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On March 14, 1838 thousands of African Americans protested the laws disfranchising black men recently enacted by the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1837. Contending that this amounted to a rank betrayal of the legacy of the American Revolution, their formal Appeal asked how was it that the Convention took it upon itself to “to deny ‘that all men are born equally free,’ by making political rights depend upon the skin in which a man is born? or to divide what our fathers bled to unite, to wit, taxation and representation?” Pennsylvania was not the only state to undergo this process, a broadening of democracy for white men, but also a “whitening” of the voter rolls. Across the young nation, the immediate impact of the shift from “elite republicanism” to Jacksonian democracy actually worsened the situation of African Americans who were excluded from it.
International political, economic, demographic and social changes, however, created a continually evolving set of prospects for individual and collective freedom for African Americans whose power steadily increased throughout the Jacksonian era. Black resistance and the responses to it made for a fluid and volatile situation helping to set the stage for a climatic showdown between an increasingly powerful Northern free-market capitalist system and a archaic slave-driven semi-feudal slave system. While ultimately unsuccessful, the collective psychological impact of the armed revolts of blacks, individual and collective efforts to physically escape the bonds of slavery, as well as, the daily work slowdowns and sabotage on an individual level and the abolitionist movement led to counterproductive responses by the slaveholders and their representatives.
In the end a cataclysmic civil war resulted killing and maiming an incredibly high proportion of the South’s white males and a significant number of northerners. Emancipation eventually came at an horrific price to all. At least in some measure, every American president from the Missouri Compromise to the Civil War realized that outcome of the struggle between the North and South over the issue of slavery could end tragically in a disastrous civil war. Collectively, however, whatever their individual consciousness of the dangers to the young American nation, they did little to head it off. Events controlled them more than they controlled events. The slave revolts led by Denmark Vesey in 1822 and Nat Turner in 1831 had an electrifying effect on American politics. The founding of the Liberator newspaper by William Lloyd Garrison in 1831 during the same period shook slaveholders from their complacency and intensified the conflict between the forces of oppression and those of freedom.
Chief Executive Andrew Jackson waxed presidential in his idealistic and progressive-sounding 1831 State of the Union speech declaring that “Science is steadily penetrating the recesses of nature and disclosing her secrets” in order that "the ingenuity of free minds” is utilized to enhance the people's level of comfort. He cited the tremendous progress in communication and transportation that was constantly bridging the distance between cities and bringing their inhabitants in closer contact with each other. Ironically, it was these very same developments that spelled the long-term doom for his cherished system of slavery. While Jackson could laud the progress of the postal system “whose speed is regularly increased and whose routes are every year extended,” in less than five years he would face a crisis made possible by this improved communication, the great postal crisis of 1835. The isolation reflecting the frontier conditions of poor transportation and slow communications, as well as, the initial traumas suffering by the first generations of African American slaves, served to enhance the power of the slaveholders. The penetration of the cotton and rice curtains of slavery by newspapers and pamphlets, now able to be cheaply mass-produced created the specter of the South's allegedly “happy” slaves expanding their vision of the world. A growing black consciousness would doom the slaveholders’ plan of perpetuating and expanding their system.
Jackson’s 1831 State of the Union speech was able to project a vision of progress in a period of seeming tranquility. Focusing on the problems and prospects of the young nation's transportation and communications infrastructure Jackson was able to maintain the traditional official code of silence on slavery. Only a few months later, however, this enforced silence would be impossible as the terror wrought by the religiously-inspired Nat Turner revolt ignited a debate on the future of slavery and the extent of federal governmental involvement in it. The Nat Turner rebellion changed forever the social and political context within which American slavery existed. William Lloyd Garrison whose abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, was founded in 1831 relying heavily on African American financial support, commented, “I do not justify the slaves in their rebellion; yet I do not condemn them, and applaud similar conduct in white men.”
In 1828 Andrew Jackson won the presidency with John C. Calhoun as his vice-presidential running mate defeating the incumbent John Quincy Adams. Jackson’s victory was made possible by the three-fifths rule that gave southern whites the three fifths of a person for slaves as provided for in the Constitution. In defeat Adams was convinced that his narrow loss meant the new ascendancy of a slaveholding Democratic coalition.62 However, only five years later Calhoun and Jackson were locking horns over the issue of “nullification,” a doctrine that held that the state had the right to negate laws judged detrimental to its basic interests. It was a states’ rights doctrine that Jackson fiercely opposed. Without the right to nullify, a South Carolina-centered sector of the southern slaveholding elite argued, the only remedy would be to secede from the union of states.
