A Brief History
On May 28, 1830, US President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, a law allowing the President to negotiate with tribes still located in the Southern United States to be moved West of the Mississippi River. This act and the actions that followed were tantamount to a genocide of Southeastern Native American people, leading to the infamous “Trail of Tears” migration of the Cherokee people in which as many as half of the 16,000+ relocated Cherokee died enroute to reservations in the West. (Note: The Native Americans so relocated took their African American slaves along with them.)
Andrew Jackson, whose portrait graces our $20 bill, was then and remains a controversial figure. A fiery personality, his reputation was made in war against the British and against Native Americans. A slave holder and proponent of slavery in the United States, Jackson’s combined enmity toward Native Americans and African Americans has led many Americans to decry him as a racist, a figure unfit to grace the $20 bill. Instead, the popular movement to have a female American’s image on the $20 bill, most often that of Harriet Tubman, an African American former slave that worked to free other slaves and spied for the North (Union) during the US Civil War has taken hold and a divisive argument has wracked the United States over our choice of image to portray on our $20 bill. (Discussion of replacing Alexander Hamilton’s image on the $10 bill with that of a female American evolved into discussion of changing the image on the $20 bill.) Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson, an American hero of legendary status has had his legacy dragged through the mud in recent years, largely over allegations of his harboring racist ideas.
Born in the pre-United States era of America in the Carolina colonies in 1767, Jackson was the son of Scots-Irish immigrants. Jackson’s father died before Jackson was even born, though little else is known about his earliest years. Always a feisty person, Jackson is said to both have been a bully and a protector of weaker kids while growing up. Despite his young age (13), by 1780 he had already lost a brother during the American Revolutionary War and along with another brother was encouraged by his mother to assist the militia as couriers. Captured by the British, young Andrew refused to clean the British officer’s boots, resulting in the irate officer slashing Jackson with his sword, leaving Andy with scars on his hand and head, but most importantly on his psyche, causing him a lifelong hatred of the British. Even worse, Jackson and his brother were nearly starved while being held prisoner. The Jackson brothers contracted smallpox and were released, Andy barely making it home alive and his brother dying. Their mother volunteered as a nurse, dying of cholera a year later, leaving Jackson an orphan at the age of 14.
Despite a spotty education, Andrew ended up studying the Law and became an attorney in 1787, in North Carolina. The year 1788 saw Jackson purchase his first slave and fight his first duel, an affair without bloodshed. In 1790, Andy married a supposedly divorced woman, Rachel, who had been found to have not finalized her divorce, causing the couple to remarry in 1794 after the divorce was final. The cloudy nature of the marriage was later to haunt Jackson and Rachel.
Engaging in land speculation, a booming business as the country was being settled, Jackson made influential acquaintances and became the first Representative to Congress from Tennessee in 1796 when statehood was achieved. In 1797, the State Legislature had made Jackson a US Senator. (Note: Senators used to be elected by each state’s legislature instead of the popular vote of the citizens.) A year in our Nation’s Capital was enough for Jackson, and he resigned as Senator and returned to Tennessee to become a Justice on the Tennessee State Supreme Court, later being elected as a General of the Tennessee Militia. Jackson also went into the farming business as a plantation owner, as well as a slave holder, owning as many as 150 slaves at his peak, with perhaps around 300 people at one time or another having been owned by Jackson. Despite the obvious inherent racism in owning slaves, Jackson was somewhat more concerned about the welfare of his slaves than many other plantation owners, providing better quarters and living conditions than the average plantation, as well as occasionally paying his slaves money to spend at their own discretion. Not to be confused as a kindly slave owner, Jackson also had slaves whipped for alleged misdeeds and enthusiastically demanded escaped slaves be severely whipped if caught.
In 1806, the subject of the propriety of his marriage became an affair of honor, and Jackson fought a duel with a man that had insulted Jackson’s wife. Though shot in the chest, Jackson returned fire and killed his opponent. Despite the fact that Jackson suffered a bullet wound near his heart before shooting his opponent, many men in Tennessee thought Jackson basically murdered his foe by deliberately aiming at and killing the now defenseless man. (Note: What an odd way of looking at things! After all, the other man certainly tried to kill Jackson, and nearly succeeded!) Andy became a bit of a pariah in refined company. Andy sought the companionship of another American pariah, Aaron Burr, a former Vice President of the US that had killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Jackson was enticed by Burr to support Burr’s plan to invade and conquer Florida and Texas from Spain, but the plot blew up when it was revealed Burr intended to also seize New Orleans, which was in US territory.
Jackson’s claim to fame really began during the War of 1812, when he led an army to New Orleans to defend the city and fight the British. Jackson’s men began calling him “Old Hickory” in honor of his toughness, and troubles continued to follow the tough guy. Financial ruin loomed over expenses of keeping his army fed and armed, while during a brawl Andy suffered a gunshot wound to the shoulder. Jackson led his men against Native Americans that had used the opportunity of America being at war to attack American settlements, including committing a massacre. A hard fought campaign defeated the belligerent Native Americans and Jackson was on to fight the iconic Battle of New Orleans, an almost mythical American victory, remembered in song and verse, though actually fought after the War of 1812 was already over! The Americans led by Jackson suffered less than 100 total casualties, while the British, which had outnumbered the US troops 2 to 1, suffered over 2000 casualties. The victory was monumental.
