U.S. President Andrew Jackson certainly had a background tailor-made to be a life long politician. And he certainly was a shrewd and seasoned one. But what did “Old Hickory” do to earn the right to be on the US twenty-dollar bill? Born in the Carolina wilderness, he was a true son of the American Revolution. His quiet frontier life changed forever when the British Redcoats invaded in 1780.
At only 14, he volunteered in the local militia, serving as a rebel courier. Captured once by the British, the boy brazenly refused to shine a Redcoat officer’s boots. The red-faced officer drew his saber and struck him across the cheek, leaving a permanent scar. Such hot-headedness would get Jackson into many fights. Tall and wiry, with fiery red hair and ice blue eyes, he certainly looked the part of a loose cannon.
After the war, Jackson decided to become a lawyer and moved to Nashville in the Tennessee territory to practice law. There he met and married Rachel Robards, a young woman who was leaving a very troubled marriage. To his shock, he later learned her divorce had never been finalized! It was a scandalous detail that would hound him the rest of his public life.
The press accused Rachel of bigamy and Jackson of adultery.
Jackson’s willingness to physically fight any of his wife’s accusers earned him a reputation as a volatile man with a VERY short-temper. He even challenged one of his critics to a formal duel. Despite being wounded in the chest by the 1st shot, Jackson stood his ground and fired a round that killed his opponent. Like the facial saber scar, he’d carry that lead bullet in his chest the rest of his life.
In 1798, the Jacksons acquired The Hermitage plantation in Tennessee and became slave owners as well. The loud, gregarious Jackson was popular amongst the menfolk, fond of both drinking, dancing, and gambling. Though at first reluctant, Jackson was convinced by local colleagues and officials to enter politics. He won his first election, becoming Tennessee’s first U.S. House Representative, followed later by its U.S. Senator.
The Hero of New Orleans
When the War of 1812 with Britain erupted, Jackson was appointed Major General of the Tennessee militia, though he had zero military experience. Nevertheless, he led 1,500 troops on a 5 month campaign against the Creek Indians (who were British-allies at the time). He defeated the Creeks and forced the chiefs to sign a treaty ceding 20 million acres to the U.S. government, over half their territory in Georgia and Alabama.
Jackson was then ordered south to defend New Orleans from a British invasion. The two sides finally clashed in January of 1815. Although outnumbered 2-to-1, Jackson led 5,000 U.S. soldiers to a surprise victory over the British in The Battle of New Orleans (hence the presence of his statue in Jackson Square). The British suffered 2,000 casualties while the Americans only 70.
Jackson received a Congressional medal and his status as a daring national war hero was forever solidified. He was so popular amongst his troops they gave him a nickname he carried the rest of his life.
They called him “Old Hickory” because he was “as tough as hickory wood” in battle.
Jackson’s exploits made him a political star, and Tennessee nominated him for President. In the election of 1824, against John Quincy Adam, Jackson won the popular vote, but neither man won the Electoral College. The Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, threw his support behind Adams, who later made Clay his Secretary of State, once Congress chose John Quincy as the winner.
Jackson raged publicly against what he called a “corrupt political bargain” and resigned from the Senate in protest. Undeterred, he spent the next 3 years campaigning for president, presenting himself not as a Washington politician, but as an outsider, a representative of the American people or “the Common Man.”
His campaign slogan was “Andrew Jackson, the Will of the People.”
In 1828, after a 2nd ugly campaign where the old bigamy and adultery charges rose up once again against him again, Jackson defeated the incumbent John Quincy Adams by a landslide. His pious wife Rachel though had been deeply affected by the cruel campaign and her smearing in the press. She died of a heart attack before entering the White House. Jackson never remarried. The couple never had children of their own, but adopted the 3 sons of Rachel’s deceased brother.
Jackson became America’s 1st frontier president, calling himself “The People’s President.” His opponents called him an Unstable Jackass, a name he took a liking to. So much so, the donkey became the emblem of his Democratic Party. Jackson was the 1st president to invite the public to attend the White House Inaugural Ball. A large and rowdy mob arrived, got promptly drunk on the free booze, and began to break furniture and shatter dishes!