The life and career of Andrew Jackson with few exceptions coheres with the kind of consistency many ideologues admire. Slaveholder and defender of slavery, Indian fighter and land magnate, Jackson also wove together a political ideology and practice that reflected these endeavors. Born in 1767, Andrew Jackson grew up amid a violent atmosphere during a period when the Catawba Indians were being pushed off of their land. Quick-tempered, irritable, and bullying Jackson nevertheless was a prodigy. Too impatient to sit in a classroom, he entered military service as an adolescent and by the age of thirteen he had served in the Revolutionary War. Taken prisoners early on in the war, he is said to have contemptuously dismissed the British commanding officer’s order to shine his boots. Independent as an orphaned teenager, he nevertheless progressed, moving to Charleston and becoming a lawyer. Despite this professional achievement, his popular image suggested that he had only a minimal formal education that was reflected in poor spelling and grammar. Aided by his early career start, Jackson’s aggressively ambitious personality led to a rapid ascent up the political ladder. By the age of twenty-two he held the office of Solicitor and within the next year rose to the post of the United States’ Attorney. Some six years later, at age thirty, Jackson was a United States’ Senator. Through all of this professional and career development he remained ready for a good fight, whether over a personal matter of honor, however petty, or involving an international dispute. Not surprisingly, Jackson eventually resumed the military career he had launched at such a tender age.
Andrew Jackson emerged as a distinct personality within the context of this violent era. His May 1806 duel with Charles Dickinson, who dared to argue with Jackson after a horse race, escalated after Jackson beat a youthful friend of Dickinson, an excellent gunman, with a cane. Dickinson felt obliged, as a “gentleman” to challenge Jackson to a duel. Despite personal appeals to Jackson not to engage in a custom that was fading, and to threaten damage to his ever-increasing prominence, Jackson couldn't resist the impending duel being newly provoked by a fresh insult from Dickinson. At the dueling site, the principals got down to business quickly. Jackson allowed the expert shot to shoot first, and was seriously wounded, although his lack of movement didn't allow any observer to be sure that he had been hit. Jackson patiently took aim, his prerogative by shooting second, and, following a momentary problem with his pistol, shot Dickinson below the abdomen near the ribs. By dusk he was dead from internal bleeding.
Following his rapid rise to prominence Jackson acquired a great deal of the land made available by the expropriation of the indigenous population. By 1795, it is estimated that Jackson and his partner owned roughly twenty-five thousand acres. Jackson's first slave came to him in 1788 from a legal client of his who didn't have enough cash to pay him for his services. He received instead a young black woman named Nancy. In the early 1790s he began purchasing slaves at a more rapid pace eventually owning some one hundred and fifty.
Jackson was a slavetrader until concern for his reputation drove him from the business. the partnership he formed in 1810 with Horace Green and Joseph Coleman involved trade in cotton, tobacco, and slaves. While his past and present slaveownership was not an issue in his quest to become president, his history of slavetrading, if widely known, would have cast a shadow on his reputation. One Silas Dinsmoor, charged with the task of arresting every slave traveling with a white man who could not produce a certificate proving his ownership, had clashed with many slaveholders, so of whom had complained to Jackson. As a slavetrader himself Jackson had a direct interest in this matter since he regularly sent slaves south to be sold. On one occasion in 1811 Jackson had to travel to Natchez and had to pass through Dinsmore’s post when he returned. Determined to teach Dinsmoor a lesson, Jackson gave his slave a rifle while he brandished one himself, passed through the post without a certificate as Dinsmoor somehow disappeared. When he reached Nashville, Jackson remained determined to oust Dinsmoor and wrote G. W. Campbell, a Tennessee congressman asking has “it come to this? Are we freemen, or are we slaves? Is this real or is it a dream?,” asked Jackson, a man whose ownership of black “chattel” slaves peaked at one hundred and fifty. Dinsmoor was replaced in 1813.
Like other slaveholders, Jackson was plagued by the problem of runaway slaves. After a man we can only know as “Gilbert” escaped from one of Jackson’s plantations in Alabama, Jackson reiterated his slaveholding philosophy to his overseer, “I have only to say, you know my disposition, and as far as lenity can be extended to these unfortunate creatures, I wish you to do so; subordination must be obtained first, and then good treatment.” Yet, by the time Jackson arrived at his Melton’s Bluff plantation in Alabama three other blacks had fled. Jackson subsequently recaptured them and although he professed to “hate chains” he felt “compelled to place two of them in irons.”
It is no surprise, then, that in this era of soaring aspirations among the common American that Andrew Jackson’s racial views suffered from little of the cognitive dissonance several Founding Fathers seemed to have had regarding slavery. As president Jackson had the honor of appointing Roger B. Taney of Maryland to the Supreme Court. Taney, who served as Chief Justice for twenty-eight years from 1836 to 1864, succeeded John Marshall and delivered the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision in 1857 that declared that blacks were not citizens as they were “beings of an inferior order; and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
For some people, Jackson was refreshingly straightforward suffering from no humanitarian pretensions. His ideology, politics, and future actions with respect to Native Americans and blacks were clear, they were to subordinate their rights and interests to the reigning white caste. An early biographer, clearly sympathetic to Jackson’s aims described his military strategy as to “move straight and quickly, surround and exterminate the foe.” Unfortunately, all too often, the enemy included entire communities, including noncombatants, women, and children. In his expedition against the "Negro Fort" on the Apalachicola River fort, Jackson attacked and besieged it for ten days. The United States troops were frustrated in their efforts to flush out the African maroons until a direct hit on an ammunition dump set off an explosion that killed two hundred seventy leaving only roughly forty survivors.
As America changes, the legacy of Andrew Jackson will continue to be reassessed and reevaluated, since few overlook its significance.
H.W. Brands. Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times. New York: Anchor Books, 2006.
Robert V. Remini. Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845. volume three. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1984.