Historical Figures Series: Military as Celebrity, Part 2

David B Morris
17 min readJun 1, 2024

Andrew Jackson Becomes The First Utterly Unqualified Man To Become President And Ushers In Democracy As We Know It.

A little personal history before we get started. My grandfather Richard Morris was a fairly well-known historian when he was alive and respected among his contemporaries to the point that many compared him with Arthur Schlesinger, best known for his job as ‘court historian’ to JFK and one of the major men responsible for establishing the Kennedy legacy.

During the 1950s and 1960s he and my grandfather had two very conflicting views of Andrew Jackson. Schlesinger believed firmly that Jackson was one of the greatest and most important President of all times. My grandfather held a much unkinder view of him. Schlesinger’s view was more prevalent at the time (and it must be said, before). Given the most recent ranking of Jackson by today’s historians — he has dropped from one of the near great to barely average in the most recent poll — as well as the controversies surrounding his racial views, it’s clear that the pendulum has swung to by grandfather’s opinion.

A little more personal history: even ten years ago, I would have been more inclined to consider Schlesinger’s view the correct one and argue that much of the prejudice against him didn’t take into account the era he lived in. However after reading more not only about Jackson but also his rivals and how he governed, I’m now inclined to agree that my grandfather was clearly ahead of his time.

If you’ve read some of my earlier articles you know I have a good reason for believing this and I’ll be reviewing some of them later on. But for the purposes of this series I’m going to focus on Jackson’s running for the Presidency: why he was far less qualified to be President than any of the men he ran against the first time, how the circumstances of his defeat may have had more due to his own temperament than any flaws in why he lost and how the circumstances of his eventual election led to ramifications when it comes to the power of the executive branch that we are still feeling two years later.

Let’s start with the circumstances of the 1824 election. This was the first Presidential election where the voters played their greatest role to date in electing the President. After the collapse of the Federalist Party, there was only one major party: the Democratic-Republican Party. However, there was no consensus as to who should be its President. More than a dozen men considered running for the job but ultimately it came down to four candidates.

John Quincy Adams was descended from the Founding Fathers and considering he’d been in public service since age 11 was practically one himself. He had served in multiple diplomatic positions under both Washington and his father’s Presidency, had been elected to the Senate as a Federalist but had resigned when he broke with them in 1807, had spent the next decade in diplomacy under James Madison and had been James Monroe’s Secretary of State. The previous three Presidents had all served as Secretary of State so Adams had been a contender to succeed Monroe even before his term began.

Henry Clay.

Henry Clay had been in Congress since 1811 and had been elected Speaker of the House that same year. He’d already served seven terms in Congress and had been Speaker for ten of them. He had done much to give the role the power that future Speakers have been holding to this day. He had developed the American system which called for investment in infrastructure, support for a national bank and a high tariff. Sometimes he abused his power, as when he had helped lead America in the War of 1812; sometimes he used it brilliantly. In 1820 he had helped bring an end to the greatest sectional crisis involving slavery when he had led the passage of the Missouri Compromise. He had the reputation of being one of the best orators in Congress. Election to the Presidency seemed inevitable, if not this election then eventually.

William Crawford had been elected to the Senate from Georgia in 1807. He’d served as President pro tempore and had been named Minister to France by Madison in 1813 and succeeded James Monroe as Madison’s Secretary of War. He’d been named Secretary of Treasury in the final months of Madison’s term and Monroe kept him on in that position for all of his term. A man of some capabilities at some point in 1823 he suffered a stroke. His health had improved and he had received a nomination from the Congressional Caucus. Despite that and the support of both Madison and Jefferson, many had doubts that he could survive his term if elected.

All three of these men were more than qualified to be President. But as 1824 drew on a fourth candidate emerged who by the standards of the past thirty years was severely underqualified — except in the eyes of the people.

