Chapter 1: Andy Will Fight His Way in the World
Christmas 1828 should have been the happiest of seasons at the Hermitage, Jackson's plantation twelve miles outside Nashville. It was a week before the holiday, and Jackson had won the presidency of the United States the month before. "How triumphant!" Andrew Donelson said of the victory. "How flattering to the cause of the people!" Now the president- elect's family and friends were to be on hand for a holiday of good food, liquor, and wine–Jackson was known to serve guests whiskey, champagne, claret, Madeira, port, and gin–and, in this special year, a pageant of horses, guns, and martial glory.
On Wednesday, December 17, 1828, Jackson was sitting inside the house, answering congratulatory messages. As he worked, friends in town were planning a ball to honor their favorite son before he left for Washington. Led by a marshal, there would be a guard of soldiers on horseback to take Jackson into Nashville, fire a twenty- four- gun artillery salute, and escort him to a dinner followed by dancing. Rachel would be by his side.
In the last moments before the celebrations, and his duties, began, Jackson drafted a letter. Writing in his hurried hand across the foolscap, he accepted an old friend's good wishes: "To the people, for the confidence reposed in me, my gratitude and best services are due; and are pledged to their service." Before he finished the note, Jackson went outside to his Tennessee fields.
He knew his election was inspiring both reverence and loathing. The 1828 presidential campaign between Jackson and Adams had been vicious. Jackson's forces had charged that Adams, as minister to Russia, had procured a woman for Czar Alexander I. As president, Adams was alleged to have spent too much public money decorating the White House, buying fancy china and a billiard table. The anti- Jackson assaults were more colorful. Jackson's foes called his wife a bigamist and his mother a whore, attacking him for a history of dueling, for alleged atrocities in battles against the British, the Spanish, and the Indians–and for being a wife stealer who had married Rachel before she was divorced from her first husband. "Even Mrs. J. is not spared, and my pious Mother, nearly fifty years in the tomb, and who, from her cradle to her death had not a speck upon her character, has been dragged forth . . . and held to public scorn as a prostitute who intermarried with a Negro, and my eldest brother sold as a slave in Carolina," Jackson said to a friend.
Jackson's advisers marveled at the ferocity of the Adams attacks. "The floodgates of falsehood, slander, and abuse have been hoisted and the most nauseating filth is poured, in torrents, on the head, of not only Genl Jackson but all his prominent supporters," William B. Lewis told John Coffee, an old friend of Jackson's from Tennessee.
Some Americans thought of the president-elect as a second Father of His Country. Others wanted him dead. One Revolutionary War veteran, David Coons of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was hearing rumors of ambush and assassination plots against Jackson. To Coons, Jackson was coming to rule as a tribune of the people, but to others Jackson seemed dangerous–so dangerous, in fact, that he was worth killing. "There are a portion of malicious and unprincipled men who have made hard threats with regard to you, men whose baseness would (in my opinion) prompt them to do anything," Coons wrote Jackson.
That was the turbulent world awaiting beyond the Hermitage. In the draft of a speech he was to deliver to the celebration in town, Jackson was torn between anxiety and nostalgia. "The consciousness of a steady adherence to my duty has not been disturbed by the unsparing attacks of which I have been the subject during the election," the speech read. Still, Jackson admitted he felt "apprehension" about the years ahead. His chief fear? That, in Jackson's words, "I shall fail" to secure "the future prosperity of our beloved country." Perhaps the procession to Nashville and the ball at the hotel would lift his spirits; perhaps Christmas with his family would.