Early in his first term, Jackson dismissed his entire cabinet as he watched them slowly distance themselves from his unpredictable behavior. So he relied on a group of close Tennessee friends and advisors instead— his opponents calling them the Kitchen Cabinet. He would eventually replace much of the Executive Branch, loudly charging them with either incompetency or corruption.
“One man with courage makes a majority.”Andrew Jackson
Despite his popularity with the people, Jackson’s presidency had its share of controversies. He had an oversized ego and demanded absolute loyalty. Still angry that he lost the 1824 election, he believed in the Popular Vote and attempted to abolish the Electoral College. As his opponents grew, they coalesced into a new political party, united in their common aversion to Jackson. The Whigs were formed to “defend liberty and protest the despotic policies of King Andrew.”
While prior presidents vetoed bills they deemed unconstitutional, Jackson vetoed bills he simply did not like. He vetoed the bill to renew the Second Bank of the U.S., which he felt favored “the Elites.” His opponent for re-election in 1832, Henry Clay, believed the bank fostered a strong economy, making it his central campaign issue. The public supported Jackson’s populism instead and he won re-election with 56% of the popular vote and five times as many electoral votes.
Jackson faced another opponent however in his own Vice President. South Carolina believed new federal tariffs favored the North and vowed to secede. A furious Jackson threatened to use the military to enforce the law. VP John C. Calhoun supported his home state and became the first U.S. Vice President to resign. A compromise was passed, the crisis averted, but it foreshadowed South Carolina’s role in the coming Civil War 30 years later.
During Jackson’s 2nd term, he was the target of the 1st assassination attempt against a U.S. President.
An unemployed housepainter fire a pistol at the president just outside the Capitol. When the gun failed, the assassin pulled out a second pistol, which also misfired. An irate Jackson charged the shooter, and hammered him with his cane until others, including Representative Davy Crockett, subdued him. Of course, this only added to his legend amongst his followers.
Jackson is perhaps best known for his controversial policies toward Native Americans, who were being pushed slowly westward by frontiersmen. Jackson believed the backbone of America was family farms—so to maintain that growth – new farmland was needed, even at the expense of peaceful American tribes, considered autonomous nations – Creeks, Seminoles, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee.
In 1830, Jackson signed the infamous Indian Removal Act.
The Indian Removal Act gave him power to force treaties on tribes, resulting in their forced displacement to the Oklahoma territory west of the Mississippi. Jackson let the state of Georgia violate a treaty and seize 9 million acres of Cherokee land. Although the Supreme Court ruled Georgia had no authority to do so, Jackson refused to enforce the decision. The so-called Trail of Tears forced the westward relocation of an estimated 15,000 Cherokees. It claimed the lives of 4,000 men, women, children and elderly, who died along the way of starvation, exposure and disease.
Andrew Jackson was a 2 term president. His successor, Democrat Martin Van Buren defeated the Whigs and won the 1836 election. Due to Jackson’s often erratic fiscal and banking policies, he left his successor with an economy on the brink of collapse, leading to The Panic of 1837 and America’s first economic depression.
After leaving the White House, Jackson retired to his Hermitage in Tennessee, his popularity now dried up due to the state in which he left the country. He died in 1845, at the age of 78. The cause of death – lead poisoning from the bullet still stubbornly wedged in his chest after all these years. At the time of his death he owned 150 slaves at his Hermitage plantation.
His face was placed on the U.S. $20 bill in 1928 by an act of Congress. Jackson continues to be regarded as one of the most polarizing and controversial of U.S .presidents due to his brutal treatment of Native Americans in the South. He is a personal favorite of the 45th U.S. president, Donald Trump, who had a portrait of Old Hickory hung prominently in the White House Oval Office near the Resolute desk. Then President Trump halted plans to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman.