Thomas Jefferson

Andrew Jackson Claims the Jefferson Image


The legacy of the republican tradition was up for grabs in the 1828 Presidential election. Andrew Jackson represented the Democrats in opposition to President John Q. Adams, who had reinstated a Federalist agenda during his tenure in office. Both parties fought hard to claim the Jefferson image as rightfully theirs, but Andrew Jackson, a tough, sometimes vicious campaigner, won the day with his emphasis on states' rights and democracy (never mind that as late as 1824, Jefferson had opposed Jackson's candidacy). Jackson claimed not only the Jefferson image, but he inherited the dilemna that Jefferson confronted during his two terms as well: how to reconcile his opposition rhetoric and principles with the tough choices--and compromises--that the office demands.

Given the heated nature of the 1828 election and its focus on Jeffersonian priniciples, no work could have had a greater impact on the time than the publication of Jefferson's Memoirs, Correspondence and Private Papers in 1829. As Merrill Peterson states, "Men of letters tasted it [Memoirs], politicians swallowed it, historians digested it--or tried to."9 The Memoirs contained the majority of artifacts relating to Jefferson's political careeer; it left out personal anecdotes and thus, in the final analysis, left the Jefferson image as the age had originally found it, a political talisman. During Jackson's administration, it quickly became the text to which politicians turned for support as they, in Peterson's words, "competed for the favors of the Jefferson symbol."10

However, the Jefferson symbol had become a slippery thing to hold. With the aid of Jackson's opposition polemic, the beneficent Father of Liberty had evolved into the Father of States' Rights and of "Democracy"--in practice, as both Jefferson and Jackson saw, two contradictory impulses. And when the the South appropriated the states' rights! battle cry, the Jefferson image became not just slippery, but anathema, to the majority of Americans during the Civil War era.


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