Long before his campaign launched, ‘Old Hickory’s’ supporters were scrubbing his image.
By Dr. David and Dr. Jeanne Heidler
Sixty-five years ago, historian John William Ward had the insight that for better or worse, Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans on January 8, 1815, made him the “Symbol for an Age.” There are those who would argue that the battle also made him president fourteen years later; but Jackson’s rise was more complicated—and far more calculated—than these narratives suggest.
New Orleans was the culmination of Jackson’s already impressive military career, and it established the man in the public’s imagination as a successor to those who had won the American Revolution. Americans suddenly wanted portraits and biographies of Jackson—the general credited with “winning” the War of 1812—reminiscent of those revered patriots.
Indeed, the chronic awfulness of almost every other aspect of the fight with Britain stood in high contrast to Jackson’s part in it. Military ineptitude, political dissent verging on treason, and the humiliation of the sacked capital of Washington, D.C. all constituted the American story of the war—at least until Jackson won the Creek War of 1813-14 and then proceeded to crush the Duke of Wellington’s veterans on the Chalmette Plain.
Such deeds reminded Americans of what they had believed during their first fight with Britain: that virtue was more important than martial skill in the winning of wars.
Jackson’s life story reinforced this perception. He was born, just weeks after his father’s death, into a hardscrabble life worsened by the Revolutionary War, which killed his brothers and mother and very nearly killed him. That he survived seemed to make him stronger and more daring and he grew into the kind of self-made man whom Jackson’s fellow countrymen knew firsthand—both in themselves and their neighbors. No matter how high he might climb on economic or social ladders, Andrew Jackson remained a self-educated bundle of great aspirations, in appearance spare but sinewed, by experience beleaguered but resolute. The Jackson archetype was one that later generations of Americans would admire in story and song.
Without a doubt, the war made Jackson famous by elevating him from a regional notable to a household name, including the admiring one of “Old Hickory,” given to him by devoted soldiers who compared his stoicism to the hardwood that would neither bend nor break. Only in retrospect, however, did it seem inevitable that Jackson’s military fame would win him the presidency.
Jackson’s oldest and most enduring friend John Overton was the first to gauge his public acclaim as a national phenomenon, one that could make the celebrated general an invincible politician. Before the Battle of New Orleans, Overton had been among those who thought Jackson’s best chance was to seek state office, such as governor of Tennessee. But after the Glorious Eighth of January, Overton paused. Hearing Jackson described as an American Cincinnatus—who, like George Washington, had left his plow to protect his country—caused others to pause too.
Jackson’s prospects were not just the talk of state houses and Congress but of ordinary folk as well. From travelers and correspondents, Overton heard that men clustered around wood stoves in crossroad groceries where they talked of Andy Jackson as if he were family. Newspapers from Manhattan to Mobile and from Savannah to St. Louis carried accounts of town squares filled with cheering citizens passing resolutions of praise and appreciation for a man they had never seen but who seemed like a neighbor, the kind you trusted with your wife. And why not? Americans had trusted him with their country. “I to the listening world do now proclaim,” a poet hymned, “JACKSON’S brave deeds, his never-dying fame.”
Overton not only gauged the people’s enthusiasm for Jackson, but he also judged their discontent with the status quo in Washington, D.C. Just as the failed generalship of others in the War of 1812 burnished Jackson’s glittering military exploits, the denizens of the nation’s capital seemed to be lawyerly, self-serving politicos always locked in pointless debates. They became a counterpoint to Jackson as a man of action able to solve the thorniest problems and beholden to nobody while doing it.
Overton accordingly recalibrated his plans to aim at a higher target. He already had at his disposal Tennessee’s dominant political machine, the Blount-Overton faction, but he also assembled Jackson’s Tennessee friends into a powerful committee whose reach extended beyond politics to include community leaders, accomplished diplomats, and influential newspapermen. On its face, the chore for this so-called Nashville Junto was both simple and easy: Harness enthusiasm for Jackson and watch its power propel him into the presidency.
Overton, though, knew that making Jackson president would be neither easy nor simple. The political establishment was sure to balk over his lack of credentials and experience, and those reservations could seem prudent to the people as their ardor over the military hero cooled. The problem became more daunting when questions about Jackson’s temperament were added to the mix. A nation mostly ignorant of the details of Jackson’s life was singing his praises, but those familiar with his past knew it to be checkered by violence and lapses in judgment. His body carried two bullets. Neither was from military combat.
