The Rise of Andrew Jackson

Myth, Manipulation, and the Making of Modern Politics


By David S. Heidler

By Jeanne T. Heidler

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The story of Andrew Jackson’s improbable ascent to the White House, centered on the handlers and propagandists who made it possible

Andrew Jackson was volatile and prone to violence, and well into his forties his sole claim on the public’s affections derived from his victory in a thirty-minute battle at New Orleans in early 1815. Yet those in his immediate circle believed he was a great man who should be president of the United States.

Jackson’s election in 1828 is usually viewed as a result of the expansion of democracy. Historians David and Jeanne Heidler argue that he actually owed his victory to his closest supporters, who wrote hagiographies of him, founded newspapers to savage his enemies, and built a political network that was always on message. In transforming a difficult man into a paragon of republican virtue, the Jacksonites exploded the old order and created a mode of electioneering that has been mimicked ever since.



1828 Campaign Portrait

John Overton

The Battle of New Orleans

Early and Inaccurate Likeness of Andrew Jackson

Senator Andrew Jackson

Anticaucus Political Cartoon

Electoral Ticket from Election of 1824

Rachel Jackson

Martin Van Buren

Coffin Handbill

“Pedlar and His Pack” Cartoon


We have not corrected most spelling and punctuation errors in quotations from correspondence, diaries, and newspapers. Such errors were frequent in the early nineteenth century and to indicate them as accurately transcribed with the insertion of sic seemed to heckle the writer more than inform the reader. Only in cases when confusion might result have we used sic. Otherwise, imaginative spellers and eccentric grammarians have been allowed to speak in the pages that follow free from a pedant’s pen.

During the 1828 campaign, the famous engraver James Longacre copied a Ralph Earl portrait of Andrew Jackson that was sold to raise money for the campaign. The practice would be expanded in all future presidential campaigns. (Library of Congress)


THE COMMON PEOPLE OF AMERICA ADORED ANDREW JACKSON. No matter how far he traveled from his humble origins or how high he climbed above them, they always viewed him as a reflection of themselves. His first world was the frontier of the remote Carolina Upcountry, and the self-reliant folk of places like that could judge his angular face, calloused hands, and sinewed limbs as familiar features of a makeshift and hardscrabble life. Like him, many Americans ended the Revolutionary War with empty chairs by hearths reminding them of the highest toll of all in the quest for liberty. Like him, they endured deprivation with courage and loss with resilience. These plain folk intuitively admired a man who settled disputes quickly and whose horizons were not cluttered by doubt and anxiety, a man with a sense of self so unshakeable and stubborn that it could make him seem right against all comers even when he was wrong—especially when he was wrong.

As a rising man, Jackson entered an honorable profession (the law), attached himself to important people, acquired property, married well (though under strange circumstances), and rose to lead the Tennessee militia. He became a public man—for public men were the dominant people of the American scene—and entered politics though he possessed little political skill and a poor temperament for political life. His militia career provided him with a constituency, and his military exploits, though brief and limited, were so gaudy that they made him a hero. He first appeared to the public at a time of seeming decline and possible revival. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, most Americans no longer lived on the frontier, and according to some, they were getting soft and losing the pluck that had made them hardy colonizers and happy warriors.

A vague fear arose that the great accomplishments of the American Revolution were fading away because a delicate people, corrupted by comfort and cynical about government, could not remember the cost of liberty. Andrew Jackson’s image as the man who could reverse this disturbing drift began with his stunning victory over the British at New Orleans in January 1815. Nine years later, his first attempt to win the presidency saw his supporters insisting that he could renew the nation, and by 1828, most voters agreed that Jackson was crucial to securing America’s future, in that he would draw on the best of its humble but energetic past.

In this setting and from these events, the remarkable rise of Andrew Jackson seemed to happen spontaneously, but there was much more to it than that. As early as 1816, a small group of people began working on a grand political project. Jackson’s reputation as a peerless military hero fueled their enthusiasm and formed the foundation for his ascendant political career. Jackson’s promoters harnessed a previously inchoate political movement spurred by broad discontent. People fumed over government corruption. They blamed the country’s central bank for its wrecked economy. They chafed at the disdainful elitism of their “betters,” who expected the deference of olden days to survive the passing fancy of democratic politics. Yeomen, mechanics, tradesmen, and small merchants were unembarrassed by the charge that democracy was the cudgel of the mob. They seemed to be yearning for an unshakeable and self-aware man ready to do right against all comers, even if he was wrong.

