Andrew Jackson, Southerner: The Introduction

CheathemJACKSON_jktsketchLSU Press has given me permission to post the introduction to Andrew Jackson, Southerner.

The 1828 presidential election was one of the nastiest in United States political history. Andrew Jackson’s campaign accused the incumbent, John Quincy Adams, of being a pimp and spending the people’s money to fund gambling in the White House. Adams was many things—stiff, dour, pious, the son of a president, an accomplished diplomat—but a betting whoremonger he was not.

The Adams campaign fought back by charging Jackson with numerous criminal acts: He had fought illegal duels that resulted in the death of a prominent man and ignored the pleas of several of his soldiers when they faced execution for desertion. Foreigners had also suffered from his wrath, as Jackson and his army had waged a war of extermination against the southeastern Indians and their British allies in the 1810s. Jackson’s private life was not exempt during the 1828 campaign either. He stole another man’s wife, critics claimed, and brazenly lived with her before she was divorced. He was a “trafficer in human flesh,” buying and selling slaves and turning a blind eye when his overseer stabbed to death one of the slaves at Jackson’s Hermitage plantation. The Adams men warned that voters would regret making a president of this murdering, home-wrecking, slavetrading, southern dictator.

Political protocol dictated that Jackson could not directly counter these attacks, but he did not sit by idly as they came his way. Jackson organized his political network to justify his actions as honorable, and its members offered an aggressive defense. He had fought duels to protect his and his wife’s reputations. He had allowed the execution of his soldiers because to do otherwise invited mutiny and the destruction of his army. He had prosecuted the war against Native Americans and their allies because the United States needed the southeastern lands to secure its borders. Even his marriage to Rachel was honorable. Jackson had saved her from an abusive husband, and they had believed, wrongly it turned out, that her divorce was final before they married. Other accusations, such as the slave-trading charge, were dismissed simply as deliberate attempts to manipulate the truth for political benefit.

In many ways the political arguments used by both presidential campaigns in 1828 centered on Jackson’s southern identity. From the first scholarly treatment of Jackson by James Parton in the early 1860s, however, historians of the Jacksonian period and biographers of Old Hickory himself have consistently portrayed the seventh president as a frontier westerner. Frederick Jackson Turner’s assessment of Jackson as “the very personification” of the American frontier, the “embodiment of the tenacious, vehement, personal West,” summarized this interpretation. “He was born in the backwoods of the Carolinas . . . and he grew up in the frontier State of Tennessee,” Turner argued. [1]

Turner was wrong. While the Waxhaws region into which Jackson was born was considered the backcountry, it was closely tied to the lowcountry region of Charleston, not the trans-Appalachian West. The American Revolution unified backcountry and lowcountry South Carolinians even more, creating a distinct American identity even as the war tore apart many families, including Jackson’s. Turner was also mistaken in his claim that Jackson “grew up” on the Tennessee frontier. There is no question that Jackson faced the frontier and its many challenges, but the core of his identity had already been formed by the time the twenty-one-year-old lawyer arrived in Nashville in October 1788.

Historical scholarship has either ignored or minimized the reality that Jackson possessed all of the characteristics attributed to his western identity—his independence, violent temper, and hatred of Indians—before he arrived on the Tennessee frontier. Biographer John Spencer Bassett remarked that Jackson’s “ideals were absorbed from the frontier environment . . . He voiced the best thought of the frontier . . . His Western ideals were for him the only ideals.” Frederick A. Ogg called him “the untrained, self-willed, passionate frontier soldier.” Historian Thomas P. Abernethy concluded that gambling, not a desire to emulate the elite society that he had witnessed in the Carolinas, led Jackson to “play the part” of a gentleman upon his arrival in East Tennessee. John William Ward’s analysis of Jackson’s symbolic significance centered on his western identity, while Arthur Schlesinger Jr. failed to address his background at all. Richard B. Latner, whose study of Jackson’s presidency explicitly linked Old Hickory to the West, acknowledged that “one would be hard-pressed . . . to fit slaveholding, tough-minded politicians like Jackson . . . into Turner’s conception of western democratic idealism,” yet he failed to elucidate from where Old Hickory’s views on slavery originated and how they influenced his political decisions. [2]

More recent scholarship has also failed to explain how Jackson assumed the characteristics of the southern gentry. Lorman Ratner’s compendium of short biographical sketches of Jackson and his closest allies offered a promising argument that the Tennessean emulated a Scottish thane, or clan leader, as he entered the gentry, but his analysis was brief and superficial. Along similar lines Andrew Burstein’s study of Jackson’s passions also centered on his relationship with the men with whom he surrounded himself, but his analysis was informed by literary theory and did not concern itself with southern cultural practices such as kinship and slaveholding. Likewise, Jon Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Jackson as president failed to place Old Hickory’s outsized character in a social context that made him understandable. The two most recent surveys of the Jacksonian period fell into the same pattern of skimming over Jackson’s transformation into a southern planter. Sean Wilentz’s mammoth survey of

American democracy in the early republic paid scant attention to Jackson’s slaveholding and land speculation, both of which marked his entry into the planter class. While recognizing the importance of slavery to Jacksonian Democrats, Daniel Walker Howe’s equally behemoth examination of the Jacksonian period treated Jackson’s southern identity with similar brevity. [3]

