The road to presidency was long and difficult for Andrew Jackson. Though successful, his campaign came with a price.
Senator, Judge and Business Owner
Before Jackson’s military exploits, back in the 1790s, he played an instrumental role in developing North Carolina’s western lands into the state of Tennessee.
He was appointed Attorney General of the Mero District (the area around present-day Nashville). In his first elected position in 1796, he served as a delegate to the Tennessee Constitutional Convention in Knoxville. There he helped draft Tennessee’s first state constitution and bill of rights.
Making Tennessee Official
In 1796, Jackson was elected to serve as Tennessee’s first member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1796-1797). Afterwards, he was selected by the Tennessee General Assembly to serve as U.S. Senator (1797-1798).
Due to boredom and mounting financial difficulties at home, Jackson cut his senatorial career short. In 1799 he returned to Tennessee and took a well-paid position as a circuit judge on Tennessee’s Superior Court. This post required him to travel throughout the state, including the state capital at Knoxville.
Simultaneously, Jackson maintained a law practice in Nashville and established several commercial business ventures at his plantations in northeastern Davidson County including general merchandise stores, whiskey distilleries and boat making.
Strategic and Perilous Connections
Despite Jackson’s presumed retirement from public life, he continued to correspond with important political leaders such as President Thomas Jefferson. He also maintained other connections of a more risky nature such as that with former Vice-President Aaron Burr. Jackson’s friendship with Burr, who conspired to break up the U.S. for his own personal advancement, almost cost Jackson his future. Luckily, he realized Burr’s intentions in time to separate himself from Burr’s plot.
“Let me hear from you occasionally. I am very lonesome,...without...my military family & army companions."
Andrew Jackson to Richard Ivy Easter in 1822
Homesick as Florida Governor
Flash forward to July 17, 1821. After Jackson’s success in the War of 1812, he was appointed territorial governor of Florida and took possession of it from Spain.
From the start, Jackson disliked Florida’s climate as did his wife, Rachel. He quickly became disillusioned with the unending appointments and office seekers, the issues with the transition of the territory from Spain with which he had to deal, and political disagreements with President Monroe’s administration.
In November 1821, Jackson resigned his governorship citing health matters and a desire to retire from public life as his reasons. Jackson had a thriving plantation in Tennessee with a newly completed brick home to which both he and Rachel yearned to return and live out their lives.
But, the American people quickly ended any real or feigned hope Jackson had of spending a quiet life in retirement as a gentleman farmer at The Hermitage.
"...the people have a right to choose whom they will…"
Andrew Jackson to James C. Bronaugh
A New Senate Seat and Attitude
In 1822, the Tennessee Legislature nominated him as a candidate for president of the United States. To test Jackson’s political strength, he was nominated and elected as a U.S. Senator from Tennessee in 1823. As Senator, Jackson cautiously steered clear of controversy and favored working on military affairs.
Jackson used his time in Washington to make friends and political allies while also endeavoring to convince Washingtonians that he was not an uncivilized Westerner or a military tyrant. He did so by demonstrating his refined manners and controlling his temper. However, Jackson’s time in Washington only reinforced his belief that many politicians and government officers were corrupt.
A Controversial Election
In the 1824 presidential contest, Jackson did not publicly advocate for his own election, in keeping with the tradition of the day. However Jackson did make it clear he was determined to cleanse government of corruption and return it to its earlier values.
Americans went to the polls in the fall of 1824. Though Jackson won the popular vote he did not win enough Electoral College votes to be elected. The decision fell to the House of Representatives who met on February 9, 1825. They elected John Quincy Adams with House Speaker Henry Clay as Adams’ chief supporter. Jackson graciously accepted his defeat until rumors swirled that Clay and Adams had struck a deal to ensure Adams’ election. When Adams named Henry Clay as his Secretary of State, it confirmed Jackson’s suspicions that the two men had reached a “corrupt bargain” and deprived the American people of their popular choice for president.