These ordinary, disaffected Americans voiced their resentment and rancor, but their utterances were so varied as to be discordant, and they were seemingly fated to remain so until the gaunt, cantankerous man appeared. He was nothing if not unshakeable and self-aware, but the growing mass of his followers at the start were neither, despite their veneer of purpose. Nevertheless, Andrew Jackson’s boundless appeal for voters from starkly different social and economic backgrounds energized a broad and diverse population among whom quarrels were unavoidable.

People with different hopes and disparate dreams supported Andrew Jackson not only because of who he had been but also for what he seemed to be. A manufacturer in Pennsylvania who wanted protectionism saw Andrew Jackson as favoring stiff tariffs. A South Carolina planter who wanted free trade envisioned Jackson culling collectors and opening ports to the commerce of the world. Disgruntled Old Republicans nostalgic for Jeffersonian purity saw Jackson as a man intent on limiting the growing government and trimming its expansive Treasury. Federalists marginalized by the War of 1812 and vanishing under the relentless political march of their foes found a man ready to reject the quasi-religious tests of party and faction to allow them again to participate in the public commons and national government. A masterful politician with a scheme to make patronage and influence the bond of an invincible party perceived in Jackson a man who valued loyalty and would embrace ways to encourage it. A purist who believed patronage debased public service and promoted corruption saw a virtuous hero ready to quash special interests and stop their raids on the public till.

As people with opposite views on national issues found themselves in the same political movement, the men organizing it were able to diminish the importance of those differences and control a rambunctious movement while creating the impression that the man they were promoting was its founder. In the beginning, Andrew Jackson’s closest friend in Nashville, John Overton, led a group of managers and handlers whose varied backgrounds brought to their task an assortment of valuable skills. The wise and measured Overton first saw the possibilities Jackson’s popularity presented in a political setting, and it was Overton who assembled the first team to promote Jackson’s candidacy. This group, called the Nashville Junto, was a committee of talents. Among them was John Eaton, a scribe who wrote a laudatory biography and who later became a senator to protect Jackson’s reputation in Washington. Editor George Wilson made his Nashville Gazette the first Jackson newspaper with a flair for disguising propaganda as hard news. Sam Houston was the young lieutenant in Jackson’s army who had proven his mettle by surviving wounds that would have killed another man but that only spurred Houston to greater exertion. William B. Lewis, disdained by others for his obsequious manner and oily charm, could listen for gossip and quash it, forge deals without seeming to, and make promises as profitable as they were provisional.

Even with real talent supporting Jackson for high political office, the effort could have foundered on divisions caused by conflicting purposes and differing philosophies. The variety of views, in fact, would only multiply as the movement around the man grew and broadened. Many of the men who worked tirelessly to see Andrew Jackson elected were not what later generations would call Jacksonians. Some wanted to eliminate all property qualifications for the vote, which was a fundamental part of Jacksonian Democracy, but in the 1820s, just as many supporters thought too many people already voted. Men who wanted unimpeded territorial expansion, which became another tenet of Jacksonianism, labored and propagandized alongside men who feared that opening the West would diminish the political influence of the East. For every strict constructionist, there was a man eager to make the federal government less limited and more active. Some Jacksonians masked their artful use of patronage with the euphemism “rotation in office”—one would slip by calling it the “spoils system”—but trading government posts for political support was anathema to other Jackson loyalists in the 1820s. Men who figured prominently in Jackson’s bids for the presidency sat on the boards of banks and lobbied for the establishment of Bank of the United States branches in their hometowns, while others would later denounce banks for what they called the manipulation of currency and credit to cheat ordinary people.

