Old Hickory, a most unusual U.S. president

Published 11:27 am Wednesday, June 21, 2023

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Contributing columnist

Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States serving from 1829 to 1837. No one needed to ask where he stood on matters as he spoke outright about them. He was known for his candor, uncontrollable temper and occasional lapses that led to violence. He had as many as ten duels. One practically killed him.

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Presidents are inaugurated amid pomp and promise, eventually going out of office less popular than when they were elected. This wasn’t true with Jackson. He retired from the presidency on a high note, more popular and admired greater than when he was sworn in. He became known as the people’s president.

He gained his moniker “Old Hickory” because of his toughness and he carried a walking stick that was made of hard hickory wood to help with his walking. Surprisingly on at least one occasion it was also needed for his protection.

He was widely popular and could likely have won a third term but he was growing old and not in good health. There was also a two-term tradition at the time. Instead of throwing his hat back into the ring he decided to assist the candidacy of Martin Van Buren – his friend, vice president and political advisor.

Jackson was the founder of the Democratic party. He was their first candidate for president. His opponents once called him a “jackass” so he adopted it as the mascot of the party. It is still in use today. Being a Tennessean, he was the first president considered to be from the west “at that time” and the first not born into wealth.

He saw himself as a champion of the common man and the presidency as the office of the common man. He fired many government workers and on one occasion during the “petticoat affair,” fired every member of his cabinet. He vetoed more bills than the preceding six presidents combined. Jackson was the only president to leave office without the country being in debt.

He pushed for the abolishment of the electoral college saying it put the selection of the president in the hands of political insiders and taking it away from the general public. This he learned from experience during his first run for the presidency. He won the popular vote in 1824 but John Quincy Adams was inaugurated as president.

“I have but two regrets,” the harshly speaking Jackson said upon leaving the presidency following his second term in 1837. “I regret that I did not hang John C. Calhoun and that I didn’t shoot Henry Clay.”

Henry Clay was his long-time political nemesis and presidential opponent in 1833. South Carolinian Calhoun was his vice president during his second term as president. At one time Calhoun supported South Carolina’s threat to secede from the American Union. Jackson was livid in his reaction to his vice president.

Jackson survived two assassination attempts while he was president. The most severe was in 1835 at age 66 years. An Englishman drew two pistols and tried to shoot the president outside the Capitol Building. The president reacted by beating him with his hickory cane until members of his staff stepped in. This gave additional credence to the president’s nickname Old Hickory. Jackson was fortunate the gun didn’t fire preventing his assassination or becoming permanently injured. The pistols misfired but were later found both to be in perfect condition. Jackson was the first president to personally subdue his would-be assassin. Authorities determined that the man was insane and placed him in an institution.

Jackson began a relationship with Rachel Donelson Robards, the beautiful daughter of the late John Donelson, one of Nashville’s founders. Rachel was married but separated from her husband Lewis Robards. In 1791 she and Jackson began living as man and wife. They married before her divorce was fully complete and again in 1794 after learning her divorce was final.

Political foes didn’t allow the talk to die and this haunted Jackson and his political career especially in his presidential campaigns. He was fair game when opponents charged him with bigamy and wife-stealing although the latter charge was untrue. Jackson adamantly claimed that he and Rachel believed her first husband had completed the necessary paperwork thus she was free to remarry. The scurrilous talk persisted. Old Hickory continued to live up to his name. As tough as nails he refused to give in to the back biters and kept pushing forward winning the confidence of voters.

Andrew and Rachel’s marriage was a perfect love match, both endeared to the other throughout their lives together. Some of his opponents and contemporaries went too far in speaking ill of Rachel. He wouldn’t take it and it led to conflicts and even duels. He survived several duels in his lifetime. Some say as many as 10 but perhaps many more. We do know he lived for many years with two bullets lodged in his body from two separate duels, one just inches from his heart.

Jadon Gibson is an Appalachian writer from Harrogate, Tennessee. Thanks to Lincoln Memorial University, Alice Lloyd College and the Museum of Appalachia for their assistance.