Andrew Jackson’s political experience was negligible. He had been the first representative of Tennessee in Congress and became its first Senator, but he resigned from that position after just six months. In 1821 he had been named the first territorial governor of Florida but resigned after just two months. That was the sum of his governing experience.

In the twenty years in between Jackson had done little more than fight, both for his country and with other people. He’d been involved in two duels by the time he was thirty and in the second he’d killed a man. He’d been involved with Aaron Burr in his plan to conquer Florida in what was essentially a plot that would have made him a traitor to the nation. Jackson had set up a paper trail that insulated him and escaped charges.

He’d spent much of the next decade as a military leader, known for his slaughter of the indigenous people in scorched earth campaigns. In June of 1814 he was named Brigadier General and arrived in New Orleans in December of 1814. He managed a siege that led to a victory in the Battle in January of 1815. In February of 1815, he was given the Thanks of Congress and a Congressional Gold Medal.

He won a Battle after the war was over. Somehow that made him a national hero.

The problem was by the time Jackson began his fighting, the Treaty of Ghent which negotiated the end of the war had been signed. Much of the decision to celebrate Jackson was done to boost morale at the end of a war that had been a disaster for the Americans in which Washington had been occupied and the White House burned to the ground. The treaty that had been negotiated basically gave the Americans nothing from two years of conflict. Jackson’s image as a national hero was basically done to save face by the administration in what had been a disastrous exercise.

After the war, he remained in command of troops in the South had spent the next five years displacing troops despite the resistance of men like Crawford. During the first Seminole War Secretary of War John C. Calhoun had ordered Jackson to lead a campaign. But Jackson exceeded his authority when after capturing two British subjects working with the Seminoles, he had them executed an action which divided Monroe’s cabinet. Calhoun demanded him censured for violating the Constitution. Adams defended him because he thought his occupation of Pensacola would cause Spain to sell Florida, which they did. He was cleared in a subsequent Congressional investigation.

In short Andrew Jackson was the kind of man who was prickly, ill-tempered, and constantly defied and even ignored authority. He was the worst kind of man to be President but by 1822 some people wanted him for the job. He was nominated by the legislature of Tennessee in July, originally as a stalking horse candidate to prevent Calhoun from getting Tennessee’s electoral votes. Calhoun was seen as a ‘Washington insider.” But Jackson began to gain popularity outside of Tennessee because of the expansion of suffrage of white males. He was seen as being ‘decisive’, ‘independent’ and ‘an outsider who stood for the people’, blaming the banks for a recent financial panic. Jackson took that personally because it had reduced the size of the military and he had lost his generalship.

Reluctantly Jackson ran for one of Tennessee’s senate seats and was elected in October of 1823. He spent little time debating, using his time form alliances and make peace with old adversaries — at least temporarily. When Calhoun dropped out of the race, Jackson eventually would win the nomination in six states.

In the election of 1824, Jackson would win 42 percent of the popular vote. He also won a plurality of the electoral votes. Of the four candidates running Jackson was the only candidate whose appeal was not regional, winning in the South, the West and several mid-Atlantic states including Pennsylvania carrying 99 electoral votes. John Quincy Adams finished second in the popular vote and electoral vote (with 84) but all of his votes were from New England and New York. Henry Clay finished third in the popular vote but fourth in the electoral college with 37 votes. Crawford finished last in the popular vote but because he carried Virginia one of the biggest electoral prizes, he was third in the electoral college with 41 votes. John C. Calhoun, who was supported by both Adams and Jackson for Vice President, won the Vice Presidency easily.

Because no candidate had won a majority in the electoral college, the House had to choose the President in accordance with Twelfth Amendment. The three candidates who finished in the top three in electoral college would be decided by each state delegation, each of which had one vote. 13 votes were needed.

