Today commemorates Andrew Jackson’s 248th birthday, and it’s safe to say that he remains controversial.
Today’s Nashville Tennessean editorial page shows the divide. Howard Kittell, CEO of the newly named Andrew Jackson Foundation (previously the Ladies’ Hermitage Association), makes the case that the new exhibit at The Hermitage seeks “to present Jackson in a truthful and realistic manner, recognizing that his actions reflected the views of many people of his time and also the profound effect of his actions upon generations of Native Americans.” Native American activist Albert Bender, not surprisingly, sees Jackson in a different light. “[T]he Andrew Jackson Foundation wants to elevate this monster, this ethnic cleanser, to the status of a great president,” Bender writes. “Jackson was a racist devil incarnate — an early-day American Hitler whose deadly legacy for American Indians remains extant to this very day.”
Jackson’s legacy has also been attacked in other ways recently. Arthur Chu at The Daily Beast reluctantly argued for Reagan to replace Jackson on the $20. While Chu is not a fan of Reagan, he prefers him to Jackson because “[t]here is not a single significant accomplishment of his administration that you can defend today as a positive thing.” Chu finds redemptive qualities or decisions in Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Ulysses S. Grant, but none in Jackson’s. In fact, he argues that “honoring Jackson gives tacit approval for” nearly every modern-day failure. Banking collapse? Check. “Cowboy diplomacy?” Check. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election as California’s governor? Check.
Chu is not the only one who wants to see Jackson replaced on the $20. A “Women on 20s” campaign has emerged that seeks to replace Old Hickory with a “female ‘disrupter.'” Candidates include Alice Paul, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Margaret Sanger.
These two pieces led to a Breitbart piece that argues “Jackson without a doubt deserves to be recognized among our greatest national heroes as the face of the $20 bill.”
I’ve written about this topic before (here and here), so I won’t repeat my previous arguments. I will say two things, though. First, Chu is wrong about Jackson. Whatever his flaws as we look back at his life and presidency, he stared down South Carolina nullifiers. For that decision alone, he deserves some respect. Second, I think it would be great to replace some of the current men on our currency with others who represent a more complete American experience. I think one could make a case for others besides Jackson being replaced (Grant, for example), but I don’t see his presence on the $20 as sacrosanct.
When I wrote the dedication to my first book, I thanked six educators who had invested in me, from elementary school through graduate school. All of them were significant in their own way, but Monty Pope was without a doubt the most influential person in setting the course of my career. He mentored me throughout my undergraduate career, convinced me to attend grad school, and pushed me to study Andrew Jackson.
Monty passed away on Wednesday. It’s hard to convey concisely the many stories about him that I would like to tell. I could talk about the time he became convinced that he needed to expose a sheltered boy from East Tennessee to the world, so he threatened to take me to a gentleman’s club in Nashville. (We didn’t go.) I could talk about the time that he and I had a debate after class about the 1824 election and the meaning of plurality. (I was wrong.) I could talk about the time he became exasperated with me because I had calculated my course grade and didn’t take a quiz because it wouldn’t help or hurt me. (Not my finest moment of persistence.)
I could also mention the talks we had when I was his work-study student. Or the ones we had when I was in grad school. Or the ones we had when we became colleagues. I cherish those conversations, as do hundreds of students and dozens of colleagues. Monty was an easy person to talk to, even if he thought you were crazy for being anything other than a Democrat, an Episcopalian, or a Middle Tennessean. He told you that you could be better than you were, and he truly believed it. He wanted you to believe it about yourself, too. When he said that he was proud of you, it wasn’t idle talk.
Many professors influenced me in significant ways. Jim Dressler didn’t suffer fools lightly. Chris Duncan and John Markert were deliberately provocative. Fred Rolater and Libby Nybakken demonstrated mastery of a subject. Bill McKee and Connie Lester modeled professionalism. Thad Smith set high standards. Ren Crowell and Fred Colvin made lecturing look effortless. John Marszalek taught me work ethic and balance between work and family. Monty did many of these things, but from him, I took away two major lessons. The first was that at its heart, history is a story. The second, and even more important, lesson was that investing in students was the most important responsibility that professors owed.
I haven’t mastered either one of these two lessons from Monty, but in my day-to-day life as a history professor, those are the two lessons that I return to. I’ll never be a professor like he was, but I certainly aspire to be.
Despite what some may think, I’m not a Jackson apologist. But I do think it’s important to correct mistaken impressions of Old Hickory perpetuated both inside and outside of academia.
Michael Brendan Dougherty’s piece in The Week is a good example of the latter. Dougherty takes the standard approach to Jackson’s life: a rags-to-riches story (“Jackson grew up in log-cabin Carolinian poverty, became an orphan during the Revolutionary War, and then rose into a kind of frontier aristocracy”); emphasis on his violent temper (“He was a smoldering latrine fire of resentments and rage”); and the negative consequences of his populist politics (“This marauding style of patronage machine-building would live on for a century”). All of this supports his argument that “Andrew Jackson was America’s worst ‘great’ president.”
