Andrew Jackson had bushy, bristling hair. At six foot two and only 145 pounds, he was rail thin. His stomach gave him constant trouble, so he didn’t eat much. He did contortions to ease the pain, sometimes draping himself over a sapling knocked sideways.
Jackson was an orphan. His father died before he was born and his mother died of cholera during the Revolution. As a teenager, Jackson was a messenger and fighter for the rebels during the Revolutionary War. Captured by the British along with his brother Robert, he refused to clean an officer’s boots and was struck by a sword, leaving a mark on his head.
After the Revolution, he studied to become a lawyer. He liked drinking and gambling. He and his friends once ended a night of drinking by smashing the tavern furniture and throwing it on the fire.
At 21, he accepted a job as prosecutor in a remote frontier town called Nashville. He also bought his first slave, a woman named Nancy who was his age. He fought his first duel when he believed another attorney insulted him in court. Both men ended up firing into the air, preserving both their dignity and their lives.
He met and married Rachel Donelson, the daughter of one of the founders of Nashville. It was known he’d been with her for years before she’d completed her divorce from an abusive husband. They lived together from 1790 or 1791. The divorce went through in 1793. They had to be remarried in 1794 to clear up doubts regarding the legitimacy of their marriage. He had no biological children of his own, but he and Rachel adopted a son named Andrew Jackson Jr. from relatives.
Jackson became a delegate to the constitutional convention and Tennessee’s first representative in Congress at age 30. Before the age of 40, he was a prominent trader and planter. He lived in a log house, but steadily added to his property until he had dozens of slaves tending more than a thousand acres. He ran a dry goods store and riverside boatyard that included a tavern and racetrack.
He was also a slave dealer, a practice even many slaveholders found disreputable. He was criticized for continuing to challenge men to duels despite it being illegal. Once, he let the other man shoot first. Jackson was shot near the heart. The lead ball would remain in his body the rest of his life. Jackson remained standing, took his time, and killed the other man. Since the other man was popular, killing him stained Jackson’s reputation somewhat.
Aaron Burr, who killed Hamilton in a duel, stayed with Jackson for a while before traveling west for mysterious reasons, perhaps to found his own country. Jackson claimed not to know what Burr was planning even though they talked for days and he sold him some boats.
Jackson served briefly in the Senate, became a justice on the Tennessee supreme court, got elected as a major general in command of the Tennessee militia, and speculated in land.
As a general during the War of 1812, Jackson put a teenage soldier to death for disobeying orders. This was rarely done at the time. He was trying to send a message to the rest of his troops, but it didn’t work. Many of his soldiers deserted and he had to keep executing soldiers he accused of mutiny. This act haunted him when he ran for president later.
Before being called to battle a rebellious faction of the Creek known as the Red Sticks, Jackson had gotten into a gunfight with his own military aide, so he had a lead ball in his shoulder and his arm in a sling when he rode out to put down the Red Sticks who had slaughtered settlers. After his troops massacred a Creek village, a baby was found in the arms of his dead mother. Perhaps because he was an orphan himself, Jackson decided to adopt the Creek baby.
After defeating the Red Sticks, he made friendly Creek who had fought alongside him sign a treaty giving away their land. He and his friend then redrew the boundary line to include 2 million acres from other tribes and he tried to buy it, but he was stopped by a man named John Ross.
Also known as Kooweskoowe, John Ross had served under Jackson during the War of 1812. During that time, the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole were known as the Five Civilized Tribes because they adapted to white society by changing their clothing, religion, and agriculture. They even owned slaves.
The tribes knew they had to pick a side in the War of 1812. If they tried to remain neutral, they’d be considered enemies. The Cherokee fought on the American side against the British and the Creek.
John Ross, part Cherokee and part white, was a land speculator and slave owner. He grew up in an English-speaking household and could pass as white. He was part of a Cherokee delegation to Washington DC when he learned of Jackson’s shady boundary line. He reminded the secretary of war of the Cherokee service under Jackson and convinced President Madison their land was still theirs.
