25 February 2020
HIST 442: We’ve Been Talkin’ ‘Bout Jackson Ever Since the Fire Went Out
In his age, Andrew Jackson’s military career and administration left a weighty and widely interpreted mark on the American mind. During the immense changes of the time, Jackson represented a strong and unbending force which rallied the common-man and the patriot and the businessman alike. Through his vast popularity during and beyond the War of 1812 and his controversial actions in office, Jackson symbolized an all-American, non-European, self-made and natural man who stood with his iron will for democracy—and a man plucked out and elevated as the instrument of Providence.
Markedly and to his great success, Jackson was the effective opposite of European refinement. His campaign against John Quincy Adams proved to be, as Ward puts it, a problem of the “simple West versus the effete East; …the United States versus Europe” (67). The two pitted together, with an ivy-league, allegedly elitist, Northeastern, wealthy Adams on the one hand and a rugged, ‘unlettered’ man of the South on the other, made for a clash of ideals, of two distinct cultures in America, the professor against the plowman, as Ward says (46). Jackson, of course, won largely because of his lack of refinement and his distance from all the classical learning of the East. However, it should be noted—and Watson does not—that Quincy Adams still won nearly half of the popular vote in the election of 1828; there was substantial support on Adams’ side for the traditional presidential ideal and substantial antagonism towards Jackson thereafter, as we can see in Ward’s account of the case of the decapitation of Jackson’s wooden figurehead (Watson 94; Ward 116-122). Watson points out that it was not a hot issue or a favorite candidate that got voters to the polls, but a scintillatingly close race in which one felt like his vote would really count, e.g., the case of 1828 (94). Moreover, Jackson represented a return to the Founding Fathers’ intentions, a conquering of corruption or our fall from grace—a grace which need not be learned or cultivated, but which is God-given. Ward asserts, “Underlying the rejection of education and training, which were personified in John Quincy Adams, was the assumption that, at best, training was unnecessary and, at worst, it corrupted reason, which is intrinsic and not acquired” (Ward 71). Served a bitter reminder of the taste of dependence and British control in the War of 1812, self-conscious and wary America called for a revival of mores.
Jackson was a man of intuition, and he didn’t wait for the government’s approval. Americans in the nineteenth century had a desire for “the law [to] conform to deeds rather than that deeds conform to the law” (Ward 77). He justified his means by his ends, and this philosophy promoted a “freedom of action” (Ward 77). This is evident in the Seminole scandal and Jackson’s execution of two British officers before any substantive approval from above, which, Ward points out, was an issue of both “the philosophy of American expansionism as well as international law” (Ward 58). One could stipulate that the people flailed so in search of a higher, intrinsic set of morals which every man possesses—confident and unapologetic morals embodied by Jackson—because the law was failing them so basically.
In this way, Jackson was a “self-made man” whose reputation preceded him. This success and this evidently dramatic opportunity for social mobility appealed to the common man. His individualism was shown in the victorious Battle of New Orleans and the various legends and tales that resulted. Much like the miasmic myth that followed Tennessee Congressman David Crockett, Jackson was told about. This is evident in Samuel Woodsworth’s poem, “The Hunters of Kentucky,” subsequently made a song which exalted Jackson-the-symbol: “But Jackson he was wide awake, and /wasn’t scared with trifles, /For well he knew what aim we take /with our Kentucky rifles;…” (qtd. in Ward 14). Such folkloric songs and tales paint Jackson as both a larger-than-life figure and a common man who well knows the American people and their hardships, which aided his push for democracy. Watson points to this understanding in the case of broadened enfranchisement under the Jackson administration:
“In a rapidly changing economic environment, it was hard for conservatives to convince others that one form of property was more influential than another in persuading an owner to defend free government…Reform did not supplant republicanism in American political thinking, but significantly shifted its emphasis toward majoritarian democracy” (Watson 50-51).
Despite this idea of Jackson as a folklorish mystical man who also understood the backwoods-grit of the common man, just like in the case of Davy Crockett the figure never really belonged to Jackson. As Ward points out, “[i]f ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ reflects a prevailing assumption about the positive force of nature in the universe, it only indirectly connects Andrew Jackson with that force” ( 30). Arguably, Jackson happened to be the symbol for an age and a spirit which was riding the natural pendulum of things; the British were again on American soil, only about 40 years after the Revolutionary War, fighting for the resources and the land, and there was some uncannily threatening déjà vu at hand. The Americans needed to distinguish themselves finally from the British, and Andrew Jackson was as different from the British as anyone. In other words, the Jacksonian movement could have gone by any other name. All that mattered was to stand with a man as vividly different from the European tradition as possible (—but not a savage, by any means.)
On top of that need for a distinct all-American leader was the Panic of 1819 which put the people in a certain eponymously obvious state, and Jackson-the-symbol swept the newspapers with his victorious battle which had defeated the British. Although somewhat contradictory in light of his repertoire as the “self-made man,” it is not going too far to compare Jackson to a savior of sorts, a deliverer. The Jacksonians shared this sentiment: “in [the age of Jackson], the people of the United States were predisposed to find God’s special favor in nearly every passing event…The nation, expanding violently, needed confidence to carry on its gigantic task” (Ward 110). The idea of Jackson as a savior was partially the need for such confidence and partially some sort of hangover following the sweep of intense (albeit short-lived) nationalism in America; like the saccharine taste of spiritual medicine Jackson lingered after a disappointingly short Era of Good Feelings. This was the pillar of fire by night, and pillar of cloud in the day; God was believed to have chosen the American people and would see to it that they went on (Ward 111). Jackson was God’s strong, rugged instrument to carry out His Divine Justice (and His Divinely Profitable Topographical Schemes.)
Jackson was not a mute and hollow symbol, however. During his campaign and presidency, there developed the second party-system, enfranchisement of more men, and campaigns for Indian relocation, among other things. One could argue again that these could have and probably would have taken place under any other administration, but they are proof nonetheless of Jackson’s fusion of self-sufficiency and unbending will. Alongside the symbol of Jackson as the instrument of Providence was Jackson as the man of iron will on whom “adversity can make no impression” (qtd. in Ward 190). In a time of such turmoil, when profits were largely concentrated in the hands of few, during the rapid and turbulent Market Revolution, in pervasive desperation for real, true executive action on the behalf of the majority, “[t]hought was made subordinate to action” (Ward 210).
Such a broad set of shoes to fill, it seems. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if Jackson made a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ administrative or military decision, or if he won the Battle of New Orleans, or if he kicked out the Indians as long as he confidently did so and “’had no thought of failure’…because Jackson was a Hercules of action’” —the people needed this Andrew Jackson and so created him (Ward 212). This natural and divinely chosen and unbending idea of a man need not be true as long as these traits were ascribed to him, and thus it was feasible for America to go on, cutting itself finally from Europe and its traditions, believing in the individual, pushing West under God’s pointing finger.
Ward, John William. Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age. Oxford University Press, New York,
- pp. 14-212.
Henry Watson. Liberty and Power. Hill & Wang, New York, 1990. pp. 50-94.
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