Because of these inconsistencies among the men who joined Andrew Jackson’s campaigns and those who would govern after his victory, and because of the contradictions within the great mass of people who elected him, we have chosen to call his supporters in the 1820s Jacksonites rather than Jacksonians. Jacksonians supported universal white manhood suffrage, territorial expansion, and the elimination of the Second Bank of the United States; Jacksonites were those willing to use Jackson’s popularity to achieve political power. Jacksonites had in common the quest to make Jackson president and to rise to powerful positions in their own right as a result of his victory. Some Jacksonites did not agree with Jackson on any issues but were willing to promote his fortunes to achieve theirs.

Jacksonites could be Jacksonians, and some would become Jacksonians, but the difference between the two, whether slight or wide, had to do with the difference between politics and philosophy. Jacksonians were true believers who knew in their bones that broader democracy benefited the country, that the government in Washington was corrupt, and that the Bank of the United States was unconstitutional. They believed that limiting the power of the national government would go far to cure the nation’s ills and that state and local governments were the bulwarks of the people’s freedom. Jacksonites believed in winning elections—and in arguments pitting philosophy against practicality, they had a point. Without their most basic impulse to dislodge the traditional ways of politics, the Jacksonian moment might never have happened.

Jacksonites faced a task larger than that of dismantling traditional politics and erecting something in its place. All the talk of promoting the interests of the common people, restoring honest government, expanding democracy, enhancing economic freedom, protecting Indians by relocating them, and curbing the moneyed interests could not completely mask the fact that the man at the center of the political project had a nasty temper, a violent streak, and a past littered with appalling lapses in judgment. Yet scores of operatives, handlers, editors, and politicians would deftly manage their unlikely project, which would eventually include a political genius in Martin Van Buren. Over the course of fifteen years, they changed American politics by creating an irresistible force out of a man whose sole claim on the public’s affections derived from a thirty-minute battle on the banks of the Mississippi River in early 1815. They did this by launching the first modern presidential campaign in American history, the first instance of deliberate image building and mythmaking and of skillful manipulation of public perception and popular opinion.

American politics had from the beginning featured candidates mixing with the people and even holding social events. “Swilling the planters with bumbo” was the custom of plying voters with a rum-based punch, but the scope of such behavior was limited by the small number of men who had the right to vote. Even the largest instance of widespread activity before the 1820s was on a fairly small scale. John Beckley, the first clerk of the House of Representatives, did work in Pennsylvania for Thomas Jefferson during the elections of 1796 and 1800 that foreshadowed Jacksonite practices of the 1820s. Beckley enlisted local leaders to write letters and blanketed the countryside with ballots of Republican electors to establish name recognition for Jefferson’s ticket. But Beckley anticipated Jacksonite innovations primarily in his willingness to enter the fray of partisan politics, which the Founding generation spurned as unseemly. To be sure, the gentry rule that the presidential office should seek the man rather than the other way around was not always strictly adhered to. But appearing to obey it prevented the use of practices associated with a national campaign.1

The broader acceptance of outright politicking in the 1820s disclosed a major shift in attitudes about the proper methods of winning elections. The men who achieved Andrew Jackson’s transformation into a political force saw nothing unseemly about the way they went about it. They groomed him, protected him, and belled the cat of his temper. They published quaint stories of his kindness and heroic tales of his courage. They contrived ways to make him seem measured and statesmanlike. They made him the friend of debtors (he dismissed them as deadbeats), the advocate for low tariffs or high ones (he had no opinion on the matter), and the enemy of grasping bankers (who were some of his best friends). He was made an icon in the tradition of George Washington, though he had been among those most critical of Washington at the end of his presidency. Jackson was made the ideological heir of Thomas Jefferson, though he had openly opposed President Jefferson, and the Sage of Monticello himself was openly dismayed by Jackson’s rising popularity.

Such obstacles were minor inconveniences for clever men with supple scruples. At first, armed with little more than intuition and flinty resolve, Jackson’s promoters linked him with the spirit of discontent that emerged after 1815. From those initial efforts, a gradual blurring of the movement and the man proceeded until he ceased to be the beneficiary of a popular program and instead became the personification of it. By then, the little group of intuitive and resolute men had become legion, and they were being organized by Van Buren, a mastermind with a national vision and the ability to make all things seem local. By then, Andrew Jackson had become wildly and irresistibly popular. He was meant to be.

