Andrew Jackson’s Inaugural Reception Foreshadowed Dark Events to Come

Andrew Jackson’s Inaugural Reception Foreshadowed Dark Events to Come

Dariusz Stusowski - August 3, 2017

A powerful argument can be made in support of Andrew Jackson being the most controversial person ever to serve as President of the United States. Full of paradoxes, Jackson’s positive achievements in service to his country were numerous. However, he was responsible for some of the most disturbing decisions in American history as well. He was the hero of New Orleans, conqueror of Florida, eliminator of the national debt, champion of the common man and father to a Native American orphan. He was also a thief of Native American property, faithless to the Constitution he swore to upload, destroyer of American financial institutions and killer of native peoples.

Few Presidents can claim to have lived lives as unique and with greater impact upon the history of the United States. Fewer still, if any, can lay claim to such a starkly mixed record of accomplishments. Why then, should Jackson’s inaugural festivities be any different? His inaugural reception was just as unique and complicated as the man himself. As it turns out, it would become just as historic and fateful as well.

Andrew Jackson’s 1828 presidential victory represented a massive change in American politics. For the first time, white men that did not own property were allowed to vote in a Presidential election. Overwhelmingly, those newly-enfranchised voters cast their ballots for “Old Hickory“, as Jackson was warmly known amongst supporters. That enthusiasm translated into a large crowd, eager to hear their champion share his thoughts as to what Jackson was planning for his tenure as President.

One long-time D.C. socialite, Margaret Smith, described the inauguration address with awe and excitement: “the old man [Jackson] with his grey locks…bows to the people, who greet him with a shout that rends the air, the Cannons…proclaim the oath he has taken and the hills reverberate the sound. It was grand, – it was sublime!” So excited was the crowd that it was difficult for the new President leave for his reception, as crowds of admirers were blocking his way, unwilling or unable to part for their hero.

Andrew Jackson’s Inaugural Reception Foreshadowed Dark Events to Come
Battle of New Orleans – 1856 by Dennis Malone Carter. The Historic New Orleans Collection

Things quickly took a turn for the worse, at least for the once-adoring Mrs. Smith. Frustrated that she could not even get close to the White House, it took her hours to finally enter and view the scene for herself. Perturbed that “the Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros [sic], women, children, scrambling fighting, romping” appeared in its place. “What a pity what a pity!”, she lamented. Leaving Mrs. Smith’s biases aside, things were rapidly getting out of hand. What was probably just innocent excitement over a historic election was soon to become destructive and even dangerous to Andrew Jackson himself.

The throng of admirers, 10 to 20,000 by most estimations, continued to descend upon the White House, all wishing to see the man of the hour. So many relentlessly pushed toward Jackson that the men immediately around him needed to act as a barrier against an ever-increasing amount of people. Jackson was pushed against a wall, eventually needing to exit through a door or possibly a window, depending on which eye witness one decides to believe.

Andrew Jackson’s Inaugural Reception Foreshadowed Dark Events to Come
“President’s Levee, or All Creation Going to the White House, Washington, March 4, 1829”. Illustrated in The Playfair Paper’s, 1841. Library of Congress

Whether by door or by window, Jackson found a way out but did not stay, opting instead to sleep at a nearby hotel. Though Jackson left, the party raged on and more observers described the scene with revulsion. One James Hamilton Jr. wrote that “the mob broke in, in thousands…in one uninterrupted stream of mud and filth; among the throng many subjects for the penitentiary…” Indeed, the scene was chaotic. White House china was broken, glassware shattered, thousands of dollars of damage was suffered, leading Hamilton to conclude he was watching a “Saturnalia”.

Spiked punch was served along with ice cream, cake, lemonade and other refreshments, fueling the party atmosphere. Finally, a White House steward saved the situation by taking the alcoholic punch and other refreshments outside. The great throng moved outside in tow, but not before Mrs. Smith tells us that “ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses and such a scene of confusion took place as is impossible to describe”. Luckily, the fast-thinking steward seems to have saved the day, as the pressure and enthusiasm of the people in attendance slowly dissipated.

Andrew Jackson’s Inaugural Reception Foreshadowed Dark Events to Come
Map depicting major “Trail of Tears” routes. Though the Cherokee tribes were the primary victims of the Indian Removal Act, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole and others were also part of the removals of native peoples in the 1830s and 40s. Wikipedia

The 1829 inaugural reception was the most unusual event of its kind in American history. It was nearly as unusual as Andrew Jackson’s actual presidency. On the one hand, the event showed us how enthusiastic common people were for the unusual new President. On the other, it showed us how easily passions can result in damage, chaos and uncertainty. Our socialite, Margaret Smith concluded that Jackson was the “People’s President” through whom the “people would rule“. But she also saw the dark potentialities of such energies as she prayed: “God grant that one day or other, the People do not put down all rule and rulers.