“...the opinion of those whose minds were prepared to see me with a Tomahawk in one hand, & a scalping knife in the other has greatly changed…”
Andrew Jackson to Major George W. Martin in 1824
Political Attacks Become Personal
Disheartened by the antics in Washington, Jackson resigned his Senate seat and returned to Tennessee. Immediately, he and his supporters began laying the groundwork for his election in 1828.
A grassroots party was organized around Jackson known initially as the Democratic- Republicans and later simply as the Democratic Party. Jackson’s organization garnered him support across the nation. More importantly it helped ignite the public’s involvement in the political process. This was timely as voting qualifications (for white men) were being eased.
Jackson’s supporters also penalized Adams’ administration over what they believed to be the “corrupt bargain.” In Congress, Jackson’s men opposed Adams and his programs calling for increased spending on internal improvements and other initiatives for building public institutions.
Further detriment was done to Adams as he appeared out of touch with the “common man”. Thus, after three years in office Adams had accomplished very little due to opposition from Jackson, corruption within his administration, and his own shortcomings.
A Brutal Campaign Trail
By 1828, Jackson was ready to win the White House. First he would suffer through a bruising campaign still recognized today as one of the most malicious in American history.
Adams’ supporters accused Jackson of being a military tyrant who would use the presidency as a springboard for his own Napoleonic ambitions of empire. For proof, they brought out every skeleton in Jackson’s closet; his duels and brawls, his execution of troops for desertion, his declaration of martial law in New Orleans, his friendship with Aaron Burr, and his invasions of Spanish Florida in 1814 and 1818.
The most painful attack for Jackson, by far, was that on his and Rachel’s character over their marriage. Technically, Rachel was a bigamist and Jackson her partner in it. Adams’ supporters thus judged Jackson as morally unfit to hold the nation’s highest office.
"…Was there ever witnessed such a bare face corruption in any country before?"
Andrew Jackson to William B. Lewis
The Tides Turn for Jackson
Jackson’s allies went into the campaign of 1828 with the political advantage and so spent much of their time simply defending Jackson. They promoted Jackson’s program of governmental reform, retrenchment and economy to bring honor and financial solvency back to Washington and the nation. They largely stayed away from other controversial issues. However, they did not let the character assaults launched by Adams’ men go unanswered.
They struck back with attacks on corrupt officials in Adams’ administration and labeled Adams an elitist who wanted to increase the size and power of government to benefit the aristocracy.
In the fall of 1828, the decision fell to the voters and they overwhelmingly elected Jackson. His victory was seen as a complete repudiation of Adams and his vision for America. Furthermore, it revealed that some believed the United States government was run by a small group of aristocrats unresponsive to the demands of the voters.
Voting for the “Common Man”
The “common man” saw in Jackson a like-minded individual and thus sent him to Washington to take office and crush the power of the aristocrats. Voters trusted Jackson and saw his military accomplishments as an indication he would bring the same success in restoring honor to the government.
Personally, Jackson felt vindicated for the “corrupt bargain” that robbed him of the White House in 1824. It was also the opportunity to lay waste to the barbs and accusations flung during the campaign. Jackson had reached a high point in his life, but its cost proved tragic.
Jackson's Win Overshadowed by a Great Loss
The public controversy over her marriage placed a great deal of strain on Rachel Jackson, emotionally and physically. She also feared Washington’s social circles and had no desire to return to it.
In a letter written on December 22, 1828, Jackson noted that his wife had already fallen gravely ill once in the fall of 1828 although her health had begun to recover. In a matter of hours after Jackson wrote those words, Rachel collapsed and died, likely from a heart attack, according to the best assessments of modern day physicians.
Grief stricken, Jackson buried Rachel two days later in the garden at The Hermitage with a large assemblage of mourners on hand. One month later, Jackson left The Hermitage for Washington to assume the nation’s highest office, bereft of the love of his life.Continue to Presidency