How does an uneducated man with a fiery temper, a treasonous past, and a propensity for murder become president? He does it by winning a famous military victory, of course! Andrew Jackson is the Hero of New Orleans, our seventh president, and a pretty terrible person beyond that.
From his youth as a Revolutionary War orphan to his military victories, war crimes, cruelty toward Native Americans, disastrous economic policies, and that time he almost fought a civil war against his own former Vice President (really!), we'll follow Jackson as he begrudges his way to the top of American politics and an enduring popularity that can be explained only one way - Americans love a winner.
1. The Life of Andrew Jackson – Robert V. Remin
2. Martin Van Buren and the American Political System – Donald B. Cole
3. John Quincy Adams – Harlow G Unger
4. The Last Founding Father, James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness – Harlow G Unger
5. Heirs of the Founders – H.W. Brands
6. Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America – Walter R. Borneman
7. James Madison - Richard Brookhiser
Andrew Jackson 1829-1836
Have you ever seen the movie Patton?
It opens with General Patton standing in front of a giant American flag addressing the troops before the invasion of Normandy during World War 2 - D-day. And there’s a point early in his speech, Practically at the beginning, where he says “Americans love a winner.”
And that right there might be the truest line you’ll ever hear about Americans in any movie, and it sure explains a heck of a lot about Andrew Jackson’s political rise and enduring popularity in the American imagination.
Because, though general Jackson may have known how to win a battle or two, he was otherwise a pretty terrible human being.
Well, he’s going to kill quite a few innocent people in duels or as a military leader, he’s going to decimate the Native American population through a forced migration known as the trail of tears, which will kill a lot more innocent people, and his economic policies are going to cause one of the most severe economic depressions in American history, which, you know, probably killed a few more innocent people.
But hey! He did beat the British at New Orleans. So let’s keep him on the $20 bill.
Andrew Jackson is someone who any armchair psychologist would say was hugely impacted by his childhood.
Jackson was born on March 15, 1767, on the border between north and South Carolina. He was born just a few months after the death of his father, who died working the family farm, leaving him and his two older brothers in the care of their mother. Even as a child, Jackson had a rebellious streak, so when the revolutionary war broke out, what do you think 13-year-old Jackson did? He joined the rebellion! Unfortunately, it would not turn out well for anyone in his family. First, Jackson’s oldest brother died in the battle of Stono Ferry, which sucks, but then Jackson and his middle brother were captured – they’d been serving as letter couriers for the revolutionary armies. The British didn’t like letter carriers and threw the children in a prisoner of war camp, where they both caught small pox and were soon on the verge of death. Jackson’s mother learned where they were and got them freed in a prisoner exchange, but Jackson’s middle brother still died shortly after returning home – so that’s both siblings killed by the war.
But it gets worse. Jackson’s mother then volunteered to nurse rebel soldiers held in a British prison ship in Charleston. Maybe she hoped to prevent other mothers from losing their sons. Instead, she made young Jackson an orphan. She quickly caught cholera while working on the ship and died. And, the thing is, the war ended less than a year later. It’s like, they almost made it.
So, to recap, Jackson is only 14 years old and he’s already been a rebel, a prisoner of war, and he’s lost both parents and both siblings, most of them in a war against the British. Needless to say, this is gonna have an impact on his life.
Despite, or perhaps because of these tragedies, Jackson grew into a man who could be summed up by the phrase, “no half measures.” He moved to the part of the frontier that would soon become Tennessee and became the rowdiest, fightiest, shootiest man there. When other men set out to find a wife, he set out to find another man’s wife. Seriously.
In Tennessee, Jackson met a woman named Rachel whose husband soon left her – but didn’t divorce her. And so Jackson courted Rachel, moved in, and married her, all while she was still married to her ex – though she might have thought she was divorced. And the guy did eventually send divorce papers, and then Jackson might have remarried Rachel – it’s a little fuzzy. But this became the dirty frontier secret that everyone knew. And everyone talked. And because Andrew Jackson is the Yosemite Sam of presidents, any time he heard someone talking about this scandal, he challenged them to a duel and tried to shoot them dead. Jackson engages in several duels as a young man – usually over Rachel, but sometimes because someone publicly embarrassed him. They didn’t all reach the point of violence, but he did get shot twice and he killed one man.
Like I said, no half measures.
So, you’re starting to get a sense of who Jackson is, which is good, because he’s not going to change. And you know about those scandalous rumors about him and Rachel hooking up when Rachel was still married, which is also good, because that’s going to come up again. Later.
