President Andrew Jackson redefined what it meant to lead the country.
Controversy from the Start
Andrew Jackson’s time as president would mark a major historical shift for the United States. Unfortunately, the first two years of his term were marred by a social scandal that turned political.
Just months before Jackson took office his close friend and Secretary of War, John Eaton, married Margaret “Peggy” Timberlake of whom Washington socialites disapproved due to her questionable upbringing and rumors concerning her past. When the other cabinet members’ wives refused to associate with Mrs. Eaton, Jackson was forced to defend his friends, especially since John Eaton had defended Rachel Jackson so vigorously during the 1828 campaign. He demanded Mrs. Eaton be accepted into Washington’s social circles. This became known as the “Eaton Affair.”
At the same time, several of Jackson’s cabinet members, thinking he would only serve one term, were positioning themselves to succeed him as president. These divisive actions resulted in Jackson showing favor only to those who socialized with the Eatons and proved their loyalty to him in other ways.
To rid himself of the immediate controversy Jackson dismissed his entire cabinet in 1831 except for the Postmaster General. In time, this caused Jackson to turn to a group of unofficial advisors. His opponents labeled them his “Kitchen Cabinet” because of their “back door” access to the President.
"There has been a great noise made about removals. … It is rotation in office that will perpetuate our liberty."
Time to Clean Up Corruption
Despite the Eaton Affair, Jackson still managed to roll up his sleeves and accomplish his reform, retrenchment and economic plans.
Jackson took office with great expectations to cleanse government of corruption and restore the nation’s finances. Washington’s elite feared that Jackson would fire everyone that held government positions, even the competent, and replace them with his own people. Although Jackson replaced only about ten percent of the government officers he held power over, it was a high percentage compared to his predecessors.
The officers he replaced were largely inept, corrupt or were politically opposed to Jackson. For this, Jackson is credited with what he called “the principle of rotation in office,” but others would label it the “spoils system.”
Penny Pinching to Fix the Budget
Jackson kept a watchful eye over government expenditures and congressional appropriations. In one instance, he vetoed a road bill approved by Congress. On top of being too costly, the bill only benefitted one area of the country and failed to improve the nation’s defenses. Prior to Jackson, presidents had only vetoed legislation they believed to be unconstitutional. Jackson established a new principle of vetoing legislation as a matter of policy.
Jackson’s spending controls along with increased revenue enabled him to pay off the national debt in 1835 and keep the nation debt free for the remainder of his term. This is the only time in the nation’s history that the federal government was debt free.
Andrew Jackson is the only president in American history to pay off the national debt and leave office with the country in the black.
A Devastating Decision: The Trail of Tears
Jackson also espoused removing Indian tribes in the United States to the west of the Mississippi River as one of his reforms.
Jackson argued that the United States policy of attempting to assimilate the tribes into white society had failed and the Native Americans’ way of life would eventually be destroyed. Furthermore, he recognized that whites desired their lands and feared if the Native Americans remained in those areas they would eventually be exterminated. Opposition groups fought Jackson’s removal policy in Congress, but their efforts failed by a handful of votes. Congress’ authorization of the Indian Removal Act in 1831 empowered Jackson to make treaties with the tribes in arranging for their displacement.
Though he had railed against government corruption in the past, Jackson largely ignored the shady treaties forced upon the various tribes and the corrupt actions of government officials. The Indian Removal process was completed two years after Jackson left office with great loss of Native American life due to this corruption, inadequate supplies and removal by force.
Today, Jackson’s Indian Removal policy and its tragic consequences which led to the Trail of Tears is the most conspicuous blight on his presidential legacy.
Trouble with the Bank
With the Eaton Affair behind him and his programs in full swing, Jackson turned his attention to an issue that would define his presidency and forever reshape the office he held. In 1816, the United States Congress chartered the private Second Bank of the United States to hold the country’s money, make loans and regulate currency. Bank profits benefited private stockholders as well as the U.S. government, which owned stock in the bank. In its early years, the bank was riddled with corruption and poor financial management. This resulted in economic hardship in the U.S.
Under the direction of the bank’s new president Nicholas Biddle, however, the Bank’s fortunes were turned around. The nation’s money was now being astutely managed, producing a good business climate as a result.
Jackson realized their important role in the U.S. economy but his distrust in banks in general led him to believe the Bank of the United States held too much power and could wield it at any moment to ruin the U.S. economy. Furthermore, he saw the Bank as a threat to national security since its stockholders were mainly foreign investors with allegiances to other governments.
