Sunday, March 5, 2017
Andrew Jackson: the most Irish American president, and a divisive US leader
Irish Connections: The White House’s seventh occupant was a rabble-rousing slave owner who forced Native Americans on to the Trail of Tears
When Donald Trump entered the White House in January one of his administration’s first acts was to install a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office. Why Trump might identify with a polarising, rabble-rousing, overtly racist former president is anyone’s guess. But from an Irish perspective it’s worth noting that, although many American leaders have claimed some Irish heritage, however tenuous, none – not even JFK – has had as direct a connection to this island as the seventh president of the United States.
Jackson’s parents, Andrew Jackson and Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson, were poor Protestant farmers who emigrated from Boneybefore, Co Antrim, to the Carolina frontier two years before Andrew, their youngest son, was born, in 1767.
His father died in a logging accident while his mother was pregnant with him, so Andrew and his two older brothers endured an extremely impoverished upbringing. When Andrew was 13, during the American Revolution, the British imprisoned him for running messages to the rebel army. When he refused to clean a British officer’s boots the officer struck him with a sword, scarring him for life.
His brothers and his mother died of disease during the war, leaving him with a hatred of the British that proved just as enduring as his scars.
When Andrew was 15 his grandfather in Ireland died, leaving him a small inheritance. Andrew travelled to Charleston to collect the money – which he blew within a week on horses, liquor and women.
He headed west, to Nashville, where he studied law, bred horses and fell in love with a married woman named Rachel Donelson Robards. They eloped, then returned to Nashville a few months later, living together openly. Rachel’s husband, Capt Lewis Robards, eventually granted her a divorce, and she and Jackson quietly married.
Jackson, who was voted commander of the Tennessee militia, developed a merciless reputation in frontier wars against Native American tribes.
In the War of 1812, against the British, he was chosen to lead the American defence of New Orleans. Fewer than 400 of the 4,000 troops at his disposal were regular army. The rest were hastily mustered Creoles, Choctaw braves, Louisiana backwoodsmen, freed slaves and French pirates (whose cannons provided his only artillery).
Ranged against them were 10,000 professional soldiers of the army that had just defeated Napoleon.
American troops had a reputation for scattering at the first sign of trouble. But under Jackson they stood and fought – and inflicted a stunning defeat on the British. In a later campaign he effectively annexed Florida from the Spanish.
By now his status as a national hero was unchallenged. When he stood for president, in 1828, against the incumbent, John Quincy Adams, he faced an opponent who appeared far more qualified for the office than himself. Jackson turned this to his advantage, charging that Adams’s extensive political and diplomatic experience only proved what a corrupt Washington insider he was.
The “October surprise” in that campaign came when Jackson’s opponents discovered that he and his wife had cohabited while she was married to another man. Jackson’s supporters fired back, claiming that, while serving as US envoy to Russia, Adams had procured a prostitute for the Russian tsar. This was a lie, but it muddied the waters sufficiently for Jackson to carry the day.
As president, Jackson appointed unsavoury characters to his cabinet, waged war against the banks and paper money, and faced down South Carolina’s threat to secede from the union – while making clear his view, as a slave holder himself, that abolitionism, not slavery, was the root cause of acrimony between the north and south.
But he is perhaps most notorious for the forced expulsion of Native Americans from their land in the southeastern United States. Deprived of even their legally held property, tribes were sent on forced marches of more than 1,500km, known as the Trail of Tears, during which thousands died of disease and hunger.
Although Jackson is hugely controversial today, it is worth noting that, when he died, in 1845, he was generally ranked above George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as the greatest president of the US. Many cities and counties are named in his honour, most notably the state capital of Mississippi and the most populous city in Florida, Jacksonville. His portrait appears on the $20 bill.