Andrew Jackson, Ultimate Survivor
By Jeffery Moore
After viewing two well presented videos, the A & E biography Andrew Jackson, A Man for the People and the PBS documentary Good, Evil, and the Presidency, I was both shocked by and intrigued with the glaring omission of Jackson’s most evident accomplishment, and trait, survival. Neither of these well made and historically accurate works seemed to catch that, above all, man, general, even president, Andrew Jackson was a survivor. Both documentaries lay out all of the vital statistics one would expect from these two well-reputed groups. Birth, March 1767, Waxhaw, North Carolina; father, deceased a few months before Jackson’s birth; Andrew’s service in the Revolutionary War and the loss of his brothers, Hugh as direct result of combat and Robert a casualty of the small pox epidemic that swept the country at that time. They as well detail his mother’s death, also due to small pox, while nursing American prisoners of war on a British prison ship anchored at Charleston, South Carolina. But all in all, these are merely backdrops to who Andrew Jackson became, and what led to his career and made him the Jackson of legend.
What created the Jackson of duels, Indian Wars, New Orleans and his stubborn-styled presidency, the accolades of acclaim as “Old Hickory” and “A Man of the People” was his early training in “survival school.” These “details”, if removed, leave us with a man in no way resembling Jackson, who if the presidency had even found him, would be but a boring footnote in history, not the Andrew Jackson we have come to know, if not love.
So, in the hope that further research might shine a light on Jackson the survivor, I did just that: research. I found that many others too overlooked Jackson’s survival aptitude. John William Ward writes in chapter one of Andrew Jackson-Symbol for an Age, “In the beginning was New Orleans.” Neat Trick, Jackson himself would probably be surprised too. “Get born, and then win a battle in New Orleans.” Where did his skills, liked or disliked, come from to that end? Years of “honing” had already occurred and he only rose to that occasion due to them. He had survived his training and risen above the fray. Training and experience were now his to muster.
Both films made the valid point that Jackson was not the typical early 19th century politician, or typical of any other century either, for that matter. What they and many others have failed to see, and study, is why. Jackson was not pampered, schooled, groomed, or trained to be a politician. He was self- taught, some would probably say self inflicted, to be a survivor, a winner. He was not interested in playing politics; he was interested in results. Nor was he interested in playing by “their” rules. Much like the “Old Hickory” for which he was characterized, Jackson was ‘hewn’. Carved like the settlements in which he grew up and grew to deadly wilderness. While the Washington crowd was socializing over teas, Jackson and “his people” were sweating, bleeding and dying to create a country professional politicians would milk. Jackson recognized this and it infuriated him.
Jackson’s actions as a man, general, and president were not mere happenstance; they were calculated: to survive and to keep his people surviving along with him. He worked, fought, and bled as one of them. He would therefore be their man, general, and president. A true man of the people, Jackson saw, knew, or would accept no other way, period. His hopes and dreams, his longings and aspirations were not for the rich “in crowd” of Washington or the state capitols; they were for the working, farming, and surviving class from whence he came. Not for banks or bankers and their friends, not for self-enamored legislators and their crooked cronies, but for the people who had to pay their salaries. People, who died, like his family, died one piece, one note, one bill or one day at a time. Jackson knew pain and he knew death; politicians did not frighten him. In his upbringing and family there was not much respect for the “ruling class”. They had seen them in Ireland and America and were not impressed. Losing his brothers and mother in the Revolution just sharpened Jackson’s hatred of “all things British”. Those who mimicked the old moneyed British style of banking and governance were even worse. Jackson’s eyes, ears, and even his bloodline saw, heard, and knew injustice and oppression. Many cry out that this should have been carved, for better or for worse. Even though he knew what it was like to be a true underdog, Jackson also wanted to win and to him an enemy was an enemy. And usually Jackson did just that, win.
In Essays on Jacksonian America, Bray Hammond titled his essay, “Bank War; the Great Mistake.” Hammond while criticizing Jackson’s actions versus the 2nd National Bank shows us exactly how the bank and Congress had become ensnared in one another’s webs of corruptions, capital and greed, both for power and money. Jackson saw this clearly, his vision and moral compass not distorted by years of political and economic favor trading in Washington. He was impressed with neither the rich nor the famous; he was concerned for his people and his country. He also knew how frontiersmen would kill snakes: they cut off the head. Biddle and his corrupt cronies were just the snakes that Jackson knew he had to cut off from the “heads” of government; therefore, they were the designated enemy and they meant nothing to Jackson. Surely, Jackson too meant nothing to them, and the war commenced.
Jackson was also scolded in both films for his treatment of Native Americans; what the producers again failed to recognize or to seem even remotely interested in was the “political correctness” of Jackson’s time. People overcrowding the major eastern cities represented a powder keg waiting for its spark and people moving into Indian occupied territories were also a waiting explosion. Jackson did what he saw a prudent at the time to solve both problems. By moving the Indians out, as cruelly as it happened, he made way for more frontiersmen, for the people to grow his country; simple and ruthless, yes, but to Jackson that was what worked. On another front many overlook what historian Robert Remini details in his book Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars: that both the British and the French were old masters at using the Indians against the United States on its long and poorly defended frontier. The Revolution and War of 1812 had proven this to Jackson and a buffer zone was created to solve this problem. Treaties or no, Jackson did not trust either of the European powers. Jackson distrusted the politicians who negotiated the treaties too. He fought to win, not accept terms. His survival training had taught him well that he must fight to win; after all had he not faced the British twice in his lifetime?
In The Generals Benton Rain Patterson gives very useful insight not only into the background of General Jackson and Sir Edward Pakenham at the Battle of New Orleans but also digs deeply into Jackson’s childhood, what little he had. A glimpse of Jackson’s mother and her stern Irish countenance speak volumes to what made Andy tick. Patterson quotes original Jackson biographer James Partin, who actually interviewed Jackson, who tell us that young Andrew’s mother told him to “Make friends by being honest and keep them by being steadfast. Never tell a lie nor Take what is not your own, nor sue for slander…settle them cases yourselves.” Obviously Andrew took his mother’s advice. His reputation for dueling, sticking by his friends and not taking tolerating slander became legendary. After seeing what the social classes did to his beloved Rachel, Andrew could not stand idly by and watch Peggy Eaton suffer a similar fate. Both films highlight the stand he took for her and in The Petticoat Affair John Marszalek gives many details into the whole ordeal, its causes and the circumstances and society that surrounded Peggy Eaton and Jackson’s handling of the whole affair. Once again Jackson did not tolerate the Washington elite. Again, in The General, Patterson enlightens us with the causes and effects of Jackson’s “misunderstanding” over Rachel’s divorce, or lack thereof, and how it plagued them for the rest of their lives. Jackson would not let this happen to poor Peggy Eaton.
All in all, no one video or book could ever fully capture the real Andrew Jackson. Perhaps time has built too tall a wall for us to peer into his life and times, or, possibly we are all still just as confused as those who knew, studied, confronted, fought, and lost to the real Andrew Jackson then. So, by accident or by design, Jackson seems to still enjoy his status as an enigma, or even more so, a survivor.