Jackson also started accumulating a number of slaves around this time. As with most things in life, he could be decent, but he could be terrible. When one slave ran away in 1804, he posted a $50 bounty, and offered an extra $10 for every 100 lashes the slave catcher inflicted on his returned slaved. Jackson might have owned more slaves than every other president except Jefferson and Washington.
So, what was young Andrew Jackson doing for a career? Buying all those slaves was going to cost money. Well, he never really got a formal education. But on the frontier, you didn’t really need one. You could kind of just show up to most jobs and try to bs your way through them. Jackson tried his hand at teaching, lawyering, debt collecting, and he becomes one of Tennessee’s first Congressmen and Senators. It sounds pretty good, but he’s not actually very good at any of this except the debt collecting. Years later, Thomas Jefferson remembers Jackson as someone so consumed by rage that he was incapable of making a cohesive argument. Jackson resigned before his term was up.
The career where Jackson finds his calling is fighting. In 1802, Jackson got elected Major general of the Tennessee Militia, the career that would make him famous. In particular, he’d become known for three things: Being an Indian fighter, being the hero of New Orleans, and conquering Spanish Florida.
But before we get to those things, I want to tell you about the time he got caught up in a bit of treason against the United States.
You didn’t see that coming, did you?
In 1806, Jackson played host to a rather infamous man at his home, the hermitage. The man was none other than former Vice President Aaron Burr, the man who had killed former treasury secretary and federalist leader Alexander Hamilton in a duel just two years earlier.
And if all you know of Burr is what you saw in the musical Hamilton, you might think he spent the rest of his life regretting that. But. Well. He didn’t. Burr was still vice president when he killed Hamilton, and he literally showed up at the senate a short time later, took his seat as if nothing had happened, and everyone just kind of stared at him, like, what are you DOING here, and he was all just like, so how was YOUR Tuesday?
He wasn’t cowed at all. But in 1804, he was voted out of office. And that might be when he came up with a crazy plan steal the American south and set up a new country.
Really. Let’s call it, Burrtopia.
And he kind of roped Jackson into it.
So Burr visits Jackson down in Jackson’s home, the Hermitage, and Jackson treats him like an honored guest, because Jackson was a Jeffersonian Republican, and, this is true, a lot of Jeffersonian Republicans kind of thought it was awesome that Burr had killed Hamilton, especially shooty-mcgee, Jackson.
And Burr tells Jackson that he’s there on secret orders from president Jefferson to gather an army and seize New Orleans from the Spanish and Jackson says, great, let me help you build that army, I’m happy to help.
At least that’s according to Jackson. He never asks to see these secret orders. He never tries to verify them. He just claims he took Burr at his word and started gathering soldiers. Which all sounds super suspicious to me, especially given what comes next.
Jefferson soon learns that former Vice President Burr is trying to build an army and, guess what, there are no secret orders, and what the hell is Burr up to, so Jefferson orders the local militia general – JACKSON – to break the whole thing up. Jackson flips on Burr, Burr flees, and we never get to see the nation of Burrtopia.
But it did soon become clear to everyone in DC that Jackson had originally been helping Burr out, and it did make them wonder how trustworthy this guy could be.
Ok, so this gets us back to those three things General Jackson was famous for – Indian fighter, Hero of New Orleans, and Conqueror of Spanish Florida.
Let’s start with Jackson the Indian Fighter.
So when the war of 1812 breaks out, Jackson thinks he’s going to get to go fight the British, but nobody in Washington trusts him after that whole Burr thing – Jackson could be the next Benedict Arnold for all they know – so they make him fight native Americans first instead.
Part of the British strategy in the War of 1812 was to encourage native American tribes to rise up against the American colonists. Join us, the British said, and we’ll give you guns, supplies, and your land back after we’ve kicked those yankees east of the Appalachians. Which is a pretty sweet deal. But not every native tribe took it. Some of the tribes were so divided they actually split over it. That was the case of the Creek tribe, one of the largest tribes in the American south. When a Creek faction called the red sticks started attacking white settlements, Jackson was told to rally an army of militia and pro-American creek Indians, and to wage war on the red sticks with them.
Which Jackson did. And he wasn’t a strategic genius or anything, but he outnumbered the Red Sticks significantly and he wasn’t a dummy. But then Jackson decided he hadn’t done anything terrible in a while, so, having killed or driven off all the Red Sticks, he turned to his Creek allies – allies who had just fought a civil war against their brothers alongside him – and he told them they had to give the United States a huge chunk of their land - 3/5’s of modern Alabama and 1/5 of Georgia - or he’d kill them all, too.
