Andrew Jackson’s 256th birthday is March 15, 2023. In recognition, we are posting this excerpt from Clarence Lusane’s new book, Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Democracy. In the book, Lusane argues that not only should Harriet Tubman’s face replace Jackson’s on the front of the US $20, her vision of abolitionist democracy should replace Jackson’s racist patriarchal model.
Negro Fort was a garrison that was abandoned by the British during the War of 1812 and subsequently became a refuge for people who escaped slavery, Native Americans, and free blacks. Located near what is now Sumatra, Florida, at the time it was an area that was outside the United States and became one of many autonomous maroon territories. Negro Fort—originally called Fort Magazine by the British—was left fully armed when the British fled in 1815. People on the run from their white enslavers came from as far away as Virginia, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Andrew Jackson’s role in the brutal seizure of the fort in July 1816 would be one of the signature campaigns that built his military fame and ultimately propelled him to the White House.
Slavers in the region were fearful of Negro Fort and the message it sent about black autonomy. Many complained to state and federal authorities that residents of the fort were raiding their plantations for food and supplies. President James Madison looked to General Andrew Jackson to end this affront to white society. When Jackson’s request to the Spanish governor of Florida to destroy the fort was rebuffed, he sent instructions to Major General Edmund P. Gaines, commander of U.S. military forces “in the Creek nation,” to “restore the stolen negroes and property to their rightful owners.” Skirmishes began on July 15, 1816, when black and Indigenous fighters from Negro Fort killed several U.S. soldiers who had come ashore at Apalachicola Bay. Over the next two weeks, clashes took place in the thick woods surrounding the fort, at times descending into hand-to-hand combat. After a pause in the ground fighting, Jackson’s vessels attacked with cannon fire. The fort’s defenders held their own until the morning of July 27, 1816, when a hot cannonball struck Negro Fort’s stockpile of gunpowder. The impact set off a massive explosion that killed almost everyone inside the fort. The very few who survived were either executed or enslaved by Jackson’s men.
There is some controversy regarding how many people died that day. The official historical marker at the site reads: “It is hard to imagine the horrible scene that greeted the first Americans to stand here on the morning of July 27, 1816. The remains of the 270 persons killed in the magazine explosion lay scattered about.” However, a study by scholar Claudio Saunt argues that many had left before the decisive battle, and “probably no more than forty” had been killed by the blast and inferno.
In any case, Jackson’s willingness to wage war against blacks and Native Americans had no bounds. His obsession with expanding slavery westward at the expense of Native lands and lives would define the rest of his military and political career. “Andrew Jackson was the implementer of the final solution for the Indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi,” writes Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in her book An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. The Negro Fort episode was a harbinger of things to come.
Jackson was an anti-abolitionist and a slaver with a clear and brutal record of massacring Native American people. Old Hickory, however, is more often than not portrayed as a populist and national “father figure” of sorts. He is credited with being one of the founders of the Democratic Party in the 1820s and a successful advocate for the expansion of voting rights and political participation for working-class white men. His savagery and white supremacy have been played down or ignored for too long. As Ronald Takaki points out, in biographies like Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson, African Americans and Native Americans are mostly erased, and Nat Turner’s 1830 rebellion and Jackson’s successful push for the Indian Removal Act simply go unmentioned. Some authors, like historian Robert V. Remini, have tried to have it both ways, but the result is to portray him as a badass hero:
He was one of the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. A writer brilliant, elegant, eloquent, without being able to compose a correct sentence, or spell words of four syllables. The first of statesmen, he never devised, he never framed a measure. He was the most candid of men, and was capable of the profoundest dissimulation. A most law-defying, law-obeying citizen. A stickler for discipline, he never hesitated to disobey his superior. A democratic autocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint.
This type of bromance with Andrew Jackson has certainly factored into his placement on U.S. currency and glorification in books, monuments, and official U.S. narratives. However, a more honest acknowledgement of the mass suffering and death inflicted by his racism and greed should dispel any notion that he continues to deserve to be uncritically honored on national platforms such as currency, or anywhere else.
