Andrew Jackson’s Genocidal Legacy

Hailed a hero during his time, President Andrew Jackson’s brutal legacy has been the subject of intense scrutiny over recent decades.

Mar 8, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
andrew jackson legacy


Even before Andrew Jackson became president of the United States, he had garnered a name for himself as being particularly harsh towards the Indigenous peoples of America. He engaged in business practices and military ventures to drive them off millions of acres of their land.


This set the scene for his presidency, and the removal of Native Americans dominated his term in office. Andrew Jackson’s popularity and his single-minded obsession would be an absolute disaster for Indigenous people, resulting in accusations of genocide two centuries later.


The Reputation of Andrew Jackson

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General Andrew Jackson by John Wesley Jarvis, ca. 1819. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Today, Andrew Jackson has a reputation as being the man largely responsible for the Trail of Tears, the removal of Native Americans from their land, forcing them westwards, in dire conditions in which thousands perished. Before he became President, he had already solidified his reputation as being fiercely against the presence of Native Americans in the United States.


His business ventures in land speculation saw Native Americans driven off their lands, as did his military campaigns, especially in Florida, where he fought against the Seminole people.


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Jackson was known for his fiery temper. He was a stubborn man who fought passionately for what he believed in. What he believed in turned the United States into a force with which to be reckoned, but at the expense of human decency, for Jackson is particularly hated by the descendants of his enemies today.


Jackson’s Bid for the Presidency

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Battle of New Orleans and the Death of General Pakenham by Joseph Yeager after William Edward West. Source: Library of Congress


Coming off the back of his successful military career, Jackson won popularity not just within Tennessee, where he lived much of his early life, but all over the United States. He was a hero of the War of 1812, defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans. In doing so, he garnered the respect of the nation and was revered as a national figure only second in popularity to George Washington.


In the years directly before the election of 1824, Andrew Jackson moved back to his home in Tennessee. From there, he accrued even more respect. He had been a Freemason since 1798 and was elected Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Tennessee, a position in which he served from 1823 to 1824. With considerable business alliances, he made powerful proposals and purchased 3,394.8 square miles (6,202.5 km2) of land from the Chickasaw Nation.


He was nominated as a presidential candidate and, at the same time, took up office as a senator, a position he had held before. His previous experiences in Congress had been less than satisfactory in his personal capacity. He was hot-headed and permanently angered by the way things were done. He served several months in each of the two Houses, resigning both his appointments after less than a year in office.


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The 1824 presidential election saw Andrew Jackson win a plurality of the popular and Electoral College votes but no outright majority. Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica


For the 1824 election, Jackson ran as a Democratic-Republican, also known as the Jeffersonian Republican Party, which was the forerunner to the Republican Party. He started his campaign for the Democratic-Republican Party as an outsider and was running mainly as a strategic ploy to reduce the votes of William Crawford, who was seen by many as a Washington insider.


Andrew Jackson, however, proved immensely popular with the electorate, and he ended up in a race for the presidency along with three other candidates, all of whom represented the Democratic-Republican Party: John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay. Jackson won 41.4% of the popular vote and 99 Electoral College votes, while Adams came in second with 30.9% of the popular vote and 84 Electoral College votes.


Jackson, however, did not become president. He lacked the 131 Electoral College votes needed to completely secure the presidency. Under the provisions of the Twelfth Amendment, a contingent vote was held, and the House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams as the next president.


Annoyed at the proceedings, Andrew Jackson resigned his post as senator and returned to Tennessee. Jackson and his supporters, however, were not done fighting what they saw as a miscarriage of justice. They formed a new party and worked to undermine the presidency of John Quincy Adams.


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The election of 1828 was a comfortable victory for Andrew Jackson and the newly created Democratic Party. Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica


With Congress blocking his proposals, Adams’ term in office suffered from a lack of progress. Meanwhile, Jackson’s support grew, and he was nominated for president in 1825, three years before the next election. During this time, Adams lost major support in the South with a tax on goods imported from Europe, while Jackson consolidated his gains in the North and the South.