Henry Clay hated Andrew Jackson, once saying: “I can not believe killing 2500 Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies for the various, difficult and complicated duties of the Chief magistracy.” Considering that was the main reason for Jackson’s candidacy, he had a point. Clay was more in alliance with Adams’ policies than Crawford’s so he chose to ally with him. With Clay’s support, Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio’s delegations voter for Adams and with negotiation from the anti-slavery Illinois delegation, Adams took Illinois, Louisiana and Maryland. Martin Van Buren, the head of the New York delegation, tried to keep it divided between Crawford and Adams but eventually it went to Adams. Despite a non-binding directive from Kentucky that its delegation chose to Jackson, it voted for Adams. Adams won the Presidency on the first ballot with 13 states.

Not long after rumors from papers argued that Clay had sold Adams his support in exchange for the position of Secretary of State. Clay was offered the position and chose to accept it, knowing that declining the position would not help the rumors brough against him.

Jackson never forgave Clay calling him the ‘Judas of the West’. The irony is there are strong suspicions that James Buchanan offered Clay the same job in exchange for him supporting Jackson but he refused it. Jackson’s decision to frame Clay as traitors was formed out of the concept of the corrupt bargain, more out of his sense of personal betrayal rather than national one. Adams was more than eager to mend fences: he offered Jackson the position of Secretary Of War but Jackson’s temperament which even then seemed directs all or nothing, declined it.

The campaign for the 1828 Presidential election essentially began the day after Adams was sworn in. Jackson and his followers campaigned on the idea of the corrupt bargain — what might well be considered the idea of ‘a rigged system’ and only accepting the results if he won. In a sense the two party system was founded based on the idea of being pro or anti Andrew Jackson, and for the next decade Jackson’s followers made it clear whose side they were on.

By the end of Adams’ term, the structure for the two-party system was in place. Adams’ and his supporters were part of what was called the National Republican Party while Jackson’s were the Democrats. Because of Adams’ desire to remain above the fray of campaigning and to accept the reality of the new system, the Jacksonians portrayed him as an out-of-touch elitist. As a final insult Calhoun would switch parties and tickets to run with Jackson against Adams.

He did everything a good President should. So he was labeled a Washington insider.

It’s worth noting how the 1828 Presidential campaign was framed because it would set the standard for so much of our political discourse for the next two centuries. John Quincy Adams was an intellectual and as I mentioned above far more qualified to become President in 1824 than Jackson was. He had a harmonious and productive cabinet which he met with weekly. H e asked for many holdovers from Monroe’s cabinet to remain in place with his administration. He reached out to two of his defeated opponents Jackson and Crawford for his cabinet and both declined. All of the men who served in his cabinet were incredibly qualified and even the controversial choice of Clay was a wise one: he had a huge amount of interest foreign policy.

In his first message to Congress he called for an ambitious agenda. He wanted a national university, naval academy and a national astronomical observatory. He proposed the creation of the Department of the Interior and he wanted to fund these ambitions not through taxes or raising the deficit, but through sale of lands in the West. This system was known as the American system and was designed to unite the regional interests of the country under the idea of a thriving economy. Adams was trying to be a uniter.

He also worked to build the infrastructure of a country that was still developing. During his term, the Army Corp of Engineers had extended a National road from Maryland to Ohio, begun building many major canals and helped construct the first National railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio.

But none of this mattered to Jackson or his supporters, and as early as 1825 Jackson was being galvanized to run for President in 1828. By the time the first Congress of Adams’ administration was over, there was a strong anti-Adams coalition, made up not only of Jacksonians but supporters of Crawford and Calhoun. By the time of the midterm elections, for the first time in history, Congress was in the hands of a Presidents political opponents.

Jackson’s campaign was build on a party apparatus. It had nothing to do with the issues and only the popularity of Jackson and the supposed corruption of Adams and the federal government. Jackson described the campaign as a ‘struggle between the virtue of the people and executive patronage’ which is basically a nineteenth-century way of saying he wanted to drain the swamp. Adams was portrayed as an out of touch elitist, and Jackson as being too emotional and impetuous for the Presidency. The first modern campaign was not high-minded and had nothing to do with issues. It was driven by personality, mud-slinging and highly negative campaigning.

