Andrew Jackson

By Robert V. Remini
Palgrave Macmillan. 224 pp. $21.95
Nov. 2, 2008

Chapter One

A Roaring, Rollicking Fellow

The election had been as filthy as presidential elections are ever likely to get. It set a record for character assassination scurrility, and unspeakable vulgarity. Both men seeking the high office paid a fearful price for their ambition. One of them, the sixty-year-old Andrew Jackson, watched in agony as his wife reeled under the assaults upon her character that daily spewed forth from the public prints. One day, as he sat in his home in Tennessee reading a newspaper, he spotted a paragraph that had a neatly-drawn hand pointing to the opening words. As he scanned the first line he paled; then, in a sudden, uncontrolled burst of emotion he broke down in tears, and his body shook with grief. His wife, Rachel, entered the room at that moment and, seeing his distress, asked him what was wrong. Jackson pointed to the offending newspaper. "Myself I can defend," he said. "You I can defend; but now they have assailed even the memory of my mother." Rachel picked up the paper and stared at the incredible words. "General Jackson's mother was a common prostitute," it read, "brought to this country by the British soldiers! She afterward married a mulatto man, with whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson is one!!!"

It may seem strange that General Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812 and the courageous soldier boy of the American Revolution, could respond with tears to the lying words of a vicious newspaper editor. It would have been more characteristic had he stood up and roared his rage, summoned the vile penman to the field of honor, and there avenged his mother's name with a well-placed bullet; for Jackson did have a monumental temper, which when could hurl itself with fearful fury against those who displeased him. When he chose; he could flood a room with the gorgeous sounds of Anglo-Saxon expletives. But on this occasion Jackson did not rail or rant; he wept. And this sudden change from the expected was what many of his contemporaries remembered when they later tried to catch his personality on paper and describe it to others. His was not an obvious, Simple, or easy character to analyze. It was full of sharp contrasts, angular twists, and sudden turns. He was impetuous and cautious, ruthless and compassionate, suspicious and generous. He was driven by ambition-a skillful, hardheaded political operator, enamored of power, and deeply involved in all the ambiguities and oblique maneuvers that are inevitable in the pursuit of power. He was a complex of towering ambition, fierce loyalties, and stem discipline. One historian pronounced Andrew Jackson "a patriot and a traitor. He was one of the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. A writer brilliant, elegant, eloquent, without being able to compose a correct sentence, or spell words of four syllables. The first of statesmen, he never devised, he never framed a measure. He was the most candid of men, and was capable of the profoundest dissimulation. A most law-defying, lawobeying citizen. A stickler for discipline, he never hesitated to disobey his superior. A democratic autocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint."

But this complexity and contrast are some of the reasons for Andrew Jackson's enduring fascination. True, there were things about him that remained constant: his pursuit of fame, his conscientious performance of duty, his courage, his deep loyalties, his relentless patriotism, his everlastingharping on grievances and personal slights, and later, as President, his unshakable belief that he represented the people against aristocracy and privilege. But there was the other side. Take his celebrated temper for example; supposedly it was an uncontrolled and elemental force of nature, which when released could not be assuaged until it had run its course. Actually it was something he could turn on and off, almost at will. He frequently displayed it in bravura performances to frighten susceptible politicians. Jackson was good at this. He had a fine intuitive sense about when to scold and also when to soothe-which in large measure explains why he made such an excellent politician and President.

Occasionally, his temper did indeed race beyond his grasp. But not often; and then it was mostly when he was a young man, before his wife helped him to appreciate the value of self-control. Some said the temper was to be expected in a redheaded man who had "so much genuine Irish blood in his veins;" except that it was not Irish exactly; it was Scotch-Irish. His father and mother had come from Carrickfergus, an old town on the northeastern coast of Ireland, about ten miles from Belfast. His father, also named Andrew, was the son of a well-to-do linen weaver, and had migrated to America in 1765, with his wife, Elizabeth Hutchinson, and two sons: Hugh, who was two years old, and Robert, who was six months old. On arrival, the family headed straight for the Waxhaws, a settlement approximately 160 miles northwest of Charlestown, South Carolina, where Elizabeth's sisters were living with their husbands. This region straddled North and South Carolina and was watered by the Waxhaw Creek, a branch of the Catawba River that ran through the fertile land. The settlement was ringed by a jungle of piny woods. Near the edge of this waste, the Jacksons settled on a tract of two hundred acres, and for two years the father struggled to improve the sour land. He cleared some fields, brought in a late crop the first year, and built a cabin-to no avail. He died suddenly in February 1767 at the age of twenty-nine, leaving two boys and a pregnant wife.

A rude farm wagon ferried the body to the Waxhaw churchyard where it was buried. Elizabeth, in no condition to return to her own house after the funeral, went to the house of her sister, Mrs. Jane Crawford, whose husband was the most prosperous of the inlaws. A few days later, the shock of her husband's death brought on labor pains, and Elizabeth gave birth to her third son on March 15, 1767. She named him Andrew after her dead husband.

A controversy of sorts exists about whether Andrew Jackson was born in North or South Carolina. (It has also been suggested that he was born either abroad or at sea, but there is no validity to these theories.) The argument for North Carolina rests on the claim that Elizabeth did not go to the Crawford house after the funeral but went instead to the home of her brother-in-law, George McKemey, who lived on the North Carolina side of the Waxhaws. Jackson, himself, always believed ...


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