For the first forty years of American history, the presidency was traded among aristocratic Virginia planters and the patrician Adams family of Massachusetts. These were the people who had invented the United States, and they had done everything they could to keep raw, undiluted power away from the fickle masses and their demagogues.
The man who would exemplify the change in American politics had come of age during the nasty guerrilla war that had played out in Carolina’s backcountry during the American Revolution. Andrew Jackson‘s family had been caught up in the thick of it with deadly results. One brother died of heat stroke in battle. Another died of smallpox he caught as a prisoner of the British, and their mother died of fever while nursing American prisoners held on British ships in Charleston harbor. When 14-year-old Andrew Jackson refused to clean the boots of a British officer, the Englishman slashed him with a sword, cutting his hand to the bone and scarring his forehead. Jackson never forgave the British for his family‘s suffering.
After being appointed district attorney for what would later be Tennessee and moving to Nashville in 1788, Jackson befriended his landlady’s daughter, Rachel Donelson Robards, who was stuck in an abusive and loveless marriage. Eventually, Rachel got divorced and married Jackson; however, neither of them realized that her divorce didn’t become final right away, so the new marriage was technically bigamous. That shouldn’t have been a big deal. The frontier had looser standards of marriage than the Eastern seaboard, and circumstances would often get ahead of the paperwork. It all got sorted out in a few years, but the stigma of bigamy haunted Rachel, and when she died amid renewed gossip during the backstabbing, mudslinging 1828 campaign for president, Jackson personally blamed his opponents. Anyone who even hinted in Jackson’s presence that Rachel had been indecently hasty was asking for a thrashing.
In 1806, after an escalating exchange of insults that began with a bet on the horses and ended up questioning the virtue of Jackson’s wife, Jackson challenged attorney Charles Dickinson to a duel. Because Dickinson was a better shot and Jackson needed time to aim, Jackson waited out the first shot and took a hit directly in the chest. Instead of falling down dead as everyone expected, he merely groaned, carefully aimed back and pulled the trigger. When the pistol failed to fire, Jackson coldly recocked it, aimed again and shot Dickinson dead as he stood there.
Another infamous duel in 1813 barely deserves the label. When Jackson and a friend ran into his sworn enemies, the brothers Jesse and Thomas Hart Benton, in a hotel in Nashville, everybody pulled guns and swords and attacked one another with almost comic incompetence.ⓐ
During the fight, Jackson took a bullet in his arm, which he nearly lost, and a stray shot punctured a wall and almost killed a sleeping baby in the next room.①
During the War of 1812, many Indian tribes, being hard-pressed by the advancing American frontier, took advantage of the conflict to join the British against the Americans. The large Creek (or Muscogee) Indian nation in the south fought its own civil war over which side to take. After trading raids back and forth, the traditionalist faction of the Creeks, called the Red Sticks, overran Fort Mims Alabama in August 1813, and massacred hundreds who had taken refuge there, both white settlers and White Sticks, the assimilationist faction of Creeks. In March 1814, Andrew Jackson, leading Tennessee militia and White Sticks, attacked the main force of Red Sticks and slaughtered over 850 Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the bloodiest single battle in all the Indian Wars. He then imposed a peace treaty that forced them to give up vast territories across the south.
In 1817, Jackson invaded Spanish Florida without orders to clear out several nests of runaway slaves and renegade Indians who had been armed by the British during the War of 1812, and were now dug in across the border and still fighting the United States. After beating the local Creek and Seminole Indians and summarily hanging a couple of British agents he found among them, Jackson was in control of Florida. Having no other choice, the Spanish turned the peninsula over to the US by treaty in 1819, in exchange for an American promise not to mess with Texas.
Jackson is hard to pigeonhole. He was probably the most insanely badass and personally murderous of all US presidents. He sustained plenty of life-threatening wounds in fights, but oddly, none in battle. This tough old Indian fighter and slave driver adopted as his son an Indian orphan he found on the battlefield. Although modern sensibilities vilify him as a racist, he killed almost as many white people as red and probably hated the British most of all. Despite his rude frontier reputation, Jackson was a well-spoken attorney, plantation aristocrat and snappy dresser. One of America’s most devout presidents, Jackson read several chapters of the Bible daily, built a chapel in his Tennessee home and regularly attended two churches in Washington while President.ⓑ Jackson’s pets in the White House included fighting cocks, five horses and Pol, a parrot he had taught to curse and which had to be removed from Jackson’s funeral for shrieking wildly inappropriate profanities during the service.ⓒ
As victor of Horseshoe Bend, defender of New Orleans and conqueror of Florida, General Andrew Jackson was the hero of the age. Enthusiastic mobs rallied all over the country to support him for president. In fact, he came out ahead in the popular vote in 1824, but the field was split between four candidates, all representing different factions of Democrat-Republicans. Without a clear majority, the choice was thrown into the House of Representatives where Congressional elders picked the safer, saner John Quincy Adams to be president.
Politics as Usual for the First Time Jackson pondered the lessons of 1824 and retooled his campaign. His election to the presidency in 1828 was the first to harness popular enthusiasm and an expanding franchise.
