Old Hickory: The Jackson Presidency

Andrew Jackson wasn’t in a good mood when he arrived in Washington in early 1829 to become president. His beloved wife, Rachel, had died two months before, shortly after discovering that she had been the target of vicious personal attacks during the 1828 election. Jackson was sure the discovery contributed to her death, and he was bitterly angry.

But if Jackson was angry, the thousands of his supporters who came to see him take the oath of office were jubilant. Jackson was the first Westerner to win the office and the first to come from humble beginnings. Though some came just to cheer their hero, many came hoping for a cushy government job.

More than 20,000 people surrounded the Capitol for the inauguration. Jackson gave a speech that hardly anyone heard and then fought his way through the crowd and went off to a reception at the White House. So did almost everyone else. Hordes of people crowded into the place, drinking, eating, and stealing souvenirs. Jackson escaped through a back window and spent the first night of his presidency in a nearby hotel.

Jackson’s supporters were referred to as “the mob” by Washington onlookers used to more refinement and less tobacco-spitting, but the mob also reflected a growing sense of democracy in America.

More people had the vote and were using it. The turnout of eligible voters for the presidential election of 1824 had been 27 percent. In 1828, it was 58 percent, and in 1840 it was 78 percent.

Cheap newspapers and magazines were flourishing, giving the common man access to ideas and information. And a fight for providing free public schools had begun, eventually spreading to every state in the West and North. The average guy was finding his voice, and in Jackson, a focus for his admiration.

Jackson was the first president since Washington who hadn’t been to college. He was tall and thin (6 feet 1 inch, 145 pounds) with a full mane of silver-gray hair and hawk-like features. His father died before he was born, and the family was so poor they couldn’t afford a headstone. Jackson’s mother became a housekeeper, and the family went to live with a brother-in-law.

As a boy, Jackson received a sword cut on his head from a British officer who thought the boy hadn’t been humble enough, and Jackson learned never to let a slight or insult go unanswered. He had a violent temper, although he often pretended to be angry just to get his way.

Like many military men, he was often inflexible when he made up his mind. His friends called him “Old Hickory” or “Gineral;” his foes called him “King Andrew.”

As a Western lawyer and politician, Jackson had seen firsthand how the West was often at the mercy of financial interests in the East, and he had a Westerner’s distrust of banks. But as a wealthy man by the time he became president, he wasn’t a champion of the idea that all men are equal.

Instead, he believed that every man should have an equal chance to succeed, and that no one’s rights were more important than another’s — unless you were a woman, a Native American, or an African American.

Jackson was also a believer in an adage offered by a New York politician at the time: “To the victors belong the spoils of the enemy.” That meant replacing federal officeholders who had been appointed by previous administrations with his own appointees in what became known as the spoils system. Jackson’s theory was that most government jobs weren’t very tough and that personnel should be changed up to bring in new ideas.

Jackson didn’t actually invent this idea; all the presidents since Washington had done it to some degree. In fact, in his eight years in office, Jackson only turned out about 20 percent of the 1,100-member federal bureaucracy. And many of them needed turning out because they were inept or corrupt.

But the spoils system did much harm, too. It changed qualifications to hold a federal post from being able or experienced to being a campaign worker or contributor. It gave rise to political machines by giving them something to reward supporters with, and it reduced the efficiency of government. Jackson’s efforts to democratize the government created problems that took decades to fix.

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