FROM ORPHAN TO PRESIDENT
As previously mentioned, Andrew Jackson was born on March 15, 1767, ironically sharing a birth date with Harriet Tubman. He was orphaned at the relatively young age of fourteen, and grew up poor, deprived, and rough. He joined the colonial army during the American Revolution, at age thirteen or fourteen. Stories of his bravado, perhaps exaggerated, describe personality traits of stubbornness, tenacity, and a dogged resilience that would shape his path going forward. He left the military after the Revolutionary War but would later return and ultimately rise to the rank of general and commander. In this role, the carnage at Negro Fort would be one of many massacres he would lead.
Jackson’s career zigzagged as he dipped into the legal field, business ventures, and political interests, as well as the military. Over the course of his life he became an enslaver, human trafficker, attorney, solicitor, U.S. representative, U.S. senator, land speculator, Tennessee Supreme Court justice, store owner, military commander, Tennessee governor, and president of the United States. He achieved all these positions with little education.
Like Donald Trump, Andrew Jackson was also involved in a disputed presidential election result. Jackson ran for president in 1824 against John Quincy Adams, the son of the nation’s second president. The two other candidates in the race were Henry Clay and William H. Crawford. Although Jackson won the popular vote, he did not win enough votes in the electoral college. As a result, the decision on the election went to the U.S. House of Representatives. After much debate and backroom deal-making, the presidency was awarded to John Quincy Adams and the vice presidency to John C. Calhoun, enraging Jackson.
Jackson abandoned the National Republican Party, helped to start the Democratic Party, and benefited from expanding voting rights to working-class white men. As a result, from 1824 to 1828, the voting population went from around 365,000 to over one million, launching what many historians have dubbed the era of Jacksonian Democracy. The rise of political parties and the end of property requirements drove the surge in voting among white men. Jackson’s anti-elite rhetoric openly excluded women, African Americans, and Native Americans without apology or regret. For First Americans, Jackson was the “Sharp Knife” that stabbed their hearts while slashing them apart from their ancestral land. For black families, he was another white slaver determined to keep them in chains.
JACKSON AND SLAVERY
One of Andrew Jackson’s slave plantations was known as “The Hermitage” and was located in Davidson County, Tennessee. Today, The Hermitage is a tourist destination that lures visitors with the call to “Experience the historic mansion and tranquil beauty” of the 1,000-acre plantation. In fact, Jackson’s livelihood was almost wholly dependent on the cotton produced by the people he enslaved and the income he earned by breeding and selling them. Jackson purchased his first human being when he was around twenty-four years old, a six-year-old boy named Aaron, and continued to purchase black people and engage in the slave trade itself. He brought people he enslaved to the White House from Tennessee and bought more during his presidency to serve his family.
At the time of his death in 1845, Jackson owned approximately 150 people, a significant increase from the nine he owned when he purchased the Tennessee land for The Hermitage in 1804. According to the White House Historical Association:
In January 1829, less than two months before he became president, Andrew Jackson ordered an inventory of his slaves. The inventory recorded the names, ages, and familial relationships of ninety-five enslaved individuals who lived and worked at The Hermitage, his Tennessee plantation. When President-elect Jackson left for the White House, he brought some of these enslaved people with him. The 1830 census listed fourteen enslaved individuals in Jackson’s household—eight women and six men—and many scholars suggest that his household grew during the course of his presidency.
Among the individuals he enslaved were “Seamstress” Gracy; “Cooks” Old Hannah, Betty, Maria, Mary, and Old Dick; “Body Servant” George; “Carpenters” Ned and Henry; and “Weavers” Eliza, Gincy, and Big Sally. People without specific jobs were listed as either “House Slaves” or “Field Slaves,” the latter constituting the largest number of those owned by Jackson. Many of the individuals were in families that were, of course, torn asunder when Jackson so desired.
