Andrew Jackson’s Early Life: Lawyer, Slave Trader, & Military Hero

The seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson is a controversial figure known for helping to solidify the United States in its quest to dominate the continent.

May 9, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History

andrew jackson early life


A wealthy landowner, general, and statesman, Andrew Jackson served as the seventh president of the United States. Under his guidance, the country underwent rapid expansion towards the West, becoming significantly more powerful as it did so.


Influential and well-respected, Jackson was characteristic of US policy during his time. His policies, however, were disastrous for Indigenous and enslaved people who bore the brunt of Jackson’s colonial endeavors, and his legacy has become a bone of mainstream contention in recent years.


Even before he became president, the story of his life is one of many accomplishments and actions that would put him on a path to extreme controversy.


Andrew Jackson’s Early Life

The battlefield where Hugh Jackson died is now a golf course. Source: / Denis Dotson


Andrew Jackson was born on March 15, 1767. His father was from Ireland, and his mother was Scottish. Andrew’s father, also named Andrew, aged 29 at the time, was killed in a logging accident, and three weeks later, Andrew was born. The precise location of his birth is unknown, but it was in the area of the Waxhaws in the Carolinas. He had two older brothers, Hugh and Robert, who were born in Ireland.

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Andrew’s mother, Elizabeth, had plans for her youngest son to become a minister, and she paid to have him schooled by the clergy. It was a fine education, but to the disappointment of his mother and the clergy, Andrew did not have the right temperament to join the ranks of the ministry. He was quick to anger and very independent.


Andrew was barely a teenager when he took part in the American Revolutionary War. His older brother, Hugh, took part in the Battle of Stono Ferry in 1779 and died from heat exhaustion after the fighting. Andrew and Robert joined the militia at the insistence of their mother, and both worked as scouts and couriers under the command of Colonel William Richardson Davie, with whom they served at the Battle of Hanging Rock.


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The Brave Boy of the Waxhaws by Currier & Ives. Source: Wikimedia Commons


During their service, the British occupied the area where they lived, and both brothers were captured. When a loyalist officer demanded they polish his boots, Jackson refused, and the officer struck him with his saber. Andrew received wounds on his left hand and left side of his head, the scars of which he carried the rest of his life. The Jackson brothers were arrested and put in a prisoner-of-war camp in South Carolina, where they suffered mistreatment and malnutrition. They contracted smallpox and were released into the care of their mother. Robert died a few days after being released, but Andrew survived the ordeal.


His mother went to work on a British prison ship where she tended to the sick and wounded American soldiers on board. Through this, she contracted cholera and died. By the age of 14, Andrew Jackson was an orphan and had no family.


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Portrait of Rachel Jackson by Ralph E.W. Earl. Source: The Hermitage, Home of President Andrew Jackson


Left to his own devices and with no family to support him, Andrew Jackson worked as an apprentice to a saddle-maker and briefly as a children’s teacher after the war before training to become an attorney. He moved to North Carolina to study and was admitted to the bar in 1787.


Jackson moved to Nashville, which at the time was still a frontier settlement very close to lands upon which Native Americans lived, and soon after, his career took off. He made friends with considerably powerful people and maneuvered himself into a position of great authority, being appointed attorney-general in 1791 and judge-advocate in 1792. His success as an attorney won him a strong foundation of support from wealthy landowners, and it is this demographic that he would largely support during his political career.


Around this time, Jackson became interested in land speculation. Within the legal confines of the Land Grab Act of 1783, he began a career heavily involved with the forced relocation of Native Americans. The Cherokee and Chickasaw people were the first to be targeted by Jackson as their lands had been opened to white colonists.


In the late 1780s, he met Rachel Donelson Robards, a woman in an unhappy marriage. She separated from her husband, and Andrew and Rachel became romantically involved. On the grounds of Rachel’s infidelity, her husband filed for divorce. This divorce was granted, and in 1794, Rachel married Andrew Jackson. Two years later, the couple acquired a 640-acre plantation near Nashville.


Andrew Jackson’s First Attempt at a Political Career

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A copy of Jay’sTreaty. Source: Sotheby’s


In 1796, Andrew Jackson joined the Democratic-Republican Party (the forerunner of the Republican Party, also called the Jeffersonian Party). He was involved in drafting the constitution for the State of Tennessee. Later that year, he was elected to be the first US Representative of Tennessee.


Jackson’s first taste of Congress was one in which he was greatly disappointed. He fiercely opposed the adoption of Jay’s Treaty, which sought amicable relations with Britain, and he accused George Washington of removing Democratic-Republicans from office on account of their political affiliation. He served until March 4, 1797, and refused to seek re-election.


He vowed not to go into politics again, but his attention was caught up in the movement to allow white settlers to take military action against Native Americans. With this as his motivation, he returned to political life and was elected to the US Senate in 1797. Again, his temper got the better of him, and he resigned after just six months. He returned to Tennessee and served as a judge in the Tennessee Superior Court, an appointment he held until 1804.


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Etching of Jackson’s home, The Hermitage, by James W. Steel after Thomas Birch. Source: Library of Congress


During this time, Jackson was also involved in the land speculation business, and one of his larger endeavors eventually led to the founding of Memphis, Tennessee.