More Indian fighting followed for Jackson, and riding his fame to aspirations of becoming President, Andy decided to seek the highest office in the land in 1824, though his health had seriously begun to fail him. Carrying 2 bullets in his body and having suffered a variety of diseases during his life, his health failed in 1822, but he recovered to seek the nomination for President from the Democratic-Republican Party. In 1823, Jackson was returned to the Senate by the Tennessee legislature, after an absence of almost 25 years from that body! Jackson lost a 5 way race for President in 1824, despite winning the greatest number of electoral votes in the general election. Political wrangling in the House of Representatives led to John Quincy Adams being elected President, and left Jackson bitter and angry. A disgusted Jackson once again resigned his seat in the US Senate and went home.
In 1828, Jackson again sought the Presidency, and this time he won, supported by Martin van Buren. Jackson’s party affiliation this time was the Jacksonian Party leading up to the election, which he switched to the Democratic Party for his actual election. The election of 1828 was particularly crude in its political invective, and included attacks on the honor of Jackson’s wife, Rachel, a sure-fire bet to enrage Old Hickory. Unfortunately, Rachel became ill, perhaps due in part to the unrelenting stress of personal attacks against her, and she died 3 weeks after her husband was elected President, and before he took office. Jackson swore to never forgive John Q. Adams and Adams’ supporters for what he called the murder of Rachel.
Conducting his presidency with disregard for criticism, Jackson went about seeking to displace Native Americans to make room for White settlement of the country. He was re-elected by a landslide vote in 1832, in spite of massive funding of the campaign against him. In May of 1833, an official Jackson had dismissed from the Navy for theft in office physically attacked the President, though with little effect. Jackson chose not to prefer charges against the man. On January 30, 1835, a real assassination attempt took place on the life of Jackson, which you can read about in our article “What Was the First US Presidential Assassination Attempt?” President Jackson was in attendance at the funeral of Congressman Warren R. Davis of South Carolina at the nation’s capital. Richard Lawrence was there to finish his deadly plans as well. Richard failed to get close enough to Jackson during the funeral, but as Jackson was leaving the President passed right by Richard and the would-be assassin seized the opportunity, pulling the trigger on his first pistol at Jackson’s back from close range. When the gun failed to fire, Richard pulled a second pistol and again attempted to shoot Jackson, and once more that second pistol misfired. Lawrence was quickly subdued by Jackson himself, along with several Congressmen in the vicinity. Jackson himself famously clobbered his would be assassin with the President’s own cane. Among the Congressmen assisting in subduing Lawrence was Davy Crockett, frontier legend and future subject of a television series. (Crockett would die at the Alamo the following year.)
After his 2 terms as President, Jackson was succeeded by Martin Van Buren, the man picked by Jackson as his successor. By the time Jackson left office in 1837, he had become an old and frail man, but stubbornly saw to the business of his plantation and freely gave his political opinion on various subjects. He died at the age of 78 in 1845, an incredible feat considering how close he had come to death on several occasions. During Jackson’s Presidency, the Union added 2 states (Michigan and Arkansas), and Jackson appointed 6 Supreme Court Justices. He has the distinction of being the only President in US History to have paid off the National Debt, a feat he accomplished in 1835. Although a proponent of the annexation of Texas to the United States, Andy died before the December 1845 admittance of Texas to the Union.
Andrew Jackson remains a man with many ardent supporters and fans, and just about as many critics. He led a busy and event filled life, facing incredible odds against survival at times, yet he triumphed ultimately. A man of courage and honor, his legacy is marred by his obvious disregard for the rights and well being of people other than White European stock ethnic groups. His memory is reviled by many Native Americans and is often pointed to by African Americans as a blot on American History. Few Americans have been able to drive such sincere and extreme differences of opinion about themselves.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should Andrew Jackson’s image be kept on the $20 bill? Does Harriet Tubman deserve to have her portrait on an American paper money bill? Who else do you believe should be removed from appearing on US coins or paper bills, and who else would you like to see featured on our money? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Birzer, Bradley. In Defense of Andrew Jackson. Regnery History, 2018.
Meacham, John. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Random House, 2008.
Thorne, Danielle. People that Changed the Course of History: The Story of Andrew Jackson 250 Years After His Birth. Atlantic Publishing Group, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a map by User:Nikater of the route of the Trails of Tears — depicting the route taken to relocate Native Americans from the Southeastern United States between 1836 and 1839, is in the public domain because it came from the site http://www.demis.nl/home/pages/Gallery/examples.htm and was released by the copyright holder. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this map since it is based on free of copyright images from: www.demis.nl. See also approval email on de.wp and its clarification. This work has been released into the public domain by its author, www.demis.nl, worldwide.