By now, only elections in Rhode Island, Louisiana, and Virginia and for the upper house of North Carolina still required voters to have significant property.ⓓ The 1828 election was probably the point where America crossed the threshold from oligarchic republic to authentic democracy. It was also the full flowering of personality politics. Love him or hate him, your political affiliation in that era would probably depend on your opinion of Jackson.
The National Republican Party was the first attempt to formalize the split between pro- and anti-Jacksonian Democrat-Republicans, but it only survived through one election cycle before falling apart. Its main legacy was grabbing the Republican from the party name, leaving only the Democrat behind. Jackson was handily reelected as a Democrat in 1832.
More lasting was the dispute over money policy. The government allowed a private company, the Bank of the United States, to hold all the money that belonged to the US Treasury, which gave this bank enough clout to dictate money policy to all the lesser banks. The heirs of Hamilton liked having a tool by which the federal government could manipulate the economy; the heirs of Jefferson didn’t. Andrew Jackson’s populism clashed with the moneyed interests over the US Bank. He wanted to abolish it and distribute the Treasury’s money to local banks instead, so he vetoed Congress’ attempt to renew the charter of the US Bank.
In 1833, the leftover Hamiltonians banded together as the Whig Party specifically to oppose Andrew Jackson on the banking issue
. The Whigs didn’t really get up to speed in the new style of popular campaigning in time for the 1836 election. Instead they split their votes among several regionally respected statesmen, expecting that the decision would once again bounce into the House of Representatives where the best man would naturally win. Meanwhile Andrew Jackson’s vice-president and chosen successor, Martin Van Buren, a teensy, bald and ferociously muttonchopped party boss from New York, made damn sure the Democrats voted as a disciplined block, so he won a majority of the Electoral College outright. Known as the Red Fox of Kinderhook for his previous hair color, his hometown and his sly, tricky ways, Van Buren was probably the first pure politician to be elected president.②
The Whigs finally got their act together for the election of 1840 and ran their own version of Jackson -- the popular Indian fighter William Henry Harrison -- against Van Buren. Harrison’s election to the presidency is usually considered to be the first modern two-party campaign in American history, with hard-drinking rallies, log-cabin mythmaking and mindless slogans designed to appeal to the common man, such as “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” which probably sounded a lot cooler 170 years ago.
The Whigs never fully caught up to the Democrats in popularity. They were almost always a minority in at least one house of Congress, and about half the time were a minority in both houses. They only controlled the whole Congress for a single two-year session. The only presidents they managed to get elected (Harrison, Taylor) died in office, leaving their terms to be completed by vice-presidential non-entities with divisive views (Tyler/proslavery, Fillmore/nativist). After about a generation muddling along, the Whig Party fell apart.
-- Matthew White
① By the oddest coincidence, that baby grew up to be notable frontiersman, presidential candidate and Thomas Benton’s son-in-law John C. Fremont. Also, Thomas Benton, Jackson’s enemy in the brawl, was later elected Senator and became a great friend and ally of President Jackson, which shows that even trying to kill each other doesn’t get in the way of politics. ② Van Buren’s campaign is also responsible for that most American of expressions: Okay. It began with a Boston newspaper fad for abbreviations of common phrases like NG, "no go," or GT, "gone to Texas”. Soon comedians were making initials from misspelled phrases, especially o.k. for oll korrect. Like good politicians, Van Buren’s supporters latched onto this trendy new affirmative and nicknamed their grassroots organizations the O.K. Clubs, for “Old Kinderhook”, since “OK” sounded more upbeat, casual and American than a fancy Dutch aristocratic name like Van Buren. This spread OK all over the country. Politics was starting to be intertwined with pop culture. ⓐ
Here’s how Marquis James described it in his 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Andrew Jackson
”Jackson started toward Thomas Benton brandishing his whip. ‘Now, defend yourself you damned rascal!’ Benton reached for a pistol, but before he could draw, Jackson's gun was at his breast. He backed slowly through the corridor, Jackson following, step for step. They had reached the porch, when, glancing beyond the muzzle of Jackson's pistol, Benton saw his brother slip through a doorway behind Jackson, raise his pistol and shoot. Jackson pitched forward, firing. His powder burned a sleeve of Tom Benton's coat. Thomas Benton fired twice at the falling form of Jackson and Jesse lunged forward to shoot again, but James Sitler, a bystander, shielded the prostrate man whose left side was gushing blood.
“The gigantic form of John Coffee strode through the smoke, firing over the heads of Sitler and Jackson at Thomas Benton. He missed but came on with clubbed pistol. Benton's guns were empty. He fell backward down a flight of stairs. Young Stockley Hays … sprang at Jesse Benton with a sword cane and would have run him through had the blade not broken on a button. Jesse had a loaded pistol left. As Hays closed in with a dirk knife, Benton thrust the muzzle against his body, but the charge failed to explode. “
ⓑ John Blake, “Why a president’s faith may not matter”, CNN, June 30th, 2012 ⓒ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_pets ⓓ Raffaele Romanelli, ed., How Did They Become Voters?: The History of Franchise in Modern European Representation (Kluwer Law International, 1998) p. 387