While Jackson was outside, word came that his wife had collapsed in her sitting room, screaming in pain. It had been a wretched time for Rachel. She was, Jackson's political foes cried, "a black wench," a "profligate woman," unfit to be the wife of the president of the United States. Shaken by the at- tacks, Rachel–also sixty-one and, in contrast to her husband, short and somewhat heavy–had been melancholy and anxious. "The enemies of the General have dipped their arrows in wormwood and gall and sped them at me," Rachel lamented during the campaign. "Almighty God, was there ever any thing equal to it?" On the way home from a trip to Nashville after the balloting, Rachel was devastated to overhear a conversation about the lurid charges against her. Her niece, the twenty-one- year- old Emily Donelson, tried to reassure her aunt but failed. "No, Emily," Mrs. Jackson replied, "I'll never forget it!"
When news of her husband's election arrived, she said: "Well, for Mr. Jackson's sake I am glad; for my own part I never wished it." Now the cumulative toll of the campaign and the coming administration exacted its price as Rachel was put to bed, the sound of her cries still echoing in her slave Hannah's ears.
Jackson rushed to his wife, sent for doctors, did what he could. Later, as she lay resting, her husband added an emotional postscript to the letter he had begun: "P.S. Whilst writing, Mrs. J. from good health, has been taken suddenly ill, with excruciating pain in the left shoulder, arm, and breast. What may be the result of this violent attack god only knows, I hope for her recovery, and in haste close this letter, you will pardon any inaccuracies A. J." Yet his hopes would not bring her back.
Rachel lingered for two and a half days. Jackson hovered by her side, praying for her survival. He had loved her for nearly four decades. His solace through war, politics, Indian fighting, financial chaos, and the vicissitudes of life in what was then frontier America, Rachel gave him what no one else ever had. In her arms and in their home he found a steady sense of family, a sustaining universe, a place of peace in a world of war. Her love for him was unconditional. She did not care for him because he was a general or a president. She cared for him because he was Andrew Jackson. "Do not, My beloved Husband, let the love of Country, fame and honor make you forget you have me," she wrote to him during the War of 1812. "Without you I would think them all empty shadows." When they were apart, Jackson would sit up late writing to her, his candle burning low through the night. "My heart is with you," he told her.
Shortly after nine on the evening of Monday, December 22, three days before Christmas, Rachel suffered an apparent heart attack. It was over. Still, Jackson kept vigil, her flesh turning cold to his touch as he stroked her forehead. With his most awesome responsibilities and burdens at hand, she had left him. "My mind is so disturbed . . . that I can scarcely write, in short my dear friend my heart is nearly broke," Jackson told his confidant John Coffee after Rachel's death.
At one o'clock on Christmas Eve afternoon, by order of the mayor, Nashville's church bells began ringing in tribute to Rachel, who was to be buried in her garden in the shadow of the Hermitage. The weather had been wet, and the dirt in the garden was soft; the rain made the gravediggers' task a touch easier as they worked. After a Presbyterian funeral service led by Rachel's minister, Jackson walked the one hundred fifty paces back to the house. A devastated but determined Jackson spoke to the mourners. "I am now the President elect of the United States, and in a short time must take my way to the metropolis of my country; and, if it had been God's will, I would have been grateful for the privilege of taking her to my post of honor and seating her by my side; but Providence knew what was best for her." God's was the only will Jackson ever bowed to, and he did not even do that without a fight.
In his grief, Jackson turned to Rachel's family. He would not–could not–go to Washington by himself. Around him at the Hermitage on this bleak Christmas Eve was the nucleus of the intimate circle he would maintain for the rest of his life. At the center of the circle, destined both to provide great comfort and to provoke deep personal anger in the White House, stood Andrew and Emily Donelson. They had an ancient claim on Jackson's affections and attention, and they were ready to serve.
