10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History

The official White House portrait of Andrew Jackson as President, long after his days of poverty. The White House

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson’s father died in a logging accident three weeks before the future President was born in 1767, and his mother and brother were forced to live with Jackson’s aunt and uncle in the Waxhaws region of the Carolina backcountry. Jackson’s only schooling came from two priests, as he and his brother worked their uncle’s property. During the Revolutionary War both boys were taken prisoner by the British when they refused to clean the boots of a British officer. Jackson was struck in the head and hand by the officer’s sword and for the rest of his life bore the scars from the encounter and a fierce hatred of anything British.

The imprisonment led to smallpox, and after they were released Jackson’s brother died from complications of the disease, which also nearly killed Jackson. His mother died shortly thereafter, and Jackson was alone in the world, with no immediate family and penniless. He was fourteen. Living with his uncle he received some basic schooling, learning to read and write, and tried for a time to be a saddle maker. Success eluded him. At the age of 17 he went to Salisbury, North Carolina, to be tutored in law, and in 1787 he was admitted to the North Carolina Bar after being examined by several lawyers in that state. He then moved to Nashville.

In Nashville Jackson participated in the land speculation of the time, which included establishing claims on land which by existing treaty were reserved for the Cherokee and Choctaw Indians. Most of Jackson’s wealth was accumulated through land speculation, which after he defeated the tribes at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend during the War of 1812 became open to settlement by the whites. Jackson also became active in politics and served as attorney general, Representative to Congress, in the United States Senate, and a Judge on the Tennessee Supreme Court. During his political career he began the construction of his plantation home, The Hermitage, in Tennessee.

Jackson prospered as a planter, breeder of horses, and merchant from his Tennessee estate. The slave quarters on the Hermitage were larger and better furnished than was the norm for plantations of its size, and Jackson was known to give his slaves money, allowing them to purchase from the peddlers and merchants who visited the plantation. Some slaves were provided with guns (which was against the law in most slave states, including Tennessee) to allow them to hunt and he also provided them with fishing equipment. The Hermitage, which mainly grew cotton as a cash crop, was a profitable operation and Jackson expanded his holdings there, as well as being co-owner of another plantation in Mississippi.

Jackson, in life and in death, was one of the most controversial American Presidents. His performance as a soldier, politician, and lawyer has generated debate among scholars, he generally being rated as one of America’s greatest leaders or one of the most disreputable. That he managed to raise himself from being a penniless orphan of fourteen to one of the nation’s leaders was nonetheless a notable achievement. After his death the Hermitage fell victim of poor management and ceased to be profitable. In 1893 the last descendants of the Jackson family moved away from the plantation and the house and remaining grounds eventually became a museum, and still is today.