Jackson was furious. He complained that the Cherokee wouldn’t give up the land for less than the fair price. He encouraged white settlers to start living on the land and told the Cherokee if they didn’t sell the land, whites would just take it away from them anyway. As a compromise, the Cherokee sold some of their land to him. Real estate records show Jackson and his family owned 45 thousand acres after 1816.
The Cherokee held a constitutional convention and chose Ross as their leader. They wanted to be admitted into the US as a new state or territory. When white settlers started invading Cherokee land, John Ross wrote to General Jackson. The federal government had agreed to evict such settlers, but Jackson wasn’t holding up his side of the bargain. He claimed he needed his troops to make road improvements. Jackson told the Cherokee to handle it themselves. Ross ran off some squatters, but waited for the military to evict the most stubborn.
Jackson’s victory against the British at the Battle of New Orleans made him a national hero. Jackson used his office as a public official to help speculators buy land in return for some of the real estate. He grew cotton on the land and became rich.
He further enriched himself by conspiring with other bidders to buy land cheap at auctions and then selling it high. Since he was friends with the surveyor and he himself decided where military roads and installations went, he had inside information on which plots of land were most valuable. At one auction, no one else bid out of respect to the war hero and he got land for just $2 an acre.
While land speculation wasn’t necessarily illegal, Jackson’s actions would look shady if the people knew about it. Fortunately for him, a fire destroyed most of his land speculation records just before he ran for president, preventing his political enemies from using it against him.
In 1818, he was ordered to kill Seminoles in Spanish Florida who had raided American settlements. He was ordered not to attack the Spanish, but he ignored those orders and took over Pensacola, installed a governor, and started collecting taxes. He even profited by buying land in Florida before he invaded.
Since only Congress could declare war and that’s basically what he did, Congress launched an investigation. However, Jackson didn’t get into too much trouble because Americans really wanted Florida and Spain agreed to sell Florida a year later. President Monroe doctored the official records to make it look like the Spanish were to blame for Jackson taking Pensacola.
During the presidential election of 1824, no candidate had a majority of votes, so the House decided the next president. One of the candidates, Henry Clay, would be influential as he was Speaker of the House. Since Clay was fourth place, he couldn’t become president himself, but he could now basically choose who would be president from the remaining three candidates.
Clay had denounced Jackson’s actions in Florida years earlier, making the two enemies. Jackson had even threatened to cut off his ears. Jackson tried to smooth things over with Clay by the time of the election and offered Clay the position of secretary of state if he let Jackson win.
However, Clay viewed Jackson as too militant and feared he’d become a dictator, so he picked John Quincy Adams as the next president instead. While Jackson didn’t have a majority of votes, he did have more than the other candidates and viewed this as an injustice. In public, he acted nice and congratulated Adams on his victory, but in private, he vowed revenge.
The Governor of Georgia George M. Troup, whose title included “His Excellency”, wanted to remove all Indians from the state. He obtained Creek land by signing the Treaty of Indian Springs with his cousin William McIntosh. Although McIntosh was part Creek, he had been stripped of his right to speak for the tribe after his corruption had become known. (He offered a bribe to John Ross to sell Cherokee land to Georgia. Ross refused and made the bribery attempt public.) The Creek killed McIntosh for his betrayal.
President John Quincy Adams nullified the treaty and renegotiated a better one, but His Excellency George M. Troup refused to accept it. Adams prepared federal troops and Troup prepared the Georgia state militia. In order to avoid a civil war with Georgia, Adams ultimately backed down and the Creek were expelled from their lands, leaving the Cherokee the only tribe left in Georgia.
To help win the next presidential election, Jackson befriended many newspaper editors. He subscribed to as many as 17 newspapers at a time and never threw one away, saving clippings he wanted to show to a friend or use against an enemy.
The Cherokee Nation was getting wealthy with their own shops, gristmills, sawmills, agriculture, and ranching. They started their own newspaper in 1828 and their articles would often get distributed to other newspapers increasing their reach. The Cherokee Phoenix criticized slavery and also printed the exchange between Ross and federal commissioners trying to bribe him to sell Cherokee land.