The Jacksonites also innovated within existing political practices. Newspapers had been a part of politics in colonial times, though libel laws discouraged direct attacks on opponents, a restriction that vanished by the 1790s when Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton used rival newspapers to promote their views and attack opponents. The Jackson campaign pioneered uses for newspapers during the 1824 campaign. After Jackson lost that election in the House of Representatives to John Quincy Adams, Jacksonites increased their efforts to spend money as no campaign had ever done before. They financed editors to encourage attacks on the Adams administration, and where no papers friendly to Jackson existed, they founded them. Their newspaper network’s highly disciplined message appeared in stories and opinion pieces pulled from subscription services and reprinted in local sheets in ways that prefigured the tactics of a modern press syndicate.

This was only one hallmark of a finely tuned and an always improving organization. Starting with the Nashville Junto, Jacksonites became adept at coordinating local activities on a national level. During the 1828 campaign, they set up committees at important hubs and staffed them with influential community leaders who were, in turn, directed and controlled by central committees in Washington and Nashville. These forerunners of Republican and Democratic National Committees instructed localities to hold Jackson rallies and parades, raise (Old) Hickory Poles, and distribute inexpensive likenesses of Jackson along with gimcracks lauding him and denouncing his dwindling number of critics. They organized straw polls after prudently determining favorable results, and they held mass public meetings to pass resolutions the local committee carefully drafted to ensure acceptance. The dutiful Jackson press covered everything with a consistent message rendered in sufficiently different language to create the appearance that support for the Hero was not only massive but spontaneous and diverse.

At a time when political parties were still considered soiled creatures of faction and parasitic entities that divided the nation, Adams men discovered too late that the tight organization of dissimilar coalitions had become the key to victory. Though Jackson’s supporters did not constitute a distinct party—everyone called himself a Republican during those years—they began behaving like one, and their opponents gradually realized that disdaining the new methods of politics was a sure path to defeat. They watched helplessly as Jacksonites learned from their loss in 1824 and proved amazingly agile and able to attract talented people to their cause.

Though historians have looked at the elections of 1824 and 1828 as culturally, politically, and socially transformative, no one has provided a thorough telling of how Jackson and his managers created a candidate and sold him to the American people. Unabashed admirers of Andrew Jackson are fewer now than in times past, but their work still dominates the historical landscape by its sheer volume. Nowadays critics eager to denounce Jackson grow in number because they condemn him as a racist whose attitude toward Indians alone merits his banishment from the American pantheon as well as American folding money. The admirers have a tendency to lionize Jacksonites as Jacksonians with talk of common men rising and ordinary people gaining political clout. The critics hold in contempt the people who supported Andrew Jackson as racists themselves, as people spitting, scratching, and cussing while skinning their knuckles on the dirt floors of their jerry-built shacks. For our part, we have labored in these pages to move beyond or, better yet, before caricature. Our aim is to understand Andrew Jackson, to comprehend the supporters who shaped his candidacy, and to hear the voters who made him president.

Because there were no formal political parties and factions supported a variety of favorite sons, it is easy to conclude that the campaigns of the 1820s were popularity contests devoid of issues. But doing so misses the point. The cunning men behind Jackson’s candidacy convinced a plurality of the American people in 1824 that Andrew Jackson was on their side, whatever side it was. They made the people believe he shared their concerns, whether they planted cotton in the red clay of Georgia, worked a lathe in a mote-shot Philadelphia shop, or scored the earth for DeWitt Clinton’s Erie Canal. When the numbers those people represented were insufficient for victory in 1824, Jacksonites and the man at their head redoubled their efforts at the methods that had worked, such as mass meetings, partisan coordination of the press, and lionization of their champion as a man of action forged by martial challenges. And after the failure of 1824 seemed to provide irrefutable evidence of corruption, they amplified their earlier calls to flush the sewer of national politics as practiced by the denizens of Washington, DC. They described the men there as having elevated the business of government over the people’s interests, confusing the meanings of self-interest and public service. Doubtless, many of them believed this, but others realized that it was enough to act as if they did, which could pass for a reasonable definition of politics in its modern form.

