ADVANCED PLACEMENT AMERICAN HISTORY

The Jacksonian Revolution

 

*Ever since his defeat in the House of Representatives in 1824, Jackson and his followers had been campaigning for Jackson’s presidential candidacy in 1828.  The Republican party split into the National Republicans (under Adams and Clay) and the Democratic-Republicans under Jackson.

 

*When 1828 rolled around Jackson’s supporters, managed by the brilliant Martin van Buren (a veteran of the Byzantine politics of New York), came out in vast numbers to cheer and to vote for Old Hickory.  This started to divide American under a Second Two-Party System that would slowly solidify during Jackson's presidency.

 

*The Election of 1828 was almost certainly the dirtiest America had yet seen.

 

*Jackson was called a dangerous man, and ‘coffin handbills’ were published, with pictures of six coffins representing six men hanged by Jackson shortly before the Battle of New Orleans for, according to him, robbery, arson, and mutiny (or just wanting to go home according to Jackson’s detractors), and his history of duelling was described as murder. 

 

*Jackson certainly had a long history of violence attending his rise to power.

 

*Jackson was born in the Waxhaws near the North/South Carolina border (so that both states sometimes claim him as a native son) in 1767.  His father had died when he was young, and he joined the US Army during the Revolution, and served as a courier.  He and his brother were captured by the British, and a British officer ordered him to polish his boots; he refused, and the officer slashed him with his sword.  He and his brother contracted smallpox while in captivity, and his brother died just after they were released.  His mother died of cholera while serving as a nurse in the prison ships of Charleston.  He hated the British for all that for the rest of his life.

 

*Although Jackson had little, if any, formal education, he briefly became a teacher, then went on to study law in North Carolina and Tennessee, where he arrived in Jonesborough in 1788 riding one horse with a racehorse trailing along behind.  Although of poor birth and no education, Jackson claimed to be a gentleman, which meant defending his honour in duels.  The first of these came within a year of his arrival in Jonesborough, when Waightstill Avery, a great North Carolina lawyer ridiculed his legal knowledge, and Jackson challenged him to a duel.

 

*The Jackson-Avery duel ended in both men discharging their guns in the air, but Jackson’s future duels would not end so peacefully.

 

*Jackson moved to the Mero District about 1790.  There he met the daughter of John Donelson, Rachel.  She was technically married to a man named Lewis Robards, but he had proven to be an abusive husband, and they had separated.  Eventually Robards left for Kentucky, and word came back that he had secured a divorce.  Andrew and Rachel married in 1791 and lived happily together until Robards returned and revealed that he had never filed for divorce after all.  Andrew and Rachel had been living bigamously for almost three years!  A divorce was arranged in late 1793, and Jackson married his wife again in January 1794, just to be sure.  At the time no-one was much distressed, but this would come back to haunt the Jacksons.

 

*About this time, Governor William Blount made Jackson attorney-general of the Mero District.  A few years later he served on the Tennessee constitutional convention, and went to Philadelphia as Tennessee’s first Congressman.  This was boring, however, and he almost immediately returned to campaign for his election to Major-General of the Tennessee militia.

 

*Jackson had to compete for the position with a man chosen by Sevier, who naturally had all the governor’s support.  Jackson lost, openly criticised Sevier at the time, and resented Sevier for it forever afterwards.  However, Jackson was chosen to fill William Cocke’s old seat in the US Senate.

 

*Jackson found the Senate boring, too, and resigned, and upon coming home to Tennessee was made a justice of the superior court, in which he rode to the different counties and heard important cases.

 

*In 1802 (or so the story goes, although some feel it is not well enough documented to call proper history), Jackson was holding court in Jonesborough, when he heard of the case of Russell Bean, the first white child born in Tennessee, but now all grown up (being about 33 years of age). 

 

*Russell Bean had taken a flatboat to New Orleans, sold his furs and other goods, sold the boat for firewood, and walked home.  In the intervening time, more than nine months, Mrs Bean had given birth to a child.  In a drunken fury, Russell immediately cut (or possibly bit) the infant's ears off, so he could tell it apart from his own.  By some accounts the child died.