By all accounts, he did not hesitate to work the people he enslaved as hard as possible. An example of Jackson’s cruelty could be found in how he attempted to capture a person who had escaped from his plantation. In 1804, Jackson posted an advertisement describing the person who had escaped to freedom as a “Mulatto Man Slave, about thirty years old, six feet and an inch high, stout made and active, talks sensible, stoops in his walk, and has a remarkable large foot, broad across the root of the toes.” Jackson speculated, “He will make for Detroit, through the states of Kentucky or Ohio, or the upper part of Louisiana.” He offered what was likely a normal reward of fifty dollars—about $1,202.19 in 2022 dollars. However, he included an additional incentive in his post. He pledged to pay an extra ten dollars, for a total of about $1,442.62 in 2022 dollars, “for every hundred lashes any person will give to the amount of three hundred,” encouraging others to do his dirty work for him. His maximum offer of a possible $300.00 was equivalent to $7,213.12 in 2022 dollars. Historian Robert P. Hay points out that many of Jackson’s biographers either did not know of this particular advertisement or ignored it in in an effort to try to dishonestly make that case that “he was the most indulgent, patient and generous of masters” and that he oversaw his enslaved with a “patriarch’s care,” or that he was “an ideal slave-owner.”
On Jackson’s plantation, violence was used to maintain the racial hierarchy. In 1815, one of Jackson’s nephews informed him, “Your wenches as usual commenced open war” against the overseer. The black women were “brought to order by Hickory oil,” wrote the nephew, a reference to being whipped. Understanding use of the term in this manner strongly suggests that Jackson may have been nicknamed “Old Hickory” as a reference to the hickory switches used on plantations to beat black people into submission. In the classic slave narrative Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Ball writes, “If a slave gives offence, he is generally chastised on the spot, in the field where he is at work, as the overseer always carries a whip—sometimes a twisted cow-hide, sometimes a kind of horsewhip, and very often a simple hickory switch or gad, cut in the adjoining woods.” Being named after the simple weapon used by white enslavers to impulsively whip black people would have been fitting for Jackson, who was notorious for flying into violent rages.
But Old Hickory was also known for calmly ordering violence against the black people who resisted his and his wife’s dictates. For example, in 1821, the Jacksons were living in Florida while Andrew served as territorial governor. During one of his absences, his wife Rachel wrote to him that her slave, Betty, “has been putting on some airs, and been guilty of a great deal of impudence.” Her sin was washing clothes for individuals in the neighborhood without Rachel’s “express permission.” Jackson instructed his staff to punish Betty with fifty lashes at “the public whipping post” if she refused to obey his wife. Betty was “capable of being a good & valluable servant,” he wrote one of the men, “but to have her so, she must be ruled with the cowhide.”174
Jackson despised abolitionists and worked to perpetuate and expand slavery in the United States. In his multiple positions as an attorney, military officer, Congressmember, governor, and certainly as the nation’s seventh president, he did all he could to ensure lands seized or purchased westward would be welcome spaces for white people to profit from trafficking and enslaving people of color.
Jackson also supported efforts of other white supremacists to target the free speech of Americans active in anti-slavery networks. During his second presidential term (1833–37), the abolition movement organized a mail campaign to flood Southern states with anti-slavery literature. The campaign prompted widespread public protest and attention throughout the white South. In July 1835, a local postmaster in Charleston, South Carolina, Alfred Huger, discovered a cache of abolitionist literature mail en route from Philadelphia’s American Anti-Slavery Society. While not wanting to assist abolitionists, but hesitant about violating his responsibility to deliver the mail, Huger stopped the literature from going forward and wrote U.S. Postmaster General Amos Kendall, an enslaver himself, for some guidance. When white people in the community found out about the stalled mail, they took matters into their own hands. A mob formed, took the materials, and publicly burned them. At the same time, a committee of prominent Tennessee citizens formed and issued a statement that they would support banning anti-slavery mail and advocate that any similar materials be set on fire.