While Andrew–who was also Emily's first cousin–was to work through the president- elect's correspondence, guard access to Jackson, and serve as an adviser, Emily, not yet twenty- two, would be the president's hostess. Attracted by the bright things of the fashionable world and yet committed to family and faith, Emily was at once selfless and sharp- tongued. Born on Monday, June 1, 1807, the thirteenth and last child of Mary and John Donelson, Emily was raised in the heart of frontier aristocracy and inherited a steely courage–perhaps from her grandfather, a Tennessee pioneer and a founder of Nashville–that could verge on obstinacy. It was a trait she shared with the other women in her family, including her aunt Rachel. "All Donelsons in the female line," wrote a family biographer, "were tyrants." Charming, generous, and hospitable tyrants, to be sure, but still a formidable lot–women who knew their own minds, women who had helped their husbands conquer the wilderness or were the daughters of those who had. Now one of them, Emily, would step into Rachel's place in the White House.
On Sunday, January 18, 1829, Jackson left the Hermitage for the capital. With the Donelsons, William Lewis, and Mary Eastin, Emily's friend and cousin, Jackson rode the two miles from the Hermitage to a wharf on a neighboring estate and boarded the steamboat Pennsylvania to travel the Cumberland River north, toward their new home. He was, as he had said to the mourners on the day of Rachel's burial, the president- elect of the United States.
Before he left Tennessee, he wrote a letter to John Coffee that mixed faith and resignation. His thoughts were with Rachel, and on his own mortality. "Whether I am ever to return or not is for time to reveal, as none but that providence, who rules the destiny of all, now knows," Jackson said.
His friends hoped that service to the nation would comfort him. "The active discharge of those duties to which he will shortly be called, more than anything else, will tend to soothe the poignancy of his grief," said the Nashville Republican and State Gazette in an edition bordered in black in mourning for Rachel. In a moving letter, Edward Livingston, a friend of Jackson's and a future secretary of state, saw that the cause of country would have to replace Rachel as Jackson's central concern. Referring to America, Livingston told the president- elect: "She requires you for her welfare to abandon your just grief, to tear yourself from the indulgence of regrets which would be a virtue in a private individual, but to which you are not permitted to yield while so much of her happiness depends upon your efforts in her service." Jackson understood. To rule, one had to survive, and to survive one had to fight.
The travelers wound their way through the country to the capital, passing through Louisville, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, where it snowed. The president- elect was complaining of sore limbs, a bad cough, and a hand worn out from greeting so many well- wishers. "He was very much wearied by the crowds of people that attended him everywhere, anxious to see the People's President," Mary Eastin wrote her father.
Ten days into the voyage, Emily Donelson finally found a moment to sit down. For her the trip had been a blur of cannons, cheers, and tending to colds–she had one, as did her little son Jackson. "I scarcely need tell you that we have been in one continual crowd since we started," Emily wrote her mother. Their quarters were overrun by guests, and there were ovations and shouts of joy from people along the banks of the river. The social demands of the presidency had begun, really, the moment Jackson and his party left the Hermitage. But Emily was not the kind to complain, at least not in her uncle's hearing. She loved the life that Jackson had opened to her and her husband.
"You must not make yourself unhappy about us, my dear Mother," Emily added, sending warm wishes to her father. The handwriting was shaky as the letter ended; the water was rough, the pace of the craft fast. "I hope you will excuse this scrawl," Emily said, "as it is written while the boat is running."
The speed of the boat did not seem to bother Andrew Jackson, but then he was accustomed to pressing ahead. He was constantly on the run, and had been all his life. For him the journey to the White House had begun six decades before, in a tiny place tucked away in the Carolinas–a place he never visited, and spoke of only sparingly, called Waxhaw.
Jackson grew up an outsider, living on the margins and at the mercy of others. Traveling to America from Ireland in 1765, his father, the senior Andrew Jackson, and his mother, Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson, moved into a tiny community a few hundred miles northwest of Charleston, in a spot straddling the border between North and South Carolina. "Waxhaw" came from the name of the tribe of native Indians in the region, and from a creek that flowed into the Catawba River. Though the Revolutionary War was eleven years away, the relationship between King George III and his American colonies was already strained. The year the Jacksons crossed the Atlantic, Parliament passed the Quartering Act (which forced colonists to shelter British troops) and the Stamp Act (which levied a tax on virtually every piece of paper on the continent). The result: the Massachusetts legislature called for a colonial congress in New York, which issued a "Declaration of Rights and Grievances" against King George III. Striking, too, was a remark made by a delegate from South Carolina, the Jacksons' new home. "There ought to be no more New England men, no New Yorkers," said Christopher Gadsden of Charleston, "but all of us Americans!"
