Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh in a series of articles by historian Bruce Gourley on the religious faith of U.S. presidents. Gourley is online editor and contributing writer for Baptists Today and executive director of the Baptist History & Heritage Society. His latest book, Baptists and the American Civil War: Crucible of Faith and Freedom, a compilation of articles from the recent series on Baptists and the American Civil War, is now available from Nurturing Faith.
The 1828 election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency of the United States shattered the status quo of the nation’s highest office.
Thus far the presidential club consisted of men of great wealth, genteel heritage, class privilege and rationalistic intellect. Jackson could claim only one of the four, and even then his great wealth had been earned on the edge of civilization rather than received from familial inheritance.
A son of Scotch-Irish Presbyterian immigrants, Andrew Jackson’s 1767 birthplace, somewhere on the unsurveyed remote frontier along the border of North and South Carolina, is unknown. Neither did Jackson know his father, who died of an accident before his birth.
Captured by the British at age 13 and nearly starved to death in captivity, a defiant teenage Jackson refused to clean the boots of a British officer, who as punishment slashed the youngster’s head and left hand with a sword, leaving him scarred for life. Months after his release from captivity, Jackson’s mother died from cholera, making him an orphan.
Fending for himself, Jackson plunged further into the frontier wilderness in what is now northeastern Tennessee. Largely self-taught, the young man set up shop as a frontier lawyer, focusing on cases of assault and battery, as well as disputed land claims.
In a land of few attorneys, Jackson made the most of his situation, leading to an appointment as solicitor (prosecutor) in the Southwest Territory. His legal knowledge and government position provided the opportunity for land speculation. When the Southwest Territory became the state of Tennessee in 1796, Jackson prospered financially.
As the frontiersman-turned-prominent citizen inched his way upward in the world, Jackson’s personal life evidenced a fair share of troubles. Falling in love with Rachel Stockley Donelson, he married her while under the impression that she had obtained a divorce from her husband. Mistaken in this matter, the couple lived together in a bigamous relationship for four years before final completion of the divorce and a second, official, wedding held in 1794.
Personal matters aside, Jackson’s public persona and business successes led to politics. Elected as Tennessee’s first U.S. representative and then as a U.S. senator, Jackson quickly came to dislike Washington, D.C.
Resigning from the Senate and returning to Tennessee, in 1798 he secured an appointment as a judge of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Greater success and prosperity soon followed, first with an 1802 election as major general of the Tennessee militia, followed two years later by the purchase of a 640-acre plantation, the Hermitage, near Nashville.
Soon an elite, albeit unrefined planter, Jackson later enlarged the plantation, owning as many as 150 slaves at one time.
Accomplishments and accolades continued, the most notable his crucial victory against the British in the Battle of New Orleans in 1814-1815 during the War of 1812. During the war General Jackson willingly suffered alongside his enlisted men, earning their respect and the nickname “Old Hickory.”
A national hero, the rough-and-tumble Jackson received a Congressional Gold Medal and remained one of America’s foremost military leaders for the next decade, his service including a stint as the military governor of Florida in 1821.
To this point, religion apparently occupied little of Jackson’s time and thought, despite Rachel’s efforts to impress faith upon her famous husband. The First Presbyterian Church of Nashville claimed the general as one of its own, but although sometimes attending services, he did not formally join the congregation.
Jackson nonetheless deferred to Rachel in the construction of a new church building in 1823 for the Hermitage community. Initially interdenominational, the Ephesus Church (later Hermitage Church) affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the early 1830s.
Despite his refusal to join the church at that time, Jackson during the decade of the 1820s occasionally referred to religion in his writings, perhaps in part due to Rachel’s continuing influence until her death in 1828.
Beloved by his adopted state, Jackson returned to the U.S. Senate to represent Tennessee from 1823 to 1825. He also secured a nomination by the Tennessee legislature for the presidential contest of 1824, losing to John Quincy Adams. In a rematch four years later and after helping establish the new Democratic Party, he defeated Adams.
President-elect Jackson, formerly an orphan and frontiersman, acknowledged his affinity for and commitment to common Americans by inviting the public to the White House for his inauguration. A mob scene ensued in the nation’s capital, heralding the arrival of “Jacksonian democracy.”
Jackson’s vision of democracy, however, did not extend beyond the white race. His presidential policies included Indian removal from the Deep South, a view of Manifest Destiny that proved beneficial to his own slaveholdings.
Despite maintaining a limited view of federal rights, President Jackson successfully resisted South Carolina’s threats to nullify federal law and secede from the Union due to federal tariffs deemed a threat to the state’s slave economy. Critical of the federal banking system established by James Madison, Jackson dismantled the institution following his election in 1832 to a second presidential term.
On occasion as president, Andrew Jackson addressed matters related to religion. In those few instances he voiced strong support for church-state separation as written into the First Amendment.
In 1832 President Jackson declined to declare a national day of fasting and prayer in the face of a rapidly spreading cholera epidemic.
Speaking of his refusal, he noted, “I could not do otherwise without transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the President and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion nowadays enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government.”
Jackson also opposed an escalating national campaign by conservative Christian nationalists to force America, founded as a secular nation, to officially embrace Christianity. Advocates of a Christian America targeted Sunday mail delivery, declaring the practice an affront to God and discriminatory of the rights of Christians.
The government, many Congregationalists and other powerful traditional religious interests contended, should honor God by following biblical Sabbath laws. The president, with the support of Baptists foremost, resisted the Christian nationalists and defended church-state separation, evidencing his trademark Jacksonian democracy.
As Jackson later noted in a letter, “let it be remembered … no established religion can exist under our glorious constitution.”
Following his presidential years the heretofore religiously distant Andrew Jackson underwent a conversion experience and in 1838 joined the church he earlier built — now the Hermitage Church, renamed in his honor and a Presbyterian congregation.
Whether this spiritual turn in his life stemmed from regrets, reflections and lone-liness of an aged widower, or emerged as a public expression of a long-evolving but previously private faith, the congregation shortly thereafter elected Jackson a ruling elder, only to have the former president decline the honor.
Now a church member, Jackson regularly attended worship services. Although he neither probed the depths of church doctrine nor philosophically struggled to reconcile faith and reason, as had prior presidents, Old Hickory did evidence a belief in heaven and hell.
Near the time of his death in June 1845, Andrew Jackson allegedly said to his family and slaves: “I am my God’s. I belong to him. I go but a short time before you, and I want to meet you all in heaven, both white & black.”
Following his death, the body of President and General Andrew Jackson came to rest alongside that of his beloved Rachel at his Hermitage plantation. BT
by Bruce Gourley