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The Passions of Andrew Jacksonby Andrew Burstein
The Formative Frontier
Tarlton passed thro the Waxhaw settlement to the cotauba nation passing our dwelling but all were hid out. Tarleton passed within a hundred yards of where I & cousin crawford, had concealed ourselves. I could have shot him.
-fragment in Jackson's hand, probably written late in life for the benefit of a biographer
Of the many controversies that envelop the turbulent world he occupied, Andrew Jackson's birthplace is one dispute with local repercussions only: both North and South Carolina have claimed him. The site of his nativity, "the crossing of the Waxhaw," as Jackson referred to it, had little to recommend it beyond a creek, red earth, a modest church, and proximity to the post road. The two Carolinas merged at this fairly nondescript place, and exemplify for us the difference between the words frontier and border. The first is amorphous, unregulated, and in the minds of some, even mysterious; the second is marked and fixed. Suffice it to say that the two colonies were still negotiating jurisdiction of the area at the time of Jackson's birth on March 15, 1767, and that Jackson himself placed his origin within the bounds of South Carolina.
In 1824, the year of his first presidential run, Jackson received a letter at his Hermitage estate outside Nashville, Tennessee, from the respected cartographer Robert Mills of Columbia, South Carolina. Mills had fought under General Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans nine years earlier. His letter contained a map of the border district where the western country's famed general was born, but which he had not seen, at this point, for forty years. Jackson wrote back to Mills with a mix of nostalgia and fatalism: "A view of this map pointing to the spot that gave me birth, brings fresh to my memory many associations dear to my heart, many days of pleasure with my juvenile companions: but alas, most of them are gone to that bourne where I am hastening & from whence no one returns." As much as Jackson was known to communicate with unsparing directness, he could also affect this style, which was perceived, in his time, as "chaste" and generous. Nostalgic, fatalistic, chaste, and generous are all good words for describing Andrew Jackson.1
Scotch-Irish had colonized the Waxhaws, which bore the name of the Indians who had previously lived there. Early in the eighteenth century, the Catawba tribe battled the Waxhaw tribe, killed their best warriors, and drove away the survivors. By the time of Jackson's birth, the Catawbas were themselves much reduced in number, dependent upon the colonists for food and protection, and sufficiently wary of their non-Indian neighbors to have requested formal settlement on a reservation. That reservation, about ten miles square, straddled the future state border and stopped just above the Jacksons' community.2
Yet a Catawba had only recently played a pivotal role in the unfolding drama of America's history. The Indian "Half King" Tanaghrisson was born into the South Carolina tribe before its undoing. His tumultuous life demonstrates the confused allegiances of frontier peoples of all sorts. When young, he was captured and adopted into the marauding Seneca tribe of western New York, and eventually became an agent of the Iroquois confederacy in the Pennsylvania-Ohio backcountry, helping to maintain a delicate balance between interior peoples and colonial governments. In 1754, Tanaghrisson accompanied twenty-two-year-old George Washington on the Virginian's first (and rather catastrophic) military expedition. When he used his hatchet to tear open the skull of a French emissary before the eyes of the inexperienced Major Washington, the Catawba literally had a hand in fomenting the French and Indian War.3
The declining Catawbas were the first Indians Andrew Jackson knew. A good number of them joined the Revolutionary cause when and where Jackson, at the age of thirteen, did. They tasted combat, and bled on behalf of the newly independent United States. In later years, the larger Indian nations of the South and Southwest-Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and Seminoles-would, each in turn, be awed by the inflexible Gen. Andrew Jackson. By then, the Catawbas he knew as a child were long since an invisible presence in the Carolinas, a servile, impoverished people, found by mapmaker Robert Mills to be "depraved" and "immoral."
