Andrew Jackson - Controversial President

Andrew Jackson is the founder of ‘Jacksonian Democracy’ and recognized as one of the creators of the Democratic party. Jacksonian Democracy is based on the support of ordinary citizens against the ‘elites’. He was the first poor uneducated man and first Westerner to be elected President. Jackson wanted to free the government from ‘the rich and powerful’ and their ‘selfish interests’. He felt the central bank was controlled by a few wealthy people and run for their benefit.  As a result, he shut it down during his administration. Sounds like Occupy Wall Street!

Early Life

Jackson was born in the Carolinas before moving to Tennessee as an adult. His father died before he was born. He was left without any family by age thirteen when his mother and both brothers died of disease during the Revolutionary War. Young Jackson was slashed by a British soldier for refusing to clean his boots, leaving a lifelong scar on his scalp. After joining the militia, he led several campaigns against the Indians including the Creek War (parts of Alabama and Georgia) and First Seminole War (Florida). Jackson was most famous for winning the final battle of the War of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans, a huge victory over the British.  

1828 Election

Jackson lost a controversial Presidential election in 1824. He won the most electoral and popular votes but not a majority. This threw the election into the House of Representatives. In what became known as the ‘Corrupt Bargain’, one of the four candidates, Henry Clay, threw his support to Quincy Adams. Adams became President and Clay was nominated as Secretary of State, at that time a stepping stone to the Presidency. 

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1828 was a re-match between Quincy Adams and Jackson. If we think elections are tough today, check out 1828. Jackson was accused of being a murderer, and an adulterer. His deceased parents were victims of the mud-slinging - enemies attacked his mother as a prostitute and his father as a mulatto.  His wife, who had been divorced, was attacked also as a bigamist – one newspaper editorialized - “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?" Jackson dished it out also – calling his opponent John Quincy Adams a ‘secret decadent voluptuary’ and his enemy Henry Clay an ‘embezzler, gambler and bordello user’. Jackson’s wife died between the election and the Inauguration. He blamed her death on the harsh campaign.

Jackson’s opponents called him a ‘Jackass’, a play on his name, meaning he was ‘wrong-headed, slow and obstinate’. Jackson adopted the symbol, saying the donkey was ‘steadfast, determined, and willful.’ Years later the donkey became the symbol of the Democratic party. 

Jackson easily won the re-match and became President.

President Jackson - Policies

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In 1828, a tariff on imported manufactured goods of up to 90% was passed. This protected Northern industry from foreign competition but raised prices the agrarian South had to pay for manufactured products. The South called it the ‘Tariff of Abominations’. Vice President Calhoun, native of South Carolina, objected to the tariff. Calhoun wrote the “South Carolina Exposition and Protest” which declared that the tariff was unconstitutional because it favored one section of the country over another and that protectionism power was not granted to the Federal government in the Constitution. He further stated that a state had the right to reject unconstitutional laws (‘nullification’).  South Carolina passed an ordinance declaring the tariffs unconstitutional and not enforceable in the state. Jackson, a strong defender of the Union, responded by having Congress pass the ‘Force Bill’ authorizing the use of military force against South Carolina.  Before there was any confrontation, a compromise was reached. 

Here is something I doubt we will ever see again. Jackson paid off the government’s debt!  The Federal Government took on all debts held by individual states under Alexander Hamilton’s debt assumption program in the 1790’s.  During his Presidency, Jackson reduced the debt to zero, nada, nothing.  Still running a surplus, Jackson sent the money back to the states!  The surpluses ended with the Panic of 1837 after Jackson left office and we have been in debt ever since.

Jackson believed in limited government.  In 1830, he vetoed a bill to support road construction. He felt that support for ‘Internal improvements’ was not constitutional since it was not specifically authorized in the Constitution.  He also defended limited government: “[the government] … was intended to be a government of limited and specific (powers), and not general power.”


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Jackson was controversial throughout his life. Prior to becoming President he fought several duels. In one he killed his opponent, and he himself was shot near his heart, a bullet he carried for the rest of his life.  In 1818, Jackson exceeded his orders from President Monroe and invaded Florida, then part of Spain, precipitating the First Seminole War. Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who studied America in the 1830's writing 'Democracy in America', described Jackson as “a man of violent temper and mediocre talents.”   Jackson was also the first President to experience an assassination attempt. The assassin, who was later determined to be mentally unbalanced, shot two pistols, each misfired. Jackson beat off the attacker with his cane. Tests done years later on the pistols found them functioning perfectly, Jackson credited divine providence for his survival, although perhaps the cane helped.

Jackson has been severely criticized for his treatment of the Indians. Ironically, he thought he was trying to be fair and protect them from further decline stating - “…actuated by feelings of justice and a regard for our national honor, I submit to you whether something [must] be done… to preserve this much injured race.” His solution became the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This act authorized the government to negotiate with the Indians for their removal to lands west of the Mississippi in return for their lands in the southeastern United States. Jackson felt this would protect them from further conflict with European settlers.  The law was controversial and passed by a narrow margin. In theory, the removal was to be voluntary and negotiated by treaty with each tribe, along with payments from the United States to support them. The actuality was worse with one of the results being the ‘Trail of Tears’, the deaths and hardship experienced by the Indians while marching from their lands in George and Alabama to their new territory in what is now Oklahoma.

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No doubt Jackson helped move the government in a populist direction. But even the Democratic party is de-emphasizing his role, removing his name from their traditional annual fund-raising dinners (known as Jefferson-Jackson day). Jackson was put on the twenty dollar bill in 1928 although the Treasury department has no record of the rationale. He is going to be replaced on the front by Harriet Tubman, the first woman to be on a bill, with Jackson moved to the back. Maybe we should remove Jackson entirely and replace him with a representative of Native Americans.