Jackson's father, meanwhile, was trying to establish himself and his family in the New World. Though a man, his son recalled, of "independent" means, he was, it seems, poorer than his in- laws, who might have made him feel the disparity. While the other members of the extended family began prospering, Jackson moved his wife and two sons, Hugh and Robert, to Twelve Mile Creek, seven miles from the heart of Waxhaw. His wife was pregnant when the first Andrew Jackson died unexpectedly. It was a confusing, unsettling time. The baby was almost due, a snowstorm–rare in the South–had struck, and Jackson's pallbearers drank so much as they carried his corpse from Twelve Mile Creek to the church for the funeral that they briefly lost the body along the way.
Soon thereafter, on Sunday, March 15, 1767, Mrs. Jackson gave birth to her third son, naming him Andrew after her late husband. He was a dependent from delivery forward. Whether the birth took place in North or South Carolina has occupied historians for generations (Jackson himself thought it was South Carolina), but the more important fact is that Andrew Jackson came into the world under the roof of relatives, not of his own parents. Growing up, he would be a guest of the houses in which he lived, not a son, except of a loving mother who was never the mistress of her own household. One of Mrs. Jackson's sisters had married a Crawford, and the Crawfords were more affluent than the Jacksons. The loss of Mrs. Jackson's husband only made the gulf wider. When the Crawfords asked Mrs. Jackson and her sons to live with them, it was not wholly out of a sense of familial devotion and duty. The Jacksons needed a home, the Crawfords needed help, and a bargain was struck. "Mrs. Crawford was an invalid," wrote James Parton, the early Jackson biographer who interviewed people familiar with the Jacksons' days in Waxhaw, "and Mrs. Jackson was permanently established in the family as housekeeper and poor relation." Even in his mother's lifetime, Jackson felt a certain inferiority to and distance from others. "His childish recollections were of humiliating dependence and galling discomfort, his poor mother performing household drudgery in return for the niggardly maintenance of herself and her children," said Mary Donelson Wilcox, Emily and Andrew's oldest daughter. He was not quite part of the core of the world around him. He did not fully belong, and he knew it.
God and war dominated his childhood. His mother took him and his brothers to the Waxhaw Presbyterian meetinghouse for services every week, and the signal intellectual feat of his early years was the memorization of the Shorter Westminster Catechism. Most stories about the young Jackson also paint a portrait of a child and young man full of energy, fun, and not a little fury. Like many other children of the frontier, he was engaged in a kind of constant brawl from birth–and in Jackson's case, it was a brawl in which he could not stand to lose ground or points, even for a moment.
Wrestling was a common pastime, and a contemporary who squared off against Jackson recalled "I could throw him three times out of four, but he would never stay throwed." As a practical joke his friends packed extra powder into a gun Jackson was about to fire, hoping the recoil would knock him down. It did. A furious Jackson rose up and cried "By God, if one of you laughs, I'll kill him!"
Perhaps partly because he was fatherless, he may have felt he had to do more than usual to prove his strength and thus secure, or try to secure, his place in the community. "Mother, Andy will fight his way in the world," a neighborhood boy recalled saying in their childhood. Clearly Jackson seethed beneath the surface, for when flummoxed or crossed or frustrated, he would work himself into fits of rage so paralyzing that contemporaries recalled he would begin "slobbering." His prospects were not auspicious: here was an apparently unbalanced, excitable, insecure, and defensive boy coming of age in a culture of confrontation and violence. It was not, to say the least, the best of combinations.