This was one way that Jackson, too, thought generically of Indians. Their struggle to survive never seemed to move him. Like so many other tribes before and since, the eighteenth-century Catawbas had made practical choices: they tried to accommodate growing numbers of whites. Separateness may have appealed to them initially, but in the 1760s, as a
means to achieve economic self-sufficiency, they began renting out land within their reservation to white settlers. Known around mid-century as a sometimes "insolent" and "mischievous" people who trespassed and stole, the Catawbas were decimated by smallpox in a 1759 epidemic, and were termed "harmless and friendly" neighbors during Jackson's childhood, when they numbered only in the hundreds. They were often seen as peddlers of moccasins, basketware, and pottery along the southbound post road to Camden and Charleston.4
No one can say with certainty what Jackson's first encounters with Indians augured. But it is worth depicting the Catawbas of his earliest years, as a means of setting forth the terms for understanding this quintessential rough-and-ready American reared in Revolutionary times and destined to be the first U.S. president to have sprung from a modest space, from outside the social elite. To approach him, we must recover his physical as well as emotional environment, and learn enough to speculate about what it was that caused him to grow up so brash and ambitious, with an uncompromising will. This much is clear: distinguishing himself from the dissipated Indians, Jackson wanted credit for all he did, credit for his moral energy.
Moral energy. No other term so manifestly embodies Jackson's self-image. If he had not constantly proclaimed his potential, and backed up his claims with an abundant militancy at a time when battlefield victories were direly needed, he might never have been able to justify himself to eastern power and pretension. Were it not for the way America's identity was increasingly tied to conflict and settlement in the West, he might-like the Catawba-have festered and died, unnoticed by posterity, in the backwoods.
His rise was nothing short of phenomenal. He was not learned, nor particularly bright. Until 1815, when his martial triumphs rocked the nation, he had a marginal impact on government. Arriving in the national capi-
tal of Philadelphia in December 1796, as Tennessee's very first congressman, Jackson appeared to his prominent colleague, western Pennsylvania's Albert Gallatin, as "a tall, lank, uncouth-looking personage, with long locks of hair hanging over his face, and a queue down his back tied in an eel skin."5 It was the way whites typically described the untutored Indian. To his detractors in polite society, Jackson's raw experience made him seem "savage." To others, reacting with excitement against traditional symbols of privilege, he was to become favored as an uncommon commoner-rebellious, heroic, earthy, masculine. In the 1820s, such qualities held romantic appeal.
Ironically, this destroyer of Indian cultures (for that was how he first achieved national prominence) was judged by urban Americans as one who had borrowed something of the Indian. The historian James Parton, himself a nineteenth-century man, writes of the last decade of the eighteenth century, when Jackson became a Tennessean: "The western man of the olden time had much of the Indian in him. He caught the Indian's stealthy footstep; imbibed something of his passion for revenge; abandoned himself like him to the carouse." It is a rather unambiguous characterization.6
The stereotypes presented by late-eighteenth-century writers combined Indian ruthlessness with primitive virtue. A portrayal of Indians by the novelist Tobias Smollett is representative: they were "too tenacious of their own customs to adopt the modes of any nation whatsoever. . . . they were too virtuous and sensible to encourage the introduction of any fashion which might help render them corrupt and effeminate." This depiction sounds strangely Jacksonesque, for he was certainly tenacious, and he came to see himself as a virtuous warrior.7
The frontier fermented in American opinion makers' imaginations. The Indian, deemed "wild" or "savage," was as often praised for exhibiting bravery and stoicism, and ennobled for his resistance to the corruptions of civilization. The white settler could be a doubt-conquering builder or a simple degenerate. But to the philosophic critics who rendered such judgments, any man who existed so near to the primitive state more likely than not lacked the rational capacity of his learned counterpart. Thus Jackson, like the Indian, was suspected of wanting that inner control and self-restraint on which a workable republic thrived. He may have fought on behalf of the civilizing power, but by the same literary prejudice, Jackson's boasted familiarity with the Indian manner made him dangerous.
Being a representative western man was a double-edged sword for the civilizer-warrior in this case. The wilderness was a part of him. He was as comfortable with destruction as with cultivation. He was "Indian-like" insofar as he was bluff, direct, and resistant to all forms of seductive softness-in modern terms, one who could always "take it like a man." But could he rule a civilized people?
Any such ambiguity was in the minds of others. Jackson would have regarded these comparisons as mean-spirited, if not ludicrous. He was American through and through. The needs of Indians were, to him, fairly trivial. Yet the irony persists: acutely aware of his reputation, captive of a myth, he fought, with an Indian's supposed fury, to be non-Indian, to be
a discernibly republican gentleman. And what was that? "Republican
gentleman" was a known quality, associated in Jackson's day with writing and speaking skills and an abundance of sympathy and fellow feeling. It was a term of acceptance employed by the recognized leaders of post-Revolutionary America, and it was not automatically accorded to a temperamental man with a backwoods vocabulary.