And it worked. Andrew Jackson was elected President in a landslide, with 56 percent of the popular vote and 178 electoral votes to Adams’ 83. Adams didn’t carry a single state in the South or the West, only carrying the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions of the country. The majority of Jackson’s vote was heavily southern — he carried over 72 percent of the votes in the slave states — but he won a majority of the votes in the free states as well. Not only did Adams become only the second one-term President to that point in history (his father had been the first) but it wouldn’t be until 1904 when a losing candidate would get a smaller percentage of the popular vote than him in defeat. Adams had refused to play politics, hoping to win on his record. Instead he had been humiliated by a man most Washington insiders considered unqualified for the White House. Elections learned this lesson early and they’ve never truly forgotten it: popularity and negative campaign will defeat intellectual discussion every time.

And it’s worth noting, for a man who campaigned on the principles of populism and the people, much of Jackson’s presidency was the most imperial to that point in history. Unlike Adams who had nominated people from various factions to his Cabinet, Jackson would fill his cabinet with his supporters such as John Eaton, his campaign manager as Secretary of War. He removed ten percent of all federal employees and replaced them with loyal Democrats. He claimed that this reduced corruption but it was effectively patronage and became known as the spoils system. It remained in place by both parties until Civil Service Reform was enacted more than half a century later.

His legislation was also among the most racist in our history. The South passed legislation extending their jurisdiction to Native American lands, a move he supported. In 1832, the Supreme Court ruled under John Marshall that when Cherokees declared a group of arrests by Georgia illegal that Georgia’s actions were unconstitutional. Supposedly when Jackson heard this he said: “Well John Marshall has made his decision, but now let him enforce him.” The quote might be apocryphal but Jackson made it clear he would not enforce the ruling. He would use the power of the federal government to enforce the separation of indigenous tribes and whites beginning the long and tragic history of our government deciding that the indigenous people of our nation were second-class citizens.

He faced another crisis involving a tariff when his Vice President John C. Calhoun, writing anonymously, asserted the Constitution was a compact of individual states and then when the federal government went beyond its duties, the state had a right to declare this action unconstitutional. Jackson was not so much bothered by this as the fact he needed the tariff to exist to accomplish one of his Presidential goals to eliminate the national debt. This developed into a personal rivalry between the two men, most famously shown at a celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Both men were present and gave after-dinner toasts.

Jackson was first: “Our Federal Union! It must be preserved.”

Calhoun followed: “The Union. Next to our liberty, the most dear.”

It is tempting to say that Jackson was taking a stand against slavery but that was not the case. Jackson was, like Calhoun, a Southerner, a wealthy plantation owner and owned several slaves for which he was known for treating cruelly. His views on race were certainly closer to the white supremacist views of Calhoun then the Northerners. And even though he argued this was about disunion and the Southern Confederacy, it is worth remembering his past allegiance with Aaron Burr when he was plotting disunion.

It might be more realistic to argue that this, like so many other things involving Andrew Jackson, was about personal grievances and settling scores. During the first two years of his office, Eaton’s wife was suspected of adultery and the wives of the members of his cabinet, with the exception of that of his Postmaster General William Barry, refused to socialize with her. So in the spring of 1831, Jackson demanded the resign of all of his cabinet members except Barry. In 1835 Barry would be forced to resign when Congress revealed he had mismanaged the post office.

It mattered little because his cabinet was so ineffective that he rarely called into session. Even after he formed a new cabinet, he preferred meetings with his ‘Kitchen Cabinet’. One of the few former officials was Martin Van Buren, who eventually became his vice President and several newspaper editors as well as most of his political allies. In other words Jackson was listening only to friends for political advice rather than the people he appointed for the job.

