Old fight lingers over Old Hickory's roots

A statue of Andrew Jackson sits at the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville. Jackson died a proud Tennessean, but his state at birth is in question.
A statue of Andrew Jackson sits at the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville. Jackson died a proud Tennessean, but his state at birth is in question. (Mark Humphrey)

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By Jeffrey Collings
Monday, March 7, 2011

THE WAXHAWS, CAROLINAS - South Carolina claims Andrew Jackson as its only president. But wait - on the grounds of the North Carolina capitol, a bronze statue of Jackson sits with two others as "Presidents North Carolina Gave the Nation."

For a century, the two Carolinas have quarreled over which can claim to be the birthplace of the seventh American president.

Dueling monuments sit within miles of each other south of Charlotte. For decades, one high school in Lancaster County, S.C., and another in Union County, N.C., played a football game in which the winner got to claim Jackson for the next year. And don't look to the White House for the answer; its Web site lists Jackson's birthplace a "backwoods settlement in the Carolinas."

In history's great sweep, where exactly Jackson was born on March 15, 1767, doesn't matter much. In fact, Jackson went on to become a proud Tennessean, moving there in his 20s and claiming that state as his own for the rest of his life. The plantation he built just outside Nashville, the Hermitage, is one of the country's most visited presidential homes. The Tennessee Capitol grounds boast a statue of Jackson on horseback, routing the British as a general in the War of 1812.

Any state would gladly claim the larger-than-life president who was nicknamed "Old Hickory," a man who lost his father before birth and his mother in his teens, who rose from poverty to become a war hero and then president.

A scar on his face came from a sword blow received after he refused to shine a British officer's shoes after being taken prisoner in the American Revolution. At his 1829 inauguration, Jackson opened the White House to all for a party so raucous that one account had Jackson leaving through a window, the revelers lured out by punch bowls set on the lawn.

Textbooks from the Carolinas don't solve the birthplace mystery.

One North Carolina textbook said Jackson was born "near North Carolina's borders," according to Courtney Thomas, a senior editor at textbook publisher Gibbs Smith Education. A South Carolina book does not mention the exact spot either, though it stiffly asserts Jackson was a "South Carolina native."

Teachers don't dwell on the controversy, because it's just part of an eventful life, said Leslie Wallace Skinner, who helps with the designing of social-studies curriculum for the South Carolina Education Department.

"By the time we talk about him as a president, he's a Tennessean," Skinner said.

Don't tell that to people in the Carolinas.

The question lives on because of tragedies in Jackson's early life. His father died late in his mother's pregnancy, and he was born as his mother made an arduous dozen-mile trip back from burying him, back to the farms where her family lived in what was then a backwoods wilderness called the Waxhaws. There, Scots-Irish Presbyterians struggled to settle land so remote that the border between North and South Carolina had not been officially surveyed yet.

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