Andrew Jackson was in many ways the first ‘self-made’ president of the USA. Not a member of any of the traditional ‘elites’, Jackson fought his way up to the top. And after being robbed of victory in the 1824 presidential election, he created an innovative way to win in 1828. William Bodkin explains.

A colored image of Andre Jackson, US President 1829-1837.

A colored image of Andre Jackson, US President 1829-1837.

Andrew Jackson was different from the presidents who preceded him.  Neither a Founding Father nor a Founding Son, he was not a prosperous Virginia landowner and was not a member of one of Massachusetts’ preeminent families.  Perhaps as a result, after having had the presidency essentially stolen from him in 1824 despite winning the popular vote, Jackson and his supporters felt he needed something extra to put him over the top.

In 1828, something happened that provided the template for nearly every later presidential campaign.


Becoming Old Hickory

But what made Jackson a presidential contender? Jackson was, in many ways, the first presidential candidate from the “up-by-your-bootstraps” American tradition.  Born in the backwoods of North Carolina in 1767, Jackson first distinguished himself as a teenage soldier in the Revolutionary War fighting with an American irregular unit.  But the war was cruel to Jackson’s family.  One brother died in combat, and Jackson’s mother and other brother died of smallpox immediately after the war in 1781.  Jackson, then aged fifteen, was a battle-hardened veteran, alone and adrift in the world.

The law provided solace and eventually the path to accomplishment.  Jackson read law for two years in North Carolina, and then took the opportunity to become a public prosecutor in Nashville.  His career took off in the then frontier town: lawyer, delegate to Tennessee’s Constitutional Convention, the State’s first Congressman, a Senator, and then a return home to be a Superior Court judge.  It was while judge that Jackson, in 1802, challenged the state’s governor in an election to be major general of the Tennessee militia. Jackson won handily.  Further military exploits would prove elusive, though, until the War of 1812.

During the winter of 1812-1813, the call came for the Tennessee state militia to defend New Orleans.  Jackson mustered 2,000 men, and, in January 1813, marched them as far as Natchez, Mississippi.  For reasons that were unclear at the time and remain so to this day, the Secretary of War ordered Jackson to disband his men and head back to Nashville.  But neither provisions nor pay were provided for the march home.  Jackson thundered that he and his men had been abandoned in a strange country, but he vowed that he would never leave his men and would make every sacrifice to ensure his army’s safe return to Nashville.  Jackson ordered his officers off their horses, and he gave up his own horses so volunteers who were sick or injured could ride back.  Jackson, on foot, led the march back to Nashville.  By the end of the journey, his men were calling him “Old Hickory” in tribute to his steadfastness and courage.  Heroism, and an all-out rout of the British at New Orleans, came later.


Pursuing the Presidency

How was the 1824 election stolen from Old Hickory? Jackson was one of four presidential candidates that year, alongside John Quincy Adams, who had most recently served as James Monroe’s Secretary of State, William Crawford, who had most recently served as Monroe’s Secretary of the Treasury, and Henry Clay, then Speaker of the House of Representatives.   Jackson won the popular vote, but no candidate won a majority of the Electoral College vote, sending the election to the House of Representatives.  Clay, who had led some of the campaign’s sharpest attacks on Jackson, simply could not stand to see the presidency go to a man he thoroughly despised.  Instead, Clay cut a deal with the supporters of John Quincy Adams to give his support to him in exchange for being nominated Secretary of State.  Adams agreed, and what would go down in history as the “Corrupt Bargain” was sealed.

Following this defeat, on his return to Nashville from Washington, Jackson was greeted at every stop by supporters who expressed their fury.  There was a will to overturn the Corrupt Bargain; all that was needed was the way.  Into this breach stepped the United States Senator from New York, Martin Van Buren.  Van Buren was the head of the “Albany Regency”, which was the first political machine in the United States.  Through a shrewd combination of strict enforcement of party loyalty and strategic rewards via patronage appointments, Van Buren had gained control of New York State, and was eventually sent to represent it in the Senate while his loyalists maintained their grip at home.

Van Buren, perhaps a pure political pragmatist, chose as his first task the co-opting of John Quincy Adams’ Vice President, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun.  Van Buren sought to bring about an alliance of the plantation owners of the South and the Republicans of the North to deny Adams a second term.  Calhoun, who had become completely alienated by John Quincy Adams, agreed to run as Jackson’s Vice-President.  However, even as Van Buren courted various political leaders on Jackson’s behalf, he did not lose sight of the opportunity to court the popular vote.  In doing so, Van Buren drew a sharp contrast between his war hero candidate and the notoriously aloof Adams, who, concerning his reelection, had observed that if the nation wanted his continued services as president, it must ask for them.  Van Buren and his associates hatched a plan that revolved around Jackson’s rough-hewn image, embodied by his “Old Hickory” nickname.


