Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Andrew Jackson

Of all the Presidents of the United States Andrew Jackson was, perhaps, the most peculiar. He was of Scotch-Irish descent, his parents coming to this country in 1765 from Ireland and settling in the northern part of South Carolina on the Waxhaw Creek. They had been very poor in the old country, his father tilling a small farm while the mother was a weaver of linen. His father never owned land in America, and died soon after he arrived in this country, little Andrew being born about the time of his death. One would hardly be justified in supposing young Jackson would one day be ruler of a great nation, rising as he did from such a beginning, yet such are the possibilities in our glorious republic.

His mother wished to make a preacher of him, but his boyhood is represented as mischievous; to say the least, his belligerent nature breaking out in childhood, and his mother’s fond hope was signally defeated. He was passionately fond of athletic sports, and was excelled by none of his years. The determination he evinced in every undertaking guided by his maxim of “Ask nothing but what is right—submit to nothing wrong,” seemed to be the key-note of his success, for he was not addicted to books, and his education was limited.

Being an eye-witness of the horrible massacre perpetrated by the bloody Tarlton at the Waxsaw settlement his patriotic zeal was terribly awakened, and at the tender age of thirteen we find him among the American forces, and his military career begins at Hanging Rock, where he witnesses the defeat of Sumter, and he is soon a prisoner of the enemy. The English officer ordered him to black his boots; at this all the lion in young Jackson is aroused, and he indignantly refuses, whereupon the officer strikes him twice with his sword, inflicting two ugly wounds, one on his arm, the other on his head. He had the small-pox while a prisoner, but his mother effected his exchange, and after a long illness he recovered, but his brother died of the same disease.

Soon after his mother was taken from him—his other brother was killed at Stono; thus left alone in the world he began a reckless course, which must have been his ruin but for a sudden change for the better, when he began the study of law at Salisbury, North Carolina, and before he was twenty was licensed to practice.

Being appointed solicitor for the western district of North Carolina—now Tennessee—he removed to Nashville, 1788. His practice soon became large which, in those days, meant a great deal of travel on horseback. He made twenty-two trips between Nashville and Jonesborough during his first seven years, and dangerous trips they were, too, for the Indians were numerous and hostile. When he came to Nashville he entered, as a boarder, the family of Mrs. Donelson, a widow.

A Mr. and Mrs. Robards were boarders at the same home. Mr. Robards becoming foolishly jealous of young Jackson applied to the legislature of Virginia for an act preliminary to a divorce. Jackson and Mrs. Robards, thinking the act of the legislature was a divorce of itself, were married before the action of the court. Judge Overton, a friend, was himself surprised to learn that the act of the legislature was not a divorce, and through his advice they were again married in the early part of 1794. The fact that Captain Robards’ own family sustained Mrs. Robards in the controversy with her husband must strongly point to the groundlessness of the charges; while it is further conceded that Andrew Jackson was not the first victim of the suspicious nature of Captain Robards. However, this can never be regarded otherwise than a most unfortunate period in the life of Andrew Jackson, it being the immediate cause of more than one of the many obstacles with which he was obliged to contend in after years.

He was appointed district attorney of Tennessee when that country became a federal territory, and in 1796 when Tennessee became a State, he was a man of no small wealth. On January 11th, 1796, a convention met at Knoxville to draft a constitution for the new State, and Jackson was chosen one of five delegates from Davidson county to meet the other members from over the State. He was appointed on the committee to draft that important document. Having been elected to represent his State in the popular branch of Congress he accordingly took his seat in that legislative body in December, 1796. As Jackson entered the house on the eve of the retirement from public life of Washington, he voted on the measure approving Washington’s administration; and, as he could not conscientiously vote otherwise, not approving some of Washington’s measures, he is recorded among the twelve who voted in the negative.

He at this time belonged to the so-called Republican party, now Democratic, which was then forming under Jefferson, the incoming vice-president, under the Federal Adams. His record in Congress is made exemplary by his action on three important bills, namely: Against buying peace of the Algerians, against a needlessly large appropriation for repairing the house of the president, and against the removal of the restriction confining the expenditure of public money to the specific objects for which said money was appropriated.

As would be natural, such a course was highly approved by his constituents, and he was made a senator in 1797, but his senatorial career was not so fruitful, as it is believed that he never made a speech nor ever voted once and resigned his seat in less than a year. He was elected a justice of the supreme court of Tennessee, but he did nothing remarkable here either as none of his decisions remain. Nothing of note occurred for some time except his becoming involved in a quarrel with Governor Sevier, which came to a crisis in 1801, when Jackson was made Major-General of militia over Sevier. Jackson suspected Sevier of being involved in certain land frauds, and a duel was averted only by the influence of friends.