IN THE SUMMER of 1845, a young portrait painter named George Healy arrived at Henry Clay’s home outside Lexington, Kentucky, to paint the great man’s likeness. Healy had just come from Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, where his portrait of Jackson would be the last of the old man from life. Withered and ailing, Jackson died shortly after the work was finished, but Healy had seen the younger champion of a political movement who gave his name to an age, and that is who he painted. This was by then an image of Jackson as imaginary as the one the men who made him president had created decades earlier, and both would prove enduring. Clay, curious about Healy’s opinion of a lifelong enemy, asked whether Jackson was a “sincere” man, in the sense of frankness, candor, and authenticity.

“If General Jackson was not sincere,” Healy said curtly, with the irritation of an admirer having to defend his idol, “then I do not know the meaning of the word.”

Henry Clay nodded with weary resignation over the young man’s apparent esteem for Jackson. He sighed. “I see that you, like all who approached that man, were fascinated by him.”2

An entire generation of Americans would have said, Just so. As we will see, they had their reasons.



THE WAR OF 1812 ENDED WITH A VICTORY SO RESOUNDING that most Americans forgot that, for the most part, the conflict with Britain had been incompetently prosecuted and rife with catastrophes. Its first two years were a chronicle of military ineffectiveness on the Canadian border, political impotence in Washington, and dissent bordering on treason in New England. Even pride over the stirring victories of United States frigates on the high seas was short-lived, because the British navy quickly reestablished its dominance, blockading American ships in port. Then Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat in the spring of 1814 freed thousands of British regulars to descend on North America and smash the pesky Americans whose little fit of temper had been an annoying distraction while Britain fought France for its life. The British government always saw the American war as an affront. To them, it made the United States an undeclared ally of Napoleon. British resentment ran deep, and the government relished the chance to give the Yanks a good thrashing, one richly deserved.

It looked as if that would happen just as the British planned. In the summer of 1814, a massive offensive thundered down from Canada into New York, with redcoats thick on the ground and Royal Navy vessels straining their masts on Lake Champlain. A squadron of enormous ships under clouds of sail roamed Chesapeake Bay and landed a British army to march on Washington. That army scattered Maryland militiamen and then staged a festival of arson and vandalism in the American capital. Congress and President James Madison fled. Jaunty British officers held a mock banquet in the presidential residence before setting it on fire. They burned the Capitol and other public buildings too.

Even though American forces turned back the invasion of New York and foiled the British occupation of Baltimore, the country’s mood was grim as the government limped back to Washington and surveyed the smoldering ruins. Meanwhile, reports of a vanguard contacting Indians in Spanish Florida pointed to a troubling shift in British plans. America’s underpopulated South featured rivers as ready-made avenues of invasion to the interior. Angry Indians could become British allies. New Orleans was a plum target—“beauty and booty,” as the British thought of the city.

Britain’s coiling southern campaign proceeded at a leisurely pace. As ships and gunboats gathered in Jamaican waters and the army that had burned Washington assembled at Negril Bay, there was no sense of urgency; victory was inevitable. It was sure to happen when the Duke of Wellington’s veterans routed the southern version of the Maryland militia, the “dirty shirts,” as the British derisively called them. There was plenty of time to choose the place and pick the fight they were sure to win.

Yet an unexpected variable altered Britain’s fate in North America. The irresistible power of Britain’s assembled forces had not reckoned on meeting an immovable object. He was not much to look at, to be sure. Standing some six-foot-one and weighing less than 150 pounds, the immovable object resembled a clothed skeleton. If necessary, he could live off acorns. Plenty of men believed he could chew nails. His followers were confident he would kill anything that crossed him without pausing to weigh the costs or ponder the consequences. He brooked no disobedience, loathed disloyalty, and, like a skilled predator, could smell the stink of fear on a man as well as he could on a varmint. His long, angular face was comically equine, but his eyes, the transparent blue of a robin’s egg, warned against laughter.

The Indians the British counted on as allies called him “Sharp Knife.” The Americans the British counted on to break and run knew him too. They feared him and loved him, sometimes at the same time. They saw an unbending and unbreakable will in the set of his jaw, the eruptions of his brittle temper, a raw courage to kill anything that crossed him. He would not be humbled or hewed. It was the reason they called him “Old Hickory.”