Selling Old Hickory

“Old Hickory” became the first brand name in presidential politics.  Local political organizations supporting Jackson became “Hickory Clubs,” raising “Hickory poles” and planting hickory trees at barbecues and rallies.  Drawings of hickory branches and leaves, along with likeness of Jackson adorned campaign paraphernalia, from badges to plates and pitchers, even snuffboxes and ladies’ combs.  The Jackson campaign became a popular juggernaut the likes of which the new nation had never seen before, and that the Adams forces were powerless to stop.

Not that they didn’t try.  Jackson was roundly pilloried for his marriage to his beloved wife, Rachel, whom he had the misfortune to meet while she was married to another man.  They were smitten with each other nonetheless, and lived together as man and wife for years in the early 1800s before she received her divorce.  The Jackson forces explained the oversight by stating that the couple thought Rachel had received her divorce, and quickly remedied it when they learned she had not.  Jackson’s mother was not even spared the vitriol.  One newspaper editor questioned Jackson’s parentage, printing that Old Hickory’s mother was a prostitute who had been brought to America by British soldiers, and who afterward married a mulatto with whom she had several children, Jackson being one.

These attacks, though, were of no avail.  Jackson captured 56% of the popular vote and the Electoral College vote over Adams 178-83.  The campaign masterminded by Van Buren expertly exploited the growth in importance of the popular vote in American politics, as the nation drifted away from the Founders and began to carve out a separate, more democratic, identity.  Politics, in many ways, became a form of entertainment and sport for the people, with the “Old Hickory” collectibles and Jackson’s mass appeal forming a common bond among the common man, whether he lived in New York State, Tennessee, or Florida.  So next time election season rolls around, and your neighborhood is once again awash in buntings, yard signs, pins, bumper stickers and coffee mugs promoting the candidates, give thanks to Andrew Jackson, and really Martin Van Buren. And remember that in America, campaign marketing and merchandise, in its own way, helped forge the many states into one Union.


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William's previous pieces have been on George Washington (link here), John Adams (link here), Thomas Jefferson (link here), James Madison (link here), James Monroe (link here), and John Quincy Adams (link here).



This is William Bodkin’s fourth post for History is Now.  The first three touched on aspects of the lives of George Washington (link here), John Adams (link here), and Thomas Jefferson (link here). Today William discusses the fourth president of the United States, James Madison (president from 1809-1817). Madison was to have a great influence on another Founding Father – or Founding Brother – Thomas Jefferson.


I have always been fascinated by the personal relationships among the American Founders.  As I mentioned in last month’s post on Thomas Jefferson, their friendships, rivalries, alliances and disagreements still shape the country’s political discourse, with Jefferson having the most lasting influence.  However, when reading all of Jefferson’s writings, this influence and reach can come as a surprise, as it often seems that posterity was neither his intent nor his goal. 

James Madison by John Vanderlyn, 1816.

James Madison by John Vanderlyn, 1816.

Jefferson was, of all the Founders, perhaps the truest revolutionary in spirit.  He expressed it unhesitatingly in his writings and letters when commenting on the events at the time.  One of Jefferson’s more famous expressions of his revolutionary fervor came not in the Declaration of Independence, but in a letter reflecting on Shays’ Rebellion in 1787.  Daniel Shays was a former captain in the Continental Army who took charge of a group of farmers in central and western Massachusetts protesting the Massachusetts’ government’s failure to take steps to alleviate the farmers’ debt burden, which often cost the farmers’ their property and landed them in prison.[1]  In response to a query about the rebellion, Jefferson stated “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.”[2]{cke_protected_1}  Jefferson noted that the United States had been independent eleven years, with only one such rebellion.  He wrote “What county before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion?  What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”  It was in this letter he also observed that the “tree of liberty” must be “refreshed by the blood of patriots and tyrants.”[3]

How then, was this literally bloody-minded revolutionary transformed into the guiding philosophical spirit of a nation?  The answer is simple: James Madison.  Madison spent a good portion of his political career serving as a check and balance on Jefferson’s revolutionary spirit.

Madison, the fourth President of the United States, is rightfully celebrated for many of his personal accomplishments, including being the ‘Father of the Constitution’.  He was, if not the document’s primary draftsman, (it is generally agreed that that distinction belongs to New York’s Gouverneur Morris)[4] the driving force behind the “Spirit of 1787”, with its realization that the decentralized government of the Articles of Confederation had failed.  A new, stronger central government was needed if the United States of America was to survive.  This idea, however, seemed incongruous with the revolution that had just passed.  The Spirit of 1776 had at its core an inherent distrust of removed, centralized governments that were unresponsive to the needs of the populace.[5]  The resolution of this tension between the Spirits of 1776 and 1787 can be found in Jefferson’s and Madison’s friendship.  As the sixth President, John Quincy Adams, noted, “the mutual influence of these two mighty minds upon each other” was “a phenomenon.”  Future historians, thought Adams, would, upon examining the Jefferson-Madison relationship, “discover the solution of much of our national history not otherwise easily accountable.”[6]

