The seventh American president, Andrew Jackson, is called by many historians the first popularly elected president of the United States. His first election victory established political parties and created a template for democratic elections that continues today. He sought to act as the direct representative of the common man but remained very strong in his own personal views and commitments throughout his presidency.
Born in a raw settlement in the Carolinas on March 15, 1767, Jackson was a product of the backwoods frontier, which cleared the way for continued expansion westward throughout the next century. He received only sporadic education, but in his late teens he read law for two years. Soon he became an outstanding young lawyer in Tennessee. Fiercely jealous of his honor, Jackson engaged in brawls and in a duel killed a man who had cast an unjustified slur against his wife, Rachel.
Jackson prospered sufficiently to buy slaves and to build a mansion, the Hermitage, near Nashville. He was the first man elected from Tennessee to the House of Representatives, and he served briefly in the Senate. A major general in the War of 1812, Jackson defeated the Creek nation in 1814 and then became a national hero when he defeated the British at New Orleans—even though a treaty had ended the war prior to his fighting. Following this success Jackson set to ridding the Southern states of their Native American populations. Although Jackson's aggressive military forays into Spanish Florida in 1818 bothered rival politicians, they increased his popularity with ordinary people.
With a national reputation for battling redcoats and Native peoples, Jackson received a great deal of support in the 1824 presidential election. In his loss to John Quincy Adams, Jackson realized that the United States was defining itself anew. With no remaining founding fathers to look to for leadership, the young nation had to find its own model. With his frontier roots and battle experiences, Jackson represented the personal strength the nation hoped it had. In 1828 “Old Hickory” defeated John Quincy Adams and became the first president not from New England or Virginia.
Jackson believed he had won a popular mandate, and therefore he invited the nation to his inaugural “bash.” In his first annual message to Congress, Jackson recommended eliminating the electoral college. He also tried to democratize federal officeholding. Already state machines were being built on patronage, and a New York senator openly proclaimed that “to the victors belong the spoils. …” Jackson took a milder view. Decrying officeholders who seemed to enjoy life tenure, he believed government duties could be “so plain and simple” that offices should rotate among deserving applicants. As national politics polarized around Jackson and his opposition, two parties grew out of the old Republican Party—the Democratic Republicans, or Democrats, adhering to Jackson; and the National Republicans, or Whigs, opposing him. In a redefinition of the Democratic Party, Jacksonians shared a commitment to an agrarian society and believed government was the opposition to civil liberty. Jacksonian Democrats would extend the president's influence.
Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and other Whig leaders proclaimed themselves defenders of popular liberties against the usurpation of Jackson. Hostile cartoonists portrayed him as King Andrew I. Behind their accusations lay the fact that Jackson, unlike previous presidents, did not defer to Congress in policy-making but used his power of the veto and his party leadership to assume command.
The greatest party battle centered on the Second Bank of the United States, a private corporation but virtually a government-sponsored monopoly. When Jackson appeared hostile toward it, the bank threw its power against him. Clay and Webster, who had acted as attorneys for the bank, led the fight for its recharter in Congress. Jackson, in vetoing the recharter bill, charged the bank with undue economic privilege. His views won approval from the American electorate; in 1832 he polled more than fifty-six percent of the popular vote and almost five times as many electoral votes as Clay.
Jackson stood up for the powers of his office, even when he shared many opinions with opposing politicians. For instance, he met head-on the challenge of John C. Calhoun, leader of forces trying to rid themselves of a high protective tariff. When South Carolina undertook to nullify the tariff, Jackson ordered armed forces to Charleston and privately threatened to hang Calhoun. Violence seemed imminent until Clay negotiated a compromise: tariffs were lowered and South Carolina dropped nullification.
In January 1832, while the president was dining with friends at the White House, someone whispered to him that the Senate had rejected the nomination of Martin Van Buren as minister to England. Jackson jumped to his feet and exclaimed, “By the Eternal! I'll smash them!” So he did. His favorite, Van Buren, became vice president and succeeded to the presidency when “Old Hickory” retired to the Hermitage, where he died on June 8, 1845.
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