There has been considerable controversy recently about removing Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill. There are a lot of people, Native Americans in particular, that would argue he should have never been honored there in the first place. Jackson, our 7th president, might just be the most polarizing American historical figure. He was extremely controversial in his own time and he still is in ours. If you want to know my opinion about Jackson, I will tell you, he ranks pretty far down my list of presidents, perhaps right near the bottom. But that is not what this article is about. While there is a lot to hate about Jackson, there is also much to admire.
No president came from a worse upbringing than Jackson. He was born to Irish immigrant parents on the frontier of the Carolinas (we aren’t even sure which Carolina…both claim him). His father died before Andrew ever knew him. The rest of his immediate family, all of them, were dead before Andrew had reached his mid-teens. He grew up wild. He joined the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War at age 12 and was eventually captured by the British. When a Red Coat officer ordered young Andrew to shine his boots, little Andy refused. The officer drew his sword and slashed the stubborn little ragamuffin across the hand and face. Jackson bore those scars for the rest of his life.
The rest of Jackson’s younger years were rough and rowdy, drinking, fighting, gambling, you name it. The fact that he survived his upbringing and ended up making something of himself is rather miraculous and certainly admirable. Jackson’s childhood and early adulthood shaped him into an extraordinarily tough, stubborn, and hot-tempered man. Even after he settled down, started a career and got married, life still seemed to constantly lead Jackson down a violent path.
Andrew and Rachel’s marriage was clouded by controversy, beyond their control, that caused them grief for the rest of their lives. Rachel had been married before to a man who mistreated her. She left him and thought she had gotten a divorce when she and Andrew fell in love. After they married, it came to light that Rachel’s divorce was never legally finalized. This meant that, technically, she was still married when she and Andrew were wed. All this got straightened out eventually, but Andrew’s enemies (and there were plenty of them) would use this scandal against him throughout the rest of his career. From that point on, it seemed Andrew Jackson was constantly defending his wife’s honor, often on the dueling field.
Nobody knows with certainty how many duels Jackson fought. Some sources claim five to ten, others claim much higher numbers. Most duels of the day were for show and, by design, bloodless. However, at least a couple of Jackson’s duels drew blood, and plenty of it. Jackson was shot in his arm at least twice. The injuries were severe enough that doctors recommended amputation, but Jackson refused. Jackson’s most famous duel, however, could have had much more serious consequences were it not for his seemingly mystical relationship with bullets.
The year was 1806. Jackson, again defending Rachel’s honor, challenged Charles Dickinson to a duel. Dickinson was not the kind of guy with which a level headed, clear thinking man would pick a gun fight. Charles Dickinson was widely known to be perhaps the finest marksman in Tennessee. Jackson was not. The duel was set to occur on May 30th in Kentucky since it was illegal to duel in Tennessee where the two men lived. The morning of the 30th was a chilly one. Jackson, who was a very thin man, wore a long, cape-like coat. On the command to fire, Dickinson got off the first shot. After the explosion of his pistol, Jackson merely took a half a step back and continued to stand and raise his own pistol. Witnesses heard a shocked Charles Dickinson exclaim, “Great God, have I missed?” Jackson continued to level his weapon and take aim. He squeezed the trigger and the gun went click…a misfire. Despite the protest of Dickinson’s supporters, Jackson simply re-cocked the pistol and shot Dickinson through the gut. Dickinson fell, screaming in agony. Jackson simply walked off with his second, mounted his horse and started riding back towards Nashville as Dickinson was taken to a nearby cabin to die, still believing he had missed.
“I believe he pinged me a little,” Jackson replied. Then he fell off his horse. Dickinson’s bullet had struck Jackson in the center of his chest. It shattered on Jackson’s sternum, broke two ribs, punctured a lung and stopped about an inch from his heart yet, Jackson did not even fall down! He was too stubborn to give Charles Dickinson the satisfaction of knowing he had been hit!
Charles Dickinson reportedly bled through two mattresses and spent 14 hours in agony before dying from his wounds. Jackson spent a month in bed recovering. It was determined that removing the bullet, so close to his heart, would be more risky than leaving it in. So Jackson carried that lead in his chest for the rest of his life, some 39 more years. But that would not be Jackson’s last magic moment involving guns and bullets. Twenty-nine years later, as president, he would defy the odds again.
Jackson was the first president to have an assassination attempt made on him. In 1835, President Jackson was attending the funeral of a congressman when a crazed lunatic, named Richard Lawrence, approached Jackson and pulled a pistol to shoot him at point blank range. The pistol misfired. Undaunted, Lawrence pulled a second pistol and tried to shoot again and that gun also misfired! By this time, the 67 year old President was enraged and leapt upon Richard Lawrence, proceeding to attempt to beat him to death with his cane! Jackson had to be pulled off the would be assassin who was quickly apprehended and carted off. Richard Lawrence’s pistols were examined later and found to be in perfect working order. Someone later worked out the odds of both those guns misfiring to be 125,000 to 1. There was truly something very strange at play when it came to Andrew Jackson and bullets.
Jackson is certainly not one of my favorite presidents, but he is one of the most enjoyable to teach. I can assure you that 8th graders eat up his bigger than life stories with a spoon! Call him a hero, call him an evil scoundrel, heck, even call him a genocidal maniac, but never call Andrew Jackson boring!