Please welcome guest author Mark R. Cheathem. Dr. Cheathem is an associate professor of history at Cumberland University. His recently published book, Andrew Jackson, Southerner (LSU Press), provides a new perspective on the seventh president and his identification with the South.
Many Americans think of President Andrew Jackson as a rough-hewn, fiery-tempered westerner who appeared on the Middle Tennessee frontier intent on fighting Indians. The struggle of surviving on the western frontier, the mythology goes, led Jackson to embrace democracy and seek to free the American people from the aristocratic rule of political elites. Very little attention is paid to Jackson’s background except to acknowledge his Scots-Irish roots. It is as if nothing mattered prior to his move to Nashville.
Contrary to this misconception, Jackson’s early years, from his birth in 1767 to his move into what became East Tennessee in 1788, established his identity as an elite southerner-in-the-making.
He spent his childhood and early teenage years in the Waxhaws, a region located along the border of present-day Lancaster County, South Carolina, and Union County, North Carolina.
The Waxhaws was the scene of prolonged white-Indian violence that had largely ended by the time Jackson was born. While periodic conflict occurred in the area, Jackson was not subjected to a violent childhood that produced a lifelong hatred of Native Americans. He grew up, however, around relatives and neighbors who certainly would have conveyed their experiences to him.
The Waxhaws settlement was also an area connected to Charleston via the Catawba Path, named for a local Native American group. The link between the Waxhaws and Charleston meant that trade, culture, and news were constantly flowing into the backcountry where the Jackson family lived. Jackson’s world, then, looked eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean, not westward toward the Appalachian Mountains, and it was hardly the type of frontier one thinks of.
At least two of Jackson’s uncles experienced success in the Waxhaws. One, Robert Crawford, owned a large house, a significant tract of land, and several slaves, and he held positions of prominence in the community. Another, James Crawford, was not as prosperous as his brother, but he still owned several hundred acres. They and other relatives provided a kinship network of support for Jackson’s immediate family when it faced significant challenges.
Jackson’s father died around the time he was born in March 1767, so his mother, Elizabeth, moved in permanently with her sister, Jane, wife of James Crawford. Elizabeth Jackson took care of her three sons—Hugh, Robert, and Andrew—as well as her four young nephews. The land that her late husband had left her sat idle, unable to generate income for the family. The Crawfords kept Jackson’s family from becoming destitute.
Then came the Revolution. Jackson’s oldest brother, Hugh, died of heat exhaustion at the Battle of Stono Ferry in 1780. Early the next year, Jackson and his other brother, Robert, were captured by British troops and taken to nearby Camden, where they both contracted smallpox. They were freed after a few weeks, but Robert died shortly thereafter. Later that year, Jackson’s mother contracted cholera and died in Charleston, where she had been tending to her nephews, who were being held in a British prison.
This adversity could have crippled Jackson. Indeed, he seems to have experienced a period of rebellion, not surprising given his age and the loss of his immediate family. In the winter of 1782-83, Jackson had a falling out with his uncle James and moved to Charleston. This move exposed him to urban life in one of the most southern of cities. Jackson would have witnessed slave ships offloading their human cargo and traders selling them in the streets.
He also would have had the opportunity to become even more aware of the possibilities that existed to move up in society. At some point during his time in Charleston, Jackson made a decision. Whether influenced by his uncles’ examples of success or by another influence that went unrecorded, he decided that entering the legal profession provided him with the opportunity to become a gentleman.
After spending a few months in Charleston, Jackson went back to the Waxhaws, then moved to North Carolina to study law. He eventually read under three lawyers—Charles Bruce of Martinville, Spruce Macay of Salisbury, and John Stokes of Montgomery County. All three men were successful gentlemen in their own right; they also provided Jackson with a political and social network that bore fruit for the next fifty years. For example, Stokes’ niece married William B. Lewis, who became one of Jackson’s closest political advisors in the 1820s and early 1830s.
More immediately, while studying with Macay, Jackson roomed with lawyer John McNairy. It was McNairy, appointed to a position as superior court judge in the Mero District, which included modern-day Middle Tennessee, who asked Jackson to become the district’s prosecuting attorney. When Jackson set out for Tennessee, he was accompanied by McNairy and other well-connected friends whom he had met in North Carolina.
During his time in Jonesboro, two circumstances in particular indicated that Jackson was already considered a member of the southern elite. One was his purchase of a slave woman by the name of Nancy. By making this financial investment, Jackson assumed one of the characteristics of wealth: the ownership of another human and his/her labor. In doing so, he was both following the example of his fellow lawyers and projecting his image as a gentleman of rank.
The second circumstance was Jackson’s duel with Waightstill Avery, a North Carolina lawyer who had declined the opportunity to train him. The origin of the dispute is unclear. Two of Jackson’s earliest biographers note that the two men were on opposite sides of a court case in Jonesboro. As Jackson wrote Avery in August 1788, “My character you have Injured; and further you have Insulted me in the presence of a court and a larg audianc.” He insisted that Avery “as a gentleman . . . give me Satisfaction.” The two men agreed to a duel, which saw both men miss their mark. They then agreed to conclude their quarrel amicably.
This was only the first of several duels and physical assaults in which Jackson was involved, but its importance centered on the message that it sent about him. In southern culture, only men of a certain class could call themselves gentlemen and demand satisfaction for insults to their character. That he could challenge Avery, a Princeton graduate and prominent attorney, and have him answer that challenge said that Jackson was a member of that elite class, even before he set foot in Nashville and married into the prominent Donelson family, the event that supposedly marked his entry into the southern gentry.
Of course, Jackson’s marriage to Rachel Donelson Robards gave him a significant kinship network that connected him financially and politically in ways that solidified his place among the upper class. It seems likely, however, that Jackson never would have been accepted into the established Donelson clan unless he was recognized as one of them, as a social equal.
Jackson’s elevation to elite status did not preclude him from identifying with the average American. His immediate family was not wealthy when he was a child. Their deaths before and during the Revolution left him without social and economic stability and forced him to find his own way in life. Jackson never forgot where he came from, and it informed his view of the common man and democratic politics.