Gen. Andrew Jackson

Portrait of Andrew Jackson by Ralph E. W. Earl
Portrait of Andrew Jackson by Ralph E. W. Earl

In the 1828 presidential race between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, the popular hero of the Battle of New Orleans swept the popular vote, but failed to win sufficient electoral votes. Unlike our recent election brouhaha, Jackson’s win was determined in the House of Representatives. There, support for Jackson was so strong that even when opponents termed his victory the "stolen election," his larger-than-life image remained untarnished.

Jacksonian mythology was succinctly put in an 1828 newspaper headline: "The Soldier Boy of the First War of Independence/The Veteran Hero of the Second/Now the Honest, Unassuming Farmer of Tennessee." The epitome of the self-made man beloved by Americans past and present, Jackson is the only president to have served in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. He is also the only president to have been taken prisoner of war. Captured during the Revolutionary War (Jackson enlisted in the South Carolina militia at age 13), he was ordered to clean a British officer’s boots. When he refused, the officer drew his sword and slashed Jackson’s hand to the bone.

That scar was the first of many. Called "a democratic aristocrat, an urbane savage, an atrocious saint" by biographer James Parton, Jackson indulged in many a duel. When war broke out with the British in 1812, Jackson immediately volunteered, but scars he himself had administered were too keenly remembered — he was given only a position as major general of the Tennessee militia and kept away from the scene of battle. However, in 1814 he led several campaigns against Creek Indians and earned promotion to major general in the regular army.

Now-Maj. Gen. Jackson earned his sobriquet of "Old Hickory" from the strict discipline he enforced during the march back to Tennessee after the Battle of New Orleans — his men said he was "tough as hickory." The importance of this victory was less a point of might than morale; the American public had been brought low by the burning of Washington, D.C., and the many British wins during the war. Louisiana, ceded to the United States by the French on Dec. 30, 1803, had been part of the country for little more than a decade. When Jackson used a mix of Louisiana militiamen, Tennessee riflemen, free black soldiers, Choctaw Indians, and Baratarian pirates to halt the British troops on the Plains of Chalmette, it must have seemed a truly American victory. While the British sustained over 2,000 losses, American casualties were six killed and 10 wounded.

"The majority is to govern," Jackson said at his inauguration. He was truly a man of the people and a man of his time who has left his brand on our own. He died in 1845 at The Hermitage, his Tennessee plantation — a rough-hewn military hero who won our nation’s highest office and captured its imagination.

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