Sometimes Controversial and Often Quite Surprising: Andrew Jackson’s Presidency
Andrew Jackson, who served as the seventh president of the United States, from 1829 to 1837, created the framework for full democratic participation, established strong relationships with foreign nations and was the only president to pay off the national debt. He set a new precedent for who the president should become a true representative of “the people.”
The Eaton Affair
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.
Indian Removal Act
One of Jackson’s reforms was removing Indian tribes in the United States to the west of the Mississippi River.
He argued that the United States’ policy of attempting to assimilate the tribes into white society had failed and that the Native Americans’ way of life would eventually be destroyed. Furthermore, he recognized that whites desired their lands and feared that 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 (IRA) in 1830 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 Act was immediately applied to the removal of the Five Tribes of the Southeast—the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole—with great loss of Native American life due to this corruption, inadequate supply and military force. However, the IRA was a nationally binding policy and has been used to justify government interference with Native Nations since 1830. Jackson’s Indian Removal policy and its tragic consequences, including the Trail of Tears, is the most conspicuous blight on his presidential legacy.
Decentralizing 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.
After defeating Henry Clay in the 1832 presidential election, Jackson interpreted that victory as “the people’s” mandate to destroy the powerful Bank and replace it with a decentralized government banking system. While he 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.
Paying Off the National Debt
Jackson took office with great expectations to cleanse the government of corruption and restore the nation’s finances. He kept a watchful eye over government expenditures and congressional appropriations. 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 feat did come at the expense of the state of South Carolina, which was footing nearly two-thirds of the nation’s taxes at that time under the Tariff of Abominations. South Carolina then proceeded to nullify federal law, leading to the Nullification Crisis.
Not overlooking that looming crisis, it is worth noting that this is the only time in the nation’s history that the federal government has been debt free.
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 the 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.
Sometimes controversial and often quite surprising, Andrew Jackson helped to inspire a new era of belief and hope in the American dream—the idea that anyone can succeed through hard work and natural ability, rather than through unearned power and privilege.
Discover so much more about who Andrew Jackson was with a visit to his home and carefully curated museum at The Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee.