Above is the statue of Andrew Jackson in the square named for him in New Orleans. On the base of the statue there is a quote – “The Union must and shall be preserved.” Now, I know a lot of Civil War history and I was pretty sure that Andrew Jackson was dead by the time of the civil war – so what was this quote about? Apparently it was part of a toast that he made during the nullification crisis during his presidency. It was not a part of the original monument that was dedicated in 1851. Rather it had been etched into the stone in 1863, by order of Benjamin Butler – a Union General who ruled over New Orleans during the last few years of the Civil War after it had been captured by the North. I’ll write more about Butler when I get to the Civil War.
The nullification crisis during Jackson’s presidency was brought about by a tariff on goods from Britain. The tariffs protected northern manufacturers, but made their products more expensive for consumers. Southerners did not want to pay more for products in order to support the North – especially because of the strong relationship that the South had with Britain – Britain bought the South’s cotton and the South bought Britain’s products. South Carolina decided to nullify the tariff within the borders of its state. It also argued that it had a right to secede from the U.S. if it felt that its interests weren’t being upheld. This was in 1828 – 33 years before the start of the Civil War.
Jackson actually felt some sympathy for their argument. He also felt some sympathy for the South generally. He was from the border of North and South Carolina and he had over 100 slaves on his plantation near Nashville. But he was also a believer in a strong central government. He said, “the constitution forms a government, not a league . . . to say that any state may at pleasure secede from the Union is to say that the United States is not a nation.” He also stated “the tariff was only the pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object. The next pretext with be the Negro, or slavery question.” Of course, he was right.
What I find interesting about this is how deep the conflicts that led to the civil war were. There were decades of arguments and bitterness on each side. It was a long simmering feud that was always headed for a bloody confrontation. Tomorrow I’m going to discuss more about some places I visited that were a part of the build up to war. For now though – back to Jackson.
Jackson is an incredibly interesting person. He was also a jackass – there is no question about that. In fact during the election of 1828 (possibly the dirtiest election in our nation’s history) his more creative opponents called him “jackass.” Jackson decided to take it on as his identity – and that’s why the symbol of the Democratic party, which he helped founded, is a donkey.
Jackson’s childhood is fertile ground for any pop psychologist. His father died in an accident three weeks before Jackson was born. He was born in 1767, so he was too young to serve as a soldier during the Revolutionary War – however both of his brothers did serve. In 1779 his older brother Hugh died from heat exhaustion in a battle. The 12 year-old Jackson decided that he wanted to serve his country in some capacity – so he became a courier. At the age of 13 both he and his older brother Robert – who was a soldier in the local militia for which Jackson was a courier – were both captured by the British. Conditions were harsh and the two apparently almost died from starvation and they contracted small pox. Another story, which seems apocryphal on its face, is that a Jackson refused to clean the boots of a British officer while he was under British custody – who then slashed him with a sword. Apparently Jackson could prove the story true though – as he had scars on his left hand and head for the rest of his life.
His brother Robert died just days before they were to be released. After he was released his mother attended to him for a few days and then went off to volunteer to nurse prisoners of war – who were victims of a cholera epidemic. Unfortunately she too contracted the disease and died – meaning that Jackson had lost all four of his family members by the age of 14.
All of this might explain his anger. Jackson would be known his entire adult life for having a short temper. At times it was a strength, but it also caused him to be rash and cruel.
In his early career he worked as a frontier lawyer in the soon to be state of Tennessee. By the time he was 21 years old he was elected prosecutor of a district in Tennessee. He first got involved in politics when he was 29 – he was elected as a delegate to the Tennessee constitutional convention in 1796 – and then was elected as senator the next year for the new state of Tennessee.
He was also a good in business. He made many profitable real estate deals – eventually he bought a large plantation near Nashville that was worked by over a hundred slaves at any one time. He also was one of the founders of Memphis, Tennessee. He truly was the embodiment of what would become the American dream. Of course though – there was a dark side too. He not only used slave labor to enrich himself - many of his land deals were of land that was supposed to be set aside for Native Americans.From 1801 – 1819 he had many military adventures. His most famous being the Battle of New Orleans which was part of the War of 1812. His force of 5,000 Americans won against 7,500 British.