The way for Jackson would not be easy. Acceptance required that he adapt and adhere to demands set forth by the national power structure. He made efforts to do so over his career, without ceasing to be himself: a frontier American.
"The mark of which he bears to this hour"
There were two routes that immigrants and their wagons took to the Waxhaws, one across Virginia and North Carolina over the "Catawba Path" and one from the port of Charleston. In 1765, Andrew Jackson Sr., sailing from Carrickfergus, near Belfast, Northern Ireland, likely came by the former route, with his wife, Elizabeth Hutchinson, and their two young sons, Hugh and Robert. Elizabeth's sister and her husband, James Crawford, accompanied them across the Atlantic and to the Carolina uplands, where numerous of their compatriots had previously settled. The surrounding landscape was a mix of piney woods, cornfields, and fenced-in areas for hogs and cattle.8
Andrew Jackson Sr. died in 1767, very shortly before or shortly after the birth of his third son and namesake.9 The first authorized biography of "the Hero" of the Battle of New Orleans, which was begun by Jackson's closest aide, John Reid, after the War of 1812, and completed by another Jackson protégé, John Henry Eaton, after Reid's death, predictably described the widow Jackson as "an exemplary woman" who saw that her youngest son received an education at "a flourishing academy at the Waxsaw meetinghouse." That "flourishing academy" was a log cabin.10
There is no account to suggest that Jackson was studious then or at any time during his formative years. On the contrary, all have emphasized his sportiveness and recklessness. Parton, in particular, cites the reminiscences of Jackson's early schoolmates, in reporting that the youth was "fond of running foot-races" and enthusiastic about wrestling; that he slobbered, was easily offended, quick-tempered, and generally, in the words of one, "difficult to get along with." His speech was countrified, as suggested
in the pronunciation of development as "devil-ope-ment" and sublime as "soo-blime."11
When the American Revolution came to the interior, Jackson did all he could to take part. His eldest brother, Hugh, had ridden with patriot and Princeton graduate Col. William Richardson Davie of North Carolina, only to die, it is said, of heat exhaustion after the Battle of Stono Ferry, near Charleston, in the summer of 1779.12 From that point, the British onslaught continued unabated. Conquering Charleston in May 1780, Lord Charles Cornwallis and the notoriously brutal Lt.-Col. Banastre Tarleton proceeded to launch attacks on rebels in the backcountry, and they directed Tory militia to consolidate their gains. Tarleton was a greatly feared enemy, a twenty-six-year-old terrorist who dressed the part of a dandy, in tight breeches and tall black boots, and directed his men to slash and stab and spare no one. Late in life, Jackson recalled having observed the marauding Tarleton from a hundred yards away. Claiming "I could have shot him," Jackson is either telling us that had he a musket, he was within range; or, in more grandiose terms, that he was prepared, at a tender age, to become a patriot-hero. It is impossible to interpret which way he meant himself to be understood.13
At the Waxhaw meetinghouse, wounded patriots were nursed by Elizabeth Jackson and her two remaining sons, Andrew and Robert. The family was forced into hiding when another army of invaders arrived at their settlement. At the beginning of August 1780, an American force led by Colonel Davie engaged the enemy at Hanging Rock, some fifteen miles to the south, and Andrew and Robert Jackson assisted the troops, if they did not actually fire muskets. It was a momentary success for the Americans, marred by "plundering and carousing."14
In all, the war did not go well for the Revolutionaries in the Carolina piedmont. General Horatio Gates was defeated at nearby Camden the week after the Battle of Hanging Rock, placing the Waxhaw settlement again in the way of the redcoats' northerly march. Cornwallis himself occupied the house of militia officer Robert Crawford, brother of Jackson's uncle by marriage. The Jackson family headed for sanctuary near Charlotte, North Carolina, and was able to return home only four months later.15 It was after these disruptions and aggravations that an easily provoked Andrew Jackson tasted what a political appointee much later termed his "baptism of blood," as if it were meant to be, a fated life adventure consistent with the lad's heritage: "The martyr blood of Scotland blended with that of the Emerald Isle."16Copyright© 2003 by Andrew Burstein
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