HM - Jan. 2014 - Adams
The History File
Unpacking Andrew Jackson's "Common Man" in Two Documents
Sean Patrick Adams
Department of History
University of Florida
Sean Patrick Adams
Department of History
University of Florida
As an historian of the nineteenth century, I find teaching Andrew Jackson’s legacy one of the most difficult challenges in the classroom. On the one hand, popular historians and pundits revel in the stories about Jackson’s fiery personality—his proclivity for duels, his angry denunciations of enemies, and above all, his adamant assertion that he embodied the “people” or the “common man.” Personality quirks aside, most historians agree that Jackson’s rise brought significant changes in the ways that Americans viewed and participated in the political process. But, on the other hand, Jackson’s patriarchal approach to women, his slaveholding, and his lack of patience for anti-slavery ideas, are not admirable qualities by today’s standards. Historical context tells us that these were widely shared beliefs among Jackson’s contemporaries, and he was hardly alone in harboring these thoughts. In some areas, though, Andrew Jackson’s attitudes stood out from the crowd. How Jackson dealt with the question of Native American sovereignty, for example, is very much at odds with many of his contemporary politicians as well as our modern, more inclusive notion of the American nation. On Jackson’s watch, Native Americans found themselves more and more marginalized in the eyes of the United States—in fact a great many Indian nations were dispossessed and disempowered by it. This policy has a deep and bitter legacy. I did a TAH workshop in Tulsa, Oklahoma a few years ago and some teachers told me that in their small towns with significant Native American populations, twenty-dollar notes were not commonly used, as even the sight of Jackson’s face on the bill was disquieting. Nearly two centuries later, the General can still infuriate Americans as much as he might inspire them. So, then, how can we teach Jackson’s legacy to our students? How can we reconcile the rhetorical and the actual notions of the Jacksonian “common man”?
History teachers at every level know the value of using primary sources in the classroom, so the use of these firsthand perspectives is hardly novel. For teaching historical subjects that come with a great deal of gloss—either positive or negative—firsthand accounts are absolutely crucial. One trick I’ve found is juxtaposing two historical documents from the same actor that provide an apparent contradiction or paradox on the surface, and then have the students work out reconciliation with close attention to the historical context in which they appeared. With controversial figures like Andrew Jackson, close attention to elements of primary source analysis such as audience, intent, and context can give our students an appreciation for the value of a close and informed reading of a primary source at the same time that they offer insights into how Americans in the Early Republic viewed the inclusive and exclusive nature of their politics. In this case, I’ve selected two documents to represent Jackson’s ideas about the “American nation” written for two different audiences.
First, let’s look at the inclusive. We can all agree that the spectacle of Andrew Jackson’s inauguration as President of the United States on March 4, 1829 was one for the ages. Crowds of supporters and admirers swarmed into Washington D.C. to catch a glimpse at their newly elected hero. Throughout the tough election season of the previous year, Americans heard again and again about Andrew Jackson’s love of “the common man” and his loathing of the “moneyed interests.” Now was the time for that admiration to be reciprocated. By the time Jackson arrived at the East Portico of the Capitol to deliver his speech and take the oath of office, more than twenty thousand in the audience roared their approval. He gave his speech, took the oath, and proceeded to the White House for a celebration. According to one eyewitness:
The living mass was impenetrable. After a while a passage was opened, and he mounted his horse which had been provided for his return (for he had walked to the Capitol) then such a cortege as followed him! Country men, farmers, gentlemen, mounted and dismounted, boys, women, and children, black and white. Carriages, wagons and carts all pursuing him to the President’s house….
At the White House, a boisterous affair awaited Jackson, as his supporters helped themselves to the alcoholic punch, ice cream, and cake laid out for the occasion. “Ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses and such a scene of confusion took place as impossible to describe,” Margaret Bayard Smith later recalled. The crowd pressed the newly inaugurated President until “windows were thrown open, and the torrent found an outlet, which might otherwise have proved fatal.” As a member of Washington’s elite, Mrs. Smith disapproved of the crowd’s lack of decorum and unbridled enthusiasm. And yet, for many of those witnesses to Jackson’s inauguration, many of them only recently granted the right to vote in presidential elections by their home states, this event really did make the American republic more inclusive and broad-based in its political structure.
Reading the speech that Andrew Jackson gave that day doesn’t do justice to the raucous context in which it appeared. To be honest, it’s dry and unassuming; almost the opposite image of the fiery campaign rhetoric used to boost his candidacy in 1828. Nonetheless, inauguration speeches are important moments of political theater, as they offer a tone and direction for the incoming administration. Although delivered to a decidedly unruly bunch, the message that Andrew Jackson conveyed seemed quite measured and calm and, most importantly, what he considered to be the legitimate responsibilities of his office to the American people.