 

*A warrant was issued for Bean’s arrest, but he threatened to shoot any man who tried to take him (and he was an expert gunsmith, and presumably a crack shot).  The sheriff told the court this, and Jackson told him to summon a posse.  The sheriff tried, but no-one would come.  Jackson told him to summon the whole town, if necessary, so the sheriff summoned Jackson.  Jackson called a recess of the court grabbed a loaded pistol or two, went to Bean, and said 'surrender, you infernal villain, this very instant, or I'll blow you through.'  Bean surrendered, explaining that he saw 'shoot' in Jackson’s eyes.  Bean was convicted and branded on the hand.  Some versions of the story say he bit off the brand and spat it on the courthouse floor.  He was also imprisoned, but escaped.

 

*About this same time, Jackson again sought to be elected Major-General of Tennessee’s militia, but this time things were different.  This time he won, with the help of political allies and information about fraudulent land deals involving John Sevier.  Eventually, this got into the Knoxville Gazette, along with a statement by Jackson calling Sevier a “base coward and a poltroon,” and Sevier came to hate Jackson dearly.

 

*In 1803, Sevier was re-elected Governor.  At the same time, Jackson (who was still a superior court judge, in addition to being Major-General), was in Knoxville to hold court.  In October, Jackson and Sevier encountered one another on the corner of Gay Street and Main Street.  Sevier was carrying his sabre that day, and upon seeing Jackson, drew his sword and began ridiculing Jackson and his pretensions.  Jackson tried to defend himself from Sevier (perhaps the only time in his life he is known to have been humble) by stammering over his services to the state.  Sevier returned this, saying 'I know of no service you have rendered the country, except taking a trip to Natchez with another man's wife!'  Jackson responded, 'Great God, do you mention her sacred name?'  Jackson (who had a sword cane) rushed at Sevier to strike him, while Sevier defended himself with his sabre.  The crowd produced weapons, and at least one man fired randomly and hit another bystander, but the two were separated.

 

*The next day Jackson wrote a challenge to Sevier, who accepted.  Sevier chose his son James as his second, and Jackson brought a Dr Thomas van Dyke.  As duelling was illegal in Tennessee, they had to go into Indian Country, but they accidentally met up on the road on the way.

 

*As the challenged party, Sevier had provided the pistols, which were on his horse.  As Jackson began to shout at him, their horses ran away, carrying the pistols with them.  Jackson then drew a sword and ran at Sevier, who hid behind a tree.  James Sevier was obliged to aim his pistol at Jackson to keep him away, while Dr van Dyke ended up taking aim at both the Seviers.  Shouts, insults, and threats were exchanged, but eventually the seconds calmed down their principals, and the encounter was over.  The two men would never forgive each other, though.  This may all have been for the best for Jackson, though—Tennessee would never have elected him to anything if he had killed Nollichucky Jack.

 

*Jackson retired from the superior court shortly after that, and built the Hermitage near Nashville, and took to farming, land speculation, and work with the militia.  He also had a prize racehorse named Truxton, and he loved to bet on the races.

 

*Once after a race when some paper money changed hands, Jackson became convinced that he might have been cheated.  Certain enemies helped play up his suspicions, because the man he accused was the father-in-law of Charles Dickinson, and Dickinson became involved in the dispute.   Charles Dickinson was regarded as the best shot in Tennessee and possibly the nation, while Old Hickory was not considered a great shot, and Jackson's enemies hoped it would come to a duel that would finish Jackson off.  Jackson and Dickinson exchanged increasingly nasty notes, until 1806 when Dickinson published one to a Nashville newspaper calling Jackson a 'worthless scoundrel, ... a poltroon and a coward.'  Jackson challenged him to a duel.