His mother was his hope. His uncles and aunts apparently did not take a great deal of interest. They had their own children, their own problems, their own lives. Elizabeth Jackson was, however, a resourceful woman, and appears to have made a good bit out of little. There was some money, perhaps income from her late husband's farm, and gifts from relatives in Ireland–enough, anyway, to send Jackson to schools where he studied, for a time, under Presbyterian clergy, learning at least the basics of "the dead languages." He learned his most lasting lessons, however, not in a classroom but in the chaos of the Revolutionary War.
The birth of the Republic was, for Jackson, a time of unrelenting death. A week after Jackson's eighth birthday, in March 1775, Edmund Burke took note of the American hunger for independence. "The temper and character which prevail in our Colonies are, I am afraid, unalterable by any human art," he said. Within sixteen months Burke was proved right when the Continental Congress declared independence on July 4, 1776, a midsummer Thursday. By 1778, the South was the focus of the war, and the British fought brutally in Georgia and the Carolinas. In 1779, Andrew's brother Hugh, just sixteen, was fighting at the front and died, it was said, "of heat and fatigue" after a clash between American and British troops at the Battle of Stono Ferry, south of Charleston. It was the first in a series of calamities that would strike Jackson, who was thirteen.
The British took Charleston on Friday, May 12, 1780, then moved west. The few things Jackson knew and cherished were soon under siege. On Monday, May 29, at about three o'clock in the afternoon, roughly three hundred British troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton killed 113 men near Waxhaw and wounded another 150. It was a vicious massacre: though the rebels tried to surrender, Tarleton ordered his men forward, and they charged the Americans, a rebel surgeon recalled, "with the horrid yells of infuriated demons." Even after the survivors fell to the ground, asking for quarter, the British "went over the ground, plunging their bayonets into everyone that exhibited any signs of life."
The following Sunday was no ordinary Sabbath at Waxhaw. The meetinghouse was filled with casualties from the skirmish, and the Jacksons were there to help the wounded. "None of the men had less than three or four, and some as many as thirteen gashes on them," Jackson recalled.
He was so young, and so much was unfolding around him: the loss of a brother, the coming of the British, the threat of death, the sight of the bleeding and the dying in the most sacred place he knew, the meetinghouse. The enemy was everywhere, and the people of Waxhaw, like people throughout the colonies, were divided by the war, with Loyalists supporting George III and Britain, and others, usually called Whigs, throwing in their lot with the Congress. As Jackson recalled it, his mother had long inculcated him and his brothers with anti- British rhetoric, a stand she took because of her own father, back in Ireland. The way Mrs. Jackson told the story, he had fought the troops of the British king in action at Carrickfergus. "Often she would spend the winter's night, in recounting to them the sufferings of their grandfather, at the siege of Carrickfergus, and the oppressions exercised by the nobility of Ireland, over the labouring poor," wrote John Reid and John Eaton in a biography Jackson approved, "impressing it upon them, as their first duty, to expend their lives, if it should become necessary, in defending and supporting the natural rights of man." These words were written for a book published in 1817, after Jackson defeated the British at New Orleans and preparatory to his entering national politics, which may account for the unlikely image of Mrs. Jackson tutoring her sons in Enlightenment political thought on cold Carolina evenings. But there is no doubt that Jackson chose to remember his upbringing this way, which means he linked his mother with the origins of his love of country and of the common man.
In the split between the revolutionaries and the Loyalists Jackson saw firsthand the brutality and bloodshed that could result when Americans turned on Americans. "Men hunted each other like beasts of prey," wrote Amos Kendall, the Jackson intimate who spent hours listening to Jackson reminisce, "and the savages were outdone in cruelties to the living and indignities on the dead."
Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton–known as "Bloody Tarleton" for his butchery–once rode so close to the young Jackson that, Jackson recalled, "I could have shot him." The boy soaked up the talk of war and its rituals from the local militia officers and men. Months passed, and there were more battles, more killing. "Boys big enough to carry muskets incurred the dangers of men," wrote Kendall–and Jackson was big enough to carry a musket.
