Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, was inaugurated on March 4, 1829, eventually serving for two terms until 1837. Jackson’s early life was difficult, yet filled with accomplishments. He and his brother were held as prisoners after being captured by the British in the Battle of Hanging Rock in 1780. Held in poor conditions, he and his brother nearly died from starvation in captivity, with Jackson barely surviving, and his brother dying due to illness. After being released, he went on to hold many offices in law and government, including becoming the first Tennessee representative to Congress, Major General in the Militia, and of course, the President of the United States. Throughout his presidency, Jackson would greatly advance the nation through efforts including the elimination of national debt, the spread of democratic ideals, and the expansion of voting rights. However, despite these achievements, Jackson was also willing to selfishly utilize the suffrage movement to win a second election, often acted unconstitutionally and ignored Supreme Court orders as he saw fit, and instigated the displacement of thousands of Natives. This comparison between Jackson’s contributions and pitfalls defines him as one of the United States’ most complex presidents to date.
Andrew Jackson achieved many things throughout the course of his presidency that were beneficial to the nation, spreading ideals of equality and democracy while maintaining a financially stable economy. First, Jackson was able to pay down the government debt, the only time in US history where the country’s government was debt-free. Within six years, the Jackson administration was able to pay off all $58 million dollars in federal borrowing by selling government land in the Western US and by blocking spending bills, even on essential projects such as national highway building. Besides simply being against the idea of owing money, Jackson’s elimination of government debt was able to dispel the sense of national shame that many Americans held. Jackson also worked to decrease the amount of power imbalance within the banking system. By vetoing the charter of the Second Bank of the United States, Jackson was able to weaken the influence of the national bank, which was often viewed as corrupt, and put too much power into the hands of too few people. Jackson felt that the national bank favored the wealthy, and was “dangerous to the liberties of the people”. He believed that the bank was a place of power congregation, where “the rich and powerful too often bent the acts of government to their purposes”. This was due to the fact that the bank was run by a small number of powerful figures, leaving the rest of the population at a distinct disadvantage. In this way, he sided with the “humble members of society”, and believed that extinguishing the influence of the bank would uplift equality and champion the poor. “Every monopoly and all exclusive privileges are granted at the expense of the public, which ought to receive a fair equivalent”, – Jackson said in his veto message to Congress. Here, he argues that the privileges bestowed upon powerful members of the national bank come at the expense of the common people, who deserve to be regarded and treated equally. In this manner, Jackson was the first president to use the veto power as a tool, starting a trend which would be expanded upon by future presidents.
However, despite his seemingly good intentions, his plan contained too many flaws. The banks into which the national bank’s money was transferred into were left unchecked, with banks loaning money to an unusually large number of citizens. This led to the printing of enormous amounts of currency, ultimately resulting in high inflation. An inability to raise funds for expenses led to a series of bank failures, which in turn contributed to a severe depression. By 1837, the government was unable to cover its expenses, a situation which would continue into the next presidency. Rather than helping the ‘common man’ achieve equality and compensation, Jackson instigated a financial crisis and major depression. In fact, in what came to be known as the Panic of 1837, the common people lost jobs and savings, drowning in financial ruin. Although it was Jackson’s intention to help the common people gain equal rights, the dissolving of the national bank was ultimately detrimental. Similarly, Jackson helped expand voting rights for the common man. At the time, only white, land-owning males were able to vote, but Jackson fought for the right of the ‘common man’ to be able to have a voice in society, ultimately succeeding in expanding suffrage to most white men over the age of 21. During this time, a coalition of a diverse range of such ‘common’ peoples formed, such as: laborers, farmers, and Irish Catholics, three groups which had traditionally held little sway in politics at the time. As evidenced by these examples, Andrew Jackson made many positive and constructive contributions to the nation.
On the other hand, Jackson was a blatantly selfish man, as seen when he utilized the ‘common man’ suffrage movement as a political ploy to win more votes for election. Jackson first ran for president in the fall of 1824 against John Quincy Adams; although he won the popular vote, Jackson was unable to collect enough Electoral College votes to be elected. In his next election, therefore, Jackson sought to garner support and assemble public involvement from more citizens through promises of loosened voting qualifications. By posing as a representative for the ‘common man’ and molding Adams to appear out of touch with the people, Jackson was able to widen his following and win the presidency from Adams. Therefore, an underlying cause in his interest in suffrage was revealed, he utilized the popularity gained during this time to benefit his campaign and election results.
In addition, Jackson showed a blatant disregard for the Constitution, often ignoring court orders when they did not benefit his party. For example, shortly after Georgia expelled local Cherokee Indians from their land, the Supreme Court issued an order to cease any pressuring of the Cherokees to leave the Southeast. However, Jackson ignored the court order, instead responding that Chief Justice “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him come enforce it”. This contrasted sharply to his quick action against South Carolina when they defied federal authority by stating that tariffs were not able to be enforced within the state. Jackson immediately sent more than 5000 soldiers and multiple Navy ships to Charleston, and declared the nullification illegal. In that case, Jackson quickly responded to the Supreme Court’s decisions because it was beneficial to his administration’s interests. In this way, Jackson’s failure to regard the Supreme Court as a coequal branch of government during this time of crisis highlighted his willingness to disregard the Constitution when it did not suit him. His actions as a president with no regard for the Constitution, the nation’s foremost and most supreme law, portrays him as an inadequate leader.
Jackson’s most morally horrifying actions were in the roles he played in the displacement of thousands of Native Americans in the Trail of Tears. Through violations of the Treaty of 1791 and refusing court orders from the Supreme Court, Jackson displaced indigenous populations from their homes and stole land from Indian tribes. To facilitate this, in 1830, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, allowing him to forcibly take the land occupied by Native tribes and exchange it for less valuable, unsettled land in the Western U.S. As a result, more than 15,000 Cherokees were rounded up and forced to travel westward, primarily on foot, in what came to be known as the Trail of Tears. Due to the severe weather conditions and poor living conditions, almost a quarter of those Cherokees who began the journey died. These horrific actions were taken and accepted because Jackson claimed the Natives to be savages who needed to be kept away from the orderly society of white colonization. “The plan for their removal and re-establishment is founded upon the knowledge we have gained of their character and habits and has been dictated by a spirit of enlarged liberality”, – Jackson said in a message to Congress. By sending the Native Americans to the West, Jackson viewed his actions as noble and commendable; he believed he was keeping American citizens safe from the brutality and savagery of the Natives. In reality, Jackson forced thousands out of their homes and drove them to suffer through inhumane conditions. These appalling actions taken by Jackson define him as an immoral and prejudiced man, one unfit for the multitude of memorials and statues around the nation, constructed in his honor.
Thus, although Jackson contributed much to the development of suffrage and equality within the nation, such as with the elimination of national government debt, the termination of the national bank, and the increased voting rights for common citizens, he also used these actions selfishly as a way to gain support among the electorate. Therefore, Jackson is in some sense a villain, a poor model of what a president should be, as he has utilized non-partisan mechanisms, originally meant to balance power between branches, in order to benefit themselves and his own party.