Which, well, they kind of had to say yes at that point. But don’t worry, because the U.S. gave their land back to them. Which lasted until Jackson became president and then he totally took it away again, but, well, we’ll get to the Trail of Tears in good time.
Ok, so by 1814, Jackson had defeated the Redsticks and earned some major street cred in Washington for being just about the only general in the war of 1812 who wasn’t getting his butt kicked, so new Secretary of War James Monroe ordered Jackson to New Orleans to defend against an expected British invasion.
It’s time for the battle of New Orleans.
So how did Jackson win? In short, he picked a good battlefield, and then he got lucky. Jackson picked a spot where he had the river on one side and an impassable marsh on the other, so the british would have to come straight at him. He also picked a spot with an old irrigation canal 4-feet deep and 10-feet wide running from the river to the marsh. He ordered his men to build a dirt wall on his side of the canal that they could fire from behind, which made for a pretty good defensive position. Any british attack would have to climb down into this canal and then back up and over the dirt wall before it could even really fire at the americans, and the americans would be able to shoot at them the whole time. Even better, Jackson put some cannons on the other side of the river, so he could fire into the side of the British army when they attacked.
The British actually had a pretty good plan for how to win this battle. They would sneak some soldiers across the river at night, capture the artillery over there, and shoot up some flares to signal when the cannons were theirs. They would then fire into the American camp with their captured artillery, causing panic and confusion, as they launched a frontal assault with the bulk of their army while it was still too dark for the Americans to take good aim.
The problem was everything went wrong. The british who crossed the river to capture the artillery got swept downstream by the river’s current and didn’t succeed in capturing the artillery until the battle was over. The rest of the army, meanwhile, stood there in formation all night long waiting for flares to signal the attack, only for the sun to rise first. When the Americans saw the british lined up across the field of battle, they started shooting at them, and then the British decided, to hell with it, we defeated napoleon, we can defeat these guys too, and they attacked. But there was another problem. Remember that canal the americans were hiding behind? The british forgot the ladders they’d planned to climb out of the canal with. Wave after wave of british solders went down into that canal only to get trapped there, trying to climb over the writhing bodies of their dead and dying comrades as the Americans fired down upon them. The british general and his second-in-command were both killed. More than 2,000 redcoats were killed or wounded compared to only 71 Americans. That’s how Jackson became a national hero.
He also earned a new nickname around this time. Old hickory. Because he was so tough, and hickory is tough. Get it? It’s not a bad nickname.
Old Hickory, or, Jackson, would lead one more military campaign before retiring and becoming a presidential candidate – the conquest of Florida. This should be another familiar one. In 1818, President James Monroe wanted Spanish Florida to become American Florida, but the Spanish didn’t want to sell and Congress didn’t want to declare war, so he sent Jackson down to the Florida border with a small army and orders to stop a tribe of native Americans and escaped slaves From raiding into Georgia. Whenever engaged, these Seminole would flee into the Florida swamps, so Jackson decided the only way to stop them was to conquer Florida. He asked President Monroe and Secretary of War John C Calhoun for permission to invade and neither replied, so he just marched into Florida without permission and took it. And the Spanish troops there didn’t really try too hard to stop him. I mean, Florida kind of sucked. One of the soldiers marching with Jackson wrote, quote, “Florida is certainly the poorest country that ever two people quarreled for. Nothing but barren wastes.”
Another said it should be abandoned to the Seminole and wrote, “I could not wish them all a worse place.”
So, yeah, the Spanish kind of let Jackson have it. But while the soldiers were grumbling about what a crappy place they’d just captured, the political class in DC was a good deal more ticked than that over Jackson’s illegal invasion of the place. I mean, declaring war was CONGRESS’s prerogative. It’s right there in the constitution, clear as day. This was illegal.
Which brings us back to Secretary of War John C Calhoun, and also introduces Speaker of the house Henry Clay to the Jackson narrative.
We are going to hear a lot about Calhoun and Clay moving forward.
Henry Clay and John Calhoun both opposed Jackson’s invasion of Florida. But while Clay did so publicly, Calhoun did so privately. So Jackson quickly decided he hated Henry Clay, and that hatred is going to fuel one of the great political rivalries of American history. And because Jackson didn’t know Calhoun was privately critical of him – because publicly, Calhoun never spoke out against the invasion after he saw how popular it was – well that made Jackson really like Calhoun, fueling an important political alliance. But don’t worry, it will blow up in spectacular fashion before this episode is done.