Take, for example, Jefferson’s most famous pronouncement on the nature of law, expressed to Madison in a letter from 1789, where he questioned “whether one generation of man had the right to bind another” with its laws.  Jefferson believed that the earth belonged only to the living.  “By law of nature, one generation is to another as independent as one nation is to another.”[7]  Jefferson expressed this idea at a delicate time.  George Washington had just taken office as the new Republic’s first president.  Congress was sitting for the first time.  Questions abounded concerning whether the new nation could last.  Surely the word of Thomas Jefferson that the work being done could or should be undone in a mere twenty years would undermine the new government’s legitimacy.


Setting Jefferson straight

Madison took care to set Jefferson straight.  When he responded to Jefferson, he first hailed the “idea” as a “great one,” that offered “interesting reflections” to legislators.  That said, Madison remarked that he was skeptical of this “great idea” in practice.  Madison wrote that a government “so often revised” could never retain its best features, even if they were the most “rational” ideas of government in an “enlightened age.”  The result, Madison stated, would be anarchy. “All the rights depending on positive laws,” such as to property would be “absolutely defunct.”  The most “violent struggles” would ensue between those interested in maintaining the status quo and those interested in bringing about the new.  All this being said, Madison thought the idea should at least be mentioned in the “proceedings of the United States,” since it might help to prevent legislators “from imposing unjust or unnecessary burdens on their successors.” [8]

Madison’s argument carried the day.  Jefferson never mentioned this idea to him again, and certainly never attempted to seriously advance the idea during his presidency.  As we know now, the great self-governance experiment envisioned by Madison has indeed carried on, allowing Jefferson, over time and history, to be honored as one of its great architects.  The idea that earth belonged only to the living, though, remained a philosophical theme to which Jefferson would return in his writings.  Indeed, it is perhaps “the single statement in the vast literature by and about Jefferson that provides a clear and deep look into his thinking about the way the world ought to work.”[9]

The relationship between Jefferson and Madison suffered not at all for this fundamental disagreement about the nature of law.  Madison went on to serve as Jefferson’s Secretary of State and then succeed him to the presidency.  Jefferson, always appreciative of Madison’s counsel, wrote toward the end of his life that “the friendship which has subsisted between us, now half a century, and the harmony of our political principles and pursuits, have been sources of constant happiness to me.”  Jefferson also recognized Madison’s frequent advocacy on his behalf, writing in the same letter that it was a “great solace” to him that Madison was “engaged in vindicating to posterity the course we have pursued.”  Jefferson acknowledged to Madison that “you have been a pillar of support through life,” and asked his old friend to “take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall leave with you my last affections.”[10]

The often warm personal relationships between the Founding Fathers cannot be understated.  Amongst their peers, they were Founding Brothers.  It was these bonds of genuine affection that permitted, despite their conflicts, John Adams’ dying words to be of Thomas Jefferson, and despite the dueling interests of the Spirit of 1776 and the Spirit of 1787 for Jefferson to ask Madison to take care of him when dead.  The founders inspire many things in the American experience.  The nation’s political discourse continues their arguments today.  What often seems to be missing, however, is perhaps the Founders’ most important idea - that friendship can transcend partisan differences when it comes to advancing the interests of the nation.


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A brief note from the author:

The good people who run this website have graciously agreed to let me contribute columns on one of my favorite topics, the presidents of the United States.  My plan is to focus, roughly once a month, on less appreciated aspects of their lives, hopefully some things that most people don’t think about when considering the presidents.  This task is far easier with the Founding Fathers; often their time as president was their least important contribution to the United States.  I anticipate some challenges with the presidents to come.  For example, other than Hawkeye in M*A*S*H being named for him, I am unsure what Franklin Pierce’s contribution to the nation was, prominent or otherwise.  In any event, I will try my best to continue delivering what I think are interesting columns about the presidents, and hope the readers agree.

[1] For a fuller discussion, see, Chapter 15 “Drafting the Constitution,” (a) Shays’ Rebellion.

[2] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William S. Smith, Nov. 13, 1787.

[3] Id.

[4] See, e.g., “Miracle at Philadelphia” by Catherine Drinker Bowen (1966).

[5] See e.g., Ellis, Joseph, “Founding Brothers,” Preface, “The Generation.”

[6] “The Jubilee of the Constitution,” A Discourse Delivered at the Request of the New York Historical Society in the City of New York, on Tuesday the 30th of April 1839; being the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States, on Thursday the 30th of April 1789 (Samuel Colman, VIII Astor House 1839).

[7] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, September 6, 1789

[8] Letter of James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, February 4, 1790.

[9] Joseph Ellis, “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson,” 132-133 (Knopf, 1996).

[10] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, February 17, 1826

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones