Like all human beings, President Andrew Jackson certainly had his faults—sometimes spectacular, brutal, and violent ones—but is it just to label him, as one recent critic has, simply as “a slaver, ethnic cleanser, and tyrant”?
Sometime in the last several years, it has become the cultural norm to see Andrew Jackson as the sum of all evil, representing the absolute worst of early nineteenth-century America. He has gone from mythic frontier hero to genocidal demon. Figures as diverse as John Quincy Adams (prior to 1824), Washington Irving, and James Fenimore Cooper not only admired him in his day, but they saw him as a modern demigod, a living legend.
To be sure, Andrew Jackson was no saint, but it is equally true that he was no tenebrous wraith.
As is usual with human beings, he possessed the free will to choose either good or evil, and sometimes, as with all of us, he chose poorly. Still, it is well worth getting our history right and judging our ancestors with honesty and accuracy. We can commit wholesale and wanton patricide, but we do so at great risk—not just to our ancestors, but to our children as well. The classical virtue of prudence demands that we judge all things, discerning good from evil. Like all human beings, Jackson certainly had his faults, sometimes spectacular, brutal, and violent ones. We must be critical of our ancestors, to be sure, but we should be so with careful honesty.
Here are the charges.
One. Jackson had sexual relations with at least one of his slaves. Given the nature and horrors of slavery, it is certainly possible that any slaveholder did this. We are not meant to own other human beings, and tragic and horrific consequences always result in some way or fashion. No one explains this better than Maury Klein in his Days of Defiance, comparing two antebellum South Carolina Senators, James Hammond and James Chesnut, in their treatment of their slaves.
If President Jackson did have a sexual relationship with any of his slaves, there is no evidence to prove it, and it would counter his deep—if not mystical—love of his wife, Rachel.
Given the extant evidence, though, it appears that Andrew Jackson treated his slaves—at least those who did not run away—with some dignity. Historian James Parton interviewed one of Jackson’s slaves, Hannah, after Jackson’s death. According to her, the greater happiness reigned on his land when he was around: “We wished him back again, to help us out of our troubles.” Further, she told Parton, Jackson treated them as a father would: he “was more a father to us than a master.” Jackson, tellingly, left Hannah in charge of the Hermitage during his presidential tenure in Washington.
Andrew Jackson was ruthless when dealing with runaway slaves, but, then, he was ruthless with anyone—white, black, or Indian—who had betrayed him. This, of course, does not excuse his actions, but it does give them some proper context.
From the evidence that exists, Andrew Jackson seems to have thought of himself as a Roman patriarch.
Two. Jackson employed ethnic cleansing when dealing with the American Indians. Well, we would have to agree on a definition of ethnic cleansing before even approaching this topic with any seriousness. Jackson treated some Indians with great dignity, while he treated others with nothing but scorn. From his own words, he believed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 (IRA) necessary to preserve Indian culture, not destroy it. The idea to move the Indians beyond the 98th Meridian was not a new one, and under the IRA, it gave military teeth to the policy that had been desired by all presidents from Thomas Jefferson through John Quincy Adams.
Amazingly enough, during the 1820s and 1830s, most Americans considered Jackson a moderate on the issue of removal. Indeed, many Americans complained that while President Jackson cut government spending overall, he also allocated huge sums of money for the Indians through removal—also giving them prime property in the West.
Northern tribes—such as the Potawatomi—were removed as well. Other tribes, such as the Miamis, prevented wholesale movement west by treating with the American government as individual property owners rather than collectively as a tribe.
Unquestionably, the removal of the southern Indians was an unmitigated disaster with a gory death rate. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if Jackson had truly wanted to cleanse ethnically the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creeks, and Choctaws from American soil, he did a horrible job of it. Today, these four tribes not only exist and thrive, but they own some of the finest lands in all of America.
It should also be remembered that these southern tribes owned—per capita—as many black slaves as did their white southern counterparts. This does not excuse removal, but it does reveal the southern Indian tribes to be a bit less noble than portrayed in today’s culture. Many southern Indians fought on the side of the Confederacy, and the last Confederate general to surrender in 1865 was a Cherokee Indian, Stand Watie. If we condemn whites for owning African slaves, we must also condemn Indians for owning African slaves.
Three. Jackson murdered a man. As with the previous charge, one must define the crime—in this case “murder.” Jackson dueled incessantly, but no man ever stood before Andrew Jackson not knowing that death might be the result. Dueling, while bizarre and cruel, had very specific rules attached to it. One only fought another who equaled him in rank and status. Dueling proved very formal and its rules intricate, and messages and challenges could go back and forth for days and even months. More often than not, death did not result from the duels, and the dueling parties, having satisfied honor, became friends and allies after the duel. The culture of dueling came out of notions of republican manhood—such was the case with Alexander Hamilton—and out of Scotch-Irish culture, which demanded of any male violent behavior as an inherent part of his life.
Again, none of this is to suggest that Andrew Jackson was perfect. He could be brutal beyond our comprehension. But, he was also as honest as the day is long, and it would have killed his own soul and his self-respect to have behaved in any other way. Yet, he was a long way from the widespread condemnation currently in vogue, or as one popular article recently claimed, “Andrew Jackson was a slaver, ethnic cleanser, and tyrant.” As considered above, there is some truth in these charges, but these blanket indictments are laregly undermined by the historical evidence.
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Editor’s Note: portrait is Andrew Jackson (1840), by James Tooley (1816-1844)
Bradley J. Birzer is the co-founder of, and Senior Contributor to, The Imaginative Conservative. He is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and a Fellow of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Dr. Birzer is author of Russell Kirk: American Conservative (2015, University Press of Kentucky), American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll, Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth, co-editor of The American Democrat and Other Political Writings by James Fenimore Cooper, and co-author of The American West.