So that’s Jackson’s military career. He won the creek war, won the battle of new orleans, and won Florida – and Americans love a winner.
But before I totally close the book on Jackson’s military career, I want to mention one more thing about it. Jackson had a tendency to err toward war crimes. He seemed to love burning native american villages during the creek wars and his invasion of florida, he had six American militiamen hung during the Creek Wars when they tried to leave the army before their terms of enlistment were up, which, while technically desertion, is a big harsh, right? Jackson also illegally jailed a judge and a writer during a period of Marshall Law in New Orleans after they said mean things about him, and he hung two british merchants he captured during his Florida Invasion because they’d committed the crime of peaceable trading with the native-americans there. Seriously. One of the British merchants had even been trying to talk the Seminole out of waging war on the Americans. And the dude got hung for it.
So yeah. Andrew Jackson. War hero. And war criminal. Now we can move on to politics.
In 1821, Jackson retired from the military to his estate in Tennessee, the Hermitage. And as the election of 1824 approached, Jackson had a lot of problems with everyone in DC and especially most of the guys running for President. He was basically Frank Costanza at the Chrismukkah table – but he had no thoughts of running. He’d served in Congress and the Senate and kind of hated it and sucked at it. Politicians weren’t supposed to kill people they didn’t like. What’s the fun in that? That’s when a Tennessee political machine he’d befriended earlier in life – back when he was a debt collector, congressman, senator, and running for militia general – they thought it would help them win offices in Tennessee if a popular war hero like Jackson were on the ticket as a presidential candidate in that state. So they nominated him, thinking, nobody outside Tennessee is going to vote for this guy, but Tennessean’s love him and someone might turn out to vote for Old Hickory and then vote for us by association. The thing is, people outside Tennessee DID like Jackson. They liked him a lot. He was a winner! And Jackson soon found himself at the head of an unexpected campaign for president.
And that’s how Jackson entered the crazy election of 1824. This is that election where five major candidates ran, and Jackson’s popularity was so great that he actually won the plurality of the vote, but because he didn’t win the majority, the top three candidates – Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and a man named Crawford - went to a runoff in the House of Representatives. That’s where speaker of the house Henry Clay, who had been one of the original five candidates, but who didn’t perform well enough to quality for the runoff, well, remember how Clay thinks Jackson is a war criminal? And remember how Jackson hates Clay for saying Jackson’s illegal invasion of Florida was illegal? Well, Clay was not going to let Jackson become president. He convinced enough states to vote for John Quincy so that John Quincy won the presidency in the house of representatives. Jackson, for once, was defeated.
But not for long. Like any good movie monster, Jackson was down, but he wasn’t out.
Over the next four years, a new political party began to grow around Jackson. The Democratic party. The same democratic party that exists today. Though you wouldn’t recognize it. The original democratic party was basically forged from the factions led by three personalities: Jackson, the charismatic war hero who represented the west, John C. Calhoun, former secretary of war-turned-Vice President who was a powerful voice for slavery and the south, and New York Senator Martin Van Buren, a political wizard who was the brain of the operation. Seriously, Jackson brought the personality, but Van Buren is the guy who made the Democrats a juggernaut. We’ll get deeper into the creation of the Democratic Party in our next episode on Martin Van Buren’s life and presidency, but I will give you one gem right here. The first use of a donkey to represent the Democrats came in their first presidential election, 1828. Andrew Jackson’s enemies kept saying he was an ignorant and stubborn jackass, which amused Jackson, so he started including the image of a donkey in his campaign posters. It was forgotten after he left office, and then made a resurgence in the 1870’s.
The more you know.
With Jackson at the top of the ticket, Calhoun running as his Vice President, and Van Buren working his magic, the Democratic Party easily routed John Quincy in the 1828 presidential election, winning 178-83 in the electoral college, and 647,000 – 508,000 in the popular vote.
But before Jackson could report to Washington, tragedy struck. Remember how Jackson and Rachel had started courting before Rachel was divorced from her first husband? Well, the election of 1828 was a really nasty election, and Jackson’s opponents – I’m betting it was Clay’s guys - made sure to leak this to the press. When Rachel saw the story in the newspaper shortly after election day, she was so shocked that she collapsed, her health rapidly declined, and she died a month later. And, remember how Jackson was willing to shoot any man who spoke poorly of Rachel? Just imagine what he’s going to do to his political rivals in D.C. after their partisan attacks killed his wife.
And so, on March 4, 1829, Andrew Jackson, the war hero and war criminal who’d gone from revolutionary war orphan to co-founder of the Democratic Party, was elected the seventh president of the United States of America. He reported to the capital in Washington D.C. dressed in black and still in mourning, and got to work.
So what did the United States, and the World, look like when Jackson became president? Let’s look around.
The United States was peaceful and prosperous when Andrew Jackson became president. The Eerie Canal in New York had supercharged the economy of the northeast, where industry was beginning to take root. The south was likewise prosperous, if you were white, and if you were a plantation owner, that is. Cotton and slavery had spread into the new southern states along the gulf coast and taken root everywhere it was allowed to expand. But that doesn’t mean those wealthy southerners were happy. A recent tariff passed during John Quincy’s administration had them in a real hissy, well, let’s just call that foreshadowing.
Internationally, the world was relatively at peace. Greece was fighting a war for independence from the Ottoman Empire. And the great composer Beethoven had just died in 1827. There were no major threats on the horizon.
In short, it was a good time to become president.
But that doesn’t mean Jackson wouldn’t preside over turbulent years. There are three major events that would define the Jackson presidency.
First: The trail of tears.
Second: The bank war.
Third: The Nullification crisis.
Let’s start with the trail of tears.
As we saw during the creek war, Jackson had no shame in his treatment of native Americans. Remember, at the end of that war, he told his Creek allies to give up their land or they’d all be killed. Now that he’s president, that’s basically going to become national policy. Especially after gold was found under Cherokee land in Georgia in 1829.
Jackson’s first priority as president was to pass the Indian Removal Act. Technically, the act authorized the president to offer the native Americans unsettled lands west of the Mississippi in exchange for their lands East of the Mississippi, with moving expenses paid for by the federal government. But practically, Jackson wasn’t asking, the movers were the U.S. army, and remember, you’re asking people to leave established homes and farms for a patch of unsettled dirt out west.
And it’s worth mentioning, this was not an overwhelmingly popular policy. There were plenty of Americans, especially Quakers, who thought it was evil to continue stealing the natives’ land. One New Jersey senator wrote, “We have crowded the tribes upon a few miserable acres of our southern frontier: It is all that is left to them of their once boundless forests: And still, like the horse leech, our unsatisfied cupidity cries, give! Give! Give!”
But the Americans who lived closest to the frontier, and who would benefit most from seizing Native American land, they were just numerous and influential enough to get the bill through Congress 102-97. By 1832, the first tribes were being marched west.
But some weren’t willing to go without a fight – a legal fight.
Two tribes, the Cherokee and Creek, sued the state of Georgia, which was trying to force them to take Jackson’s offer by moving in on their land. The tribes claimed they were sovereign nations who had signed treaties with the U.S. government that guaranteed them their land. Their case made it to the Supreme court where they won a landmark ruling that basically said Native American tribal lands aren’t bound by state law, only federal law. Which, great! Georgia can’t make you leave. But … Georgia was still making them leave. And when the tribes asked Jackson to enforce the ruling and protect their land from encroaching Georgians, Jackson refused. And then he turned to Georgia and said, hey, use more force. To be clear, this was a constitutional crisis. The President of the United States is ordering Americans to ignore a supreme court ruling, and he gets away with it because the president has the army, and the supreme court doesn’t. So, if you’ve ever wondered, how fragile is our democracy? Wellllll. Pretty fragile! The opposition was outraged, but Jackson’s western and southern supporters loved it.
Over the next eight years, members of five major tribes – the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole – were moved west in a government-sanctioned act of ethnic cleansing. Some had to travel as far as 5,000 miles, often by foot, and sometimes in brutal winter conditions. Perhaps nobody got it worse than the Cherokee. 16,000 refused to leave their Georgia homes, so the U.S. government – and this next bit happened after Jackson’s presidency, but would not have happened without his Indian Removal Act – it ordered 7,000 soldiers to force the remaining Cherokee into internment camps at bayonet-point. They were not allowed to gather their belongings, which were simply seized by the whites moving into their land. The Cherokee were forced to march west during a brutal winter, when frozen rivers frequently forced them to wait in place, sleeping in freezing mud. 4,000 of these Cherokee – 25% - died during the march.
Overall, I’ve seen estimates that anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 native Americans were moved west during this eight-year period, and 4,000 to 15,000 died along the way.
