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JACKSONThe Iron-Willed Commander
By Paul S. Vickery
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Dr. Paul S. Vickery, Ph.D.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Boy Becomes a Man
"I could throw him three times out of four, but he would never stay throwed.... [Jackson] never would give up." —A childhood friend
The early life of Andrew Jackson was marked by sorrow, hardship, and poverty. Like many of his contemporaries, he was forced to grow up fast, work hard, and take responsibility far beyond his years. The son of a hardscrabble farmer in the late eighteenth century did not expect an easy life, especially when his father died before that child was even born. A Jackson intimate, Francis Parton Blair, believed, "Jackson owed less to birthright and more to self-help than any other great man, not only in our history but in any other." His mother, his extended family, and the Presbyterian Church, including the school that met there in the meetinghouse, played a great role in his formative years.
Like thousands of other immigrants settling in the Appalachian region of the American colonies, Andrew Jackson Sr., the impoverished father of the future hero of New Orleans, arrived in 1765 from northern Ireland. With him came his wife, Elizabeth Hutchinson, described as a "stout woman "and" a poor man's daughter," along with their two sons Hugh and Robert. Almost immediately they traveled to the Waxhaw settlement, roughly 160 miles northwest of Charles Town (The name was officially changed to Charleston in August, 1783. The British had departed the city in December, 1782.), South Carolina. The Jacksons chose this area because several of Elizabeth's sisters as well as other Irish Protestant families, mainly Presbyterian, had settled this area in 1751.
Located between the Waxhaw and Cane Creeks, it was the former home of the Waxhaw tribe, hence the name, but now consisted of only a few peaceful Catawbas. An area filled with pine trees, hardwoods, and packed red clay, it required effort to coax a living from the ground. Jackson settled on a two-hundred-acre plot of land near Twelve Mile Creek. Whether he actually owned this land, however, is disputed. James Parton, who researched the issue, believed "that Andrew Jackson, the elder, never owned one acre of land in America." After two years of backbreaking labor, Andrew Jackson Sr. died of unknown causes, leaving two small sons, a pregnant wife, and precious little else.
There is an often-told tale that neighbors fended off their grief for the loss of their friend during his wake by imbibing a bit too much of the local brew. The day following the wake his friends placed the coffin on a sled pulled by a mule. The trip to the grave site, through ice, snow, and broken limbs, was thirsty work. The mourners paused several times to refresh themselves as they had brought "liquor along & would stop at the branches ... & take a drink." Thus when the party arrived at the grave site, in the twilight they realized that the sled no longer bore the coffin. Somehow it slipped off, unnoticed, undoubtedly because of the grief shared by the pallbearers, as they mounted a steep creek bank. The interment took place later than expected that evening.
Only weeks later, the widow gave birth. She named the child Andrew Jackson after her late husband. Exactly where Jackson was born has been the subject of some debate since the exact border between the two states was not finalized until 1772. Parton claimed, "It was in a small log house, in the province of North Carolina, less than a quarter of a mile from the boundary line between North and South Carolina, that the birth took place." Robert Remini wrote, "Following the interment [of Jackson Sr.], Elizabeth went to the home of her sister, Jane Crawford, and there on March 15, 1767, in the Lancaster District, South Carolina, she gave birth." In any case the family remained in the Crawford household because "Mrs. Crawford was an invalid, and Mrs. Jackson was permanently established in the family as housekeeper and poor relation." Thus Andrew grew up a South Carolinian. It was there, among the pines and red clay, that young Andrew spent the formative first twelve or so years of his life. From his rural roots, we get a glimpse of how his education, environment, and above all his mother influenced the man. A look at his spirited youthful habits and near juvenile delinquency tendencies should give hope to all young people and their parents: if Jackson can turn out all right, despite his youthful indiscretions, so can anyone!
Because his mother wanted Andrew to become a Presbyterian minister, she took him weekly to services at the Waxhaw Presbyterian meetinghouse. In the rural South, a meetinghouse was more than a church. Many served as schools during the week and were the social centers of communities. There Jackson "probably spent between three and four hours nearly every Sunday for about fourteen years hearing prayers, psalms, scripture, sermons and hymns." Thus biblical terms and stories filled his mind, animated his thoughts, and were formative in his developing worldview. He probably learned more from hearing than reading, as he would later become a much better speaker than writer. Throughout his life, Jackson, who stated he read three chapters of Scripture daily, used biblical allusions and even compared his life's struggles with those of King David. He also memorized the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which provided him with both scriptural and theological training.
