He was 61 when he assumed the presidency, and for all we know he may have thought that the presidency would be relatively peaceful. It wasn’t. Two of his major struggles – against the idea of nullification and against the Bank of the United States – were important enough to require separate sections. But to understand those events, it will help to have a sense of the man himself. In character, in firmness of intention, in unflinching nationalism, he was the strongest man to hold the presidency between Washington and Lincoln. The effects of his presidency, good and bad, were unmistakable and far-reaching.
The facts of Jackson’s life and times are easily found. Since we are working our way backwards, we have to touch on matters that happened earlier, but have not yet been discussed. Jackson, born in 1767, was orphaned at 14, and made his way in the world by his own strength of will. At 6 feet, 1 inch tall, and weighing only about 140 pounds, he was as slim and tough as the hickory tree he was often compared to. In his long turbulent frontier life, he raised himself to prosperity, became the hero of two wars, defied the empires of both England and Spain, and was the man primarily responsible for the U.S. acquisition of Florida from Spain. His marriage of more than 35 years was a happy one, but on this inauguration day, March 4, 1829, his wife Rachel was ten weeks in the grave, having died suddenly the previous December. When he died, in 1845, he left no children, but he adopted three sons, and acted as guardian for eight other children.
Jackson’s iron will held together a mass of contradictions. Count them. He was a man of the people who fought for democracy all his life; and he was a wealthy slaveholder. He believed in the small, limited federal government that the constitution prescribed; and he greatly strengthened the powers of the presidency. He was a proud Southerner, greatly loved in the South; and he promised that if certain politicians led South Carolina into secession, he would hang them higher than Haman.
Jackson was born in the western part of North or South Carolina (at a time when the boundary had not yet been adequately surveyed in those parts), less than two years after his parents came to America from Northern Ireland. His father died before he was born. He picked up a backwoods kind of education. During the American revolution, age thirteen, having been captured and held prisoner while serving as a courier for the local militia, he was ordered to clean a British officer’s boots, and got slashed with a sword when he refused. This left Jackson with scars on his head and his left hand, and an intense hatred for the British which intensified when his mother died of cholera the following year while nursing prisoners of war. It took 35 years, but he did get his revenge, as we shall see.
After the revolution, Jackson taught school, studied law, and in 1787 was admitted to the bar of North Carolina. He moved to what was then the Western District of the state, on what was then the frontier, practiced as a country lawyer, and moved into politics. In an active couple of years, he was elected as a delegate to the Tennessee constitutional convention in 1796, was elected as Tennessee’s first Representative, was elected U.S. Senator the following year, resigned within a year, and was appointed a judge of the Tennessee Supreme Court, where he served until 1804. At the same time, in his private life, he became a land-owner, a planter and slave-owner, growing cotton. He was also a major land speculator in West Tennessee and was one of the three original investors who founded Memphis.
In 1806, at 39, he acquired a reputation as a violent and vengeful man. He never lived the reputation down, and yet, was it a just accusation?
Here’s what happened.. After a man attacked him in print, Jackson issued a written challenge to a duel, even though the man was known to be an expert marksman. Jackson coolly – some thought cold-bloodedly — let his opponent fire first, hoping that the man would miss his aim through hurrying his shot. He did, but not by much. Jackson took a bullet in his lung that turned out to be too close to the heart to be safely removed. (He carried that bullet for the rest of his life. It left him subject to a hacking cough which sometimes brought up blood and made his whole body shake.) But Dickinson, having fired, then had to remain still as Jackson took aim and killed him. The “men of honor” of the state called the duel a cold-blooded killing, and it made Jackson a social outcast. One wonders: Did this treatment not confirm him in his distaste for aristocracies?
We will look at his military exploits in the Creek War and the War of 1812 in due course. but this should be enough for the moment to give a sense of the man who would dominate American political life in the 1830s.