleaded for their release, a request that was granted. But upon their return home, Robert Jackson died of the disease. Jackson’s mother, confident that Andrew would survive, then went to tend to two of her nephews that were also held captive by the British.

Unfortunately, she contracted cholera, and died soon after. These deaths, coupled with the demise of an older brother earlier in the war, meant that by the age of 14 Andrew Jackson was the only surviving member of his nuclear family. For a time Jackson lived on the land that his father had left him, but soon decided that farming was not for him. He decided instead to become a lawyer, moving to North Carolina to study for the bar examination. He passed in 1787, and moved to what was then the western-most region of North Carolina.

In 1790, that part of the state became part of territory that would eventually become Tennessee. Jackson proved to be a very competent lawyer, and translated that success into a political career. He was the first individual sent to the United States House of Representatives from Tennessee in 1796, and was selected to serve the state in the US Senate a year later. He soon resigned, but was quickly chosen for the Tennessee Supreme Court. At the same time, he was appointed commander of the Tennessee militia. When the War of 1812 began, Jackson was tasked with leading this force against the Native American allies of the British. Jackson won a significant victory against these foes at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. For this victory, he was made a major general in the US Army, and was given the responsibility of defending the Gulf Coast against an anticipated British invasion. Once he learned that the British had landed in Louisiana south of New Orleans, Jackson quickly moved to the city and established a strong defensive position. The British (committing what we recognize today was a grave tactical error) launched a direct attack on Jackson, and on January 8, 1815, he and his men won a resounding victory. After peace was restored between the two nations Jackson remained in the army, and was sent by President James Monroe to deal with Native American incursions from Florida—at that time a Spanish colony—into Georgia. Rather than simply react to Native American raids, Jackson chose to act on his own initiative and take his army into Florida and destroy the tribal villages. Having succeeded in accomplishing his goals, Jackson then withdrew his forces from Florida. Spain immediately protested, and Monroe was initially in favor of disavowing Jackson and cashiering him from the army.

But, Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, argued for a different policy. He felt that Monroe should inform the Spanish that they had brought Jackson’s invasion on themselves by not controlling the Native Americans living under their jurisdiction. Moreover, he suggested that Monroe should hint that the next time an American army went into Florida, it might simply claim that territory for the United States. Monroe saw the potential of this strategy, and adopted it. Spain, recognizing that it could not militarily confront the United States, chose to withdraw their protest and began negotiations to cede Florida to the United States. These military exploits had made Jackson a national hero, and in 1824 he was a leading candidate for president. But as we saw with our discussion of the presidency of John Quincy Adams, Jackson was denied that office. But because Adams was a failure as president, Jackson unseated him in the election of 1828.

2)      What was he MOST known for?

Unlike Adams, Jackson accomplished a great deal as president. One of his first triumphs came in an area that Adams had failed in: diplomacy. Ever since achieving independence, America had attempted to win the right to trade with the British colonies in the West Indies. No American president prior to Jackson had accomplished this goal, but Jackson succeeded with quiet diplomatic efforts. In the ensuing years, Jackson lowered tariffs on imported goods while keeping the economic barriers high enough to still provide protection for American manufacturers. A number of states, including his native South Carolina, felt that Jackson had not gone far enough to reduce the tariff. South Carolina would soon pass legislation to nullify the tariff within the state’s borders.  Jackson threatened to use military force against the recalcitrant state, and South Carolina backed down. Jackson next took on an entity known as the Bank of the United States.

A financial institution run under the auspices of the federal government, the Bank of the United States appeared to Jackson to be far too powerful. He led an effort to ensure that the bank would not be re-chartered, and the institution went out of existence. Perhaps his most famous, and most controversial, action came in regard to the fate of Native American tribes in the southeastern region of the United States. A number of the states of that region had wanted to remove Native Americans from their territory, but the Native Americans had won a ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States that had guaranteed them their lands. Jackson chose to ignore this ruling, and actually used the US Army to relocate the Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi River. This incident, known to Native Americans as the Trail of Tears, is viewed today as the darkest blot on Jackson’s record.

3)      What would you say were his strengths?

Jackson was absolutely fearless. From standing up to the British officer when he was 13 to the duels he fought as a grown man, Jackson never backed down from a confrontation.  Although we still admire that in a person today, it was an even more desirable attribute to possess back during Jackson’s lifetime. He also clearly was a born leader. Whether in the military or in politics, people just naturally seemed to gravitate towards him. And finally, he was lucky. Almost every controversial act he did turned out well for him and the nation, at least in the short run.

4)      What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

From all accounts, Jackson had a hair-quick temper, and this earned him some powerful enemies throughout his life. As president, he quite often made decisions without consulting anyone, and this alienated others. He was overly loyal to some of his friends, while he refused to see that his enemies might have useful ideas.

5)      What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Jackson clearly represents a watershed in the history of the American presidency. For one thing, he was the first president not to be associated with the original states of Massachusetts and Virginia. And second, even though he became an extremely wealthy planter, he was regarded by the American voters as a common man. To this day, politicians running for president have to demonstrate that they can relate to the average person.  Finally, he is generally regarded as being the president most responsible for introducing the “spoils system” of awarding political patronage.

6)      In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Historians have always regarded him as being a significant president because of his back story. They all recognize how his use of patronage altered the political landscape. But mostly I would say that his place in history was secured when he forced South Carolina to back down on the nullification crisis. As we shall see when discussing President James Buchanan, the next time South Carolina came into conflict with a federal policy, it would not back down.

7)      What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

The nullification crisis was, I believe, his greatest moment. I also give him high marks for using (surprisingly, for a man who had a deep and abiding hatred for the British) quiet diplomacy to open up trade with the British West Indies.

8)      Could you provide a summary statement about our seventh President?

At a political dinner during the height of the nullification crisis, Jackson rose to make a toast. He looked directly at the Southerners at the table and said “To the Union—it must be preserved.”

I  think that’s a fitting statement for him to be remembered by.

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