Jackson was a controversial figure if ever one existed in the White House. He was elected the 7th president of the USA and was the first president to be born on American soil. Jackson himself was an orphan. His father died before his birth. One brother was killed in a Revolutionary War skirmish. His other brother died of wounds suffered when he and the young Jackson were captured as young teens by British soldiers. His brother was hit over the head with the butt of a rifle. Jackson escaped with a large gash on his face and hand from the sword of a British soldier. The reason for the wound? Jackson at 14 refused to bow and shine the officer's boots. Jackson's mother would also die while away trying to care for more wounded Americans from attacks from the British. No one knows how Jackson's mother died or even where she was buried. It would be a memory that would haunt Jackson forever. As a young man, he bounced from house to house as many were unable to control him. He had a temper and a fervor about him that would cause him to seek out a fight if one wasn't already available. One classmate said of Jackson that he definitely wasn't the tallest or strongest, but if you picked him up and flung him away from you three different times, you could expect Jackson to be back in your face for a fourth time. If Jackson couldn't defeat you with brute strength and determination, he'd simply outlast you. Nevertheless, victory would be his.
Victory came in marriage when he married Rachel Donelson. The problem of course was that Rachel was already married at the time the two exchanged vows. Rachel was married to an older man who was abusive and mistreated her. Jackson after threatening to kill her husband scared him into supposedly filing for divorce. Jackson took Rachel down to Mississippi where they would exchange vows and begin living together as husband and wife. Unfortunately, Rachel's husband never filed for divorce as the couple expected and wouldn't actually do so for a few years after the Jacksons' pseudo marriage. This of course was something that Jackson's political opponents would use against him his whole career. Cries of bigamist and adulteress followed Rachel her whole life. Those cries and defamations were at their worst when Jackson was elected president for the first time in 1828. In fact the stress of the election and the violent attacks by John Quincy Adams and his supporters was said to have been responsible for the heart attack that Rachel suffered shortly after Jackson found out he had won the White House. Rachel never lived to see the White House as she died at their home, The Hermitage, just a few days after suffering the attack. Jackson was entirely crushed and at the same time sincerely provoked and spirited to defeat his enemies and to get vengeance on those who he believed had caused the death of his wife. He would never marry again and instead through his passion and attention into his connected family, his nephew and niece, Andrew Jackson Donelson and his wife Emily, and of course the country, which Jackson also considered to be family.
Jackson immediately made an impression in Washington. His interpretation of the presidency was that it was his job to represent the people's voice. The electoral system of the day necessitated that the American people practically only voted for delegates and then entrusted them to vote for Congress. The Electoral College of course was in existence for the presidency. Jackson took issue with the notion that Congress controlled the government and that the president worked for the Congress. This was the modus operandi for the previous administrations, but Jackson's would be remarkably different. Jackson instituted the "spoils system" in which he believed to the victor went the spoils. This meant that instead of keeping the Cabinet staffers of previous presidents and administrations, Jackson fired people and brought in his own. In fact, the previous six presidents combined replaced less than 50 government officials during the nation's young existence. Jackson on the other hand would replace 919. He was setting his mark.
When Jackson made up his mind, there would be no stopping him. And for those who got in the way of what he wanted, he would either bulldoze through them or find a way to go around them to still accomplish what he felt was right. It was Jackson when as a General, he decided to interpret a letter from then President John Quincy Adams as permission to war against the Indians and the Spanish in Florida to conquer it for American possession. No such orders ever existed and many wanted Jackson brought up on charges. Nevertheless, he was acquitted and Florida became an American possession due in large part to Jackson's conquest. Jackson of course is best known in battle from the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 as part of the War of 1812. The curious thing about the battle was that it took place after the peace treaty was signed to end the war. There are many who believe Jackson knew the war was over, but desired to punish the British so bad, that he went forward with the attack and feigned ignorance at the treaty. After winning the battle, Jackson would set up martial law and put himself in charge.
Jackson was a religious man in that his mother wanted him to be a minister and his late wife, a strong Christian herself, had pleaded with him to understand that as President, Jackson would be responsible to do right for the people and to be an instrument of God Himself. After having fought the British and the Indians in the War of 1812 and after having seen Indian savagery first hand while a general, one of Jackson's first orders of business was the removal of all Indians from the nation's lands. Jackson himself recognized that not all Indians were savages and he even recognized that some had tried to live with the "white man." Jackson however couldn't get the images of beheaded women and children, pregnant women disemboweled with fetuses removed and the like. He couldn't forget the fact that each time a European power sought to make a move on the United States, the Indians all too easily united with the enemy. In Jackson's mind, the only way to make Americans safe both at home and abroad was to remove the Indians. This battle led to government led massacres of entire Indian tribes, the Cherokee's Trail of Tears, and the Seminole War of Florida.
With this kind of temperament, Jackson was obviously always in fights. He fought Congress tooth and toenail for his entire 8 year tenure. He was used to fighting though. From his young days of skirmishes with the British in the Revolutionary War, to his barroom brawls and street duels, Jackson wasn't afraid of anyone or anything. His two duels were used against him many times in politics as he killed a man in cold blood in a duel after the man insulted Rachel and called her a whore. The other duel was more like an argument that got out of hand. Jackson went after Thomas Hart Benton and his brother because they too were talking negatively about Rachel. This time though Jackson only had a whip against Benton's pistol. Nevertheless, Jackson went after Benton, but his brother shot Jackson through the arm before Jackson could reach Benton. Ironically, later in life Jackson and Thomas Hart Benton would become great friends and allies in Washington.