It’s one of the more shameful episodes in American history. And yet, Jackson’s southern and western supporters loved it. And that popularity might be why he surprised the nation by announcing he’d run for a second term in 1832, which led to our next crisis – the Bank War.
It’s been a while since we talked about a national political fight over a national bank, but this is the big one.
A quick refresh. Way back under Washington, the first National Bank of the United States was established on a 20-year charter by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a political deal with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s party, the Jeffersonian Republicans, hated the bank. And 20 years later, Jefferson’s disciple President James Madison, allowed the first bank of the United States to die peacefully when that 20-year charter narrowly wasn’t renewed by congress.
But then the United States almost lost the War of 1812, and quite a few Jeffersonian Republicans – including good ol’ Henry Clay – concluded that not having a national bank to help fund the war was a reason why they’d almost lost the war. So a new national bank was established on another 20-year charter in 1816.
And if you’re doing the math, that means the charter will need to be renewed in 1836, during Jackson’s second term if he wins re-election.
Now Jackson didn’t like the bank. And he didn’t like the bank for the same reason most Americans didn’t like the bank – he didn’t quite get it. What’s happening in there? Why are bankers always the wealthiest men in town when their hands are never dirty from work? I mean, they must have gotten that money by skimming it from the top, right?
Well, no. But the more legit complaint that Jackson and others had was the double edged sword nature of banks that we still live with today – it’s time for a quick economics lesson. Banks make loans to people and businesses. These loans help people and businesses grow more quickly – they might help a family buy a house or help a business build a factory. These loans are always a gamble. You hope the family flourishes and the factory succeeds so the loan can be paid back. But if you make enough bad loans, either through greed, stupidity, or bad luck, you can create a bubble of economic growth that pops, and causes a recession, when the loans are called in and those families and businesses can’t pay, and then the banks can’t pay the people they owe money to, and then those people can’t pay the people they owe money to, and so on and so forth. I’m recording this in 2020. Listeners may remember the great recession, which was actually a depression, of 2008. That was, at its core, caused by tons and tons and tons of bad high-risk housing loans that, when people couldn’t pay them back, created a ripple effect of toxic debt that crashed the economy.
So, in short, when you have good loans, it helps the economy grow more quickly. But when you have too many bad loans, you create the risk of a bubble that can pop and harm the economy.
And, I mentioned this in passing during the Monroe episode, but America’s first bubble-pop recession happened on his watch in 1819 and it kind of freaked people out, including Jackson, who lost a bit of money. So as the national bank’s charter came up for a vote, many Americans thought that if they killed the bank, it would prevent severe economic recessions from ever happening again.
So Jackson had come out against the bank for these reasons, but he hadn’t really made a big deal about it for a while. So as the election of 1832 approached, the bank’s two biggest supporters, Henry Clay – who’d helped establish the bank back in 1816 – and Nicholas Biddle, the bank’s current president, had to decide what to do.
Ultimately, Clay convinced Biddle that, if Jackson won the election of 1832, Jackson would refuse to recharter. But if Clay won the election – and he was the other major candidate in the election of 1832. This was a Clay vs Jackson election – If Clay won, Biddle could rest easy knowing the bank would be rechartered because, after all, Clay was the guy who helped create it in the first place.
And so Biddle did what only Biddle could do, he formally requested the bank be rechartered during the election year. And Jackson vetoed it. Which made Clay’s day. Because what Clay really wanted was to be president, and now, the election of 1832 might be a referendum on the bank, and that was a fight Clay thought he could win.
But, well, he was wrong. The bank may have been important, but the Democrats were still a far better organized party than Clay’s Whig party – who we’ll talk about in future episodes. So Jackson cruised to reelection, 219 - 49
And because Jackson is a man who doesn’t believe in half measures, he decided he didn’t want to wait for 1836 to see the bank die. He knew Biddle had asked for the rechartering early to help Clay win. Jackson wanted the bank to die NOW.
So what Jackson did is he started removing all the federal deposits from the national bank and moving them to state banks. Because, if a bank doesn’t have any money in the vault, well, it can’t really be a bank. Was it constitutional for Jackson to do this? No. Probably not. His treasury secretary resigned rather than carry out the order, but Jackson promoted someone who would follow orders to the job and the deposits started to move.
But Nicholas Biddle wasn’t going to take this sitting down either. This is his bank – he’s the bank president. So he decided if the bank was going to die, it was going to die kicking and screaming and it was going to take the rest of the country down with it, because an economic meltdown would create enough pressure on Jackson to save the bank.
Which shows he clearly doesn’t understand Jackson.
So as Jackson is removing the deposits, Biddle recalls ALL of the bank’s loans, which totally freaked the economy out. I mean, just imagine if suddenly credit were cut off and every major bank loan in the country was called in at once – including credit card debt, housing, oh and all the paper money was about to become valueless, because back then paper money only had value because it was backed by gold in the vault, which Jackson was removing. That’s going to have an impact! You’d have bankruptcies, cash shortages, a severe contraction. Which is what happened to Jackson, but he refused to budge, declaring to Martin Van Buren at one point, “The bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me. But I will kill it!”
And so the bank died. And it sucked for a lot of people for several years, but the economy did eventually recover. As those deposits moved from the national bank to the state banks, the state banks were able to start issuing loans and doing those things banks do that help the economy grow, but… well. Remember what I said about good loans and bad loans? The state banks weren’t quite as good at offering good loans as the national bank was, and they were quite a bit more corrupt. When Martin Van Buren becomes president, this is all going to blow up spectacularly in his face. So look forward to that.
So that’s the bank war! The second bank of the United States is dead. There won’t be another. The economy took a hit. But we’re all going to be alright. For a year or two at least.
But the bank war was not the only crazy thing happening at the start of Jackson’s second term. We also almost had a civil war. It’s time for the nullification crisis!
Ok, so this one is CRAZY. And its origins also date back a bit. Remember during the John Quincy episode how the Democrats passed a protectionist tariff that protected goods produced by northern industry but didn’t protect anything made in the south? So the south was really pissed because it meant a lot of stuff they were used to buying cheap now cost an arm and a leg and basically had to be purchased from the north because the tariffs made importing it too expensive. They called it the Tariff of abominations.
Well, that’s about to come to a head in a big way. And the man who’s going to push things right up to the verge of civil war is Vice President John C. Calhoun.
Oh yeah! This is going to be awesome.
So, remember how Calhoun convinced Jackson that he’d supported Jackson’s invasion of Florida, when he’d actually opposed it? Well, when Jackson became president, he was presented with evidence of Calhoun’s duplicity, and he kind of lost it. The Calhoun-Jackson alliance that had been one of the founding pillars of the Democratic Party was dead.
And this might be why Calhoun reached even further back in the way-back machine and found the Kentucky resolution 1798.
What was the Kentucky resolution of 1798? Well, I don’t blame you if you don’t remember this, but this dates back to the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams episodes. 1798 is when Adams signed the Alien and Sedition acts, which basically made criticizing the government a crime. Jefferson had opposed this by ghost-writing the Kentucky resolution – a resolution passed by the Kentucky state legislature that declared states had the power to nullify federal laws they disagreed with and block their enforcement within state borders. Nothing much came of it at the time, but when Calhoun discovered it, and when he discovered JEFFERSON had secretly written it, he realized he’d found a friggin howitzer of a weapon he could fire at that tariff of abominations.
And fire away he did.
Calhoun publicly came out in support of nullification, the idea that any state could nullify any federal law it disagreed with and block its enforcement within that state’s borders. He also resigned from the vice presidency and was immediately elected one of South Carolina’s senators. In November of 1832, just after Jackson was reelected, South Carolina held a convention that voted to nullify the hated tariff AND threatened to secede if Jackson forced the issue. Oh, and if it did secede? John C. Calhoun was going to be the first president of the confederacy. South Carolinians started trying to convince local army and navy forces to defect. They were gearing up for a fight.
Jackson was furious. And when I say furious, I mean, call up the army furious. Jackson mobilized the military to be ready to invade South Carolina at a moment’s notice.
In possibly the greatest presidential example of, “Well, that escalated quickly,” When a South Carolina congressman asked Jackson if he had any message for his constituents, Jackson replied, “Yes I have. Please give my compliments to my friends in your state, and say to them that if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct upon the first tree I can reach.”
So where does this go? I mean, next thing you know, South Carolina passed a bill to raise an army to defend itself. And Jackson asked Congress for a Force bill that would authorize him to invade. How did we not end up at war?
Well, Henry Clay of all people will save the day.
Henry Clay was a pro-tariff person. But he was even more a pro-union person. So he reached out to Calhoun and met with him to get a sense for his resolve, then took the floor of Senate to reveal his grand compromise.
Without really acknowledging the nullification threat, Clay proposed the tariff gradually be lowered to tolerable rates over the following 10 years.