With the powerful support of New York senator Martin van Buren (who would become the 8th president), the Democratic Party was formed, and Jackson became its primary representative.


The 1828 election was a two-way race marked by vitriolic accusations against Jackson. His brutality was brought under the spotlight, and his detractors accused him of adultery, murder, and even cannibalism. Despite the aspersions, Jackson was triumphant in the election by a comfortable margin.


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Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, died shortly before her husband was inaugurated as the seventh president of the United States. Source: Library of Congress


Jackson won 55.5% of the popular vote to Adam’s 44% and garnered 178 Electoral College votes to Adams’ 83. Jackson and his newly created Democratic Party swept to victory, but the joy of victory was marred by the death of his wife Rachel, who died a few days after the voting. She was believed to have died of a heart attack or a stroke, but Andrew Jackson firmly believed that the abuse of Adams’ supporters worsened her condition. She was buried on Christmas Eve of 1828.


On March 5, 1829, Andrew Jackson was inaugurated as the seventh president of the United States. Adams refused to attend.


Andrew Jackson as President

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A satirical picture of Jackson’s cabinet being entertained by the French dancer Madame Celeste. Source: Library of Congress


Jackson’s first task as president was addressing the corruption he claimed was rife under the Adams administration. He issued investigations and reforms that changed how Federal officials held their jobs. He issued a rotation system to ensure they did not hold their jobs long enough to become corrupt, and at the same time, made sure that appointments by hereditary officeholding and nepotism were no more. In reality, however, it just made it easier for Jackson to remove officials supporting the opposing parties and replace them with Democrats.


The first few years of Jackson’s presidency were also characterized by what became known as the Petticoat Affair. The Secretary of War, John Eaton, and his wife, Margaret, were at the center of a scandal in which Margaret was accused of infidelity. The issue caused rifts in Jackson’s cabinet, which proved to be so ineffective that Jackson dissolved it and spent the rest of his presidency relying on unofficial aides, which became known as Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet.


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The Trail of Tears by Robert Lindneaux, 1942. Source: National Trail of Tears Association


The Major policies that shaped Jackson’s terms as president were the efforts to remove Native Americans from their lands. The Southeast states were inhabited by five major Native American tribes who viewed their land and nations as autonomous. The state authorities, however, took a different view and decided the Native American lands fell under state jurisdiction. The latter view was fiercely supported by Jackson, who pressed the Native Americans with financial compensation to emigrate westwards. Most of the Native Americans, however, refused Jackson’s offer.


In 1830, Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act. The act masqueraded as a peaceful solution in dealing with Native Americans, but Jackson had no intention of sticking to any expectation of amicable solutions. The methods employed by his administration were intimidation, fraud, and bribery. Individual Native Americans without the authority of their tribe were paid by the Americans and agreed to American demands to leave the area along with their tribe. Naturally, the tribes refused to accept the deals, and the Americans, seeing this as breaking the deals, resorted to forced removal, often at gunpoint.


Jackson dealt with the Chickasaw and the Choctaw tribes before focusing on the Seminoles, who were far less accommodating. Tensions rose over the next few years and eventually boiled over, leading to the Second Seminole War, which lasted six years.


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Martin van Buren by John Sartain after Henry Inman. Source: Library of Congress


These forced removals would become known as the Trail of Tears and are today seen as an example of ethnic cleansing. Over the next two decades, mainly under the presidency of Jackson and his successor, Van Buren, the US government would use the army and state militias to perpetrate forced relocation of the Cherokee, the Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Ponka, and the Ho-Chunk/Winnebago nations. While the Trail of Tears is most commonly associated with the Cherokee, in reality, there were many tribes and nations that suffered.


Jackson also focused his attention on the Native American tribes of the Northeast, significantly reducing the lands of the Iroquois.