The crux of the issue for Jackson was what he saw as the never-ending battle between liberty and power in government. In his belief system, people should sacrifice some individual liberty for the beneficial aspects of government. But if any government institution became too powerful it stood as a direct threat to individual liberty.
Jackson signaled early on in his administration that he would consider re-chartering the Bank, but only if its powers were limited.
"The bank is trying to kill me, but I will kill it!"
Andrew Jackson to Martin Van Buren
Jackson Dominates Reelection
Jackson’s opponents quickly seized opportunity to use the issue with the Bank to attack Jackson. Supporters of the Bank, led by Henry Clay, Jackson’s chief opponent in the 1832 presidential contest, argued that it played a vital role in the economy and that the true threat to individual liberty came from Jackson himself and his broadening of presidential powers. Clay decided that he would force Jackson to make the Bank a campaign issue in 1832 by re-chartering the Bank early.
Clay secured Congressional approval of the re-charter forcing Jackson to promptly veto it on constitutional and policy grounds. Clay and Jackson then put the issue of who or what was the greater danger to individual liberty, to the people. The people overwhelmingly re-elected Jackson.
Vindicated by the people, Jackson prepared to finish his fight with the Bank in his second term, but first had to deal with a threat to the Union.
Our Federal Union: It must be preserved!
Runaway South Carolina
South Carolinians, led by Jackson’s former vice-president, John Calhoun, felt the Tariff of 1832 unduly harmed their state while directly benefiting northern manufacturing states since it protected northern manufacturers from foreign competitors who offered cheaper goods.
Calhoun advanced the idea that the states had the constitutional right to nullify (or invalidate) any federal law and that states could secede from the Union.
In late 1832, South Carolina nullified the Tariff of 1832 and threatened secession. Jackson rejected these ideas and promised the use of force if South Carolina disobeyed the law. After much brinksmanship, Congress passed a compromise tariff that placated South Carolina and a bill that authorized the use of force against nullification.
Jackson’s actions prevented a break in the union as well as setting precedents that Abraham Lincoln would later use to oppose secession.
A True Representative of "The People"
With nullification abated, Jackson returned to the Bank War. His relationship with “the people” throughout his first term convinced him that he was the only elected official in the United States that represented all “the people.” As such, Jackson believed he had to use his office to carry out their will.
He interpreted his victory over Clay and the Bank in 1832 as “the people’s” mandate to destroy the powerful Bank and replace it with a decentralized government banking system. While Jackson pushed his banking plan through Congress he handicapped the Bank by ordering the removal of government deposits.
In response, the Bank created an artificial economic panic by calling in loans. The opposition-controlled Senate censured Jackson for removing the deposits without Congressional authorization. Meanwhile, the old debate over liberty and power raged as Jackson, Congress and the Bank were all accused of abusing their powers. Finally, in April 1834 the House approved Jackson’s actions against the Bank.
"I thank God that my life has been spent in a land of liberty and that He has given me a heart to love my country with the affection of a son."
Bringing Life Back to Jackson
Jackson’s focus as president and his determination to carry out the “people’s will” were no doubt motivated in part by the price he paid to become president. The loss of his wife, Rachel, deeply affected him and he would spend the remainder of his life mourning her.
Compounding his sorrows were constant struggles with his health resulting from wounds, harsh military camp life. and the natural aging process.
To cushion the blow of Rachel’s loss and to assist when his health deteriorated, Jackson filled the White House with family and friends. Most notable among these family members were Andrew Jackson Donelson and his wife Emily, who served as his private secretary and official hostess. Andrew Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sarah, replaced the Donelson’s in 1836. Jackson’s favorite portrait painter, friend and fellow widower, Ralph Earl, also lived in the White House.
Jackson left his physical mark on the White House by having the north portico completed, redecorating several rooms (most notably the East Room) and making various improvements to the service buildings and grounds. He entertained lavishly at the White House for both private affairs and public social events which always surprised his detractors who thought him an uncivilized military tyrant.
Jackson Presidency Success with Foreign Affairs
While Jackson struggled with sorrow, his health, personal finances and domestic policy issues, he enjoyed almost complete success in foreign affairs.
Jackson made it known at the outset of his administration that he intended to take no aggressive action against any foreign country. He approached foreign affairs with a simple principle, “to ask nothing that is not clearly right, and to submit to nothing that is wrong.”
