As to John Quincy Adams’ successor, Andrew Jackson was probably the toughest president in the history of the United States. Not necessarily a good person. As a general, Jackson had been all too eager to hang his men for disciplinary infractions at the drop of a hat. He was also the only American president to have made his wealth primarily as a wholesale slave dealer – a career that even many slave owners thought was disreputable. Additionally, he led crusades against the American Indians. All of that horrid behavior and morals aside, we begrudgingly admit Jackson could kick butt and take names. And in his era, that could take a man quite far.
Jackson began his career in the midst of the American Revolution, when he enlisted in his local militia at age thirteen. A year later, a fourteen-year-old Jackson defiantly refused to shine a British officer’s shoes, and got slashed with a sword across his face and hand as a result. That left the future president with a seething hatred of the British, and he paid them back in spades at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. There, Jackson’s men killed, wounded, and captured about 2,500 British, while they suffered only 300 casualties of their own.
Andrew Jackson was a prickly character who readily took offense, and would just as soon kill a man as look at him. In his official capacity, he led men into combat and slaughtered Redcoats by the hundreds. In his private life, Andrew Jackson was often found out back engaged in duels with somebody who had said the wrong thing in his presence. Literal duels, as in he ritually faced against opponents with loaded pistols, took aim, and opened fire at a given signal. And not once, or twice, but many times. The total number of Jackson’s duels is unknown, but estimates range from a low of 13 to more than 100.
His most famous duel occurred in 1806, when he quarreled with a man named Charles Dickinson. Dickinson was reputed to be the best pistol shot in the country, but Jackson called him out anyhow. At the duel, Jackson stood stock still, and allowed Dickinson the first shot. Dickinson took aim, and put a bullet in Jackson’s chest, which wounded, but did not kill him. Jackson recovered, took aim, and pulled the trigger, but the pistol stopped at half cock. By the rules, that did not count as a shot, so as a horrified Dickinson waited, Jackson cleared the pistol, then took deliberate aim once more, and fired a shot that mortally wounded his adversary. As to Jackson, he recovered and went on to greater things, but Dickinson’s bullet remained in his chest for another nineteen years.
9. The President Who Almost Beat His Would-be Assassin to Death
By the time he made it to the White House, Andrew Jackson’s reputation as a seriously dangerous dude to tick off was so well established, that only a nutjob would try to assault him. However, America has never had a shortage of nutjobs, and one of them became the first to attempt a presidential assassination when he took a shot at Jackson. Richard Lawrence, a house painter who thought he was King Richard III, often muttered angrily to himself about Andrew Jackson. He believed that he was unable to receive income from his royal estates in England because of Jackson. On January 30th, 1835, he sat in his shop and cackled to himself for some time, then suddenly got up and rushed out, with the exclamation: “I’ll be damned if I don’t do it!”
“It” was to kill Jackson, which Lawrence attempted when he ambushed the president outside the Capitol building. Lawrence waited behind a pillar, and when Jackson passed by, he took a shot at his back. The pistol misfired. Lawrence pulled out a second pistol and tried another shot, only to get another misfire. By then, Jackson realized what Lawrence was up to, and was understandably pissed off. Although 67-years-old at the time – pretty old by the day’s standards – an enraged Jackson fell upon the much younger Lawrence, and bludgeoned him with his cane. People in the vicinity saved the would-be assassin from a fatal beating, when they intervened to restrain the president and hustle Lawrence off into custody.
The brutal and heartless assault of Maria Halpin and the fathering of an illegitimate child upon her is the worst thing (or at least the worst thing that we know of) about Grover Cleveland. However, it was not his only seedy act. Another item from his personal life, which would amount to an icky scandal if it took place today, was the iffy relationship between Cleveland and the woman who became his eventual wife. The future First Lady, Frances Clara Cleveland Folsom (1864 – 1947).
Frances, who became and remains the youngest wife of a sitting president, was born in Buffalo, New York, the only child of Oscar Folsom, a lawyer and longtime close friend of Cleveland. When he was 27-years-old, the future president met his future wife shortly after she was born. Cooing over the newborn, Cleveland took an interest in baby Frances while she was still in swaddling clothes. He bought her a pram, used to babysit her as “Uncle Cleve”, and from the start, he doted on her.
Frances Folsom’s father was killed in an accident as he raced his carriage in 1875, and left no will. So a court appointed Grover Cleveland to administer his deceased friend’s estate. That brought him in even closer and more frequent contact with Frances. Cleveland became her new father figure, and her hero. Unlike Frances’ real father, who had been notoriously careless of both his life and his family, “Uncle Cleve” was dependable, quite attentive, and doted upon her. He continued to dote on her as she grew up, and at some point, he began to groom her.
Cleveland began to send Frances flowers, with notes that said things like “I am waiting for my bride to grow up”. People thought it was in jest, but Cleveland was in deadly earnest. After he was elected president and while Frances was in college, Cleveland sent her a letter in which he proposed marriage, and sweated her anticipated reply like a schoolboy. She agreed, and on June 2nd, 1886, as the Marine Band was conducted by John Philip Sousa, 21-year-old Frances Folsom wed the 49-year-old president in the White House’s Blue Room. To date, it is the only time a president was married in the White House or while in office.