As a result of Jackson’s actions in enforcing the Indian Removal Act, 170,000 square miles of land were added to the United States, and 70,000 Native Americans were expelled. It is unknown how many died due to unsanitary conditions and resistance to American forces, but it is estimated to be as many as 16,000. Disease swept through the refugees, causing mass death and misery to the victims of Andrew Jackson’s policies.


These forced relocations were a boon to American farmers, who were able to procure vast tracts of arable land at a relatively low cost.


During the early years of Jackson’s presidency, there was also the factor of a major rivalry between Vice President John C. Calhoun and Secretary of State Martin van Buren. In 1830, Jackson discovered that Calhoun had sought Jackson’s censure over the latter’s invasion of Florida. As a result, distrust began to grow between Jackson and Calhoun, and Van Buren came to be seen as Jackson’s probable successor.


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A small memorial in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, to those who suffered on the Trail of Tears. Source: Carol Highsmith / Library of Congress


Tensions between Calhoun and Jackson reached their peak in 1832 when a protective tariff was so opposed in South Carolina that the state threatened to secede. South Carolina sentiment was openly supported by Calhoun, and Jackson threatened to send in troops to reassert authority. The issue was calmed when Jackson agreed to lower the tariff, and a compromise was reached. Secessionist feelings would remain in South Carolina, as it would later become the first state to secede from the Union at the start of the American Civil War.


Keeping the states in line and within the legal confines of rulings by the Supreme Court was not consistent with Andrew Jackson. Despite his hard line with South Carolina, he took a completely different approach with Georgia. A treaty guaranteeing the rights of the Cherokee to their land in Georgia was ignored by the state when gold was discovered on Cherokee land. The state ignored a ruling in favor of the Cherokee by the Supreme Court, and thus, Georgia was in defiance of the federal government. Jackson’s reaction was one of complacency, and the Cherokee were forced out of their land. Almost a quarter of the 15,000 Cherokee who left died as a result.


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Andrew Jackson’s tomb. Source: Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage


The election of 1832 was a foregone conclusion. Jackson won easily, but his enemies had set him up to fail during his second term as president. They put through Congress a bill to recharter the Bank of the United States, which was unpopular with many of Jackson’s supporters. Like Jackson, they believed a federal bank would put too much power in the hands of too few people and trample on the rights of the individual states.


Jackson was posed with a dilemma. If he supported the motion, he would lose favor with his political allies and his voter base, and if he vetoed the bill, it would lead to a possible financial crisis. Jackson decided to veto the bill, and the effects were felt across the nation. Doubts over the continued solvency of smaller banks fueled a financial crisis that would take hold after Jackson had left office in 1837 and under the presidency of his successor, Martin van Buren.


Retirement and Death

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A bust of Andrew Jackson by Hiram Powers, 1839. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Andrew Jackson left office in 1837 and retired to his home, the Hermitage, in Nashville, Tennessee. Despite the financial crisis, he left office even more popular than when he entered it. Under his guidance, The United States broke from a one-party system and became a two-party democracy. This invigorated public attitude towards democracy in the United States.


He expanded US territory and successfully consolidated US gains politically and militarily, which won him favor among the American people. For Native Americans, however, his presidency was a disaster of genocidal proportions. They were disenfranchised and ousted from their lands in brutal episodes of ethnic cleansing.


Jackson spent the last few years of his life in ill health but took an active interest in public life, most notably arguing in favor of the annexation of Texas.


At the age of 78, on June 8, 1845, he died of dropsy, tuberculosis, and heart failure and was buried next to his wife, Rachel.


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End of the Trail. Source: Oklahoma Historical Society


Andrew Jackson, revered during his time, was seen as a hero and a patriot who steered the United States toward dominance and power. Today, however, his treatment of the Native Americans casts a shadow over his legacy and leaves one asking many questions about the nature of the foundation on which the United States was built.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.