And then senator Calhoun stood … and everyone held their breath… and to the senate’s immense relief, and my surprise, Calhoun announced his support for Clay’s Compromise tariff. The new tariff bill was voted into effect the same day as Jackson’s force bill, and the force bill never had to be used. South Carolina, perhaps realizing that it would totally be destroyed if it attempted to secede alone, and seeing that it would get what it wanted in the tariff-reduction compromise, rescinded its nullification ordinance and stood down – for now.
Civil War had been averted.
But here’s the thing about the nullification crisis. The thing about nullification that nobody said out loud is that if nullification became a thing. Yes, they’d nullify the tariff today. But if the federal government ever tried to outlaw slavery? They’d sure as shit nullify that tomorrow.
Jackson himself sensed this, later saying, “The tariff was only the pretext, and disunion and a southern confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery, question.”
And meanwhile, Calhoun, probably from his evil lair, wrote to his supporters that this was a strategic retreat, but not a defeat. “We are growing daily. Our cause would be better understood, our strength increased, and the temper of the south and the other sections better ascertained. To take issue now would be to play into the hands of the administration, while to delay the issue would derange all of their calculations. I feel confident; we want only time to ensure victory.”
I’m going to let that be the end of our take on the Jackson presidency. We had the trail of tears, the bank war, and hoo boy, that sure looked like a dry run for the Civil War, didn’t it? If you want to remember three things about the Jackson presidency, that’s it. Trail of Tears, Bank War, Nullification crisis.
In 1837, Jackson retired from the presidency. He was 70 years old and in constant pain from wounds acquired in duels or in war. This is a guy who’d spent decades walking around with a couple bullets in him. As he left office, Jackson was happy to see his second Vice President, Martin Van Buren, become president – his legacy would be secured.
So how had the country, and the world, changed during the 8 years of Jackson’s presidency?
One new state was added – Arkansas – in 1836. On the invention front, an American named Joseph Henry invented the first electric doorbell in 1832. It wouldn’t catch on for 80 years, but electric doorbells exist now! And a guy named Samuel Morse invented of Morse Code – a way to communicate through long and short beeps or dashes. Morse code would soon be paired with telegraph wires to revolutionize communication.
Internationally, the British Empire banned slavery in 1833, which is going to help fuel the abolitionist movement in the United States. In 1834, a German Costums Union formed – there was no Germany yet, just a huge hodgepodge of little Germany fiefdoms, but this was a neat step toward unified Germany. Mexico outlawed slavery in 1829 and, oh yeah, American immigrants who were pissed off that Mexico outlawed slavery revolted and won Texas independence in 1836. THAT, is going to be important.
After the presidency, Old Hickory retired to the Hermitage, where he kept in touch with friends and with politics. We’ll see more of Jackson in future episodes. Especially when an old friend of his named Sam Houston calls and says, hey buddy, wanna piece of Texas? Alright, alright, alright. We’ll get to that in our episode on the life and presidency of James K Polk, a man whose nickname was Young Hickory.
On June 8, 1845, Andrew Jackson died of Congestive Heart Failure at home in the Hermitage at the age of 78. Before the end of his life, he said he had but two regrets, that he “Had been unable to shoot Henry Clay or Hang John C Calhoun.”
Which, well, that’s so Jackson.
So what can we learn from Andrew Jackson? Hopefully, you aren’t saying this is a guy whose values you want to emulate. I mean, he killed people, he’s a racist, he owned a bunch of slaves – do not emulate the values of Andrew Jackson.
But we can learn something from how he was able to be successful. And it’s basically this. Fortune favors the bold. Act swiftly, act decisively, act confidently, and you’ll be amazed how far that carries you against rivals with greater resources who act more cautiously.
And you will have setbacks. But act tenaciously, and they can be overcome.
But don’t act stupidly. The trick is identifying your north star, your core values that you can refer to and know in an instant “Faced with a major choice, do I do X or Y?” And like I said, don’t use Jackson’s core values! Develop your own. And trust in those values to act decisively when a decision must be made.
Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.
If you enjoyed it, please subscribe and leave a 5-star review on your podcast-listening platform of choice.
You can also follow the show on Facebook, at abridged presidential histories, or on Twitter, at APHpodcast.
If you’d like to support the show, you can look it up on Patreon, or go directly to www.patreon.com/abridgedpresidentialhistories
The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.
The primary biography for today’s episode was The Life of Andrew Jackson, but Robert V. Remini.
In our next episode, we’ll look at the life and presidency of Martin Van Buren, the little magician who might be more responsible than anyone for the two-party system we live under today.
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.