America’s third president was a man of many contrasts. As a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote some of the most stirring words to have ever been penned in the cause of freedom, liberty, and equality. The phrase at the start of the of Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has moved and inspired idealists for centuries.
Yet, Jefferson pursued his happiness as the master of a plantation, and led a life of luxury that was only made possible by the labor of hundreds of chattel slaves. He called human bondage a “moral depravity” and “a hideous blot”, thought that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature by which every human being had a right to personal liberty, and told anybody who would listen that it was necessary to end the detested institution. Those views were quite radical in the environment in which he grew up and lived. However, despite whatever he stated against human bondage, Jefferson owned slaves throughout his life.
Thomas Jefferson owned over 600 chattel slaves during his life. About 400 of them lived and worked in Monticello, and in any given year around 130 toiled on the plantation. He constantly monitored his human property to extract the maximum labor out of them, and strove to increase their numbers through procreation – sometimes with his own personal participation. As he put it: “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years â¦ an addition to the capital”. Many details of the lives of the hundreds enslaved at Monticello are lost to history. Slaves were denied access to education and literacy – to teach a slave to read and write was criminalized. So they seldom wrote down their experiences, and the era’s educated people seldom bothered to record the lives of slaves.
Jefferson owned 5000 acres, around eight square miles, near Charlottesville in central Virginia. He divided the property into separate farms for ease of management. The main one where he lived was a mountaintop plantation, Monticello, whose name means “little mountain” in Italian. Jefferson further divided each farm into “quarter farms”, run by an overseer and an allotment of slaves placed under his command. He further sought to divide the farms and split them into agricultural fields of forty acres each. Jefferson rode around his property on horseback every day to inspect the land and the human chattel upon whose toil his solvency rested, a routine he maintained until his death at age 83.
4. The President and His System to Introduce Children to a Life of Slavery
America’s third president was usually meticulous in what he did, and that meticulousness extended to how he brought up and accustomed the children he owned to the lives of bondage that awaited them. He detailed his strategy for child labor in his Farm Book. A firm believer in the need to maximize the returns on his investment in human property, Jefferson wanted to get the most work possible out of his slaves, and to start them on their labors as early as practicable. In their earliest years, Jefferson put the tots to work as babysitters and nurses. When girls reached sixteen, they began to spin yarn and weave clothes, while boys from ages ten to sixteen made nails.
Jefferson also put his child slaves (both male and female) to work in the tobacco fields: children had the right height to reach and kill tobacco worms. Eventually, Monticello shifted from tobacco to wheat, which called for less manual labor. So he had the children taught trades as an alternative to field toil. As he put it, his slave children must “go into the ground or learn trades”. Not one to miss a trick, Jefferson used food as an incentive to make the children work harder: if they did a good job, they got more food. If they were particularly diligent, they might also get new clothes.
Thomas Jefferson had a clock installed on an exterior Monticello wall that only had an hour hand. Jefferson, who believed that blacks were racially inferior and “as incapable as children,” figured that hour increments were all that the slaves could understand or needed to know. He built cabins for the house slaves about a hundred yards from the mansion. The blacks who worked the fields were housed at a further distance from his abode. That way, they and the slavery in which they toiled were out of his sight in both the literal and figurative senses.
Jefferson’s slaves originally lived in two-room cabins, with one family per room and a single shared doorway to the outside. From the 1790s onwards, the slaves were housed in single-room cabins, each with its own door. By the dismal standards of American slavery at the time, the lives of Jefferson’s slaves at Monticello were less terrible than average (whatever that means in the context of slavery). Their lot was still bad, but not as bad as the lot of most other slaves with most other masters. As seen below, Jefferson’s relationship with his slaves went beyond matters of forced labor.
Grover Cleveland was not the only American president who engaged in what would count as clear cut violent criminality today. Thomas Jefferson had a creepy relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings (1773 – 1835) – although to call what went on between the two a “relationship” would not be accurate. Today, it would be considered straightforward assault. Hemings was an enslaved woman, kept in bondage by a brutal system in which violence, including deadly violence, was used to coerce its victims and secure their compliance.
She had little choice about whether or not to submit to Jefferson’s demands. No more choice than a modern kidnapped victim who finds herself chained for years in some psychopath’s basement. Even if she had not been a slave, there would still have been something super creepy about the age disparity between Hemings and the master of Monticello. Jefferson was forty four when he took Sally for his concubine. She was all of thirteen or fourteen. Even if she had been a willing participant, it would be considered statutory rape today; children that young simply lack the maturity to consent.
To make things creepier yet, Thomas Jefferson’s child concubine was also his dead wife’s sister and lookalike. Sally Hemings was the daughter of a slave woman and John Wayles, Jefferson’s father in law. That made her the biological half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson (1748 – 1782). Sally, who was nine-years-old when her half-sister died, looked a lot like the deceased Martha, and the resemblance only increased as she grew up. Jefferson missed his dead wife, so when her lookalike sister was thirteen or fourteen, he began to sleep with her.
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings would make for an epic scandal if it had happened today, as it hits just about every icky button there is. Pedophilia? Check. Incest? Check. Violence, coercion, and assault? Check, check, and check. To add yet another dark layer to it all, Jefferson fathered six children upon Sally, and kept them as his slaves. He eventually got around to freeing his children, but he never freed his concubine: Hemings was still Jefferson’s slave when he died in 1826.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading