How Democratic Was Andrew Jackson?
Andrew Jackson may have been the most popular president in the history of the United States. Although he had his enemies during his two terms (1829-1837), many Americans at the time thought he could do no wrong. He was so popular that he was still getting votes for the presidency fifteen years after he died!
Historians connect Jackson to a new spirit of democracy that swept over the United States during the early 18oos. This era of the "common man" marked a new stage for American democracy where average people began to have a say in the workings of their government. There is no question Jackson saw himself as the President of the People. But just how democratic was he? Before examining this question, it is important to review the early life of this most remarkable American.
Born on the border between North and South Carolina in 1767, Jackson grew up poor. His father died a few days before his birth, and
Andrew was not an easy child for his mother to raise. He enlisted in the Revolutionary War at age 13, was captured and seriously wounded by a
British officer. Typical of Jackson throughout his life, he had refused to take a demeaning order and was slashed with a sword. Because of a
prisoner exchange, Jackson managed to survive his wounds. Sadly, his mother died shortly after he returned home, and young Andrew was left
to confront the world on his own.
Jackson was a tough kid with a wild streak that ran deep. He never backed away from a fight - not even as a 75-year-old man - and left
a trail of card games, busted-up taverns, liquor bottles, and bloody noses in his wake. A favorite trick of Andrew and his buddies was to drag
away family outhouses and hide them in remote places.
At age 17 Jackson's self-discipline improved, and he began his study of the law. At 21 he became a public prosecutor on the North
Carolina frontier. Jackson soon moved west to Tennessee, married his wife for life, Rachel Donelson, and got involved in land speculation,
farming, and slave ownership. At age 29 Jackson was elected Tennessee's first representative in the U.S. House of Representatives and a year later was elected to the U.S. Senate.
It was not, however, Andrew Jackson's early political career that would make him an American hero; it was war. Andrew Jackson was born to be a soldier. His first successes came when he led a campaign of Tennessee volunteers against the Creek Indians in Alabama in 1813 and 1814. A year later he commanded American forces in the defense of New Orleans against the British. Jackson unknowingly took a huge step towards the presidency when he held off a British attack on January 8, 1815. The results of the battle were staggering - 71 American casualties versus 2,037 British soldiers killed, wounded, or missing. It did not matter to the American people that a peace treaty had already been agreed upon in Europe (news traveled slowly in 1815). Jackson instantly became a national hero.
Jackson won American hearts not just because he won battles. Jackson never asked his men to endure more than he endured. During a bad patch of the Creek War, he ate acorns and cattle offal with his soldiers. He mailed home bone splinters to Rachel that occasionally pushed up through the skin in his arm. He carried a bullet next to his heart from a nearly fatal duel over the honor of his wife. For the last 25 years of Jackson's life, including his eight years in the White House, he lived in nearly constant pain, but he never stopped. Known affectionately as Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson was tough and unbreakable.
Jackson spent much of the time between 1815 and 1820 removing the Spanish from Florida and negotiating treaties with the Five
"Civilized" Indian Tribes - the Cherokees, Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Seminoles.
In 1824, Jackson made his first run for President of the United States. The vote was split four ways - 158,000 popular votes for Jackson, 114,000 for John Quincy Adams, 47,217 for Henry Clay, and 46,979 for William
Crawford. In presidential elections, however, the popular vote does not determine the winner. A winning candidate needs a majority of the
electoral votes, and Jackson, while ahead in the popular vote, fell short. The electoral tally was Jackson 99, Adams 84, Crawford 41, and Clay 37.
forever branded "the corrupt bargain," Clay traded his support and 37 electoral votes to Adams for Clay's appointment as the Secretary of State. Jackson raged that the People's voice had been silenced. He had been the choice of the largest number of voters, and he was being sent back home to Tennessee. Was this democracy?!
Andrew Jackson spent much of the next four years preparing for the election of 1828. His mantra was that the voice of the People must be
heard. The electoral system and Henry Clay had cost him the presidency. He, Andrew Jackson, would create a new era of real democracy in America. He would listen to the People and do their will.
Jackson was elected President in 1828 and again in 1832.
A few words about Jackson's understanding of democracy are in order. Jackson and others of his time distinguished between something called republicanism and democracy. Republicanism might be thought of as cautious democracy. This idea placed an elite group of men - mostly lawyers, merchants, and wealthy farmers - between the common man and power. The electoral system is a good example of republicanism. The people vote for electors and electors vote for the president. The Founding Fathers created this system so that the electors could change an unwise
choice by the common voter. Election to the US Senate before 1913 was another example of republicanism. The people in a given state voted
for state legislators; then the state legislators elected the two members of that state to the US Senate. For Andrew Jackson, this was not democracy. To Jackson, democracy meant that all branches and agencies of the government the President, the Congress, the National Bank, even the Supreme Court - must listen to and follow the wishes of the People. Of course, Jackson, like most men of his times, had certain ideas about who were included in the People, and enemies of Jackson claimed he behaved
more like an autocrat, or a king, than a democratically elected president.