There have been notable exceptions to the above trend. Robert Remini’s three-volume biography discussed extensively Jackson’s various business dealings, including land speculation and slaveholding, but that information was secondary to the frontier’s influence on Old Hickory. William J. Cooper Jr. clearly elucidated Jackson’s importance to southern politics, while Bertram Wyatt-Brown brilliantly explained his embodiment of southern honor. More recently, Bettina Drew’s unpublished dissertation examined “Master Andrew Jackson” and the influence of his southern identity on his removal of the southeastern Indians, Matthew Warshauer offered an overview of Jackson as a chivalric slave owner, and Hendrik Booraem’s study of Jackson’s early life made a convincing case that he had been exposed to, and influenced by, the southern gentry in the Carolinas. [4]

Although most scholars describe Old Hickory as a westerner, as representative of the trans-Appalachian frontier, Jackson was truly a southerner. He was born and raised in the Waxhaws region of the most southern of states, South Carolina, where he learned that the path to success included building an influential social network, choosing a career in law, and acquiring land and slave property. In Tennessee, Jackson worked toward becoming a southern planter and gentleman, although his enemies would have disputed the latter. His desire to live as part of the gentry was ever present, even as he defeated the British at New Orleans in 1815, ascended to the presidency in 1828, and built the Democratic party in the 1830s and 1840s. Jackson’s propensity toward violence, defense of honor, enslavement of African Americans, embrace of kinship, and pursuit of Manifest Destiny created a southern identity to which many contemporary white southerners, elite and nonelite, could relate. One of the greatest ironies of Jackson’s life was that his identification with the South laid the foundation for the Civil War. Even though the idea of Indian removal preceded him, his actions as general and president accelerated the process, opening up southeastern lands to white settlers intent on making money from cotton. Jackson opposed disunion in 1832 and 1833, yet his longtime pursuit and support of Manifest Destiny helped drive a wedge between northerners and southerners and exacerbated the slavery debate. He supported the annexation of Texas, which, when accomplished, set off a chain of events that made slavery the crucial issue in the congressional debates over westward expansion and led to the nation’s division.

Although Jackson died without witnessing the bloody conflict that began in 1861, his influence as the “patriot slaveholder” was obvious during the secession crisis of 1860–1861. Both northerners and southerners appealed to his example to make the case for and against secession. Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address drew on Jackson’s 1832 Nullification Proclamation, which denied South Carolina’s right to nullify federal law and dismember the Union, to argue that “the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.” In the end Old Hickory not only helped create the South that precipitated the nation’s greatest crisis, but he also provided the model for Lincoln’s opposition to the Confederacy’s formation. [5]

1. Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (1920; repr., New York: Dover, 1996), 252–253. Turner and his disciples seem to have embraced the characterization of Jackson that emerged from the War of 1812, which allowed “supposedly uncivilized [backcountry] settlers . . . [to be] transformed into hardy, courageous American frontiersmen” (Matthew Rainbow Hale, in “Interchange: The War of 1812,” JAH 99 [September 2012]: 527).

2. John Spencer Bassett, The Life of Andrew Jackson (New York: Macmillan, 1911), xii; Frederic A. Ogg, The Reign of Andrew Jackson: A Chronicle of the Frontier in Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914), 114; Thomas P. Abernethy, From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee: A Study in Frontier Democracy (1932; repr., Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1967), 123–124; John William Ward, Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955); Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Age of Jackson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1945); Richard B. Latner, The Presidency of Andrew Jackson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979), 5.

3. Lorman Ratner, Andrew Jackson and His Tennessee Lieutenants: A Study in Political Culture (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997); Andrew Burstein, The Passions of Andrew Jackson (New York: Knopf, 2003); Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (New York: Random House, 2008); Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: Norton, 2005); Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

4. Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, 3 vols. (New York: Harper & Row, 1977–1984); William J. Cooper Jr., The South and the Politics of Slavery, 1828–1856 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978); William J. Cooper Jr., Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860 (1983; repr., Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000); Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “Andrew Jackson’s Honor,” JER 17 (Spring 1997): 1–36; Bettina Drew, “Master Andrew Jackson: Indian Removal and the Culture of Slavery” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2001), 2, 4; Matthew S. Warshauer “Andrew Jackson: Chivalric Slave Master,” THQ 65 (Fall 2006): 202–229; Hendrik Booraem, Young Hickory: The Making of Andrew Jackson (Dallas: Taylor, 2001). Robert Remini also addressed Jackson’s views on slavery in general terms in The Legacy of Andrew Jackson: Essays on Democracy, Indian Removal, and Slavery (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988).

5. Aaron Scott Crawford, “Patriot Slaveholder: Andrew Jackson and the Winter of Secession,” Journal of East Tennessee History 82 (2010): 10–32; Sean Wilentz, “Abraham Lincoln and Jacksonian Democracy,” in Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, ed. Eric Foner (New York: Norton, 2008), 76–77; Roy P. Basler, ed., Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1946), 588–589; First Inaugural Address, 4 March 1861, in Richardson, Messages and Papers, 6:5–12.

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