Initially young Andrew attended a school typical for his area. It was a low-roofed log cabin, fourteen by twenty feet, erected by the community and capable of holding perhaps twenty to twenty-five students. A fireplace took up almost one entire side. The scene would have been the same across the South: "An itinerant schoolmaster presents himself in a neighborhood; the responsible farmers pledge him a certain number of pupils," and the school was established for the season. In this one-room schoolhouse Jackson began his education. "Among a crowd of urchins, seated on the slab benches ... fancy a tall, slender boy, with blue bright eyes, a freckled face, an abundance of long sandy hair ... with bare feet dangling and kicking—and you have in your mind's eye a picture of Andy." He eventually grew to be at least six feet tall, very lean, "even cadaverous," with very thin arms and legs, and never weighed more than 145 pounds. Despite his unimposing physique, his intense bright blue eyes, when aimed at someone, "had a powerful effect.... They riveted attention; they commanded obedience; and they could terrorize."
Soon, however, his mother placed him in a more rigorous academy, taught by Dr. William Humphries, that met in the Presbyterian meetinghouse. There he received the rudiments of reading and writing and learned to "cast accounts." Another early biographer and Jackson friend, John Eaton, added, "Here he was placed on the study of the dead languages [probably Greek and Latin] and continued until the revolutionary war." Somehow his mother found the money to also send him to study with the Presbyterian minister James White Stephenson. Although Andrew was not an avid reader, his tastes led to stories of military actions and strong heroes. Much as his biblical hero was King David, his secular hero became William Wallace, the Scottish hero of their war for independence from England (1296–1305). Published in 1809, Jane Porter's book Scottish Chiefs became a favorite of his, and he sought to emulate the traits displayed by Wallace.
The results of his formal education were not impressive even by the standards of the day. "He was never a well-informed man. He was never addicted to books. He never learned to write the English language correctly.... He never learned to spell correctly." At times he spelled the same word two or three different ways, even in the same letter. In fact, his lack of education became a personal and political issue exploited by his enemies as he advanced in public office. For example, in 1833, Harvard University awarded President Jackson an honorary degree. A Harvard graduate, President John Quincy Adams, whom Jackson had previously defeated for reelection in a very bitter personal campaign, refused to participate. He wrote to the president of the university, "As myself an affectionate child of our Alma Mater, I would not be present to witness her disgrace in conferring her highest literary honors upon a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name."
If his literary education was lacking, his knowledge of human nature and his physical development were not. Vignettes from his childhood depict a willful boy with a chip on his shoulder, a boy who used his physical abilities and strength of will to overcome life's obstacles. "Andy was a wild, frolicsome, willful, mischievous, daring, reckless boy; generous to a friend but never content to submit to a stronger enemy. He was passionately fond of those sports which are mimic battles," wrote Parton. A former schoolmate said of him, "I could throw him three times out of four, but he would never stay throwed.... [He] never would give up." This tenacious quality served him well in future years.
Further insight into Jackson's formative years and the character of his mother is provided by Parton. In an interview with a ninety-two-year-old slave woman, known as Aunt Phyllis, who personally knew Jackson, she recollected that "he was the most mischievous of all the youngsters thereabouts; always up to some prank and getting into trouble." She recalled Mrs. Jackson as "a stout woman who was always knitting or spinning; 'a very good woman, and very much respected.'"
Even as a youth, Jackson felt the need to be taken seriously and to assert his personality. Constantly on the defensive, perhaps in an effort to prove himself or fulfill some hole left by not having a father, Jackson was a friend and protector to those who agreed with him and submitted to his authoritarian nature. However, "his equals and superiors found him self-willed, somewhat overbearing, easily offended, very irascible, and, upon the whole 'difficult to get along with.'" Not only could Andy hold his own in a physical confrontation, but his swearing abilities were also becoming legendary.
He apparently learned to swear at a very early age. "He needed to begin early," opined Parton, "in order to acquire that wonderful mastery of the art to which he attained in after life, surpassing all known men in the fluency and chain-shot force and complication of his oaths." Even his pious mother was unable to curb his tongue. It was not until the death of his beloved Rachel, and obviously in her honor, that he ceased his coarse language. "Except on occasions of extreme excitement, few and far between," wrote Parton, "he never again used ... 'profane language;' not even the familiar phrase 'By the Eternal.'"
