He was born the Ides of March into a poor immigrant family in the wilds of South Carolina less than a decade before the birth of the nation he would one day lead. At the time no one would have forecast this backwoods farmer’s boy as one destined for greatness—not merely as President but as one of the “great” Presidents, one who would leave his mark on the office and on the country in irreversible ways. But as his life unfolded, it became more and more apparent Andrew Jackson was a fascinating world of paradoxes—and often contradictions—who would both fashion and represent what America was fast becoming.
His father died before he was born, leaving his poor wife and children poorer still. Yet somehow the young Jackson scrounged enough education by age nine to be able to read the newly-announced Declaration of Independence to a gathering of frontiersmen. Four years later he joined the Patriot Army as courier between units. When he was captured, he demonstrated the healthy mix of stubbornness, courage, temper, and defiance he would display throughout his life when he received a sword-slash across his head for refusing to clean an officer’s boots. The scar he wore the rest of his life represented the perpetual bitterness he carried for the British.
Jackson’s mother secured his release and then died of cholera as she cared for other wounded American prisoners. Living with neighbors and relations, fourteen-year-old “Andy” completed his schooling and then became clerk to a lawyer in North Carolina in exchange for a legal education. The paradoxes begin. On the one hand, he was a fierce, wild, gambling, and brawling son of a Scotch-Irish frontiersman. On the other hand, he made at a surprisingly early age one of the finest lawyers the country had seen, popular and respected wherever he went. By the time he moved further out on the frontier to Tennessee territory’s Nashville, Jackson had already developed the persona he would carry with him throughout life: a man of the people and a leader among men.
His prominence grew steadily. As a successful lawyer, he married into a wealthy family, bought and developed a respectable plantation, and was elected to the United States House of Representatives and then to the Senate, all by the age of thirty. When he resigned his seat in Congress, he was appointed Superior Court Judge in Tennessee and next became Major General of the Tennessee militia. All the while, he raised and raced racehorses, fought duels “of honor”—killing a man for insulting his wife—increased his slaveholdings, and battled the Native Americans the burgeoning population of new settlers was “bumping into.” Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone—they were a new breed of American leaders who appealed to a new breed of American men and women: the westward-driven and mostly “common-folk” pioneers of the nineteenth century.
When America went to war with Britain again in 1812, Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson was now in position to become a United States Major General, and he wildly, courageously, and even flamboyantly led American troops to victory over both hostile tribes allied to England as well as the British themselves. His victory at the Battle of New Orleans, the last and greatest of the war, sealed his reputation as the greatest American hero since Washington himself. When he spearheaded an invasion of Spanish Florida, well beyond his authority to do so, some thought he began to resemble Caesar more than Washington. But it only increased his popularity with the general population—while it made the older ruling contingent in the nation’s capital a bit nervous.
After serving another round in the Senate, Jackson was nominated for the Presidency. He is quoted as responding, “Do you think that I am such a darned fool as to think myself fit for the presidency? No, sir. I can command a body of men in a rough way, but I am not fit to be President.” Congress apparently agreed. Although Jackson garnered the most popular votes, the final decision was cast by the House of Representatives who favored John Quincy Adams, son of the great patriot and second President John Adams.
That was 1824. Believing the election had been “jiggered” and convinced of “old-blood” corruption in the national government anyway, Jackson campaigned with a fury for the 1828 presidential election as if he were back on the battlefield. As he saw it, he was fighting for the people, for the common man, for the demos, to protect their interests against a ruling class of aristocrats. Thus was born the new “democratic aristocrat,” as American historian James Parton called Jackson shortly after his death. He was the paradoxical dominating leader who sees himself as the truest representative of the people—perhaps even more so than other elected representatives themselves.
This time Andrew Jackson was swept into office on a wave of popularity few others have enjoyed, a popularity sustained throughout the two terms he served. The common-man-turned-plantation-owner, the immigrant-frontiersman-turned-lawyer-politician, the rowdy-hooligan-turned-war-hero, was now “the people’s President.” Even the Inauguration Day party bore testimony to the paradoxes: horses on the White House steps, priceless furniture broken, “friendly” fights begun. At one point Jackson actually had to “escape” from the building to avoid being harmed by his delirious supporters. A bit rough around the edges, he and his friends, but there he was: a man for the times.
Although bitterly grieved at the death of his wife Rachel on the eve of his taking office, Jackson valiantly led the country as a commander-in-chief, interpreting the office of the presidency as possessing greater power than had any of America’s previous Presidents. Whereas they had sought to veto only legislation thought to be unconstitutional, Jackson vetoed any legislation with which he strongly disagreed or that he thought detrimental to the progress or well-being of the country. A strong believer in states’ rights, he nevertheless threatened South Carolina with military invasion when its legislature sought to “nullify” a federal law requiring tariffs. And when the Supreme Court decided in favor of Native American rights against encroaching settlers, Jackson, former Superior Court judge and “Indian-fighter” all rolled into one, obstinately defied the decision and refused to enforce it, believing he was defending his fellow frontiersmen as well as providing for the onward (westward) progress of America.
Contradictions again. Paradoxes. A President different from others, seeing himself, certainly more than any before him, a man elected by the people for the people. When Jackson retired from Washington to enjoy his last few years at his beautiful plantation home, The Hermitage, he was still the defiant farmer’s son who would take a sword-swipe rather than clean a Brit’s boots—as well as one of the most popular and well-respected hero-statesmen America has known. In his case, perhaps, it took the one to make the other.