Monday, June 24, 2013

Andrew Jackson and the Key to Understanding the Antebellum US

History teachers, who's your favorite president?  Notice, I asked history teachers and I asked for their favorite.  I didn't ask just anybody and I didn't ask for the best or most moral by 21st Century standards.
So who is it?
Mine as the title to this blogpost says is Andrew Jackson and he's a longstanding favorite.  He goes back to my first year teaching US history.  I realized that as a high school student I was a stereotypical teenage boy who, when studying US history, jumped from war to war and focused as little as possible on the interwar years.  I was good in the French and Indian, the American Revolution, and 1812, but there was this "really boring part" from 1815 to 1861 from the end of the War of 1812 to the start of the Civil War.  As my AP US History teacher told me, "You like the blood and guts history."
Fast forward 15 years and as a teacher I saw a huge gap in my curriculum.  Yikes!  I had a textbook and I knew what happened in the time period, but I had no hook.  Jackson provided the hook in a huge way.
Talk about larger than life!  He has as many if not more legends and myths than Lincoln and Washington.  He was an absolute maniac with huge inconsistencies except that he was absolutely devoted to what he thought was best for the United States.  Finally, he also had a hand in and a very polarizing stance on every major issue before the Civil War.  What a gift for a new history teacher!
According to James Parton's biography of Jackson just 15 years after he died,

  • "Andrew Jackson, I am given to understand, was 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, and 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, law-obeying citizen. A stickler for discipline, he never hesitated to disobey his superior. A democratic aristocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint."
Wow, a jumble of contradictions, but better yet, an either-or figure, as in, "you're either with me or against me."  He was a lightning rod for all the major issues of the time.  He never took an equivocal stance, except maybe on slavery and then he owned about 150 in the 1840's.  Hmmm...
Okay, let's take a look at the issues and then you'll know why Jackson is my favorite.

  • Indian relations--Jackson made his military name as an Indian fighter.  His brutally driven Tennessee Volunteers helped wipe out Native resistance in the then-Southwest of Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi.  His most famous example was the terribly bloody and vengeful Battle of Horseshoe Bend.  Through his actions and reactions the unbelievable depravity and violence of the Indian Wars come crystal clear.  The costs of American expansion also come brutally clear.  Ironically, Jackson raised a Creek orphan he had found on a battlefield as his own son.
  • Trail of Tears--Jackson disobeyed a Supreme Court ruling and kicked the "Civilized Tribes" (The Cherokee had a written Constitution based on the US Constitution) out of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi so cotton planters could take the land and expand cotton production.  It was a clear continuation of the Indian Wars with a little less violence although approximately 4000 Native men, women, and children died on the journey.
  • War Hero--Jackson's forces luckily won the Battle of New Orleans and he took to the road and toured the country and openly proclaimed himself "The Hero of New Orleans."  He basically started campaigning for the presidency 13 years before he won the office and rode the wave of new American nationalism.
  • Expansion--Jackson had been on the crest of the wave of settlers who moved across the Appalachian Mountains in the late 1700's and helped establish the State of Tennessee.  He knew what it meant to be on the frontier and almost pathologically distrusted the East Coast and the big cities there.
  • Banking and Finance--Jackson almost single-handedly destroyed the Bank of the United States in a delayed reaction to the Panic of 1819 and helped set up the Panic of 1837 and many succeeding panics in the process.  He unwittingly and ironically created the need for the Federal Reserve Bank.
  • Sectionalism, States' Rights, and Slavery--On this one Jackson is most slippery.  The surface issue had to do with tariffs, but the real issues were sectionalism, states' rights, and slavery and the South's and John C Calhoun's fear that slavery would be limited or could eventually be abolished.  Jackson also wanted to assert the power of the federal government over the individual states or collections of states.  This battle in the late 1820's and early 1830's set the ball rolling for the compromise battles and didn't solve the issue of slavery, but merely kicked it further down the road and heightened sectional tensions setting the stage for the horrific Civil War.
  • Rivalries--Henry Clay and John C Calhoun were fellow southerners and Clay was also a fellow westerner, but the three huge personalities were too much for one country and their constant sniping and backbiting added elements of personal drama to the already intense issues being debated among the three.
So, there you go!  These are just a sampling of the issues Jackson had his hand in.  If you know his stances on theses issues and the stances of his adversaries and why they took those stances, you will have a very clear understanding of the issues and a much clearer view of the United States during the Antebellum Years.  The coming of the Civil War will not come as much of a surprise after wading through all the blood guts of what was a relatively peaceful period.  There are all sorts of great projects to put into play during this era.  We'll get to those in a later blogpost.
Finally, with all that said, Jackson is my favorite president, but he's by far not the best, but the most polarizing and sometimes one of the worst.  He did this history teacher a great favor by helping me understanding a very complex and tumultuous period.  After understanding him, I was much more able to help my students learn about the "Jacksonian Era."

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