With the reading of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, the American colonies formally broke from their colonial masters. A legend, spurious according to biographer Hendrik Booraem but still widely told, involves how Jackson's community heard the news. A Philadelphia newspaper with a synopsis of this document reached the Waxhaws in August 1776. The monthly arrival of news from what would become the nation's capital was always a big event for the settlers. Because of the high illiteracy rate, a "public reader" was selected to share the contents with an eager audience. Nine-year-old Andrew received the honor. According to his own words, at that time he possessed "a shrill penetrating voice." Perhaps more important for the hearers, he "could read a paper clear through without getting hoarse," and he "could read right off, without stopping to spell out the words."
Thus did news of the rebellion reach the Carolinas, an area consisting largely of supporters of the newly formed government, known as Whigs, yet also possessing a sizable Tory, or loyalist, population. In 1779, the war came in earnest to the South. Both Whigs and loyalists took up arms supporting their respective sides. Even within families loyalties could be divided. The war had a devastating effect on the Jackson family and forever changed young Andrew. Hugh was the first to die, as the fighting became vicious, personal, and bloody.
In the spring of 1779, Andrew's oldest brother, sixteen-year-old Hugh, left home to fight with Colonel William Davie's regiment. At the Battle of Stono Ferry, on a hot June day, although racked by fever and excused from fighting, Hugh joined the battle and perished soon after from "excessive heat of the weather, and fatigues of the day." Although grieving the loss of her son, Elizabeth supported her two remaining sons, Robert and Andrew, in attending local militia drills. There thirteen-year-old Andrew learned a lesson he would never forget—the value of good training and sound discipline.
The spring of 1780 saw the fall of Charles Town, South Carolina, to Sir Henry Clinton. Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his green-clad British Legion then moved west, wreaking havoc into the Waxhaws. Soon his name would become anathema to the rebels, and he would earn the nickname "Bloody Tarleton." On May 29, his mounted troops surprised Colonel Abraham Buford's Virginia regiment in an open field. To the sound of a blaring British bugle, Tarleton's cavalry attacked Buford's vulnerable rear guard.
Seeing his men cut down by the onrushing British, Buford ordered a white flag raised and his men to ground their arms as a sign of surrender. Asking for quarter, he expected to receive the treatment awarded to any civilized prisoners of war. He miscalculated. "Not a man was spared," wrote Dr. Robert Brownfield, "... for fifteen minutes after every man was prostrate, they [the British] went over the ground, plunging their bayonets into everyone that exhibited any signs of life." One hundred thirteen were slaughtered, and another one hundred fifty left for dead. These men were brought to the Waxhaw Church, where Andrew, Robert, and their mother cared for them. The battle was quickly called a massacre, and the term Tarleton's quarter entered the American lexicon.
In July 1780, thirteen-year-old Andrew Jackson and his sixteen-year-old brother joined Major William Davie's dragoons. Jackson recalled he was quickly appointed as a "mounted orderly or messenger, for which I was well fitted, being a good rider and knowing all the roads." Davie also presented him with a pistol and made such an impression on the young man that "to the end of Andrew Jackson's life his absolute ideal of an officer and gentleman" was Major Davie. Only weeks after joining, Jackson experienced his first action at the Battle of Hanging Rock. Although it was declared an American victory, the results could have been more successful if the troops had not discovered and emptied the British rum store.
The Jackson boys smelled powder again in April 1781. A British party had come to the Waxhaws to search out and destroy Whig resistance. About forty of the local militia formed up at the meetinghouse to confront them. The ensuing confrontation forced the rebels from the building. Robert and Andrew spent the night hiding in a thicket. The next day, seeking food, they went to the house of their cousin Lieutenant Thomas Crawford. Through a tip from a Tory sympathizer, the house was surrounded, and the boys were captured. "The dragoons ... began to destroy, with wild riot and noise the contents of the house. Crockery, glass, and furniture were dashed to pieces; beds emptied, the clothing of the family torn to rags; even the clothes of the infant Mrs. Crawford carried in her arms were not spared." The brutality of warfare left both emotional and physical scars on young Andrew.
During the melee, a British officer ordered Jackson to clean his boots. With firmness, yet in a respectful tone, he answered, "Sir, I am a prisoner of war, and claim to be treated as such." With glaring eyes and "like a wild beast" the officer swung at Andrew with his sword. Instinctively the boy raised his left hand in protection. The bloody result was a gash on both his hand and his head. He carried these scars to his grave. The officer then ordered Robert to clean his boots. He, too, demurred and was given a blow that knocked him senseless. Both boys, along with about twenty other prisoners, were then force-marched to Camden about forty miles away.
Excerpted from JACKSON by Paul S. Vickery Copyright © 2012 by Dr. Paul S. Vickery, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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