 

*Jackson stood stock still at the duel, wearing an over-sized coat to deceive his opponent.  Dickinson was apparently misled by the large coat Jackson wore, for he did not kill Jackson outright, although the ball did hit Jackson and stop within a fraction of an inch of his heart, where it remained for the rest of his life.  Dickinson was forced by the code of the duel to stand his, too, and with all the time he needed, Jackson, ignoring the blood pooling in his boots, carefully aimed his pistol and pulled the trigger.  The gun snapped, but only to half-cock.  Jackson re-cocked the pistol and fired, hitting Dickinson in the belly; he expired within hours. 

 

*Some said Jackson’s re-cocking of the gun was in violation of the code of the duel, and made it murder by any definition.  Others disagree, saying that if there was any dispute, the seconds on the field would have called it on the spot.  During the election of 1828, though, it was called murder in the national press.

 

*Jackson’s fights eventually hurt his reputation in the state, especially the last of them, which was more of a barroom brawl than an interview between gentlemen.  On 14 June, 1813, Jackson had acted as a second for William Carroll, a young friend, in a duel against Jesse Benton.  Carroll, like Jackson in his duel with Dickinson, stood and took a shot from Benton, losing a part of his thumb.  Benton then turned and crouched in his spot while Carroll aimed and shot him in the butt.  As Jackson was much older than the others, Jesse’s brother Thomas Hart Benton, who had once been Jackson’s friend, had written a letter reprimanding Jackson for getting involved in other people’s business. 

 

*On 4 September 1813, it was discovered that the Benton Brothers were in Nashville on business.  Jackson and friends including John Coffee were made aware of this, and they made a point of walking by the Bentons’ hotel carrying pistols and a horsewhip.  Jackson stormed into the hall by the back porch and yelled, 'Now defend yourself, you damned rascal!'

 

*People starting fighting and shooting left and right.  Jackson pulled a pistol from his coat and aimed it at Thomas Hart Benton, who pulled out his own.  Jesse was hidden behind Jackson, and all three men fired at once.  Jackson’s pistol burnt Thomas’s coat, but Jackson was shot in the left shoulder, and collapsed.

 

*Coffee and two other friends of Jackson charged at Thomas with guns, clubs, knives, and a sword cane, and he was cut five times.  Two of them backed Jesse up against a wall and tried to stab him while he tried to deflect the knives with his bare hands.  A friend came to help him, and Jesse pulled a gun and tried to shoot one of his attackers, but the gun misfired.  While Thomas tried to defend himself, he stepped backwards out of the porch and fell down the back stairs, and the fight more or less ended.

 

*Jackson had to be carried back to another hotel where he soaked two mattresses through with blood.  He nearly died, while Thomas and Jesse Benton marched around outside calling names and making fun.  They then took the sword that Jackson had dropped and broke it in the public square.

 

*Many years later, when Thomas Hart Benton was a senator, he and President Jackson had again become good friends.  By this point, the bullet with which he had shot Jackson had worked its way to the surface of Jackson’s shoulder, and it was cut out.  He offered to give it back to Benton, but was assured that after 20 years, Jackson had a right to keep it.

 

*His violent past and his bigamy, both of which could easily be proven, seemed like strong points against Jackson, but his supporters made their own accusations against Adams.

 

*Adams was accused of being a son of privilege raised at the government’s expense, of being an incipient king just like his late father, of introducing gambling tables into the White House, of being part of the corrupt bargain of 1824, and worst of all, was said to have been a pimp while Ambassador to Russia, where he had supposedly sold an American girl to the Tsar.  Furious, Adams responded with worse.

 

*Jackson’s mother was (completely falsely) accused of being a prostitute brought to America by the British army during the Revolution, which infuriated Jackson considered that his mother had died of cholera contracted while acting as a nurse for American prisoners of war.  Jackson was also condemned for selling (although not for owning) slaves.  Worst of all was when he was called an adulterer and his wife was accused of bigamy.  Technically this was true, but Rachel was hurt so badly by the rumours and slanders that it broke her heart and she died shortly after Jackson’s election.

 

*Jackson was also called a jackass, which he thought was so funny that he turned the insult into a symbol of his own Democratic Party.