About this time Jackson became financially embarrassed. Thinking himself secure, he sold a large amount of land to a gentleman in Philadelphia, and, taking his notes, bought goods for the Tennessee market, depending on these notes for payment. The failure of these threw him into great difficulties; but his firm will came to his aid once more and saved him. He immediately resigned the position of judge, and sold land enough to clear himself from debt. He is said to have now removed to what subsequently became known as the “Hermitage,” taking all his slaves, and dwelling in a log house.

He extended his business, being now at the head of the firm of Jackson, Coffee and Hatchings. This was a trading firm, raising wheat, corn, cotton, mules, cows and horses, it being a concern whose business extended to New Orleans, but it lost money, and finally came to an end, although through no fault of Jackson, as he generally carried to success whatever he personally managed, and this embarrassment grew out of reckless proceedings during his absence. We now come upon another dark page of Jackson’s life.

During the year 1806 a quarrel was started, which led to the death of Charles Dickinson. This is one of his quarrels resulting indirectly from the manner in which he become married to Mrs. Robards. This Dickinson had spoken offensively of Mrs. Jackson, he once retracted his words and renewed them. In the meantime Jackson became involved in a quarrel with a man by the name of Swann over the terms of a horse race, and Jackson used some strong language relative to Dickinson, whose name had been meaningly introduced. Jackson’s words were carried to Dickinson, as it appears he had intended. Afterward the quarrel with Swann resulted in a bar-room fight, it is said, begun by Jackson.

About this time Dickinson wrote a very severe attack on Jackson and published it. Jackson challenged him and the parties met a long day’s journey from Nashville, on the banks of the Red River, in Logan county, Kentucky. Dickinson was a very popular man in Nashville, and he was attended by a number of associates. Dickinson’s second was a Dr. Catlet; Jackson’s, General Overton.

Dickinson fired first and his ball took effect, breaking a rib and raking the breastbone, but Jackson never stirred nor gave evidence of being hit. His object was to hide from his adversary the pleasure of knowing that he had even grazed his mark, for Dickinson considered himself a great shot and was certain of killing him at the first fire. Seeing he had missed he exclaimed, My God! Have I missed him? Jackson then fired and Dickinson fell mortally wounded, dying that night without knowing his aim had taken any effect. This duel was another most unfortunate thing for Jackson, and caused him great unpopularity in Tennessee until his military victories turned popular attention from it.

Jackson lived a comparatively quiet life for the few years following, nothing of importance happening except his mistaken connection with Aaron Burr, and quarrel with a Mr. Dinsmore, an agent of the Choctaw Indians. In 1812 the second war with Great Britain broke out and Jackson at once tendered his services to the government; they were gladly accepted and the rest of the year was devoted by him in raising more troops and organizingthem for active service. During the early part of 1813 he started across the country, but for some reason the Secretary of War ordered him to disband his forces, but he marched them back to Tennessee. It was on this march that he received the name of “Hickory,” which afterwards became “Old Hickory.”

Arriving at Nashville he tendered his troops to the Government for an invasion of Canada but the Secretary of War never even answered his proposal, and finally he disbanded the forces on May 22nd. The government failed to sustain him and his transportation drafts were allowed to go to protest. This must have ruined Jackson had it not been for his friend Colonel Benton, who made an appeal which the government felt bound to comply with, as it was made plain that it would lose the service of Tennessee if such a preposterous act was persisted in.

Thus he was saved from what might have been an irretrievable financial misfortune. Through deceitfulness in others he was led to a disgraceful quarrel with his intimate friend, Colonel Benton, who had helped him so much at Washington. The difficulty with the Creek Indians arising; Jackson with his characteristic energy helped to subjugate them. His victory over the Indians of Horse Shoe Bend is so familiar to every American school-boy that it is needless to relate the details. He now gained a national reputation, and was made a major-general in the United States army, and soon became the acknowledged military leader of the southwest.

From now General Jackson’s star grew steadily brighter, and he began to develop the sterling qualities which he unmistakably possessed. During the progress of the war the Spanish authorities who then controlled Florida, had neither the power nor disposition to demand of the British due regard to the rights of neutral territory. They seemed to sympathize with England, as Jackson could gain no satisfaction through his correspondence with them, and as neither the Spanish or British could be induced to change their purpose, Jackson, as was his custom both in politics and war ever afterward, determined to act without orders.

He immediately moved upon Pensacola, razed the town and drove the English forces out of Florida. Returning to Mobile he learned of the plan of the British to conquer Louisiana. He immediately marched to New Orleans, but the city was miserably defended, and his own forces were a motley crew, consisting of about two thousand. But Jackson made the most of his opportunities. He learned the plan of the British from the chief of a band of smugglers. After a few preliminary battles in which as a whole the Americans were victorious, the British army, now twelve thousand strong, was joined by General Packenham, who was a brother-in-law of the great Duke of Wellington, who changed the plans of the British army. Jackson, at this time, was joined by about two thousand more troops, but they were poorly armed.

The British captured a whole fleet of gun-boats. This left the way clear, and it is thought that had the British pushed in then, as Jackson would have done, nothing could have saved the day for America. Jackson fell back and threw up earth-works, cotton-bales and sand-bags for protection, and waited for the enemy. On the memorable day, the eighth of January, the army advanced; Ridpath says, “They went to a terrible fate.”

Packenham hurled column after column at the American breast-works only to return bleeding and torn. The Americans were well protected while the veterans of England were exposed to the fire of the Tennessee and Kentucky riflemen and the result was awful, the enemy losing not only General Packenham, their commander, but also General Gibbs, leaving only General Lambert to lead the forces from the field, General Keen being wounded. The loss of the enemy was about two thousand killed, wounded, and prisoners. The Americans’ loss was eight killed and thirteen wounded.

This battle was a most fortunate thing for Jackson for the reputation this gained for him added to that already gained in deciding forever the white man’s supremacy in America, undoubtedly made him President of the United States. He became Governor of Florida when that Territory was ceded to the United States by Spain in 1821, but he held the position only a few months. In 1828 the Tennessee Legislature made him a Senator, and later he was nominated for the Presidency. This at first was not regarded seriously, as many had misgivings as to his capability as a legislator, although all admitted his military power. The election proved that he had great political strength as well, receiving the largest number of electoral votes, 99, to 84 for Adams, 41 for Crawford, and 37 for Clay. As no one had a majority the case was decided by Congress, who gave the place to Adams.

The opposition to the administration united under Jackson, and in the next election he was triumphantly elected, receiving 178 electoral votes to 83 for Adams. In this campaign Jackson’s private life was bitterly assailed, especially was the manner in which he came to be married misrepresented. His wife died only a short time after his election, it is said, from the influence of the vile stories which were circulated regarding her.

He entered upon his duties as President, with his characteristic firmness. A rupture soon arose between him and the Vice-President, Mr. Calhoun, and this was intensified when Calhoun’s nullification views became known. The Democratic party outside of South Carolina supported the administration. The cabinet was soon changed. During his administration over seventeen hundred removals from office were made, more than had occurred in all previous administrations. His appointments gave much offence to some, and with a degree of reason, it must be admitted, as they were selected wholly from his political friends, notwithstanding his previously avowed principles, which were implied in his advice to Mr. Monroe in the selection of his Cabinet. However, some allowance should be made as Jackson had a seeming rebellion on hand, and one hardly could blame him for desiring men on whom he knew he could depend in the promised hours of peril.

The tariff laws were especially obnoxious to South Carolina, of the Southern States. Now Jackson was opposed to the tariff laws himself, but as long as the laws remained he proposed that they should be enforced and when South Carolina met at Columbia and passed resolutions to resist the existing laws and declaring in favor of State rights, he promptly sent forces to quell the promised rebellion. Seeing what kind of a man they had to deal with the nullifiers were glad to seize the excuse for not proceeding, which Clay’s Compromise Bill afforded. This bill reduced the duties gradually until at the end of ten years they would reach the standard desired by the South. His re-election was even more conclusive than the former, inasmuch as it was found that he had carried every State save seven. His principal opponent was Henry Clay, who represented the party in favor of renewing the charter of the United States bank. Jackson was bitterly opposed to this institution, vetoed the bill to re-charter the bank, and an effort to pass the bill over his head failing to receive a two-thirds vote, the bank ceased to exist.

He conceived the idea of distributing the surplus left by the bank, about ten millions, among certain banks named for that purpose. He had no acknowledged authority for this but he believed himself right and acted independently, as was characteristic in such cases. A panic ensued, and the Whigs claimed that this measure of Jackson’s was the cause, while the Democrats were equally confident that the financial troubles were brought about by the bank itself, which was described as an institution too powerful and despotic to exist in a free country.

A powerful opposition was formed in the Senate against him, headed by such men as Calhoun, Clay and Webster, and finally a resolution condemning his course was adopted by a vote of 26 to 20, but was afterward expunged through the influence of his intimate friend, Colonel Benton. The House sustained the President throughout, or he must have been overthrown. The foreign relations of our Government at the close of Jackson’s administration was very satisfactory indeed. The national debt was extinguished, and new States were admitted into the Union.

He issued a farewell address to his country, and retired to private life at the Hermitage, where he lived until his death in 1845. There is much in the life of Andrew Jackson that can be profitably copied by the American youth of to-day; notably his fixedness of purpose, indomitable will, and great love of truth. There are other things that would be well to pass by and give little promise, such as his sporting propensities. Lossing says: ‘The memory of that great and good man is revered by his countrymen next to that of Washington.’ His imposing statue occupies a conspicuous place in President’s Square, Washington, where it was unveiled in 1852, being the first equestrian statue in bronze ever erected in America. It is certain that he exercised a marked influence in shaping the affairs of the generations that were to follow his administration.