The British eventually learned that their Indian allies had second thoughts about fighting Sharp Knife again. Even worse for the British, the dirty shirts who loved and feared Old Hickory would rather die than risk his ire by running. And when it was over, and the bodies of Wellington’s veterans littered the Chalmette Plain, Americans everywhere settled yet another name on Andrew Jackson. “Hero” might have seemed the ultimate accolade, but it was merely the prelude for a better one, the best one of all.

MOST OF THESE events almost never happened because Jackson’s war got off to a disastrous start. By 1812, Andrew Jackson had served as the major general of the Tennessee militia, Second Division, for ten years without commanding men in the field, let alone fighting a battle. When war with Britain seemed certain, Jackson offered his two thousand men to help invade Canada, but President James Madison’s administration merely acknowledged the offer and otherwise ignored it.


  • "A revealing...account of what the authors see as the first 'modern' presidential campaign."—Washington Times
  • "The Heidlers tell an engrossing story that covers a remarkably complex history in relatively few pages. It is a true page-turner."—New York Journal of Books
  • "An admirable study of the varied political forces that ensured Jackson's presidential triumph and secured his place in early United States history. Readers will find in The Rise of Andrew Jackson all the political intrigue and drama an election brings."—Claremont Review of Books
  • "This lively and insightful read teaches the reader nearly as much about today's politics as it does about those of the 1820s."—Publishers Weekly,starred review
  • "This insightful history book is the definitive account of an amazing political era in American history and an amazing president.... With their unmatched scholarly credentials, the Heidlers show how President Andrew Jackson shaped the modern American politics that resonates even today. Both scholars and laypeople will benefit from this meticulously researched book that fills a big hole in the scholarship on American history."—Washington Book Review
  • "A superb chronicle of one of America's first 'modern' political organizations and national campaigns."—Booklist, starred review
  • "The Heidlers are careful interpreters of contemporary politics, deftly limning the issues surrounding Southern sectionalism and parsing the differences that underlay the electoral battles between John Quincy Adams and Jackson and their claims to be true heirs to the revolutionary tradition of the Founders... A thoughtful survey."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "The election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 was a victory for the hero of New Orleans but also for an emerging form of popular politics. David and Jeanne Heidler tell the story of both with verve and insight. At a moment when Jacksonian analogies are rife, their book couldn't be more timely."—H.W. Brands, New York Times bestselling author of The General vs. The President
  • "Many thoughtful citizens feared that Andrew Jackson's election in 1828 spelled the death of the Republic, and this book shows why. Written with verve and conviction, it shows how Jackson's handlers first mastered the trick of packaging a volatile character with a checkered history into an irresistible presidential candidate. In The Rise of Andrew Jackson, David and Jeanne Heidler have given us both an eye-popping story and a sober lesson for our time."—Daniel Feller, University of Tennessee, editor of The Papers of Andrew Jackson
  • "Vividly written, The Rise of Andrew Jackson unpacks Old Hickory's climb to the White House only to find savvy spinmeisters and shrewd political operatives managing him all the way, often straining to control his legendary temper. In providing this misunderstood part of Jackson's story, the Heidlers paint a fascinating portrait of the bare-knuckles politics of the 1820s, one that resonates today."—David O. Stewart, author of The Summer of 1787
  • "Two of my favorite historians, David and Jeanne Heidler, here explain how a determined band of Andrew Jackson's supporters made him President of the United States, and in the process permanently transformed American politics. The story they tell--carefully researched, cleverly constructed, full of ironies and surprises--is poised to become the definitive account of a still controversial electoral campaign."—Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

On Sale
Oct 23, 2018
Page Count
448 pages
Basic Books

David S. Heidler

About the Author

David S. Heidler is an author and retired professor.

Jeanne T. Heidler is professor emerita of history at the United States Air Force Academy. They have collaborated on numerous books, including the critically acclaimed Henry Clay: The Essential American and the award-winning Washington’s Circle: The Creation of the President. They live in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Learn more about this author

Jeanne T. Heidler

About the Author

Jeanne T. Heidler is professor emerita of history at the United States Air Force Academy. She and her husband, David S. Heidler, have collaborated on numerous books including the critically acclaimed Henry Clay: The Essential American and Washington’s Circle: The Creation of the President. They live in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Learn more about this author