Andrew Jackson’s family came from a group of immigrants loosely termed “Scots-Irish”, an ethnic group that, beginning in the early 1600s, were systematically moved into Ireland under James I of England. Due to social unrest in Ireland, however, many of these people chose to emigrate to British colonies in the new world. Although numbers vary, it is estimated that during the eighteenth century well over 200,000 “Scots-Irish” landed in the American colonies.
Jackson’s parents were part of this first real push of Irish American migration, settling in between present day North Carolina and South Carolina. Like many other early immigrants, the colonial American frontier proved ideal for Jackson’s parents, as the relatively cheap land provided a fresh and lucrative opportunity to start over. Unfortunately this promising start was not to be. Jackson’s father died only weeks before his birth, while his mother and siblings were killed in the American Revolution. Jackson then joined the Revolution as a courier, but was captured by the British.
After surviving both the war and his time in captivity, Jackson taught himself law, married Rachel Donelson, and moved to Tennessee, where he became a successful plantation owner. Although mostly self-taught, he was versed in law enough to draft Tennessee’s constitution. He also became a state representative, judge on its Supreme Court, and leader of its state militia by 1802. Throughout this time, Jackson was also building a reputation as one who could “hate with biblical fury… [though] he frequently feigned anger just to frighten his victims into doing his bidding,” which would stick with him the rest of his life..
It was not until Jackson’s actions in the War of 1812, however, that he began to earn national fame (or infamy). Although he achieved major victories against the Creek Indian tribes, Jackson’s crowning achievement was his defense of New Orleans that ultimately secured American victory in the war. Outnumbered and relying on mostly irregular forces, Jackson was able to inflict staggering casualties on the advancing British regular army while suffering minimal losses (62 received to 2000 inflicted). Although The Treaty of Ghent had officially ended the war weeks earlier, the battle became a rallying point for a growing American identity and Jackson’s reputation.
After the war President Monroe began to look outward to spread American influence. Florida, owned by Spain at the time, was a hotbed of Indian activity and seen as a major security risk to the southern United States, so President Monroe sent military forces, including Jackson, to North Florida. Believing that the President authorized him to seize Florida, Jackson’s orders “forbade the capture of Spanish towns but otherwise gave the general a free hand.” Owsley and Smith further assert that Monroe knew exactly how Jackson would react to this order based on his aggressive reputation but sent him anyway.
During his expedition Jackson captured two British citizens: Alexander George Arbuthnot, a trader, and Robert Ambrister, a former British soldier. Accusing them of being British agents and agitators of the local Indian population, Jackson tried and executed both men. Owsley and Smith point out that “the last thing Britain would have wanted was for an agent to start a new war," arguing that Arbuthnot was simply trading while Ambrister was an adventurer operating against Spain. Jackson’s actions drew criticism from both Britain and America (where the Republican government feared his actions would ruin negotiations for Florida) and he returned to Washington D.C. for trial, but was never found guilty of wrongdoing.
Despite bad publicity Jackson became an American icon in his own time: “triumph made him a national hero and provided him with a devoted following that carried over into his political career." Despite his larger than life reputation, however, Jackson’s initial presidential campaigns were met with failure. Though he won the popular vote in 1824, Jackson lost to John Quincy Adams. Henry Clay, Speaker of the House and one of the losing candidates, held a poor opinion of Jackson and used his influence to secure Quincy Adams’ victory. When Clay was then named Secretary of State, Jackson referred to him as “the Judas of the West," blaming his loss on a greater government conspiracy, and further fueling his distaste for the federal government.
Although he handily secured victory in the 1828 election, accusations against his marriage, conduct in politics, and overstepping of authority in Florida were abound. One major concern was his choices for his cabinet. Though surprisingly diverse, Jackson rarely relied on them for actual political advice, instead turning to “a shifting group of backroom advisers that his critics dubbed his “kitchen cabinet.” In addition to backroom dealings, the Jackson administration was also known for its heavy use of the veto. In response to measures he felt would cause an overreach of government, such as federal funding of roads, Jackson vetoed a total of twelve congressional bills, more than all presidents before him.
Perhaps his best known presidential action was his removal of the remaining southern Indian tribes though The Indian Removal Act of 1830, which allowed the executive branch to take direct action in negotiations with the tribes. Although such action lead to almost genocidal events such as The Trail of Tears, Jackson felt that by moving the Indians and allowing them to “pursue happiness in their own way," he would not only protect them but also secure the area for white settlers. Other ways in which Jackson transformed the office of the president and the nation at large were his stances on the National bank. Believing that “the Bank was providing financial advantages to sympathetic politicians and using its resources to influence elections," a holdover from his feelings of resentment due to his loss in the election of 1824, Jackson vetoed its renewal and disbanding it by 1836, halting the institution until the 1900s.
Despite controversy, overstepping of military authority, duels, and the near-genocidal removal of Indians, Andrew Jackson remains one of the more popular, if not studied, American leaders. Despite his distrust of most federal systems, Jackson used his power to secure a place for a growing American society. From humble beginnings as the son of Irish immigrants Jackson became a major political influence even before becoming president and is still praised today by some as a man of the people who took stands against the perceived wrongs of the early American system.
Hofstra, Warren R. Ulster to America: The Scots-Irish Migration Experience, 1680-1830. Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 2012. University of South Florida Library. University of South Florida Library, 1 Nov. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2016. <http://www.usf.eblib.com.ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=834997>.
Greenstein, Fred I. Inventing the Job of President: Leadership Style from George Washington to Andrew Jackson. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. University of South Florida Library. University of South Florida Library, 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2016. <http://usf.catalog.fcla.edu/sf.jsp?st=andrew jacksonpresident&ix=kw&fl=bo&fa=materialtypes_facet:Book&V=D&S=1621461193760630&I=7#top>.
Owsley, Frank Lawrence, and Gene A. Smith. Filibusters and Expansionists: Jeffersonian Manifest Destiny, 1800-1821. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama, 1997. Print.