The election of 1828 was so bitter, it split the Democratic-Republican party apart. When Jackson was inaugurated president in 1829, so many fans crowded into the White House that he was nearly crushed against a wall. The Capitol dome at the time was made of copper and it had turned green in the rain. His wife Rachel wasn’t there to see it as she had fallen ill and died a couple months before.
Jackson did what he condemned John Quincy Adams of doing during the election: he rewarded his political supporters with jobs. Jackson picked Martin Van Buren as his secretary of state. He fired many government officials and replaced them with his supporters. Religious leaders tried to get him to stop Sunday mail delivery. It was apparently a big religious issue of the time. He ignored them. His biggest priority as president was Indian removal.
Cherokees living west of the Mississippi were secretly recruited by the US government to convince those living east of the river to leave. An expose of the affair was published in the Cherokee Phoenix. The US agent for the Cherokee was fired and never replaced.
Gold was discovered on Cherokee land in 1829. Georgia wanted the land before this, but now they really wanted it. President Jackson secretly encouraged white settlers to occupy Cherokee land. The federal government asked them to leave, but the state of Georgia defended the intruders.
The Cherokee evicted 18 families and burned their houses so they wouldn’t return. Georgians retaliated by kidnapping four Cherokee and beating one of them to death. Ross wrote letters asking for justice. The federal government took Georgia’s side.
Ross had a missionary ally named Jeremiah Evarts who published many pro-Cherokee letters in newspapers. Evarts asked Catherine Beecher (older sister to Harriet Beecher of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame) to organize women to help save the Cherokee. She anonymously wrote a letter that got distributed throughout the country, organized meetings, and got thousands to sign a petition. Religious journals opposed to Indian removal reprinted her letter. A play titled Metamora about a seventeenth century chief killed by white men became a national success, but it wasn’t popular in Georgia.
Congress barely passed the Indian Removal Act. David Crockett, who once served under Jackson, betrayed his party by voting against it. Jackson tricked Congress into signing it by waiting until the last minute to veto a Kentucky highway bill. When they found out he did this, they wanted to change their vote, but it was too late.
A Cherokee ally, a missionary named Samuel Worcester, was arrested by Georgia for living on Indian land without a permit and sent to prison. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court. Georgia didn’t bother sending a representative. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled in Worcester’s favor saying Georgia law didn’t apply to Cherokee land.
However, Georgia ignored the ruling and Jackson refused to enforce it. Worcester stayed in prison and surveyors began dividing up Cherokee land to be given to white settlers. Many Cherokee allies began advising the Cherokees to give up their land because the alternative at this point would be a civil war with Georgia.
Jackson got reelected and wanted the Cherokee gone. He had previously offered a few cents per acre for their land, but they had so much support, he now offered 50 cents per acre. The land was worth much more than this, of course, but the Cherokee weren’t willing to sell at any price. Ross counter offered that Jackson should spend the money to relocate the white settlers.
Jackson was determined to destroy the Bank of the US, believing its excessive power a danger to a free republic. In reality, destroying it would destroy the US economy. He began withdrawing the federal government’s deposits in 1833, against the advice of nearly all his advisors. This act was also against the law and his treasury secretary resigned rather than do it. The Senate voted to censure the president for the only time in history. The Bank began calling in loans so fast, it triggered a financial crisis.
A federal agent put Seminole leader Osceola in chains and forced him to sign a treaty giving their land to Florida. This triggered the Second Seminole War which cost the US military more deaths (based on percentage of the population) than the modern-day Iraq War.
While Ross was in Washington negotiating, a white family took possession of his home. He was surprised to find his family missing when he got back. The white family was somewhat sympathetic and let him stay for the night, but they did charge him a fee to care for his horse overnight. He moved to Tennessee where his family was and sent for his printing press, but the Georgia Guard stole it first.