Postmaster Kendall sent Southern postmasters instructions to withhold abolitionist mailings unless recipients requested the literature. When he consulted with President Jackson about the situation, Jackson approved of the intervention even though it clearly violated Americans’ rights and the U.S. Constitution. In a private letter sent August 9, 1835, “Jackson himself denounced the ‘monsters’ who were using the items ‘to stir up amongst the South the horrors of a servile war’ and called for them ‘to atone for this wicked attempt, with their lives,’ ” writes Mark R. Cheathem in a 2020 article for the Washington Post.
He also recommended that Southern postmasters make a list of the people in their communities who wanted the material so that they could be “exposed” in the media “as subscribers to this wicked plan of exciting the negroes to insurrection and to massacre.” Jackson hoped that his fellow White Southerners would force those sympathetic to the abolitionist cause to “desist” in their support of freedom for enslaved people “or move from the country.” Instead of trying to be a leader for all Americans, Jackson used the language of an enslaver who saw the threat that holding out hope of freedom to enslaved people posed not just to his livelihood but also to his entire way of life.176
About five months later, Jackson spoke publicly about the issue in an address to Congress. Jackson proposed legislation that would “prohibit, under severe penalties, the circulation in the Southern States, through the mail, of incendiary publications intended to instigate the slaves to insurrection.” No bill was ever passed by Congress, so Jackson simply allowed Southerners to continue to illegally seize and destroy black freedom literature.
Howard Zinn described Andrew Jackson as “the most aggressive enemy of the Indians in early American history.” His most infamous move as president was to push through the 1830 Indian Removal Act. When elected president in 1828, Jackson vowed that he would complete the work of President Thomas Jefferson, who in 1802 signed the “Georgia Compact” and in 1803 completed the Louisiana Purchase. Those two actions set the stage for the forced removal of the Creeks and Cherokees living in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. The Georgia Compact was an agreement between the U.S. government and Georgia in which the latter agreed to cede claim on Alabama and Mississippi—states cut out of territory controlled by Georgia—in exchange for a commitment on the part of the federal government to purge Native Americans, specifically the Cherokees, from those areas, despite their titles to the lands. The understanding was that at some point the First Americans would be resettled elsewhere. The “elsewhere” was some of the vast territory acquired with the Louisiana Purchase. This agreement was accomplished without input or consent from the Cherokees, and naturally, they resisted. Jefferson would later state that he did not have the power to force them to relocate or surrender their titles to the land.
Jackson felt no such qualms or constitutional constraints. The situation had reached something of a stalemate until his election. He came into office determined to implement a removal plan. Southern congressmembers supported Jackson, as they wanted Native American land to expand their slave-based economy. On December 8, 1829, the top priority in Jackson’s first State of the Union address was pitching legislation for Native removal. Six months later, the bill came up for a vote in Congress. The vote was close—28 to 19 in the Senate and 102 to 97 in the House—but Jackson prevailed and signed the bill into law on May 28, 1830. With the bill’s passage, Jackson had the authority to “exchange” Indian lands in the South for some western territories, whether the Indigenous nations wanted to or not.
While the Indian Removal Act called for negotiations, it was clear to all that force would be used if necessary. Legendary frontiersman and U.S. Representative Davy Crockett voiced strong opposition to the bill. On May 26, 1830, he stated on the floor of Congress that he viewed “the native Indian tribes of this country as a sovereign people” and that “removing them in the manner proposed” would not protect them as the United States was bound to do. He said he did not trust the Jackson administration to efficiently spend the $500,000 that had been allocated, nor that appropriate land would be available. He contended that he personally knew of some Cherokees who vowed never to leave their ancestral land, and he thought they should not be forced.