There are several things to take issue with in Dougherty’s narrative, but I want to focus on two. The first is his claim that “After the war [of 1812] and with designs on the presidency, he [Jackson] hired a few biographers in succession to spread perhaps the most captivating story of his life: his capture by the British at age 14 during the Revolutionary War” . This is patently false. John Reid started the first biography of Jackson in 1816 and died after completing only the first few chapters. Jackson’s military aide and friend, John H. Eaton, completed the biography, which was published in 1817. The biography was revised for the 1824 and 1828 elections. Eaton also wrote the “Wyoming” letters, which were not a biography per se, for the 1824 campaign. Henry Lee, son of “Light Horse Harry” Lee and step-brother of Robert E. Lee, wrote a biography during the 1828 election, but it was never published during Jackson’s lifetime. So, there was essentially only one biographer (Eaton), and the first edition of his Jackson biography was not written with the presidency in mind.
Dougherty also argues that “Jackson’s purge of federal office-holders relied on a campaign of trumped-up and false charges against incumbents, especially in the Northeast where Jackson tried to build a base of political loyalty.” Jackson’s patronage policy was more complex than he suggests. Historians generally agree that he removed about the same percentage of officeholders as his predecessors. Jackson did not simply “purge” his enemies, however. As he explained to Treasury Secretary Samuel D. Ingham about his decision to offer one of John Quincy Adams’ relatives a job, “Whilst on the one hand we ought, & must, drive out spies & traito[rs] from our camp, and defaulters from the guard of our Treasury, we must shield the honest, & well behaved. Justice to ourselves & others require this.” On the other hand, Dougherty is right in that “[t]he geographic focus of the post office removals in northern states suggests an intentional strategy to boost support outside of Jacksonian Democratic strongholds in the South.” That’s not the impression that Dougherty gives, though.
Finally, Dougherty repeats the most common criticism of Jackson today: “As president, he reversed the alternately benign and malign neglect of Indian affairs by his predecessors and engaged in the forced removal of Indians from the South, culminating in the Trail of Tears.” It’s impossible to defend Jackson’s treatment of Native Americans by modern-day standards, but it’s wrong to claim that the first six presidents didn’t do their part in endorsing the killing of Native Americans, the seizure of their land, and the destruction of their culture. All of that can’t be laid at Jackson’s feet alone, no matter how hard we try to paint him as THE villain in Early Republic U.S.-Indian relations.
 This story serves as the centerpiece of a forthcoming essay, entitled “‘I owe to Britain a debt of retaliatory Vengeance’: Assessing Andrew Jackson’s Hatred of the British,” part of a collection commemorating the Battle of New Orleans’ bicentennial to be published by LSU Press.
 These examples comes from my forthcoming book, Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democrats, p.p. 144-45, 142.
My friend and fellow Tennessee historian, Gordon Belt, Tweeted out a link to a new comic book yesterday. The title? Andrew Jackson in Space. A Twitter exchange with the writer, Brian Visaggio, resulted in the following interview.
Americans in the Early Republic did some strange things. One of those was sending presidents blocks of cheese. Not 16-oz. blocks like you find in grocery stores today, but ones that weighed hundreds of pounds.
For example, in 1801, a group of Cheshire, Massachusetts, women gave Thomas Jefferson a 1,200-lb. block of cheese “as ‘a mark of exalted esteem.'” Andrew Jackson also had the privilege of receiving not just one, but at least two, and perhaps three, blocks of cheese. The largest was a 1,400-lb. block given to him in 1835 and served on Washington’s Birthday in 1837, shortly before Jackson left office. Old Hickory supervised the large crowd that came to consume the cheese; in addition to average citizens, the crowd included some of the president’s political enemies .
What do we make of these gifts of “mammoth cheese,” which the White House is celebrating today as a chance to interact on social media with cabinet members and White House staff? Jeff Pasley’s essay on Jefferson’s cheese argues that this gift was fraught with political symbolism. Federalists lampooned the cheese as an indication of the Virginia president’s “hypocrisy and inner turpitude,” Pasley writes, while Jeffersonians accused their opponents of “[fearing] a ‘MAGGOT INSURRECTION.'” A Baptist Cheshire minister accompanied the cheese to Washington and delivered a speech that claimed that God had placed Jefferson in the presidency “‘to defend Republicanism and baffle all the arts of Aristocracy.'” Interestingly, on the day the cheese arrived, Jefferson sent his famed letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptists that included the phrase, “wall of separation between Church & State,” which remains contentious to this day .
