Andrew Jackson: Life Before the Presidency

Andrew Jackson: Life Before the Presidency

Andrew Jackson was born on March 15, 1767, in the Waxhaw settlement, a community of Scotch-Irish immigrants along the border between North and South Carolina. Though his birthplace is in dispute, he considered himself a South Carolina native. His father died before his birth and Andrew's mother and her three small boys moved in with her Crawford relatives. Jackson attended local schools, receiving an elementary education and perhaps a smattering of higher learning.

Soldier, Prisoner and Orphan

The Revolutionary War ended Jackson's childhood and wiped out his remaining immediate family. Fighting in the Carolina backcountry was especially savage, a brutish conflict of ambushes, massacres, and sharp skirmishes. Jackson's oldest brother Hugh enlisted in a patriot regiment and died at Stono Ferry, apparently from heatstroke. Too young for formal soldiering, Andrew and his brother Robert fought with American irregulars. In 1781, they were captured and contracted smallpox, of which Robert died shortly after their release. While trying to retrieve some nephews from a British prison ship, Andrew's mother also fell ill and died. An orphan and a hardened veteran at the age of fifteen, Jackson drifted, taught school a little, and then read law in North Carolina. After admission to the bar in 1787, he accepted an offer to serve as public prosecutor in the new Mero District of North Carolina, west of the mountains, with its seat at Nashville on the Cumberland River. Arriving in 1788, Jackson thrived in the new frontier town. He built a legal practice, entered into trading ventures, and began to acquire land and slaves.

Marriage and Political Rise

He also took up with Rachel Donelson Robards, the vivacious daughter of the late John Donelson, one of Nashville's founders. The Donelsons were a prominent Nashville clan. Rachel was married but separated from her husband, Lewis Robards of Kentucky. In 1791, she and Jackson began living as man and wife. They married formally in 1794 after Robards procured a divorce in Kentucky. These circumstances came back to haunt Jackson in his presidential campaigns, when opponents charged him with bigamy and wife-stealing. Jackson's defenders then claimed that he and Rachel had believed she was already divorced and free to remarry in 1791, but this seems unlikely. Whatever the technicalities, frontier Nashville saw nothing wrong in their liaison at the time. Rachel's marriage to Robards was already irretrievably broken, and Jackson was a man of prospects. From the beginning, Andrew and Rachel's marriage was a perfect love match. The couple were deeply devoted to each other and remained so throughout their lives.

Jackson's rise in Tennessee politics was meteoric, attesting to his strength of character. In quick succession, he was a delegate to the state constitutional convention in 1795, then Tennessee's first congressman, then a senator. He resigned his Senate post after one year to take a job closer to home, as judge of Tennessee's superior court. In 1802 he challenged Governor John Sevier for election as major general in command of the state militia. Jackson's senior by more than twenty years, Sevier was a veteran of the Revolution and of many Indian campaigns, and the state's leading politician. Jackson beat him for the generalship, but the aftermath brought the two men to a showdown in the streets of Knoxville, followed by preparations for a duel.

A Volatile Temper

The Sevier feud was only one of many explosive quarrels involving Jackson. Jackson's hot temper, prickly sense of honor, and sensitivity to insult embroiled him in a series of fights and brawls. The most notorious of these affairs, in 1806, began with a minor misunderstanding over a horse race and ended in a duel with pistols between Jackson and Charles Dickinson. Dickinson, a crack shot, fired first and hit Jackson in the chest. Jackson gave no sign of being hurt but coolly stood his ground, aimed carefully, and killed his foe. Jackson carried Dickinson's bullet for the rest of his life. Later, in 1813, during a hiatus in his military service during the War of 1812, Jackson fought in a Nashville street brawl against the Benton brothers, Jesse and Thomas Hart. There he took a bullet that nearly cost him an arm.

Jackson was brave in a fight and steadfast to his friends. Still, these affrays marked him as a violent and dangerous man, and helped block his further political advance. Jackson resigned his judgeship in 1804 and devoted his efforts thereafter to his militia command and his business ventures. He speculated in land, acquired slaves, bred and raced horses, and engaged in merchandising. In 1804, he bought a cotton plantation outside Nashville—The Hermitage—where he and Rachel lived the rest of their lives.