In 1802, he was elected major general of the Tennessee militia. This station would put him on the path to widespread fame and reverence, as it was a post he held when the War of 1812 broke out.


For the years between, however, Jackson’s fortunes were marked by hardship. Finding himself in dire financial straits, he was forced to sell his plantation, Hunter Hill, and acquired a smaller holding of 420 acres near Nashville, which he named The Hermitage.


Like all plantation owners in the United States at the time, Jackson enslaved people. It was also a trade in which he was particularly active. It was this trade, as well as his plantation, that brought him immense wealth and power in Tennessee.


The Duel With Charles Dickinson

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The marker indicating the site of the duel between Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In 1806, Jackson got into a heated altercation with a man named Charles Dickinson over a horse race. Dickinson accused Jackson of cheating on a bet, after which Dickinson made offensive comments about Rachel Jackson’s character. After publicly denouncing Jackson as a worthless scoundrel and a coward, Jackson challenged Dickinson to a duel.


The two men met on May 30 at Harrison’s Mills in Logan County, Kentucky. Dickinson’s shot wounded Jackson in the chest, while Jackson’s gun misfired. He should not have been allowed to take another shot, but Jackson cocked his gun and fired again, fatally wounding Dickinson. Jackson spent several months recovering from the gunshot wound, the pain of which would plague him for the rest of his life. He was not prosecuted for Dickinson’s death.


The War of 1812

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Major General Andrew Jackson. Source: US Army


As Major General of the Tennessee Militia, Andrew Jackson’s prospects changed when the War of 1812 broke out. The war would allow him to make a name for himself within the military.


Upon the opening of hostilities, President James Madison ordered Jackson to take 1,500 US volunteers south to defend New Orleans. In 1813, the United States government believed the threat to New Orleans was over and issued an order to disband Jackson’s troops without compensation and with no transport back to Tennessee, whence they came.


Jackson was incensed and led his men back to Tennessee himself through hostile Native American territory. Sharing the hardships with his men, Jackson earned the nickname “Old Hickory,” as hickory trees were known to be particularly tough.


Despite his newfound respect among his peers for his heroic actions in leading his men, Jackson’s temper still found a way to cast misfortune upon him. Instead of mediating, he took sides in a quarrel between two of his men. The resultant dispute erupted in a gunfight, and Jackson was wounded in his left arm.


While recovering from his injury, rebellion erupted as warriors of the Creek Nation rose against the American colonists in the area that is now southern Alabama. Jackson grasped the opportunity and led his men to victory over the Creek Nation in March 1814.


battle of new orleans
The Battle of New Orleans. Source: US Army


Jackson’s success against the Creek brought him positive attention from the US government at a time when the War of 1812 was going poorly for the Americans. Jackson was lauded as a hero and given a more authoritative command over the 7th Military District, which included Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. With this power, he forced the Creek into a treaty, which resulted in the Creek Nation losing 23 million acres of land.


By 1814, the British had dealt with Napoleon in Europe and were able to turn their attention to the United States. With increased fear, the Americans rallied troops to stave off an invasion. Jackson amassed a motley army consisting of regular troops, militia, free Black people, Native Americans, Creoles, and, surprisingly, a band of pirates under the command of Jean Lafitte.


Hearing word of a potential invasion to the south, Jackson marched his army towards New Orleans, and sure enough, the British landed. The two armies squared off for weeks, trying to maneuver into better positions. The British were experienced and had superior numbers, but despite this advantage, the Americans managed to defeat them at the Battle of New Orleans, thus winning Jackson immense respect. He was celebrated as a hero, second only to George Washington.


After the War of 1812

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Andrew Jackson by Thomas Sully, 1845. Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


After the war, Jackson used his influence and reputation to force the Creeks, Chickasaws, Cherokees, and Choctaws to cede vast tracts of land to the United States, in agreements that would prove disastrous for the Native American people and which would eventually lead to their complete removal from their native lands. A particular threat to the United States was the territory of Spanish Florida and the Seminole people who lived therein.


Jackson had plenty of reasons to invade Florida. It was home to a fort where British loyalists, escaped slaves, and Indigenous people congregated. All these factors presented threats to the southern border of the United States, and with questionable authority, Jackson invaded Florida.


In July 1816, Jackson’s forces captured the fort, and brutal treatment of the prisoners ensued, with many finding themselves enslaved. But he did not stop there. He continued his march through Florida, defeating the Spanish and their Seminole allies, as well as capturing two British agents whom he subsequently executed.


As the United States had not formally declared war, Jackson’s actions caused serious international backlash, and Jackson was subjected to intense scrutiny by the US government. Despite his crimes, his actions had proved advantageous for the United States, and he was exonerated.


In 1819, the Spanish officially ceded Florida to the United States, thus ending the First Seminole War.


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General Andrew Jackson by Samuel Lovett Waldo, 1819. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Andrew Jackson’s story was far from over. He would go on to enter modern public memory as the 7th president of the United States. Once lauded as a hero, his legacy would come to be seen as one that included genocide.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African history, he has authored over 200 articles. A former English teacher with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town, he excels in academic writing and finds artistic expression through drawing and painting in his free time.