The famous playwright John Howard Payne was staying with Ross in Tennessee when the Georgia Guard showed up and took them both prisoner. Tennessee viewed this as a violation of their state sovereignty and the governor threatened Georgia. Georgia backed down and released the prisoners.
While Ross was in prison, the government signed the Treaty of New Echota with Major Ridge, a Cherokee official who didn’t represent the majority opinion. It was sent to the Senate and passed by a single vote. It seemed to be a good deal offering the Cherokee 5 million dollars, but they wouldn’t see much of the money because the treaty deducted much of it for various reasons. According to the treaty, they had to leave their land within two years. The vast majority of Cherokee opposed the treaty and didn’t intend to move.
Jackson ended his second term as president and turned things over to his vice president Martin Van Buren. Americans had invaded the Mexican state of Texas and were asking for it to be made an American state. Jackson declined since the time wasn’t right, but he did want it to join the Union eventually.
Because Jackson didn’t like banks or paper money issued by them, he declared federal land could only be purchased by gold or silver. This caused a financial panic in the first months of Van Buren’s presidency due to public distrust of paper money causing a gold shortage and credit crisis. Jackson’s small government policy meant the government had no authority to help those in need, leading to a depression that lasted throughout Van Buren’s presidency. 33,000 businesses closed by 1841.
Jackson claimed all Indians had been removed in his farewell address, but this wasn’t true. The Seminole War was still raging in Florida. In October, Osceola went to what he thought was a peace talk and was instead captured. He died in prison of malaria. Because of the dishonorable way in which he was captured, he was thought of as a hero who was just defending his homeland. Twenty towns, three counties, two townships, one borough, two lakes, two mountains, a state park, and a national forest were named in honor of him.
Even the Cherokee who left on their own accord before the Trail of Tears experienced a lot of deaths during the journey. Ross managed to negotiate with the Van Buren administration to increase the payment and have the Cherokee emigrate on their own without the army forcing them to leave. (When the retired Jackson found out Ross got a better deal with Van Buren, he was furious and advised Van Buren to stop dealing with Ross, but Van Buren ignored him.) Unfortunately, news didn’t reach the general in time and the forced march had already started.
The Cherokee were evicted by the army. They were only allowed to bring what they could carry with them. Civilians waited to loot the Cherokee property as soon as the soldiers marched them away at bayonet point. Some white looters even dug up graves in their search for valuables.
The Cherokee outnumbered the soldiers, but didn’t resist. Adults and children were forced to march ten miles a day. By one estimate, two thousand Cherokee died of disease in migration camps. Hundreds more died on the road.
Jackson died in 1845. Ross lived to 1866 and witnessed the second inauguration of Lincoln. The Cherokee fought on both sides during the Civil War. Natives wanted Indian Territory to become a state named Sequoyah, but it became Oklahoma instead.
I’ve been reading through presidential biographies with the goal of ranking the US presidents in order from best to worst based on how many people lived or died due to their actions. Although the Trail of Tears (which cost over 2,000 lives) happened during Van Buren’s presidency, Jackson set it into motion, so those deaths were at least partly caused by him. The over 4,600 deaths from the Second Seminole War, the nearly 600 deaths from the Black Hawk War, and additional deaths from other conflicts such as the Second Creek War also count against him.
He used federal troops to crush Nat Turner’s slave rebellion resulting in nearly 200 deaths. He owned hundreds of slaves himself and was also a slave dealer. In an 1804 advertisement to recover a runaway slave, Jackson offered “ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred,” which indicates he didn’t treat his slaves very well.
The economic depression of Van Buren’s presidency was set in motion by Jackson and any deaths associated with that should count against him as well.
On the plus side, Jackson didn’t admit Texas into the Union which would have triggered a war with Mexico, saving an unknown number of lives. He also kept the Union together during the Nullification Crisis. (South Carolina wasn’t happy with a protective tariff which prevented the manufacturing industries in the northern states from having to compete with lower-priced imports from Britain, but hurt southern cotton planters.) Jackson needed the tariff which generated 90% of the federal revenue. He threatened military force to keep South Carolina from seceding from the United States, thus saving the Union.