In April 1781, after a night spent on the run from a British party, he and his brother Robert were trapped in one of their Crawford relatives' houses. A neighboring Tory alerted the redcoats, and soon Andrew and Robert were surrounded. The soldiers ransacked the house, and an imperious officer ordered Jackson to polish his boots.
Jackson refused. "Sir," he said, with a striking formality and coolness under the circumstances for a fourteen- year- old, "I am a prisoner of war, and claim to be treated as such." The officer then swung his sword at the young man. Jackson blocked the blade with his left hand, but he could not fend it off completely. "The sword point reached my head and has left a mark there . . . on the skull, as well as on the fingers," Jackson recalled. His brother was next, and when he too refused the order to clean the boots, the officer smashed the sword over Robert's head, knocking him to the floor.
In some ways, Andrew was strengthened by the blows, for he would spend the rest of his life standing up to enemies, enduring pain, and holding fast until, after much trial, victory came. Robert was not so fortunate. The two boys were taken from the house to a British prison camp in Camden, about forty miles away. The journey was difficult in the April heat: "The prisoners were all dismounted and marched on foot to Camden, pushed through the swollen streams and prevented from drinking," Jackson recalled. The mistreatment continued at the camp. "No attention whatever was paid to the wounds or to the comfort of the prisoners, and the small pox having broken out among them, many fell victims to it," Jackson said. Robert was sick, very sick. Their mother managed to win her sons' release, and, with a desperately ill Robert on one horse and Mrs. Jackson on another, a barefoot Andrew–the British had taken his shoes and his coat–had to, as he recalled, "trudge" forty- five miles back to Waxhaw.
They made a ragged, lonely little group. En route, even the weather turned against them. "The fury of a violent storm of rain to which we were exposed for several hours before we reached the end of our journey caused the small pox to strike in and consequently the next day I was dangerously ill," Jackson recalled. Two days later Robert died. "During his confinement in prison," Jackson's earliest biography said, Robert "had suffered greatly; the wound on his head, all this time, having never been dressed, was followed by an inflammation of the brain, which in a few days after his liberation, brought him to his grave."
Two Jackson boys were now dead at the hands of the British. Elizabeth nursed Andrew, now her only living child, back from the precipice–and then left, to tend to two of her Crawford nephews who were sick in Charleston.
Jackson never saw her again. In the fall of 1781 she died in the coastal city tending to other boys, and was buried in obscurity. Her clothes were all that came back to him. Even by the rough standards of the frontier in late eighteenth- century America, where disease and death were common, this was an extraordinary run of terrible luck.
For Jackson, the circumstances of Elizabeth's last mission of mercy and burial would be perennial reminders of the tenuous position she had been forced into by her own husband's death. First was the occasion of her visit to Charleston: to care for the extended family, leaving her own son behind. However selfless her motives–she had nursed the war's wounded from that first Waxhaw massacre in the late spring of 1780–Elizabeth had still gone to the coast for the sake of Jackson's cousins, not her own children. The uncertainty over the fate of her remains was a matter of concern to Jackson even in his White House years. He long sought the whereabouts of his mother's grave, but to no avail. Perhaps partly in reaction to what he may have viewed as the lack of respect or care others had taken with his mother's burial, he became a careful steward of such things–a devotee of souvenirs, a keeper of tombs, and an observer of anniversaries. The first woman he ever loved, his mother, rested in oblivion. The second woman who won his heart, Rachel, would be memorialized in stateliness and grandeur at the Hermitage after her death, and in his last years he would spend hours in the garden, contemplating her tomb. Bringing his mother home had been beyond his power. The story of Jackson's life was how he strove to see that little else ever would be.
Excerpted from American Lion by Jon Meacham. Copyright © 2008 by Jon Meacham. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.