Smith was worried that popular exuberance would lead to a lawless tyranny by the masses and a chaotic dissolution of the order. She feared that the common mob may take over, but never seemed to contemplate that mob rule was not necessary for lawlessness and chaos to manifest itself. Jackson, as President, provided multiple demonstrations of shocking lawlessness and chaos himself. He defied the Supreme Court and oversaw the termination of the nation’s federal banking system, causing America’s first serious economic depression.

Prior to his presidency, Jackson’s record as a war hero is unquestioned. He won a decisive battle in the War of 1812. Outnumbered and wholly outclassed, Jackson and a ragged band of frontiersmen, militia members, Native Americans and slaves stopped a larger, professional and well-disciplined British army from taking the city and shutting down American access to the vast territories of the Louisiana Purchase. His actions concerning the conquest and administration of Florida from the Spanish, though more controversial, restored order to America’s southern frontier and reinvigorated an area languishing under the control of a quickly collapsing Spanish empire.

Andrew Jackson’s Inaugural Reception Foreshadowed Dark Events to Come
“King Andrew the First” Andrew Jackson was a polarizing figure. This political cartoon expresses a fear many had that Jackson was ignoring the Constitution, though others cartoons portrayed him as a heroic slayer of destructive banks and bankers. Artist unknown, cira 1833. Wikipedia

But his record as President is a far darker affair. Causing what many consider to be the single greatest criminal act in American history, Jackson forced the Cherokee people off of their land in the American Southeast. Blatantly ignoring a Supreme Court decision that clearly stated the Cherokee were the rightful and lawful owners of their land, Jackson did as he pleased, regardless of the law, acting as a mob unto himself. By disregarding the decision, he precipitated the greatest American constitutional crisis of all time.

The humanitarian catastrophe that followed was even more shameful. Even though the “Indian Removal Act” of 1830 was ruled unconstitutional, Jackson, along with subsequent administrations, forced more than 15,000 innocent Amerindians from their homes in a series of involuntary marches. Today, these resettlements are known as the “Trail of Tears”, in which 2,000 to 6,000 natives, mostly Cherokee, perished. A people that lived settled and agricultural lives developed a written language, many of whom were Christian, and who peacefully used the American legal system to plead for their rights were forced to engage in a death march into a barren reservation nearly thousand miles from their rightful homes.

If Jackson’s forced removal of Natives constituted a crystal clear example of lawlessness and tyranny, his insistence on eliminating the “Second Bank of the United States” constituted chaos – financial chaos the likes of which Americans never experienced before. Jackson’s insistence on vetoing a re-chartering of the national bank led to a reorganization of money deposits into state and local banks. This stimulated a lending bonanza and leading to land speculation, ending in a real estate collapse in 1837 that lasted at least until 1844. The collapse occurred shortly after Jackson left office, but was linked directly to the financial chaos caused by the destruction of the national banking system.

So then, it seems fitting that the most disorderly and controversial inauguration in American history would foreshadow some of the events to take place during Jackson’s presidency itself. Earlier, one observer was noted as saying the event was a “Saturnalia”, which is defined as a temporary inversion of the normal social order. Perhaps it was Jackson himself, and not his enthusiastic supporters that truly embodied the spirit of Saturnalia.


Sources For Further Reading:

Andrew Jackson Hermitage – Andrew Jackson: War Hero

World History US – Andrew Jackson and the Elimination of the National Debt

Forbes – Blessing Or Curse? The National Debt From The Founding Fathers To The Age Of Jackson

POLITI Fact – Andrew Jackson Was The Last President Who Actually Balanced The Federal Budget, Where We Had No National Debt

The Hermitage – Andrew Jackson Family & Children

Slate – Andrew Jackson’s Adopted Indian Son

VOX – Andrew Jackson Was A Slaver, Ethnic Cleanser, And Tyrant. He Deserves No Place On Our Money

AEON – How Were 1.5 Billion Acres Of Land So Rapidly Stolen?

The Washington Post – Andrew Jackson Was Called ‘Indian Killer.’ Trump Honored Navajos In Front Of His Portrait

State of Union History – 832 Andrew Jackson – Jackson versus The Bank of the United States

Encyclopedia Britannica – Andrew Jackson & Bank War

Mile Center – Andrew Jackson: Key Events