Old Hickory

Compared to later candidates for the White House whose use of the western hero image was certainly questionable, Andrew Jackson was the genuine article. Rugged, unrefined, boisterous, and brave, the son of Tennesee was unlike any President before him, and the nation will doubtfully ever present the office to a man of his character again. The historian Dixon Wecter relays a line from A Brief and Impartial History of...Andrew Jackson. By a Free Man, published in 1831: "Andrew Jackson is probably the only President of the United States who did not believe that the earth is round."

To America, the Westerner has always represented the outsider, a break from the status quo. From the very first days of political campaigning in this nation, candidates from the West have always presented themselves as the outsider, a break from the stagnation of Washington. In 1828, when one spoke of the West, the listener did not picture the Pacific Ocean. With 24 states in the union, the West meant places like Tennessee and even Virginia.

Unlike the six experienced statesmen who served as President before him, Jackson was inexperienced at leading the citizenry. He was fighter, plain and simple. More Natty Bumpo than Thomas Jefferson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans had proven himself to be of exceptionally tenacity and valor, having defeated the two groups of people whom U.S. citizens of 1828 feared the most: the British and the Native Americans. Known simply as "the Hero" to many, Jackson was the sort of commoner that later Presidential candidates would pretend to be.

He was crass, unsophisticated, rude, and in many ways ignorant, yet he garnered the greater part of the American popular vote in three consecutive elections. To the consternation of his critics, the American people adored Jackson, romanticized him. He was more than a candidate for the people; he was one of the people. "Better than Washington or Jefferson," Wecter writes "this battered old soldier-with his blazing blue eyes, sunken cheeks, and shock of white mane, his courage and his stubbornness, his rages and his tenderness-was the essence of Americanism. He was the kind of man whom the majority of Americans in his day imagined themselves to be." (200)

To the surprise of many in 1824, Andrew Jackson won both the popular vote and the electoral vote but he did not procure a majority, and the election was thrown into Congress, which awarded the Presidency to John Quincy Adams. Andrew Jackson responded like the warrior that he was. Rather than be victimized, he called out for a revolution of the people, a democratic movement on the farm. He said people should elect the President, not Congress, and he claimed he was the man for the job. Four years later, he rode a wave of popular support into the highest office in the land. In many ways, Jackson’s election of 1828 was the first true smear campaign in American history, thus beginning a very recognizable tradition.

Known as "Old Hickory," because of his robustness, Jackson translated this appellation into physical paraphernalia. Hickory gave the Democrats something tangible from which they could create accouterments. Canes, hats, brooms and buttons all surfaced bearing Jackson’s image or the image of a hickory tree. The election of 1824 permanently established Old Hickory as a myth-like outsider, diametrically opposed to bureaucracy with a life-long adversarial relationship to the federal government and the upper classes in power. At least, that was the image that he fed to the public.

Certainly, Jackson was rougher around the collar than his predecessors or successors. Following his first inauguration, he welcomed hundreds of visitors into the White House. To the horror of some, blacks and poor whites, mingled with the political clout, tracking mud through the quarters and even breaking windows to provide more ventilation.

The story was recounted again and again, mostly in Jackson’s own campaign biographies, how, as a boy, Jackson received a permanent scar on his face for refusing to shine a British officer’s shoes. A product of the culture of honor, Jackson admittedly had taken part in many duels, had almost certainly killed men outside of combat, and carried several bullets in his own person. Rugged heroism met coarseness in "King Andrew," as his critics labeled him. Still, even this genuine article had to do a little self invention to fulfill the heroic ideal. Although his persona was right, his ideology needed a little tweaking.

Because of his military triumph, Jackson had a better station in life than most in western Tennessee. A landholder and supporter of hard money, Jackson "had represented the nabobs of the frontier against the leather-shirts" of the frontier in earlier local elections (Wecter 206). Jackson (and and later W. H. Harrison) learned that to garner the empathy of the commoner, one must attack the Bank. In fact, no one is more associated with opposition to the federal Bank by today’s historians than Andrew Jackson. The truth, however, is that Jackson did not truly harbor such a resentment for the U.S. Bank and had, at one time, even owned stock in the Nashville branch.

All these details, however, are unimportant. Americans do not worship men, but rather ideals of how men should be. We create men like Jackson as much as they create themselves. Americans like to think of their country, particularly in the West, as a place of great industry. In Jackson, voters saw representation of striving, the possibility of anyone accomplishing anything. The American dream. As Wecter describes, "the spirit of the masses had captured Jackson and made him its mouthpiece" (206). Andrew Jackson translated perfectly into a symbol, from his history to his nickname, and, in many ways, candidates for office in American have been trying to recreate his identity with the American public ever since.

This site created and maintained by Adam Reno.
Last updated December 18, 2001