There is so much to say — both good and bad — about number seven. Up until this time, all the presidents had come from Massachusetts or Virginia and were elite and aloof. Andrew Jackson was arguably the first “man of the people” elected to the office. During his first inauguration in 1829, a mob of party crashers bum rushed the White House, stomping all over the place with muddy boots and knocking over furniture to get to the punch bowls. Many observers were aghast at such a shocking breach, but for good or bad the country was now going to be led by the people (provided those people were white and male, of course).
In office for two terms, Jackson expanded the power of the presidency. He was the first to use the veto power to great effect, and he took a hands-on, active role in the crafting legislation. One thing he got Congress to do was pass the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to immense suffering and death. The policy was racist, unjust and genocidal, but the growing slave societies in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi needed more land for their plantations and so the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole people had to go. The “Trail of Tears” forced migration of native human beings from the Southeastern United States to what is now Oklahoma would largely come later, but it was Jackson whom we can thank (or blame, depending on what color you are).
Jackson’s biggest presidential achievement was successfully navigating the “nullification crisis” in which South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union over tariffs. Jackson also gets credit (in my view) for taking on the entrenched national bank and its all-powerful, well-connected leader, ending the bank’s charter and sending the country’s cash reserves to state banks. Oh, and he completely eliminated the national debt, too!
He was often called “Old Hickory” or “The General” or “The Hero” (but not “Stonewall Jackson,” who was a totally different person).
As a general during the War of 1812, he had led troops to a glorious, decisive victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans. This single event cemented Jackson’s lifelong fame. The funny thing about it is that unbeknownst to everybody at the time, a treaty ending the war had already been signed, but the American people got news of the battlefield victory first.
Also notable about Jackson: There was tons of turmoil in his cabinet, with mass resignations lots of infighting (it was the first time in history a president had ever replaced his whole cabinet in one fell swoop). Jackson had two bullets lodged in his body, one from a duel in which he killed the other guy. He survived a physical assault and later an assassination attempt (also a first). His wife, Rachel, died after his election but before his inauguration. He was religious in his personal life but was a staunch advocate for the separation of church and state. Also of note to many who might be reading this, Jackson was still president when Michigan became the 26th state in 1837!
When I started reading about our seventh president, I thought he would come across as more of a villain, but I ended up liking him. I read two books: “The Life of Andrew Jackson” (pictured above) by the historian Robert V. Remini, which is a one-volume abridged edition of his much longer three-volume biography; and “American Lion” by Jon Meacham (pictured at left), the highly acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning best seller from 2008. As presidential biographies go, I liked the Remini book much better. It covered Jackson’s entire life, including his humble beginnings in Tennessee, his military campaigns against the Indians, Spanish and British, the Battle of New Orleans, his marriage to Rachel, and much more. I also felt that Remini did a much better job of describing what Jackson was like as a person. But while I felt that I got to know Jackson better from Remini’s book, it was a paragraph at the end of Meacham’s that, for me, sums up the legacy of this important American leader:
“The tragedy of Jackson’s life is that a man dedicated to freedom failed to see liberty as a universal, not a particular, gift,” Meacham writes. “The triumph of his life is that he held together a country whose experiment in liberty ultimately extended its protections and promises to all — belatedly, it is true, but by saving the Union, Jackson kept the possibility of progress alive, a possibility that would have died had secession and separation carried the day.”