This story is part of a five-part series examining the presidency and legacy of Andrew Jackson. For full context, please visit these stories as well: "Wrestling With Jackson," "The Cruel Enslaver," "Conductor on the Train of Native American Genocide," "At The Hermitage, the Full Story Must Be Told."
Nineteenth-century historian James Parton described Andrew Jackson as “a democratic aristocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint.” These oxymoronic identities have fascinated Americans since Old Hickory’s army defeated British forces in New Orleans in 1815. Those contradictions are part of what drew me to study Jackson and the period attached to his name.
Besides these incongruities, another reason many Americans continue to be drawn to Jackson is because they have not fully wrestled with the mythology that envelops his life and shapes his legacy. Americans have more often come to see the founding generation — Washington, Jefferson and company — as flawed humans, not demigods. More recently, white Southerners have slowly begun to accept that the Confederate States of America was not fighting for the continuation of a romanticized version of “moonlight and magnolias,” but for the preservation of a white supremacist society built on the brutal enslavement of African Americans.
Jackson, however, continues to elude this same type of reevaluation among too many Americans. A spin around the web turns up all kinds of misunderstandings and outright lies. The most prominent fiction is probably the number of duels Jackson fought. Blog posts and serious articles cite the dozens or hundreds of duels he was allegedly involved in. In truth, Jackson fought three duels, although even one of those could be thrown out on a technicality. While Jackson was involved in many personal quarrels, resorting to pistols was the exception, not the rule.
To cite another example, most Americans have probably learned that Jackson was motivated by a lifelong hatred of the British that stemmed from the death of his mother and two brothers during the American Revolution. His triumph on the grounds of the Chalmette plantation that early, fog-covered January morning in 1815 did not just produce a national celebration — it also brought closure to the emotional pain he suffered from losing his family.
In reality, Jackson had a complicated relationship with Great Britain. His Revolutionary War experiences unquestionably planted the seeds of anti-British resentment, but he also used the British throughout his life as a convenient vehicle for expressing other prejudices against Native Americans, enslaved African Americans and abolitionists. These groups threatened to weaken the society, built on the backs of enslaved laborers and on the land of displaced indigenous people, that allowed him to be a member of the elite ruling class. They were more of an immediate concern throughout Jackson’s life than the British were.
There is no question that we mythologize Jackson, and understanding why is not difficult. It fits with the theory propagated by Frederick Jackson Turner — that the American character was shaped by frontier violence. Scholars debunked this theory long ago, but it remains an integral part of how Americans see their history and themselves. Just like Jackson was supposedly a no-holds-barred fighter who would take out any enemy who insulted him or who stood in his — or the nation’s — way, Americans view themselves in the same way. To use more recent political language, we are counter-punchers. If someone hits us with a different perspective, if someone challenges our worldview, our tendency is to hit back and hit harder, like Jackson allegedly did.
Understanding that Jackson usually did not settle individual disputes with violence and that he used a socially acceptable scapegoat out of fear should lead us to consider our own actions when faced with personal slights or consumed with fear of change around us. Instead of escalating perceived or real insults into verbal or actual violence, we could deescalate and try a more noncombative approach. Instead of masking our personal worries by invoking widely accepted prejudices, we could examine the sources of our fears and reflect on what they truly mean.
That is why these fabrications about Andrew Jackson, intentional or not, matter: They keep us from confronting the truth about ourselves.
Mark Cheathem is a professor of history at Cumberland University in Lebanon. He has written or edited seven books about Andrew Jackson and the Age of Jackson and is the project director of the Papers of Martin Van Buren.