MAN STUFF: Lessons in Manliness from Andrew Jackson

“I was born for a storm and a calm does not suit me.”

While his countenance graces our $20 bill, many Americans do not know much about the life of Andrew Jackson. He is often remembered as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans or condemned as the man responsible for the Trail of Tears. He was in truth a man of many contradictions: impetuous and reckless frontiersman and charming gentleman; enforcer of the Indian Removal Act and devoted father of an adopted Indian orphan; champion of freedom and the preservation of the Union and unrepentant slave holder. He was described as both a quintessential man’s man, “fond of well-cut clothes, racehorses, dueling, newspapers, gambling, whiskey, coffee, a pipe, pretty women, children, and good company,” and a gentleman with a soft side: “there was more of the woman in his nature than in that of any man I ever knew — more of a woman’s tenderness toward children, and sympathy with them.”

He was the first president to come from the common people and break the Virginia aristocracy’s hold on that office. After his inauguration, he threw open the doors of the White House for a public reception; the crowd of drunken well-wishers who attended grew so huge and unruly they had to be lured back out with large tubs of spiked punch placed on the front lawn. He was the first president to see himself as the direct representative of the people and thus to believe that his office should have great power and authority in shaping national affairs.

There is much to find repugnant in Andrew Jackson’s life and career as it pertains to slavery and Native Americans. But that a man is flawed in some ways does not mean he cannot be inspiring in others, and it would be a shame not to learn from the high points of the life of “The Old Lion”:

Don’t Let Your Circumstances Determine Your Fate

Andrew Jackson’s life story could have been torn straight from a Horatio Alger novel. Jackson’s father died just 2 months before he was born. His mother could not keep the family farm going herself and moved in with her sister. So began a life of dependency for young Andrew. His aunt put his mother to work like a housekeeper, and the boy was always keenly aware of his inferior place in the household. Growing up without a father, he developed a propensity towards anger, recklessness, and defensiveness.

Yet Jackson’s troubles had just begun. The Revolutionary War would grant the country independence, but exact a heavy price on this future president. Hugh, his 16-year-old brother who had gone off to fight, became the first casualty, dying of heat exhaustion at the Battle of Stono Ferry. Andrew, who at age 13 had joined a local militia to serve as a courier, was then captured by British soldiers and imprisoned along with his other brother, Robert. Jackson’s mother successfully pled for the boys to be released, but Robert, who had contracted smallpox while in jail, died two days later. Andrew was also sick, but his mother, assured he was doing well, decided to travel to Charleston to tend to prisoners of war who had become stricken with cholera. Jackson would never see her again; she soon fell ill and passed away. Andrew Jackson, only 14 years old, was now an orphan.

Jackson now had no immediate family and only a few years of education. He lived with a series of relatives, chafed at feeling like an inferior houseguest, squandered an inheritance from his grandfather, and sowed his wild oats. His relatives feared he would become a great embarrassment to his family. He described his situation during this time as “homeless and friendless.”

Jackson felt deeply adrift, but his mother’s last advice to him before she departed for Charleston kept returning to his mind, urging him to turn things around and live a proper and successful life:

“Andrew, if I should not see you again, I wish you to remember and treasure up some things I have already said to you: in this world you will have to make your own way. To do that you must have friends. You can make friends by being honest, and you can keep them by being steadfast. You must keep in mind that friends worth having will in the long run expect as much from you as they give to you. To forget an obligation or be ungrateful for a kindness is a base crime — not merely a fault or a sin, but an actual crime. Men guilty of it sooner or later must suffer the penalty. In personal conduct be always polite but never obsequious. None will respect you more than you respect yourself. Avoid quarrels as long as you can without yielding to imposition. But sustain your manhood always. Never bring a suit in law for assault and battery or for defamation. The law affords no remedy for such outrages that can satisfy the feelings of a true man. Never wound the feelings of others. Never brook wanton outrage upon your own feelings. If you ever have to vindicate your feelings or defend your honor, do it calmly. If angry at first, wait until your wrath cools before you proceed.”

Desiring to honor the memory of his mother, Jackson tried to get back on track and decided to study and apprentice to become a lawyer. He was still living a rowdy life at that point –“I was a raw lad then, but I did my best,” Jackson would later recall — but he began to mark out a path for himself.

He was able to gain admittance to the bar but could not find any clients to represent; he had no clout or experience. So he leveraged the one quality that would help carry him all the way to the White House: his magnetic bearing and charisma. It was a time where connection to great and prosperous families was essential to success, and Jackson used his charm to insinuate himself into these families’ good graces. He was never considered attractive, but his gentlemanly manners, steely, attentive blue eyes, and ability to converse with and warmly engage with people from all walks of life drew others to him. While his rowdy reputation would often precede him, Jackson would instantly disarm those he met and absolutely confound their expectations.

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