Andrew Jackson: The Popular Military Chieftain

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans.
Andrew Jackson was an accomplished military leader. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Andrew Jackson, the Fiery Orphan

Andrew Jackson was born into a family of Scots-Irish immigrant farmers in the South Carolina uplands before the Revolution. The Revolution had a devastating effect on Jackson, orphaning him at the young age of 14. While he lost his father to a farm accident, his two brothers died during the war with the British.

Finally, his mother succumbed to cholera on board a British prison ship. Bereaved and disheartened, he left his extended family in South Carolina and moved to the western frontier settlements of Tennessee in 1782.

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Accomplishments of Andrew Jackson

After moving to the west, Jackson studied law, and even fought his first duel. Jackson had many achievements to his credit including a successful stint as a lawyer and public prosecutor. He was elected to the House of Representatives and served as the senator of Tennessee.

Politics did not interest Jackson for long and soon he took command of the Tennessee militia. He harbored a boiling rage at his unseen enemies and his violent lust for combat helped him win battle after battle. In fact, Jackson was quite upset when the War of 1812 ended.

Soon after, he was granted a Major General’s commission in the regular army. He was also given the command of the military division of the South with his Tennessee plantation, The Hermitage, as his headquarters.

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Andrew Jackson’s Technically Flawed Marriage

Rachel Donelson Robards was a married woman when Andrew Jackson met her in Tennessee. Her marriage with Captain Lewis Robards was on the rocks and Robards had initiated divorce proceedings in his home state of Virginia. In the 1790s, divorce was considered disgraceful for an Anglo-American woman. However, Jackson married Rachel in the presence of a magistrate in Naches, Tennessee before the divorce was finalized.

Rachel was separated from Robards but he resurfaced two years later. He stated their marriage was technically valid as it had not yet been legally nullified. And this time he filed for actual divorce on grounds of adultery, humiliating Rachel further. Once the divorce was finalized, Jackson and Rachel had to marry once again to legalize their marriage.

Jackson was aware that Rachel would be political ammunition for his opponents forever. The slightest criticism of his wife would provoke Jackson’s maniacal fury.

In the May of 1806, when a Nashville attorney, Charles Dickinson, tried to implicate Rachel’s past, Jackson challenged him to a duel. In the gunfight that ensued Dickinson seriously injured Jackson breaking two of his ribs and ripping open his left lung. Jackson, in turn, fatally wounded Dickinson shooting him through the chest, killing him that night.

Jackson suffered for the rest of his life with fits of fever and coughing hemorrhages due to the wound to his lungs.

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Forcible Takeover of Pensacola

In 1818, a group of Seminole Indians resisted an attempt to evict them from their border with Spanish Florida. The Americans immediately sent Jackson to appease the Seminoles, but they escaped across the border to Spanish-controlled Florida.

Jackson thought it was important for the United States to conquer the Spanish territory, so he crossed over into Florida and forcibly took over Pensacola. Two British spies, Robert Ambrister and Alexander Arbuthnot, who had the audacity to protest the takeover of the Seminole lands were hanged.

Oblivious to the fact that the President was dealing with the unlawful capture of Pensacola, installation of the American government on Spanish land, and a British Foreign Minister outraged by Jackson’s judicial executions, a triumphant Jackson went to meet President Monroe.

Andrew Jackson asserting his military prowess  during the trial of British spy, Robert Ambrister.
The British Foreign Minister was outraged by Andrew Jackson’s judicial executions after two British spies were hanged. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

The secretary of war, John C. Calhoun, even suggested that the President deny knowledge and renounce Jackson. However, delicate negotiations and diplomacy finally led to the Spanish ambassador, Don Luis de Onís, surrendering Florida.

Jackson served as the new territorial governor of the region for a short span of eleven weeks before his temper took over. He quarreled with the outgoing Spanish governor and quit in disgust.

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Disdained by Republicans but Attractive to the Masses

After the victory in the War of 1812 at New Orleans, Andrew Jackson shot to fame and his name often came up during discussions on the presidency. But Jackson was always looked down upon with a certain amount of disdain by the Republicans.

The Republicans believed that too much power in the hands of a military chief would prove fatal. Jackson’s reputation for dueling, gambling, and cockfighting was of little help in changing the perception of the Republicans. 

Neither did the aged Thomas Jefferson approve of him. He was appalled at the thought of Jackson being the president and declared Jackson unqualified for the position of President.

But none of these developments dented Jackson’s reputation amongst the American public, and the military chieftain continued to be revered by the masses. In 1824, when the Republican caucus nominated William H. Crawford by default, the other two candidates got themselves nominated through state legislatures. Jackson’s supporters followed suit and nominated him for the presidency from Tennessee.

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Importance of the Election of 1824

Popular support for Andrew Jackson among the public disarrayed supporters of Henry Clay. While Clay was seeking commitments in the Ohio River Valley, Jackson’s candidature snowballed into a formidable political force.

Jackson swept the election with 152,901 popular votes and 99 electoral votes compared to John Quincy Adams’ trailing second of 114,023 popular votes and 84 electoral votes. Henry Clay who was actually expected to win the election could garner only 37 electoral votes. However, these 99 electoral votes did not account for the required majority to win the election.

In such a case, the provisions of the Twelfth Amendment would come into effect and the results would be decided in the House of Representatives. Thus, the election of 1824 would be a critical and important election in the history of the early republic. Only time would answer the question of whether a presidential election decided in the House of Representatives would be considered legitimate and accepted by the candidates.

Q: How did Thomas Jefferson describe Andrew Jackson?

Thomas Jefferson never approved of Andrew Jackson and declared Jackson unqualified for the position of president.

Q: What was the family background of Andrew Jackson?

Andrew Jackson did not come from a wealthy family; he was born into a family of Scots-Irish immigrant farmers in the South Carolina uplands. He was orphaned at the age of 14.

Q: Who did Andrew Jackson challenge to a duel?

The slightest criticism of Andrew Jackson‘s wife would provoke him to a fury, and in 1806, when a Nashville attorney, Charles Dickinson, tried to implicate Rachel’s past, Jackson challenged him to a duel.

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