According to John William Ward, the political and military career of Andrew Jackson was a merger between a man and a myth, with his political supporters deliberately crafting an image of him as a self-made man of destiny and a product of nature. He was presented as a man of the people who had no inherited wealth or family connections, but had risen through his own determination, will and effort to become president. He became a symbol of frontier democracy and populism, as well as of the United States itself and its destiny to expand to the Pacific Ocean—and beyond. Although his enemies attempted to portray him as a potential self-made Napoleon or military dictator, until recent times the Age of Jackson was described in the history books in the same terms that Jackson and his newspapers propagandists first formulated after 1815.
Ward divides the main body of his book into three sections, Nature, Providence and Will, all of which Jackson came to symbolize in the public mind of what later would be called the Age of Jackson. These provided the “main structural elements about which his appeal took shape”, no matter that they had only a tenuous connection with reality in the era he came to symbolize (Ward, 1955, p. 207). Almost every speech and newspaper article about him from the time of his victory at New Orleans in 1815, through his time as president in 1829-37, “eventually came to such words as ‘natural’ or ‘instinctive’ or intuitive’” (Ward, p.53). His followers presented him as a practical, self-made man and product of the frontier, with great common sense and virtually no formal education. That part was true to the extent that the general always had great difficulty with spelling and grammar and thought that the world was flat, but to his supporters he represented a man from a poor background who rose to great heights by his own will and determination, free of the effete snobbery and corrupting European influences of the east—no matter that he was born in the eastern state of South Carolina. They also described him as a man of destiny who had providence on his side, but one who also understood that “God’s favor depend[ed] upon each man’s exertion” (Ward, p. 208). In this respect, he also became a symbol of the young and rising United States itself, as the “new man in America stood at the beginning of time”, with a divine mission and plan or what would soon be termed Manifest Destiny to expand to the Pacific (Ward, p. 212).
Jackson became a national hero for the first time during the War of 1812, which had been a dismal failure in almost every respect prior to his great victory at New Orleans in 1812. Three attempts to conquer Canada had been defeated while the British burned Washington in 1814, by which time the New England Federalists were threatening to secede from the Union over the unpopularity of the war in their section. Then in the West, the public learned that Jackson had defeated a far superior British force attempting to capture New Orleans and from that moment on the mythmaking began in earnest. Even though the battle had taken place after the war ended, this had not been known at the time due to the long communications over the Atlantic Ocean, and “through Andrew Jackson, the American people were vicariously purged of shame and frustration” (Ward, p. 6).
No longer is Jackson the democratic icon presented by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in the 1940s, but rather a slaveholder, a racist and mass murderer of Native Americans. Policies that were considered evidence of progress and civilization in his era are regarded as wars of aggression and crimes against humanity today. In that regard, his old enemy John Quincy Adams fares much better since he was anti-slavery and even died making an abolitionist speech in Congress, which of course Old Hickory would never have done. It was also his Whig-Federalist opponents who were far for likely to be opposed to Indian removal or his aggressive actions in Florida, while the Seminoles have been elevated to heroic status in resisting the whites. Even his war against the Bank of the United States is more likely to be portrayed as a gift to Wall Street and other rising capitalists rather than a radical or populist campaign, although it is not clear if the General fully understood these matters of high finance.
Ward, J.W. (1955). Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age. Oxford University Press.