andrew jackson, america's seventh president -- 11/4/19
Today's selection -- from A Country of Vast Designs by Robert W. Merry. Andrew Jackson, the larger-than-life, highly controversial, and highly impactful seventh president of the United States:
"Jackson's life and legend would serve as inspiration for James Polk throughout his life. Born 1767 in the Waxhaw region of the Carolinas, Jackson grew up in deprivation. His father had died before his birth, and his mother moved with her three boys into the plantation home of her sister and brother-in-law, the Crawfords, who had eight children of their own. With his mother busy earning her keep through household devotions and the Crawfords focused on their own offspring, the skinny lad quickly learned self-reliance.
"He developed an independent, pugnacious demeanor, always ready to fight for his interests and never willing to surrender even when bigger boys beat him up. He had almost no formal schooling, and his lack of mastery over spelling and grammar would become something of an identity scar in later life, ridiculed by political opponents frustrated by his tendency to rise in society despite these limitations.
"Young Jackson grew up quickly during the Revolution, when the Carolinas were ravaged by the British force known as Tarleton's Raiders. Judged too young to carry a rifle, the thirteen-year-old served as courier and scout. At one point, caught in a firefight, young Jackson witnessed a cousin killed at his side. Later he became a prisoner of war. When a British officer ordered the young rebel to polish the officer's boots, Jackson defiantly refused -- and almost lost his life when the enraged officer brought down a sword upon his head. Jackson managed to deflect the blow but gashes on his hand and head left lifelong scars only slightly more apparent than his lifelong hatred of the English.
"During these travails, the boy lost his two brothers to war and his mother to cholera. After Independence, orphaned and alone at seventeen, Jackson apprenticed in the law at Salisbury, North Carolina, and developed a reputation as a wild young man who drank, gambled, and roistered. But his commanding presence slowly gained dominance over his wilder tendencies. Tall, well proportioned, and always well dressed, he carried himself in polite society with dignity and courtliness. The intense gaze of his welkin blue eyes suggested an immense self-regard. One young woman of the area wrote that he possessed 'a kind of majesty I never saw in any other young man.'
"At twenty-one, in search of financial betterment, he left North Carolina for the fledgling outpost of Nashville, in what would become Tennessee. He practiced law, acquired property, became a merchant of eastern goods, married a young divorcee named Rachel Robards, and took up with the territorial militia. He became Tennessee's first congressman in 1796 and later served a one-session stint as U.S. senator.
"But he thrived particularly in the militia. Frontier citizens could accept a certain lassitude in their prosecutors, judges, and politicians, but not in their elected military leaders. Those were times when the area lost a man, woman, or child to Indian attack every ten days or so, and the tenuous existence of pioneer whites necessitated the highest degree of competence in their military commanders. Jackson possessed the desired artributes -- quickness of mind, boldness of action, an ability to gain sway over other men, a deep sense of rectitude. And his occasional impetuousness and flashes of temper only added to his commanding mystique. In 1802, at thirty-five, he was elected major general of the Tennessee militia.
"There followed a number of years when his military exploits and personal proclivity for roustabout conduct seemed in conflict. His reputation as a man out of control lingered as a result of a number of duels, that notorious gunfight with Thomas Hart Benton and his brother, and a tendency toward hotheaded reactions to presumed slights and insults. And yet, with the outbreak of the War of 1812, as major general of the United States Volunteers and later in the Regular Army, he ran up a string of military victories against the Creek Indians and the British that brought him national attention and widespread adulation.
"Displaying a toughness that stirred his troops to identify him with the hardness of hickory, he acquired his famous nickname. A noted example was the day he put down a mutiny of disgruntled troops by ordering artillery guns to be pointed at the troops as he confronted them. He then demanded that the mutineers return to their posts or he would order the guns to be fired, destroying them and himself in one barrage. The action stunned the wayward soldiers into subjection. Bringing his troops back into line, he destroyed elements of the Creek Indian tribe bent on terrorizing settlers in Mississippi. And he devastated a British army seeking to seize New Orleans and its strategic dominance over the Mississippi River Valley. The British reported 2,037 dead, wounded, and missing on that fateful January day in 1815, while Jackson's troops suffered only thirteen killed. Instantly he became a national hero and potential presidential contender. Subsequent military exploits against the Seminole Indians and a stint as governor of Florida Territory bolstered his countrywide standing. And yet he invited detractors with displays of defiance and a tendency to substitute his own judgment for those of his superiors. Most often he was right on the merits, but these traits provided an opening for critics to suggest he couldn't be trusted with power. By the 1820s, Jackson was probably the country's most revered figure, but also one of its most controversial."