With Jackson’s foreign policy principles in hand, coupled with his reputation as a successful military leader, American ministers were able to win newfound respect for American rights and trade all over the globe. Jackson’s administration opened new ports to American trade, won most-favored-nation trading status in other countries, and collected huge sums of money owed the United States by foreign governments.
Although Jackson promised not to increase the size of the U.S. through force, he did try repeatedly but futilely to buy Texas from Mexico. However, Texans declared and won their own independence from Mexico in 1836. Though he badly wanted Texas to join the Union, he stuck to his foreign policy principles and refused to interfere in Mexico’s internal affairs. He cautioned Congress to wait until the situation stabilized before recognizing Texas’ independence. Just days before he left office, Congress recognized Texas and Jackson approved its action.
Jackson’s only true foreign affairs crisis came when France hesitated to pay indemnities to the U.S. it had agreed to in 1831. As the French continued to delay payment, Jackson’s temper surfaced and he began hinting that war with France might be necessary to preserve American honor. With two of its largest trading partners on the brink of war, Great Britain stepped in and helped settle the dispute to preserve the peace. At last, France paid the indemnity and Jackson offered explanations for his threats, but no apologies.
Tying Up Loose Ends
With the French crisis behind him and the nation free of debt, Jackson settled in for the last year of his presidency. Several issues dominated his final days in office including the approval of his decentralized banking system, distribution of the national surplus, currency reform and the campaign to elect Vice-President Martin Van Buren to the presidency.
With 1836 an election year, Congressmen wanted a victory to take home to the voters and they zeroed in on distributing government surpluses to the states for internal improvements. Jackson opposed distribution because he felt it was unconstitutional. He preferred that the surplus be reserved for national defense. Knowing Jackson would oppose their distribution plan, Congress tied it to the banking reforms Jackson long desired.
In June 1836, Congress approved the legislation and sent it to Jackson. Jackson was tempted to veto it because he despised distribution and he felt the regulations on the state banks that held U.S. deposits did not go far enough, but the bill offered a final victory in the Bank War, currency reform and assisted Van Buren in his presidential campaign.
The first assassination attempt on a sitting U.S. president occurred on January 30, 1835, when Richard Lawrence failed to slay Andrew Jackson.
Jackson signed the bill and went one step further by reforming the nation’s currency. He argued the paper money system allowed speculators to buy huge quantities of land that drove prices so high that “the people” could not afford it. To combat this, Jackson issued his Specie Circular which required government land be purchased with gold or silver unless the land was bought directly by actual settlers.
Though well intentioned, Jackson’s Specie Circular, lack of regulations on state banks and other issues eventually produced a calamitous economic downturn that destroyed the presidency of Martin Van Buren.
Legacy in Office
When Jackson vacated office in March 1837, he left his mark on the presidency and forever changed the course of American history.
Through his actions and tenure as president, Jackson squarely set the Executive Branch on an equal footing with Congress in terms of power and ability to shape law and government policies.
Jackson preserved and defended the Union against threats from nullifiers and secessionists. Nations across the globe viewed the United States with newfound respect due to Jackson’s management of foreign affairs. Most importantly, however, Jackson’s presidency pushed the nation further toward democracy, but much work remained in granting equal rights and freedoms to those still oppressed in the United States.
Jackson had many faults...but...With the exception of Washington and Lincoln, no man has left a deeper mark on American History.
Home at Last
Andrew Jackson left Washington for home on March 7, 1837. Well-wishers and supporters lined his route home, cheering the way for the man who had sacrificed much to give them a voice in Washington. Although he was no longer the president, others still sought his counsel and support. Post-presidency, Jackson kept up an active correspondence with many in Washington, offering his insights and advice from The Hermitage in Nashville. Jackson found great joy in spending time with his family and attending church in his final years.
He wanted sincerely to look after the little fellow who had no pull, and that’s what a president is supposed to do.
During his final years, Jackson experienced the misery of constant infections, pain, and vision and hearing problems. While he frequently predicted his own death, he continued to fight and hang on to life for the better part of a decade. Finally, on June 8, 1845, surrounded by his loved ones, he died in his bedroom at The Hermitage. The leader, warrior, planter, husband, father, friend and statesman closed his eyes for the last time. For Andrew Jackson, the storm was over.
He was buried two days later in The Hermitage garden with nearly ten thousand people in attendance.Continue to Legend