This led to his decision to wage a war on the Second Bank of the United States. When Jackson took office in 1828, the country was prosperous and the economy was stable but Jackson thought the bank a fourth branch of government run by ‘the elite’ that sought to control the labor and earnings of ‘the real people’. Jackson was also biased against paper money due to a personal event in his past based on land speculation. The struggle led to Henry Clay, in the Senate and Jackson’s eventual opponent in 1832, to seek to renew the charter for the bank two years earlier. After the bill was passed, Jackson vetoed it.

After his landslide victory over Clay in 1832, Jackson saw it as a mandate to continue his war on the Bank. He signed an executive order ending the deposit of treasury receipts. His secretary of the Treasury refused to obey so Jackson replaced him. After his replacement refused, his second choice Roger Taney implemented it.

By now Jackson’s action had become so dictatorial then his opponents (who called him King Andrew The First) formed the Whig Party. In March of 1834, the Senate led by Clay, Calhoun and Daniel Webster — three men who agreed on nothing but their mutual hatred of Jackson — censured Jackson for taking authority from the Treasury department when it was Congress’ authority. They refused to confirm Taney to Secretary of the Treasury, so Jackson would repay the favor by naming him Chief Justice in 1836. Twenty years later, Taney wrote the majority opinion for the Dred Scott decision.

Jackson did win his war and the National Bank was dead in July of 1836. He deposited federal funds into banks that were favorable to his policies. This would lead to state banks that invested in land development and speculation and a relaxing of money standards. In order to balance it, Jackson created the Species circular which mandated western lands only be purchased by hard money. Rather then reduce speculation on credit, it led to a drain of gold and silver. His other act, the Deposit and Distribution Act transferred money from banks into east to banks in the west leaving them unable to pay back loans. As a result in 1837, the first national depression hit America and would last four years.

None of this ended up landing at the feet of Jackson, but his chosen successor Martin Van Buren. And just to make sure Jackson’s record were clear, the Democratic majority expunged Jackson’s censure after he left office.

Jackson’s entire record as President is that of man who basically ignored the standards of what a President did at the time, put his friends and supporters in positions they were completely unsuited for, engaged in contempt for his enemies whenever he felt like it, and doing what he thought was best for the nation rather than go through the channels of Congress. How people regard him has always been polarizing: some considered him a statesman who advanced the spirit of democracy; others an autocratic demagogue who crushed his opposition and trampled the law.

Schlesinger chose to define his legacy through the era of FDR’s New Deal, describing him as the common man, a member of the working class struggling against exploitation by business concerns. That seems a bit of reach, considering that Jackson was a member of both the military elite and the southern gentry. What is unquestioned is not only his racism but that he was a believer in ethnic cleansing, particularly in regard to the Indian Removal Act and the use of force, terror and violence to make an area ethnically homogenous.

It is easy to understand why Donald Trump would want to wrap himself in Jackson’s legacy: looking at every aspect of his campaigning and Presidency, you see a man who believes in every model of the Jacksonian way even if he know nothing else about him. But the fact that both the Obama and Biden administration wish to remove Jackson from the $20 bill and replace him with Harriet Tubman speaks to another flaw: no matter how you slice it, Andrew Jackson was a Democrat. He might not fit the model than leaders like Biden want to see the party stands for now, but it is the model that Democrats were more than fine with for over a hundred and fifty years. And his legacy with the South is one democratic progressives can’t pretend exists. When Democratic conventions began in 1840, the rule that they would enact was the two-thirds rule. This rule officially gave the South veto power over every candidate the Party nominated until 1936 and made sure the segregationist views — first involving slavery, then Jim Crow — were never to be challenged by their part either in the nominees or the platform.

All of this was done, it’s worth remembering, in the name of a man who had little use for governing in the traditional sense, separation of powers, or checks and balances. This should have been a lesson to both parties that politicians should be the only one who got nominated for the President. Instead, all the major parties that have come forth seemed to take the opposite lesson to various degrees.

In the next article, I will deal with the major military leaders who were nominated for President in the antebellum era, how their campaigns reflected the changing times and how their elections — or defeats — shaped the era that led to the Civil War.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.