To read Jackson’s 1829 Inaugural Address from the Library of Congress website, go to:
It is tempting to teach the political rise of Andrew Jackson as yet another step in the inevitable march of democracy in America. As a representative of the “common man,” Jackson certainly portrayed his election as a reflection of the popular will. More than one million votes were cast in the presidential election of 1828—triple the number cast in the previous presidential contest. Only two states, South Carolina and Delaware, still allowed their legislatures to determine electoral votes. The notion of popular elections determining a state’s electoral votes was a recent innovation in American politics; when Thomas Jefferson won the presidency the majority of his electoral votes came from state legislative contests. In 1812 only one-half of the states allowed their voters, not their legislatures, to select the president. Between 1824 and 1828, four states switched to popular voting for president and the largest one, New York, meant that over 270,000 voters were added to the popular totals. So the idea that Andrew Jackson’s political rise relied so heavily on the General’s championing of “the common man” makes sense.
And yet, at the exact same time that Andrew Jackson’s political rise reflected a more inclusive electorate, it also signaled a new phase in an ongoing project that was just as central in American history as the expansion of suffrage: the forced relocation of American Indians. At the same time that states allowed for more citizens to vote, they restricted the definition of that citizenry along increasingly hardening categories of gender and race. For Native Americans, this ideological trend was troubling. The prior tendency of the United States to appropriate land through purchase or treaty—a process aptly described by historian Philip Deloria as “the redefinition of Indian lands as new spaces of empire”—at least recognized Native American sovereignty. The Jacksonian rhetoric invoking the needs of the “common man” signaled the ascendency of a more aggressive approach toward the seizure of Native American land, culminating in the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. In the end, Jacksonian removal policies resulted in the forced dispossession and displacement of approximately 100,000 Native Americans from their homes. During their march at gunpoint across the American Southeast in the late 1830s, the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw and Seminole peoples suffered mortality rates that ranged between 20 and 25%--no wonder that these thousands of deaths gave this massive expulsion the infamous label, the “Trail of Tears.” Exclusion from the American nation, as it turns out, is as much a legacy of this era as inclusion.
Andrew Jackson had this removal policy towards Native Americans very much on his mind at the time of his inauguration. On March 23, 1829 he wrote a letter to the Creek Nation in response to the murder of a white settler, Elijah Wells, in Georgia. Like his inaugural address, this message was meant for a wide audience; Secretary of War John Eaton had the government representative to the Creeks read it to an assembled group of leaders. Jackson, less than three weeks from assuming office, offers an early expression of removal policy in this letter and his tone regarding whether or not Native Americans would be part of his American nation was both clear and forceful.
To read Andrew Jackson’s 1829 letter to the Creeks, go to:
In comparing these two documents, consider the following kinds of questions. How do we reconcile the Jacksonian expansion of political rights with the contraction of the definition of what it meant to be an American? Is it fair to compare these two letters based on their close chronological proximity and their different audiences? Did the inclusion of more white male voters in the political arena necessitate an exclusion of non-whites living in the United States from that polity? Does the rhetoric used here reveal Jackson’s ideas about who was included in the American nation and who was excluded? Finally, through a close reading of these two documents and their context, how would you define the “common man” in 1829?
Hopefully this comparison helps students not only understand the particular content area—in this case the complexity of “common man” rhetoric in the Early Republic and its applicability towards various groups of Americans—but also the value of reading primary sources deeply, as well as with particular attention to the context in which they appeared and the tone that they adopt. No one would suspect, if they read Jackson’s inaugural in isolation, that it was delivered amidst an enthusiastic crowd who fervently believed that the American Republic was changing for the best. Nor could anyone deny, after reading Jackson’s message to the Creeks a few weeks later, that for a significant category of Americans, this change came with unwelcome consequences.
The original copy of Andrew Jackson’s March 23, 1829 message to the Creeks is held at The Hermitage, Jackson’s estate in Nashville, Tennessee. The Hermitage also maintains a website with biographical information and an extensive bibliography. (http://www.thehermitage.com/) The March 23, 1829 letter appears in an edited form in Daniel Feller, Harold D. Moser, Laura Eve Moss, and Thomas Coens, eds., The Papers of Andrew Jackson, Volume VII, 1829 (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2007), pp. 112-113. Visit the Jackson Papers online for more documents and a complete list of the published papers: http://thepapersofandrewjackson.utk.edu/. The Library of Congress reproduced Jackson’s 1829 inaugural address and some ancillary documents in its “American Treasures” exhibition, which highlights critical sources from their huge collection. (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/)