Both revered and reviled in his own time, the seventh President of the United States Andrew Jackson never backed down from a fight. His “my way or the highway” approach made “Old Hickory” as ruthless with his veto pen as with his dueling pistol. Allen Guelzo, Distinguished Research Scholar in the James Madison Program at Princeton University, tells Jackson’s story.
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No American President has been more beloved and reviled than Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States. This was as true during his own day as it is in ours.
Andrew Jackson was born in South Carolina on March 15, 1767. He was barely ten years old when the American Revolution broke out. The war claimed the lives of his two brothers and his mother, leaving Jackson orphaned, alone, and with a bitter hatred for all things British.
In time, he would get his revenge.
Tall with sharp features topped by a thatch of red hair, Jackson always made an impression. In 1788, after a brief study of the law, he wangled an appointment as a district attorney in Tennessee, then known as the Southwest Territories, began investing in land and slaves, and earned an appointment as major general of the Tennessee militia. Though he had no formal military training, he was a natural leader. The men under his command would follow him anywhere. And if they didn’t, he might hang them. He fought numerous duels. He killed a man, Charles Dickinson, in one. That was Jackson.
As Jackson’s investments and military reputation advanced, so did his political interests. He served in Congress when Tennessee became a state in 1796 and later briefly as senator. His politics were decidedly Jeffersonian. He believed that owning land was the only real wealth; that industry, commerce, and banking were financial traps that ultimately benefited the rich at the expense of everyone else.
In 1812, a new war broke out between the United States and Great Britain. The conflict was a disaster in almost every respect for the ill-prepared Americans. But it ended on a high note thanks to Jackson. Sporting the nickname “Old Hickory” (hickory being a notoriously hard wood) and commanding a hastily assembled army at New Orleans, Jackson won a terrific victory over a British invasion force in 1815. That victory made Jackson the most celebrated man in America.
By 1824, Jackson was ready for a run at the presidency. His two most serious opponents were the Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, and the secretary of state, John Quincy Adams.
Jackson won the popular vote but did not secure a majority in the electoral college, which, according to the Constitution, threw the election into the House of Representatives. There, Clay’s sudden endorsement of Adams swung the chamber and the presidency to Adams.
An infuriated Jackson, convinced that Adams and Clay had colluded against him in a “corrupt bargain,” declared his intention to run again in 1828. This time he beat Adams in a landslide.
As president, he applied his characteristic ruthlessness to the federal budget, slashing infrastructure projects he did not believe were the province of the national government. When the national bank came up for recharter in 1832, he vetoed it.
Jackson, who harbored a lifelong distrust of bankers, insisted that the nation’s assets should be distributed to financial institutions throughout the United States rather than concentrated in one location. Was he right? No. This decision led to the financial depression of 1837. But Jackson never doubted himself. That was Jackson.
Old Hickory’s most controversial decision came in 1830. The issue was tariffs. South Carolina, represented by Jackson’s own vice president John Calhoun, insisted that tariffs be lowered because they favored manufacturing and commercial interests at the expense of Southern plantations. Calhoun assumed Jackson, a Southern planter himself, would agree. Otherwise, Calhoun warned, South Carolina would assert its state sovereignty and nullify the collection of federal tariffs within its boundaries.
But Jackson regarded South Carolina’s nullification threat as an attack on the Constitution — and on his authority as president. The states had voted themselves into a federal Union in 1788, Jackson insisted, and no single state or group of states could defy it.
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