The battle made him a hero. His other military adventures were against Native Americans. At this time in American history Native American tribes were still very strong, strong enough to kill 400 settlers near present day Mobile, Alabama in 1813. Jackson was heavily involved in the war against the Red Stick Creek Indians. His forces could have destroyed the entire Creek Nation, so he got very favorable terms from them. The treaty, which he personally negotiated, opened up 22 million acres in what would become Georgia and Alabama for European settlement. The Creek called him “Jackson, old and fierce.”
At this time Florida was under Spanish control. There was concern that Florida could become a place for runaway slaves or Native Americans who were plotting against the American government to hide. While fighting Seminoles in present day Georgia he found documents that showed Britain and Spain were supporting the Indians so as to weaken the US. Jackson decided to illegally invade Florida. It was risky. Spain could have easily retaliated, but he estimated that they didn’t have the military force available to do anything about it. He ended up being proved right. John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State for James Monroe, negotiated a treaty with Spain which ended up ceding Florida to the United States.
It is impossible to deny Jackson’s victories. The battle of New Orleans was the last time that the British would risk attacking US interests through direct military force. He opened up Alabama, Georgia, and Florida to settlement by American citizens. It was a time when America was finally able to flex some muscle – and Jackson could rightly say that he played a major role. Of course, if you were Native American or Black – these developments were at times tragic.
I could go on and on about Andrew Jackson. I will end with one story about how a policy of his had a very negative outcome for a large number of people and another story about how he endured yet another personal hardship that no one should have to experience.
First, the personal story. Here is another example of why no historian should be surprised about the nastiness of any presidential election. Jackson first ran for President in 1824, but lost in a highly contested election to John Quincy Adams. In 1828 he ran again. It was even more brutal than 1824. At that time people running for President didn’t actually campaign. The campaigning was all done by their supporters. Supporters of Adams printed up handbills called “coffin bills”, which had pictures of six coffins and allegations of how Jackson had unnecessarily executed six members of his militia while he was a General. Jackson supporters spread a story about how Adams had procured an American girl for the Russian Czar when he had been minister to that country – basically calling him a pimp.
The most devastating “mudslinging” in the election was reserved for Jackson’s wife Rachel. Rachel had been previously married. She and Jackson had met when she was married. She had separated and Jackson thought divorced – but the divorce didn’t go through until after she and Jackson were married. So technically she had been a bigamist for a period of time. Opponents of Jackson would not let this go. They used ugly language to say that to elect Jackson was to elect a “convicted adulteress and her paramour husband” to the highest office in a “Christian land.” Rachel was distraught over the scandal. On December 22, 1828 – just a month after her husband was elected President – she died, most likely of a heart attack. Jackson blamed his opponents saying at her funeral “may God Almighty forgiver her murderers, I never can.” Whatever Jackson’s short comings – he certainly experienced much more loss than any person should have to endure.
The next story is about the The Indian Removal Act – which Jackson called for in 1829 and which was passed by congress and he signed in 1830. This act led to the “Trail of Tears.” Jackson actually thought he was doing the Indians a favor. He felt that the new settlers would come into conflict with Native Americans and eventually kill them all off. He claimed that he wanted to put aside territory where Indians would own the land for perpetuity. Here is a map of the United States at that time and how vast he envisioned that territory to be.
Well, I think we all know exactly what happened. White people kept moving west. So, exactly what happened in the southeast was repeated in the west. Jackson was as smart guy. I can’t imagine that he didn’t realize this was going to happen. In quotes he even seemed to admit that he valued progress over rights for Native Americans. I stopped in the town of Okmulgee, Oklahoma – where the Creeks (who were the main adversaries of Jackson) made their capital in 1867. Here are some pictures.
The dream of a Creek nation modeled after the US Constitution - with land guaranteed to them by the US government eventually died as more whites move west. That Indian Territory showed on that map shrank drastically. First to the exact borders of the current state of Oklahoma and then to small reservations. America is a great nation, but I think it’s necessary for us to recognize that we have not always lived up to the ideals of our founding documents. We could have found a way to better include Native Americans – who were in this land for 10-12,000 years before us – in some more respectable way. Instead we allowed the law of “might makes right” to rule. We prioritized the fact that our white population was hungry for land to excuse our poor treatment of a people, who fought proudly, but were severely outnumbered. We used the threat of Native American violence to excuse inhumane policies well past the time that they opposed an actual danger to anyone.
Tomorrow I start the lead up to the Civil War.