As a youth, it was whispered, Jackson had married Rachel Donelson Robards while she was married to another man. And over the years, when the whispers about this matter gained the slightest volume, Jackson stood ready to silence them with force. Friends intervened in 1803 to stop a duel when Jackson called out Tennessee’s sitting governor over a snide remark about the marriage. But three years later, nothing, not even his foe’s bullet, which lodged near his heart, could stop Jackson from killing young Nashville attorney Charles Dickinson because he had made a drunken jest about Rachel’s virtue.
Defending his wife’s reputation was possibly an understandable spur to reckless deeds, but Jackson’s touchy temper and an exaggerated sense of personal honor could cause unseemly behavior for less decorous reasons. In 1813, a silly disagreement led to a quarrel that exploded when Jackson and an armed entourage set upon the brothers Jesse and Thomas Hart Benton in Nashville. The ensuing brawl featured gunplay (Jackson’s second bullet) and some vicious knife carving before it ended with Jackson nearly bleeding to death. His wound was severe enough to almost keep him out of the Creek War.
That it didn’t was a testament to Jackson’s iron will, but incidents during the Creek conflict suggested a darker side to the story. Beleaguered by a mutinous militia, Jackson seemed to lose perspective when he executed a 17-year-old boy over a misunderstanding misinterpreted as insubordination. And Jackson’s men weren’t careful about culling combatants from the innocent, killing Creek women and children along with Creek warriors. After the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, they shot the wounded and counted the dead by snipping off the tips of their noses.
Even the grand triumph at New Orleans was mottled by Jackson’s overbearing behavior in its aftermath. He maintained martial law long after the British departed. And when civilians grew restive under the restrictions, Jackson denounced them as seditious. When a Louisiana legislator dared to protest in the press, Jackson locked him up. A federal judge ordered the legislator released. Jackson jailed the judge.
The evidence indicates that Jackson and his friends decided to address these questions of character in a preemptive way by providing the public with a carefully crafted story of his life. Published in 1817, the biography became the model for presidential campaign biographies ever afterward. Author John Henry Eaton recognized his task as the simple one of enhancing Jackson’s established military reputation while solving the more difficult editorial puzzle of omitting dubious details about his marriage, his temper, and his occasional disregard for the law. The result was an enduring image of Jackson for an avid audience. Chagrinned rivals would find that image difficult to tarnish from the start and, eventually, impossible to alter in the public mind.
Subsequent steps to advance Jackson’s prospects required careful calculations as well as innovations. Calculations were necessary to dent the skepticism of the Washington political establishment about Jackson’s fitness for office and his aptitude for holding it. The decision by the Tennessee machine to place Old Hickory in the U.S. Senate in 1823 risked sacrificing his status as a political outsider untainted by the byzantine workings in the nation’s capital, but impressing Washington society with Jackson’s courtly demeanor and deliberative statesmanship was worth the gamble. As with the biography, the result was impressive and lasting. Meanwhile, Jackson’s presidential campaign innovated by using extant newspapers and founding new ones to tailor messages for specific regional audiences, while keeping vibrant the idea of Jackson as virtuous, diligent, and always heroic.
These strategies and methods were wildly successful, but they likely would have been insufficient in the absence of the significant social and political changes that coincided with the political rise of Andrew Jackson. Indeed, they were mostly responsible for it. Jackson’s presidential candidacy occurred when the politics of deference—the idea that only bookish elites could manage government—was waning as democratization gained momentum. The process had started before the War of 1812, long before Jackson became a political figure, but he would be its principal beneficiary as the cresting wave of democracy lifted his political fortunes.
Even though they were fated to endure as legacies to all American political campaigns that followed, the creation of an image and its maintenance were innovations of the moment. They accomplished much more, though, by establishing the story that the man who had profited from an irresistible movement was also its creator—and that narrative is another lasting legacy of Jackson’s campaign for the presidency. John William Ward’s observation that Jackson was emblematic of an age still resonates in the term “Jacksonian Democracy,” but that term hides the amorphous nature of the times. Andrew Jackson was more than a symbol: He was a portent of the way his country would conduct its politics from then on, for better or worse.