This fighting spirit did Jackson good when during his second administration, he decided to turn his full attention towards the Bank of the United States. Jackson through research and digging discovered what he believed was hard evidence that the Bank's president had been using the people's money to sway elections, buy off politicians, and engage in corrupt and sinful practices. Jackson considered the American people to have been cheated by the Bank. He also blamed the Bank for his first election loss for the presidency in 1824 when though he had beaten Quincy Adams in the popular vote, the House of Representatives ultimately decided to name John Quincy Adams the president over Jackson. Jackson's actions against the bank were historic. When his Treasury Secretary refused to do as Jackson wanted, he fired him and took matters in his own hands. He vetoed the Bank's rechartering, removed all the nation's deposits from the bank, and distributed them to the states' banks across the country to encourage interstate trade and commerce. Jackson feared a single financial institutions controlling the American dollar and interests the way the National Bank had been doing. His fear would be a real reality today.
Jackson's veto of the bank recharter wasn't is only veto. In fact, Jackson used the Constitutional veto more so than all of the previous administrations combined. He wasn't afraid to tell Congress no regardless of what they said or threatened. These vetoes would ultimately cause many to label him a monarch and a usurper of the Constitution. Jackson on the other hand felt he was perfectly in line with the Constitution and that Congress had usurped the Constitution many years before his presidency and had not stopped. Men like Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun fought Jackson vigorously during his 8 years and were the champions behind the calls for censure and even possible impeachment to stop Jackson from taking away power from Congress.
Of course, Jackson's battles with Calhoun were less about power and more about the Union. What many fail to realize is that the Civil War almost broke out a full three decades earlier than what it did. South Carolina had been proponents of the notion of nullification which allowed them to decide that any law coming out of Washington they didn't feel was right could be considered null and void and didn't have to be followed. South Carolina was arguing against the tariff on paper, but the seeds of the disagreement would ultimately be revealed as slavery and the government's right to tell states what they could and could not do. The issue got so heated that South Carolina began raising up its own army and Jackson had Congress pass the Force Bill which enhanced Jackson's ability to call on Federal forces to go stomp out a rebellion on American soil. The fighter in Jackson was more than ready to level Calhoun and his beloved South Carolina, but Jackson knew the government's reputation was at stake and instead played a "chess" game with the rogue state. Ultimately, Civil War was avoided and pushed down the road, but Jackson's leadership remained the reason the Union stayed together in the 1830's.
As I've said, Jackson didn't back down from a fight. Whether it was facing off with France over its decision to not repay money owed to the United States (eventually Britain got involved and negotiated a peace not long before Jackson was said to be ready to wipe France off the map), or whether it was Jackson himself facing would be assassins head on, Jackson's courage, tenacity, and determination made him a force to be reckoned with. On two occasions, Jackson was almost assassinated. One occasion led a man whom Jackson had recently dismissed from the Navy run up to attack Jackson and hit the President in the face. The hit bloodied Jackson's face, but the assassin stopped the attack once Jackson didn't go down from the blow. Instead Jackson began to slowly stand up from where he was seated with a glare deep into the eyes of Mr. Randolph. The glare was said to have shook Randolph up so much that he forfeited the attack and was tackled by members of Jackson's Cabinet. Another attempt came as Jackson was leaving a funeral. A deranged man whom Jackson believed was hired to kill him by his political enemy in Mississippi, Mr. Poindexter, pulled out two pistols and fired both at Jackson. Both pistols strangely misfired. Instead of running to hide, Jackson pulled out his cane and began chasing the assassin as he swung wildly in an attempt to beat the would be assassin to death himself.
The only other president the nation has ever had that could hold a candle to Andrew Jackson's fighting spirit is Theodore Roosevelt. Not coincidentally, Roosevelt was a huge admirer of Jackson. No one studying Jackson can rightfully stand by everything the former President said and did no matter how much he is to be admired. He was a slave owner and didn't view it as a bad thing. He was said to have treated his slaves as family, but nevertheless, he supported slavery. Regardless of his reasons for Indian Removal, Jackson's policies were often heartless and he even went against a Supreme Court ruling to stop Indian Removal as he pushed the Cherokee out of the state of Georgia for good. Yet for all his many wrongs, Jackson has many, many goods. Upon leaving the presidency after two terms as was the custom set by George Washington, Jackson retired to The Hermitage in Nashville, TN where he could visit the grave of his dear Rachel more regularly if he so desired and be near his family. Jackson made a profession of faith at his home after a Sunday morning service and received Communion shortly after. When asked about Heaven and suffering, Jackson would constantly assail against anyone who felt their life was unfair as he would talk about the sufferings of Christ for the world. As Jackson would say, "His Savior" had suffered and died a cruel death. Showing Jackson's attitude towards slavery, he claimed that Heaven was a place for all men, black and white. He wanted to know that his family and slaves had also believed on Jesus so they could be reunited in Heaven as he would say.
A perfect man he was not. A great man he was no doubt. I have visited the Hermitage once before several years ago. We will be going back this summer and after reading this book and hopefully a few more on him, this next trip will be even more special.