Should North Carolina claim Andrew Jackson?

by DG Martin

North Carolina claims Andrew Jackson as one of the three presidents it contributed to the nation, along with James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson, all of whom later moved to Tennessee.

Polk and Johnson were certainly born in North Carolina. Jackson, however, was born near the North and South Carolina boundary, with both states claiming him as their native son.

HW Brands, the author of the recent bestseller, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, takes South Carolina’s side on the birthplace question. However, he points out that Jackson spent much of his growing-up years in North Carolina, trained as a lawyer in Salisbury and even practiced law here before crossing the mountains to what is now Tennessee. Even there, his first public service was as a North Carolina official since what became Tennessee was still a part of our state.

If North Carolina has a claim to Jackson, do we really want to brag about it? After all, Jackson has his detractors who point to several troubling areas of his record. He was the owner of a large number of slaves. He was the leading proponent of the country’s Indian removal policy, which led to the Trail of Tears leading from the mountains of the Carolinas and Georgia to Oklahoma. Finally, he enthusiastically pushed an expansionist policy towards lands controlled by Indians and Mexico.

Negative feelings about Jackson run high in some people. Jackson’s biographer Brands says that some people ask him, “How can you defend that genocidal maniac?”

Brand does not argue with these criticisms of Jackson. But he does point out that Jackson lived in a different time. In his times in Tennessee and other parts of the South, slavery was the established economic and social order. Jackson was no different in this respect than the Southern presidents who preceded him. Similarly, many Americans joined him in supporting the relocation of the eastern Indian tribes and the expansion of the country westward into territories controlled by other nations and Indian tribes. Brands points out, too, that Jackson “knew” the eastern Native Americans would be in danger from attack by the white settlers if they were not removed to the West.

To show how popular Jackson was during his times, Brands counted the number of places in America named after each of the early presidents. Washington and Jefferson are presidential names that are attached to many localities. But Jackson has more places named after him than any other president, indicating the great affection his contemporaries had for him.

There were good reasons to remember Jackson with gratitude, according to Brands.

The “Jacksonian Era” was responsible for bringing the common man into the American democratic experiment. Until Jackson’s election as president, the United States was only “half way” to a democracy based on the will of the masses as opposed to one based on the will of a limited group of the wealthy and the educated.

He saved the union, twice.

First, in 1815 during the War of 1812, General Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans kept the British from grabbing control of the Mississippi River and jamming the United States back against the Eastern Seaboard. To those who say the battle was a waste since the peace treaty had already been signed, Brands says neither country had ratified the treaty. If the British had won the Battle of New Orleans, Britain might never have ratified the treaty and could have retained control of the Mississippi.

Secondly, when in 1832 South Carolina passed an ordinance of nullification and threatened secession, Jackson’s firm action and threat to use armed forces to enforce the law and put down rebellion “saved the union” and established the precedent used by President Lincoln 30 years later to call for troops to put down South Carolina’s second experiment with succession.

People can argue about where Andrew Jackson was born and whether or not he should be honored for his performance as a national leader. But one thing is certain; Brand’s account of the orphan boy from the Carolina frontier country who becomes a national hero is a compelling story.