Crockett’s passions notwithstanding, Jackson’s long record of bloody battles against Native peoples had already set the path he would follow. By the time of his 1828 presidential victory, Jackson’s attitude toward Native Americans was well documented. He referred to Indigenous people as “savage bloodhounds” and “blood thirsty barbarians,” a view perpetrated by white people in the Americas since the days of the conquistadors. As a military leader, Jackson personally initiated and led numerous atrocities, including massacres. One bloody conflict took place on March 27, 1814, at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River in what is now Alabama. Referring to the upcoming fight, he wrote to one of his generals, “I must destroy those deluded victims doomed to distruction [sic] by their own restless and savage conduct.” Historian Ronald Takaki wrote that Jackson’s stance was that “ ‘foreign’ governments could not be tolerated, and the Indians would have to submit to state authority.”
With a bloodlust that is difficult to fathom, Jackson and his men, which included some Cherokees and even a few Creeks, attacked and killed eight hundred Creek children and adults in a community of one thousand. After the slaughter, Jackson’s men skinned many of the corpses and removed the noses. The skins were then used to make bridle reins. Jackson took clothes off the bodies of women and, as he noted in a letter to his wife, took a “warrior’s bow and quiver” for their son Andrew.
Proud of the devastation that he caused, Jackson wrote, “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms . . . filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?” Following the massacre, the Creeks signed the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which forced them to cede 22 million acres, including a huge tract in southern Georgia. Jackson, some of his relatives, and some of his associates then began buying the seized land.185
In 1832, the Supreme Court, adhering to the 1802 Indian Trade and Intercourse Act, upheld the law that “states could not legally extend their jurisdiction into Indian territory.”186 They ruled that the federal government, not the states, had the authority to negotiate land issues. Jackson blatantly ignored that decision and through nonenforcement essentially gave states the green light to begin the process of dispossessing Indian Nations of their ancestral lands.
JACKSON AND THE TRAIL OF TEARS
“During the Jacksonian period,” writes Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “the United States made eighty-six treaties with twenty-six Indigenous nations between New York and the Mississippi, all of them forcing land cessions, including removals.” The federal government often refused to honor its treaties guaranteeing that lands would not be violated or taken, as was the case with the Cherokee people. Jackson, as he had done on other occasions, forced negotiations that led to a treaty signing for Cherokee removal in 1835. Anti-removal tribal leaders and the vast majority of tribal members were marginalized and ignored. When the majority refused to budge, Jackson sent the military to drive the Cherokees off their land.
Before being forced to walk 1,200 miles in the dead of winter to current-day Oklahoma, Indigenous families were first rounded up and placed in detention camps—a legacy that echoed in the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s and migrant families in 2019. More than half of the sixteen thousand Cherokee children, women, and men forced to march on Jackson’s Trail of Tears died on the way.189 Some black families, who were enslaved to the Cherokees, were also forced to march. By 1835, as many as 1,600 black people were enslaved to the Cherokee nation.
Dunbar-Ortiz relates that, after the Civil War, journalist James Mooney interviewed people who had been involved in the forced removal. Based on firsthand accounts, Mooney described the scene:
Under [General Winfield] Scott’s orders the troops were disposed at various points throughout the Cherokee country, where stockade forts were erected for gathering in and holding the Indians preparatory to removal. From these, squads of troops were sent to search out with rifle and bayonet every small cabin hidden away in the coves or by the sides of mountain streams, to seize and bring in as prisoners all the occupants, however or wherever they might be found. Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the doorway and rose up to be driven with blows and oaths along the weary miles of trail that led to the stockade. Men were seized in their fields or going along the road, women were taken from their wheels and children from their play. In many cases, on turning for one last look as they crossed the ridge, they saw their homes in flames. fired by the lawless rabble that followed on the heels of the soldiers to loot and pillage. So keen were these outlaws on the scent that in some instances they were driving off the cattle and other stock of the Indians almost before the soldiers had fairly started their owners in the other direction. Systematic hunts were made by the same men for Indian graves, to rob them of the silver pendants and other valuables deposited with the dead. A Georgia volunteer, afterward a colonel in the Confederate service, said: “I fought through the civil war and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.”
