Wrestling With Jackson

Andrew Jackson

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: "Reevaluating Old Hickory's Legacy," "The Cruel Enslaver," "Conductor on the Train of Native American Genocide," "At The Hermitage, the Full Story Must Be Told."

In Nashville, you just can’t escape Andrew Jackson.

Not only in a metaphorical way, but quite literally.

Old Hickory Boulevard, the infamously roundabout road that rings much of the city, is named for him — or at least named for the community that took his nickname as its own. A 15-ton equestrian statue dominates the east side of the Tennessee State Capitol. The city’s largest theater, at TPAC, is named for him. One of the largest state office buildings is too — and another is named for his wife, Rachel.

Nearly a quarter-million people tour Jackson’s home, The Hermitage, annually. The Andrew Jackson Foundation (formerly the Ladies’ Hermitage Association) is one of the county’s largest private landowners. Heck, Jackson was the sixth-most-popular name for boys born in Tennessee in 2020 (and Jaxon was 16th).

As difficult as it is for America to wrest itself from Jackson, it’s harder for Tennesseans, and nigh on impossible for Nashvillians. From the mundane (every ATM that pays out in multiples of 20 delivers a 6-by-2-inch portrait) to the musical (“In 1814, we took a little trip …”), Jackson — the only president who historians use to designate a period of American history — casts a long and dark shadow.

He’s, at the least, the symbolic founder of the Democratic Party, and opposition to Jacksonianism spawned the Whig Party, which eventually formed the nucleus of the Republican Party. Jackson’s appeal to the common man won him the election of 1828 (and nearly 1824), and it’s been the blueprint for every populist campaign since. Even though he has an inextricable link to the Party Opposite, he was revered by Republican President Donald Trump and his followers. Democrats, who for decades have held Jackson Day fundraising dinners, are starting to shy away from his legacy; even the Tennessee Democratic Party rebranded its fete as the Three Star Celebration.

The Hero of New Orleans, the orphan who climbed from poverty to the presidency — a brash and bold and arrogant figure, hell-bent on holding a fragile country together, for whom preservation of the young union was his overriding concern — is no longer the exemplar of the American character. He, like so many others, is reexamined as society changes.

Jackson was an owner of hundreds of enslaved people. Jackson was the man who started the forced displacement of Native Americans with his Indian Removal Act. Jackson was the first of the imperial presidents, telling the chief justice of the Supreme Court to enforce his own decisions, spitting in the face of separation of powers.

Jackson also pulled political power from the elite, giving less well-born Americans a voice (so long as they were white and male, of course). He proved that even a backwoods-born orphan without much of a formal education could ascend to the heights of power (so long as they were white and male, of course). His victory at New Orleans cemented the U.S. as a great power.

And here is humanity — he famously loved Rachel, he adopted two Native American orphans (one, Lyncoya, he’d hoped would be the first Native American cadet at West Point) in addition to his nephew, who took the name Andrew Jackson Jr. (Junior’s great-great-grandson, Andrew Jackson VI, is a General Sessions judge in Knox County … and a Republican.) He fostered eight other children in his extended family. 

Wrestling with Jackson isn’t new. His first biographer, James Parton, wrote in 1859: “Andrew Jackson, I am given to understand, was a patriot and a traitor. He was one of the greatest generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. A brilliant writer, elegant, eloquent, without being able to compose a correct sentence or spell words of four syllables. The first of statesmen, he never devised, he never framed, a measure. He was the most candid of men, and was capable of the most profound dissimulation. A most law-defying law-obeying citizen. A stickler for discipline, he never hesitated to disobey his superior. A democratic autocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint.”

Marking the 254th anniversary of his birth on March 15, the Scene asked historians and activists, scholars and curators about Old Hickory’s legacy.

It is messy. It is complicated. It is dark. It is inspiring and it is despairing. It is not the best of America, but it is essential to understanding America — where we were, where we are and where we are going.

Wrestling With Jackson

Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States

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