The Road to War

At mid-life, Jackson's political career had apparently reached an end. He thirsted not for higher office but for military action. Potential foes were everywhere: the Indian tribes who still hovered near Tennessee's borders, their Spanish abettors in Florida and Mexico, and above all Jackson's old enemy, the British. Jackson's yearning for activity led him to befriend Aaron Burr when the latter came through Tennessee in 1805, seeking recruits for his shadowy schemes of conquest. Jackson cut loose from Burr in time to avoid imputations of treason, but he was still eager for the field. With mounting outrage he watched the inept efforts of Presidents Jefferson and Madison to win redress from Great Britain for its violations of American sovereignty and interests.

In June of 1812, the United States finally declared war on Great Britain. That November, a Tennessee force was ordered to the defense of New Orleans. Jackson led two thousand men as far as Natchez, where he received a curt War Department communication dismissing his troops without pay or provisions. On his own authority, Jackson held the command together for the return home. His willingness to share his men's privations on this march earned him the nickname "Old Hickory."

In the fall of 1813, Indian hostilities finally brought an end to Jackson's inactivity. At Fort Mims in Mississippi Territory (now southern Alabama), warlike Creeks known as "Red Sticks" had overwhelmed and slaughtered more than four hundred whites. Jackson led a force of Tennesseans and allied Indians deep into the Creek homeland, where he fought a series of engagements. At the culminating battle of Horseshoe Bend in March 1814, Jackson annihilated the main Creek force. The campaign broke the Creeks' power of resistance and overawed the other Southwestern tribes, including those that had fought as Jackson's allies. Over the next few years, Jackson negotiated treaties by which the Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees surrendered millions of acres of land in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and west Tennessee.

A Hero Emerges

After this striking success as a militia commander, Jackson was commissioned a United States major general in May 1814 and given command of the southern frontier. The British were planning an attack on New Orleans, strategic gateway to the American interior. To block them, Jackson assembled a motley force of regulars, volunteers, militia, free blacks, and pirates. The British made landfall and advanced to near the city, where Jackson had fortified a line straddling the Mississippi River. On January 8, 1815, British General Sir Edward Pakenham led a frontal assault on Jackson's position. Some inexperienced Americans on the west bank broke and ran but in the main attack on the east bank, Jackson's men mowed down the advancing enemy with artillery and rifle fire. British casualties exceeded two thousand; Jackson lost thirteen dead, fifty-eight wounded and missing.

Unbeknownst to both sides, the Treaty of Ghent ending the war had been signed two weeks earlier, so the battle had no effect on the outcome. Still, this epic victory, with its incredible casualty ratio and its stirring image of American frontiersmen defeating hardened British veterans, passed immediately into patriotic legend. Jackson became a hero, second in the national pantheon only to George Washington.


Jackson remained in the regular army after the war. Late in 1817, he received orders to subdue the Seminole Indians, who were raiding across the border from Spanish Florida. Liberally interpreting his vague instructions, Jackson effected a lightning conquest of Florida itself. He captured its bastions at St. Marks and Pensacola and arrested, tried, and executed two British nationals whom he charged with abetting the Indians. Foreign diplomats and some congressmen demanded that Jackson be repudiated and punished for his unauthorized invasion, but at the urging of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, President James Monroe stood firm. Whether anticipated by the administration or not, Jackson's action served American ends of nudging Spain to cede Florida in an 1819 treaty. A private controversy smoldered for years between Jackson, Monroe, and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun over whether Jackson had in fact exceeded orders. It finally broke open in 1831, contributing to a political rupture between then-President Jackson and his vice-president Calhoun.

Jackson resigned his army commission and was appointed governor of the new Florida Territory in 1821. He presided over the transfer of authority from the Spanish, then resigned and came home to Tennessee, where his friends were planning to promote him for the presidency in 1824.