 

*The common people did not hold Jackson's wild past against him (and perhaps many of the common people who could now vote even admired it), and he was elected with an overwhelming majority in the electoral college (178 of 261 votes), much of it provided by the political machines of the northeast, while Adams won only 83 electoral votes, although he did get 44% of the popular vote.  Adams, unlike all other ex-presidents, did not retire, but ran for Congress and served in the House until his death in 1848.  There he opposed slavery with such skill that he was called ‘Old Man Eloquent.’

 

*Jackson’s supporters called the election of 1828 the Revolution of 1828, and in some ways it was a revolution.  It was the first real triumph of popular, relatively democratic, elections over the supposedly elitist entrenched interests of the east.  Jackson was the first western president—indeed, the first president not to either be from Virginia or named Adams.  He was a man of the people:  wild, a fan of gambling, horse-racing, cock-fighting, and dueling; at his inauguration so many people crowded into the White House that Jackson himself was in danger of being crushed by ‘King Mob,’ until servants set up refreshments on the White House lawn to lure the crowds outside.  Jackson also stirred up the government with the Spoils System in a way that none of his predecessors ever had.

 

*The Spoils System was the system of rewarding political supporters with important posts in the government, and doing so on a large scale.  Jackson did this for two reasons.  First, of course, was the practical side of party patronage—one had to reward one’s supporters, and while other presidents had done this to a degree, none did so to the extent that Jackson did.

 

*Second, Jacksonian Democracy was based on the idea that anyone could govern, so there was no reason not to let the common man hold a government office.  Jackson said that getting out the old public servants—a few of whom had been appointed by Washington almost forty years before—and replacing them with new ones was called ‘rotation in office’ and seen as healthy for a democracy as it kept the government in touch with the people.  Ultimately 20% of current office-holders were replaced by Jackson supporters in 1828.  These rewards for loyalty built a strong political machine for Jackson while maintaining the ideals of Jacksonian Democracy—the people must be heard.

 

*Jackson’s cabinet was, on the whole, unimpressive, filled largely with people owed jobs by the party.  His vice-president was John C Calhoun, and his Secretary of State was Martin van Buren.  These two men quickly became rivals for power within the administration.  To make sure he got useful advice, Jackson also had another set of advisors, some of whom were also in the real cabinet.  This group of unofficial advisors was called Jackson’s ‘kitchen cabinet.’  It was valuable for Jackson to have such a group, because his official cabinet was soon rent by the Peggy Eaton Affair.

 

*Peggy O’Neil Eaton was the daughter of a Washington, D.C. tavern-keeper and the wife of Secretary of War John Henry Eaton, an old friend of Jackson’s.  It was rumoured that Mr and Mrs Eaton had been as intimate as a husband and wife before they were actually married.  Furthermore, the high-class wives of most of the rest of the cabinet sneered at the common-born Peggy, hurting her feelings immensely in the 'War of the Petticoats.'  Jackson, whose own wife had been treated harshly, was deeply sympathetic, and ordered his cabinet to be so as well and to make their wives treat Peggy Eaton courteously, too.  This, of course, proved impossible, and Floride Calhoun was the most condescending of all the wives. 

 

*Only van Buren, a widower, managed to be considerate of the Eatons, and thenceforth he, rather than Calhoun, would be Jackson’s favourite, while Jackson and Calhoun grew further and further apart.  This business badly disrupted the cabinet until Eaton eventually resigned, and even then, bitter feelings lingered and cabinet members were frequently replaced.

 

*Jackson gained many enemies during his presidency, chief among them Henry Clay.  One of the accusations against him was that he himself was a tyrant.  As president, Jackson used the power of the veto twelve times, more than all other previous presidents put together.  Eventually his detractors called Jackson ‘King Andrew I,’ and depicted him in cartoons trampling on the Constitution as he vetoed new laws.

 

*One of his most controversial vetoes was that of the Maysville Road Bill in 1830.  This was a direct blow against Clay and his American system, and also a victory for certain factions in the South and for the East against the West.

 

*Some parts of the South opposed the bill on the grounds that it interfered with states rights, and if the government started doing that in the realm of internal improvements, it might eventually move on to other things, such as slavery, which Southerners had been increasingly tense about since Vesey’s rebellion.

 

*Many Easterners opposed the bill because it would drain men away from the factories of the East to cheap land in the West.  With the veto of the Maysville Road Bill, a New England senator introduced a bill that would stop the survey of western lands until all existing surveyed land had been sold, which would hurt western expansion and the West immensely.  Now the South sided with the West, and a great debate arose in the Senate.

 

*This debate is known as the Hayne-Webster Debate, as the South was represented by Robert Hayne of South Carolina and New England by the Godlike Daniel Webster.  Although initially about land, the debate quickly came to revolve around who had the final say in the interpretation of laws.  Hayne argued that the states had the right to interpret and even nullify laws that were unconstitutional.  His argument was that the Constitution was a compact of independent and sovereign states, each of which had the right to interpret internal laws for itself.  This was not meant to dismember the Union, but to give the states a way to deal with grievances while remaining in the Union. 

 

*Webster claimed that the Constitution was not an alliance between the states, but rather a creation of ‘We, the people,’ and that the Supreme Court ultimately decided the constitutionality of laws.  His famous line, reprinted throughout the nation (as all the debate was), was ‘Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.’  Webster, perhaps the greatest orator his day, would have his speeches read throughout the Union and memorized by a generation of Yankee schoolboys, who would later go out to fight to preserve the Union he described.  Neither side won the debate, but it put the disagreement between states’ rights and the supremacy of the Federal Government out in the open for all to see.

 

*The sectional controversy was further highlighted by Jackson’s invitation to the Jefferson Day Banquet held on Mr Jefferson’s birthday, 13 April, 1830.  Calhoun requested that Jackson attend, meaning to sound him out on the issue of states’ rights and the ending of the 1828 Tariff of Abominations.  A series of toasts to Jefferson were offered, tailored to lead to a toast to states’ rights.  However, Jackson had been apprised of the plan, and was prepared.  He offered the toast to ‘Our Union:  it must be preserved!’  Calhoun, tough to the end, countered with ‘Our Union:  next to our liberty most dear.’

 

*The sectional controversy continued to grow worse as South Carolina, following the suggestions of Calhoun's South Carolina Exposition, attempted to nullify the Tariff of Abominations.  However, a 2/3 majority in the South Carolina legislature was required to declare this, and the vote fell slightly short.

 

*A new tariff was created in 1832 reducing the rate to 35% (from 45%), but this was not enough for South Carolina.  In response, South Carolina took advantage of the election year to elect a legislature that would vote to nullify the tariff.

 

*Fearing civil war as unionists and nullies in South Carolina began forming militias and drilling for battle and as some leaders in South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union outright, Henry Clay, despite his love for tariffs, stepped forward and negotiated a decrease in the tariff.  This Compromise Tariff of 1833 would gradually reduce the tariff by 10% to about 20-25% by 1842.

 

*Jackson took a more direct approach, and privately threatened to hang the nullifiers including his own Vice-President, John C Calhoun, and publicly sent a small detachment of the army to police the state, while preparing a larger force for invasion.  Congress even passed the Force Bill, authorizing Jackson to send up to 50,000 troops to South Carolina.

 

*South Carolina rescinded her nullification of the tariff, but, to prove her point, nullified the Force Bill.

 

*Although South Carolina had hoped other Southern states would join her in nullification and perhaps secession, none seemed especially eager to do so.  Although sectional problems would continue to bedevil the nation, for the moment they had been contained once again.  For this, credit belongs to the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay, and his bitter rival, Andrew Jackson.  Whatever his other flaws might be, Jackson may well have preserved the Union in 1833, at a time when a Civil War probably would have split the nation permanently.

 

*Although the Nullification Crisis was important in 1832, the big issue of that election year was the Bank of the United States, which Jackson was known to hate and which Clay and his supporters, sure of its popularity, chose to make an issue for the election by trying to renew its charter early.

 


This page last updated 12 October, 2015.
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