Presidential review: Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren
|August 11, 2011||Posted by Oliver Nott under presidential reviews, reviews|
Andrew Jackson, 1829 – 1837
VP: John C. Calhoun, Martin Van Buren, First Lady: Rachel Donelson Robards
Andrew Jackson was possibly the most complex man to ever sit in the Oval Office. He viewed himself as a frontiersman and he engendered the populist spirit of the US, which not only went down well back then, but would probably be as successful today. He wasn’t a politician of the people, but rather a man of the people, nicknamed ‘Old Hickory’ by friends and foes alike. He was a law-breaker as much as a lawmaker and his significant transformations of the office of the president can only be matched by FDR a century later. He was stubborn, callous and insolent; he was truly one of the greatest leaders the US has ever had.
Andrew Jackson was born on March 15th 1767 in a log cabin in South Carolina. Orphaned at the age of 14, as a child he was often referred to as a ‘scrapper’, fighting anyone and everyone who dared insult him. When Jackson was only 13 years old and a youth member of the South Carolina Militia, he was taken hostage by British soldiers and when ordered to clean the boots of a British Commander, refused – he received life-long scars from the Commander’s sword and a wealth of respect from future colleagues for his incredible insubordination.
Jackson moved to Tennessee and married twice divorcee Rachel Donelson Robards. In 1796, he served in the House of Representatives and as a delegate to the Tennessee constitutional convention. Then between 1798 and 1804, he served as a Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. His time in Tennessee was a period characterised by complete hypocrisy, as he was hard on crime, especially murderers, but often fought duels with locals; he killed a Northern lawyer called Charles Dickinson in a duel because he insulted his wife.
It was during the War of 1812 when Jackson became an American hero. He exemplified his military excellence with his victory in the Battle of New Orleans, which was the US’s biggest triumph during the whole war. He’d made his impact and, in 1824, decided to run for president. His fishy defeat by John Quincy Adams did not deter Jackson though, much the opposite, as he became the most outspoken critic of Adams there was. He fought a dirty campaign in 1828, but his victory was bittersweet; his wife died of a heart attack in the same year as the election, something Jackson always blamed on the rumours and smearing by his opponent’s campaign.
When Jackson did take to office, he gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘spoils system’, as he replaced almost everyone who had ever worked for John Quincy with his own guys from the West. Jackson’s inauguration was basically an invasion of western sycophants desperate for a job in his administration; in fact the White House Reception after his inaugural speech was so busy, Jackson escaped out of a window and spent the first night of his presidency at a hotel.
Jackson took a tough stance on Native Americans and he sadistically enjoyed executing the Indian Removal Act 1830, which pushed all Native Americans west of the Mississippi. He was responsible for thousands of Native American deaths and the only political leader to speak out against him was Henry Clay. Jackson was still very popular by 1832 and won re-election easily, except this time with Martin Van Buren as running mate, not John C. Calhoun, who was dropped because he had insulted a very spiteful Jackson before his presidency.
John C. Calhoun did not take his sacking well, as he had hopes of becoming Jackson’s successor, and decided to give South Carolina some political weight during the Nullification Crisis of 1832. South Carolina was vehemently opposed to high tariffs and in 1832 declared that the federal tariff increase laws of 1828 and 1832 were null and void in South Carolina and threatened to secede from the Union if federal duties were collected from their capital, Charleston. This crisis would define Jackson’s presidency and he acted swiftly and brutally, receiving permission from Congress to use military force in South Carolina if necessary. Jackson created a tariff compromise, which just about kept South Carolina happy while not antagonising New England states. This dilemma was the first tangible foreshadow of the civil war, which was looming at a rate that worried Jackson.
Apart from the Nullification Crisis, Jackson also attacked and killed the Bank of the United States and in 1837, after recognising the tragedy at the Alamo, started diplomatic relations with the new Republic of Texas, much to the resentment of Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Jackson, although very different from Washington and Jefferson, decided to follow their precedent and only served two terms in the White House. He retired with just two regrets, that he “had been unable to shoot Henry Clay or to hang John C. Calhoun.”
Andrew Jackson was the most active president the US had seen so far, which many historians suggest is why he was still so popular when he left office. He held the Union together when there was a real threat of its collapse and gained the respect and fear of almost all his colleagues. He changed the way the presidency was run and had already outshined his successor, Van Buren, before he had a chance to start.
Martin Van Buren, 1837 – 1841
VP: Richard M. Johnson, First Lady: N/A
Martin Van Buren is a president who is either forgotten, or remembered as simply Jackson’s whipping boy. Plagued from the start of his presidency with the knowledge that he would not be able to match the record and success of his predecessor, it seemed that Van Buren just decided to follow in Jackson’s wake. Although Van Buren was both elegant and sophisticated, he was misunderstood, and it didn’t matter how much he played into the fact that he was Jackson’s ‘handpicked successor’; the US public still appeared to miss their ‘Old Hickory’.
Van Buren was born on December 5th 1782 in New York, which made him the first president to be born under the US flag. He practiced law from a young age and became renowned for his stick-to-itiveness in the New York legislature. In 1821, Van Buren moved to Washington to serve as a US Senator, which many of his colleagues and friends suggest was as much an astute career move as a way to escape the depression of losing his wife two years earlier. In 1827, Van Buren was re-elected to the Senate and remained a key figure in the anti-John Quincy Adams group in Congress. However, Van Buren wanted to flex his muscles in an executive role, maybe as a test run for the presidency, and became Governor of New York in 1828.
Van Buren had barely finished unpacking when he left the New York Governor’s mansion to serve as Jackson’s Secretary of State. Van Buren was surprised by Jackson’s offer, as the two came from contrasting backgrounds and weren’t exactly political allies; however Van Buren and Jackson developed a mutual liking and it wasn’t long before Jackson picked Van Buren as both his Vice president, during his second term, and his handpicked successor. Van Buren defeated future president William Henry Harrison in the 1836 election, mainly due to Jackson’s heavy endorsement, and relished the prospect of his presidency.
Unfortunately, Van Buren was in the wrong place at the wrong time, as his nation became dogged by the Panic of 1837, which was the first full-scale depression in US history. Van Buren’s response to this economic downturn was almost nonexistent. Apart from recommending the creation of an independent federal treasury, Van Buren didn’t really do much to help his country. He took a Jeffersonian approach of small government, which just aggravated Congress and hurt his popularity. Although there is something to be said for Van Buren’s integrity and principled behaviour in office, the American public at the time simply felt abandoned and in the 1840 election voted out Van Buren and replaced him with war hero William Henry Harrison.
Although Van Buren ran for president again in 1848, he led a pretty quiet retirement, probably wishing he hadn’t been the act to follow Jackson’s. Van Buren was very unlucky in the fact that he had the expectations of Jackson hanging over him and also that his presidency was the first to endure a depression. However, Van Buren will always have the respect of historians understanding the new presidency he had to fulfil, which was much more extensive than either Washington’s or Jefferson’s, and compared to the luck of his successor, I think it’s safe to say Van Buren got off quite lightly.