Jackson’s 1835 cheese was larger than Jefferson’s and has seemingly surpassed it in being remembered. It also had a political message. The cheese was wrapped in a banner that bore the inscription, “The Union, it must be preserved,” a reference to Jackson’s toast at the 1830 Jefferson Day banquet. To my knowledge, no one has analyzed Jackson’s cheese in the same way that Pasley has Jefferson’s, but I can imagine that there is a story there about Jacksonian political culture.
One thing that does seem clear: The West Wing episode referenced as inspiration for today’s event bears no relation to what happened in 1837. According to historian Robert Remini, Jackson did not hear the people’s grievances–he was simply getting rid of a huge amount of cheese. (Perhaps at the request of President-elect Martin Van Buren, although the smell lingered well into his administration, according to Mental Floss.) Whether today’s event turns out to be a good or bad idea, it is historically inaccurate.
One last observation: I find it intriguing that the White House completely ignores the Jefferson cheese and instead references the Jackson cheese instead, especially given Old Hickory’s marginalization within the Democratic party. Maybe Jackson’s image within the Democratic party isn’t quite as damaged as I thought, or maybe Aaron Sorkin is just that influential.
 You can read more about Jefferson’s “Mammoth Cheese” in Jeff Pasley’s essay, “The Cheese and the Words: Popular Political Culture and Participatory Democracy in the Early American Republic,” in Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic, ed. Jeffrey L. Pasley, Andrew W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher (2004), 31-56 (quote from p. 31). Jefferson also endorsed the baking of a giant loaf of bread in 1804, but by that time, the cheese block was gone. The linked article on Jackson’s cheese appears to closely follow the story told in Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, 3 vols. (1977-1984), 3:393-394.
 Pasley, “The Cheese and the Words,” 32, 34.
With a planned budget of $60 million to $65 million, the independently financed “Andrew Jackson and the Battle for New Orleans” is being targeted for a possible 2016 release, with shooting to begin as early as this summer. Envisioned by Ken Atchity as a sweeping action epic in the vein of 2000’s “The Patriot” and 1995’s Oscar-winning “Braveheart,” the film will be shot entirely within a 30-mile radius of New Orleans, he said.
There are two unfortunate pieces of news in this article. One, Braveheart?! Two, haven’t these filmmakers heard of a certain fascinating biography that takes a broader view of Jackson as a southerner?
Let’s hope Jean Lafitte, played by Johnny Depp, doesn’t make an appearance.
H/t Kevin McCann
Yesterday was a great day at The Hermitage. Erin Adams deserves special praise for pulling off a huge event, but all of the Hermitage staff did a great job in handling the logistics of the crowds and the cold temperatures.
Gene Smith kicked off the day with his talk on the free black and slave contributions to the New Orleans campaign.
Bill Brands gave the keynote talk at the traditional wreath-laying ceremony. (The ceremony took place at the tomb, but everything else, thankfully, was inside.)
After lunch, the U.S. Post Office unveiled a new stamp commemorating the Battle of New Orleans. We were also honored to have Judge Andrew Jackson VI present.
The afternoon sessions included a panel of historians (Dan Feller, Don Hickey, Tom Kanon, and Gene Smith) who read contemporary accounts and reactions to the battle.
Don Hickey concluded the day with his talk on the myths about the battle, which are many. (One that he didn’t include, but that I will, is Jackson’s alleged hatred of the British as his motivation at New Orleans. More on that at a later date.)
In between sessions, we had the chance to talk to Andrew and Rachel Jackson (Dave McArdle and Melinda Gaines), as Dan Feller is doing here.
“The Hunters of Kentucky” was a popular song attached to Jackson during the 1820s (h/t Bil Kerrigan). It seems appropriate to end today’s commemoration with it.
The bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans is one of the only historical anniversaries that I’ve really been excited about in my lifetime. While the Civil War sesquicentennial has received a lot of publicity, the War of 1812 bicentennial has languished in the background.
That’s unfortunate, but at least in Nashville and New Orleans, there has been a lot of attention given to the January 8 festivities. The Hermitage has a new exhibit opening this week, and I, along with a number of prominent historians, including Dan Feller, Don Hickey, Tom Kanon, and Gene Smith, will be participating in the events today. If you want to brave the cold, you should come out.
If you can’t come, then let me provide entertainment for you. Below you will find not one, not two, but three versions of the Johnny Horton song about Old Hickory and New Orleans. The first is the well-known appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The second is a purported live version recorded in Texas. The last is a duet by Jerry Reed and Glen Campbell. Enjoy!
I wrote this piece on the Battle of New Orleans for We’re History, a new digital publication co-edited by Heather Cox Richardson and David Chappell. If you’re familiar with the battle, then you might not learn much new, but if you need a brief primer on why 8 January 1815 was important, then this is for you.