Some historians have tried to overlook Jackson’s atrocities against First Americans by pointing to his “adoption” of a young Creek infant orphan. They tend to underplay or not mention that Jackson was the reason the boy became an orphan in the first place. On November 3, 1813, Jackson and his soldiers attacked a small Creek Indian village, Tallushatchee. The assault was meant as vengeance for violence by the Red Sticks, a faction of Creeks, against whites in the area. The village became a killing field that has been called “beyond bloody,” a “massacre,” and a “revolting scene.” Babies, children, and adults were shot, burned, and beaten to death. Not one of the 186 men in the village was left alive. At some point after the slaughter ended, one of Jackson’s interpreters brought him a small child who had somehow miraculously survived. Jackson decided that he would take the child, whom he called a “savage,” and send him to his five-year-old son as a “pett” to “amuse him.” The Indigenous child was named Lyncoya. As Jackson wrote to his wife Rachel, Lyncoya was to be given to Andrew Jr. to replace Andrew’s previous pet, also a Creek child, Theodore. Jackson wrote, “He is about the size of Theodore and much like him.” According to the U.S. National Park Service, Theodore was likely captured when U.S. forces overran the Creek village of Littafuchee on October 27, 1813, and died soon after arriving at The Hermitage. A third Creek child, renamed Charley, was presented to Jackson as a gift by Jim Fife, a member of the Creek National Council.
As Slate researcher Rebecca Onion noted, “Defenders of Jackson have long used Lyncoya to finesse Jackson’s historical reputation in relationship to Native Americans.” Notably, there is scant record of Lyncoya’s views on the massacre of his family and village, adoption by Jackson, and life at The Hermitage. It is known that he ran away on several occasions in an effort to return to the Creek nation. When he was about ten years old, he wrote Jackson a letter in which he asked to be able to call him “Father” and wanted him to be proud one day to be able to say, “This is the Indian boy I [once] raised.” But that’s not how things went for Lyncoya. When he died of tuberculosis at age sixteen or seventeen, Jackson had him buried, like a pet, in an unmarked grave.
But Jackson’s pet was useful to him beyond the amusement of his son, Andrew Junior. As his political ambitions grew, Jackson presented himself as a strong fighter but with a soft edge, a counter to his well-known history as an “Indian killer.” Jackson worked the Lyncoya story to propagate a “benevolent father figure” narrative about himself. According to historian Dawn Peterson, in 1816 he went as far as to ask Tennessee senator George Washington Campbell to use his adoption of Lyncoya as an example to his congressional colleagues that stories of Jackson’s raging temperament toward Native peoples were overblown.
In his farewell address to Congress, Jackson spoke derisively and paternalistically about how Native Americans had fared under his presidential tenure. He stated:
The States which had so long been retarded in their improvement by the Indian tribes residing in the midst of them are at length relieved from the evil, and this unhappy race—the original dwellers in our land—are now placed in a situation where we may well hope that they share in the blessings of civilization and be saved from that degradation and destruction to which they were rapidly hastening while they remained in the States; and while the safety and comfort of our own citizens have been greatly promoted by their removal, the philanthropist will rejoice that the remnant of the ill-fated race has been at length placed beyond the reach of injury or oppression, and that the paternal care of the General Government will hereafter watch over them and protect them.
References to Native peoples as “evil” and “ill-fated” captured the genuine attitude of Jackson toward First Americans and his policies while in office. References to so-called “paternal” care were just treacle to mask racial conquest. Jackson’s near-pathological goal to seize Native lands was meant to enrich himself and the sprawling white enslaver class of which he was a part.
Charles C. Mann’s research indicates that that there were probably more people living in the Americas in 1491 then there were in Europe. The real history of the United States is not one of a “nation of immigrants,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes, but one of erasure and exclusion shaped by greed and white supremacy. For the millions of American people committed to justice and equality—not just those whose ancestors were butchered, enslaved, robbed, and left in unmarked graves like Lyncoya—the face that sneers out at them every day from their twenty-dollars bills is the vulgar embodiment of unfreedom, injustice, racial disunity, censorship, and death.