Tag Archives: Andrew Jackson

John Sevier almost slept here

The second oldest home in Knoxville is the James Park House, located downtown on Cumberland Ave.  Google Street View doesn’t really do it justice, but it’s better than the photo I tried to take with my phone while stopped at a red light a couple of days ago.

James Park House

I wanted to snap a picture of the Park House because it’s got an interesting connection to John Sevier.  “Nolichucky Jack” didn’t live here, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Sevier purchased this downtown lot and started building a home there in the 1790s, around the same time he was serving as Tennessee’s first governor.  Construction didn’t get very far.  Nothing but a brick foundation and part of a wall had been completed before a financial setback forced Sevier to abandon the project.  For a man so accustomed to winning, whether on the battlefield or in politics, it must have been an irksome disappointment.  He sold the lot to his son G.W. Sevier in 1801, and it passed out of the family’s hands six years later.

James Park, an Irish immigrant and Knoxville mayor, bought the lot and built the current structure on Sevier’s foundation in 1812.  The house stayed in the Park family for a century; after that, it served time as a Red Cross facility and a medical academy.  Gulf & Ohio Railways acquired it to use as a headquarters building a few years ago and undertook an extensive restoration.

Although Sevier never got to build the home he wanted on the lot, it’s just a stone’s throw from the courthouse lawn where his remains were reinterred in the 1880s.  One fellow who did get to spend some time in the Park House was Sevier’s mortal enemy Andrew Jackson, who stopped by for a visit in 1830.

In a sense, the story of the house lot on Cumberland Ave. mirrors the larger story of Sevier’s place in Tennessee’s history.  In both cases, Sevier secured the land and laid the foundation, but it was left to others to build up the structure, which obscured and overshadowed the contributions of the man who made so much of it possible.  And in both cases it happened around the same time.  While James Park was building his house in 1812, Sevier’s great rival was on the brink of national fame and state preeminence, but Sevier himself was in the twilight of his long and very eventful life.

Leave a comment

Filed under Appalachian History, Historic Preservation, Tennessee History

Andrew Jackson workshop at TSLA

If you’re going to be in Nashville on Oct. 26, you might be interested in a free workshop at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.  Mark Cheathem will be discussing Andrew Jackson as a southerner, which is also the subject of his new book.

Leave a comment

Filed under Tennessee History

Tennessee State Museum mounts War of 1812 exhibition

If you’re going to be in Nashville between now and June 24, swing by the Tennessee State Museum and see the special bicentennial exhibit Becoming the Volunteer State: Tennessee in the War of 1812.

Nashville Scene has an article on the exhibit and Andrew Jackson’s role in the war.

Leave a comment

Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

A few miscellaneous Rev War items

First off, happy Cowpens anniversary.  Here’s a report on this year’s festivities.

While we’re on the subject of the war in the Carolinas, the marker for Pyle’s Defeat (or “Pyle’s Hacking Match,” as it’s more colorfully known) apparently needs some major revision.

During last night’s Republican debate, Newt Gingrich invoked Old Hickory’s backcountry boyhood: “We’re in South Carolina. South Carolina in the Revolutionary War had a young 13-year-old named Andrew Jackson. He was sabred by a British officer and wore a scar his whole life. Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies: Kill them.”  That sums up Jackson’s attitude pretty accurately, I think, although throwing in the anecdote seems a little gratuitous.

Finally, Richard Ketchum, author of a number of popular books on the War for Independence, passed away last week.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Let’s have some historical biopics

I ran across a post suggesting some possible subjects for historical biopics. The LBJ idea is especially intriguing; I wouldn’t mind seeing a miniseries adaptation of Robert Caro’s work.

I’d also propose Frederick Douglass (great story), John Brown, Joseph Smith, and Daniel Boone as interesting film subjects.  Boone’s life in particular is full of dramatic material; the deaths of his sons, the rescue of his daughter, his captivity, and his court-martial would all make for powerful scenes, and then you could wrap it up in melancholy fashion with his abandonment of the Kentucky for which he gave up so much and migration to Missouri.

Personally, though, what I’d really like to see is an Andrew Jackson biopic along the lines of Patton, depicting both his greatness and his faults. I’d start out with his boyhood in the Revolutionary Waxhaws and the beating he took for defying a British officer, and then flash forward to the War of 1812.

Either that, or just adapt David Nevin’s novel 1812 as a miniseries.  I rarely read historical fiction—I don’t read much fiction at all, actually—but that was a genuinely great book, and anybody who could play Jackson the way Nevin managed to flesh him out would deserve a Golden Globe.

2 Comments

Filed under History and Memory

Where’s the birth certificate, President Jackson?

Now that we have Obama’s long-form birth certificate on hand, maybe we can all get back to the important things in life.  Like wondering whether Andrew Jackson was really born in America, for example.

From Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t know it was an issue until I read Allan Eckert’s classic book The Frontiersmen.  Eckert has his protagonist, Simon Kenton, and Jackson getting into a brawl near Danville, KY in 1779.  Here, Jackson is a member of a rowdy surveying team led by “Dr. Jonas Walker” running the North Carolina-Virginia line, which at that time would have also passed between the unborn states of Tennessee and Kentucky.  The crew shows up at a tavern where Kenton is eating dinner, and a drunk Jackson suddenly knocks Kenton to the floor, only to have the big frontiersman get up and beat the stuffing out of him.  According to Eckert, both fighters were about the same age, in their early or mid-twenties.  That would put Jackson’s birth in the mid-1750’s.  Conventional wisdom puts Jackson’s birth in the Waxhaws region of northern South Carolina (or maybe in southern North Carolina, but one controversy is enough for this post, thanks) on March 15, 1767.  Eckert thus moves Jackson’s birth date back about twelve years.

In a note at the end of the book, Eckert defends this decision, claiming that “there is good cause to believe…that Jackson was, in fact, born at sea while his parents, Andrew and Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson, were immigrating to America from County Antrim, Ireland, thus making him legally ineligible for the office of President of the United States, which he later assumed” (597). He presents four pieces of evidence to substantiate this claim.  For the sake of convenience, I’ve separated them out and numbered them here:

  1. Simon Kenton told the story of the fight to Judge John James in 1833, and James transcribed the interview.  Kenton said that he and Jackson were close to the same age.
  2. Henry Lee (not to be confused with Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee of Revolutionary War fame) claimed that he was with Kenton at the time of the fight, and corroborated Kenton’s account.
  3. The same Judge James who wrote down Kenton’s story stated that in 1840 he accompanied a Kentuckian by the name of John Chambers to a political meeting.  On that trip, Chambers told him of an elderly neighbor who claimed that she was on the same ship that Jackson’s parents took to America, that Jackson was born “three days from land,” and that she herself “received him in my own hands.”
  4. Finally, Eckert cites the testimony of Marshall Anderson.  Jackson and James Monroe stopped at the home of Anderson’s father during Monroe’s tour of the West in 1819.  Anderson overheard Jackson and his father chatting privately, and reported that when Anderson asked Jackson where he was born, Jackson replied, “I was born at sea.”

Eckert concludes that all this testimony makes it likely that “Andrew Jackson was not a native American and that his age has been altered by twelve years; that he was not, in fact, born after his father’s death, nor was he born in South Carolina, but instead was born in a ship at sea in 1755, the year his parents were immigrating from Ireland to America” (p. 598).

There are a few problems with this conclusion, aside from the fact that it dismisses all the other evidence we have that Jackson was born in the Carolinas in 1767.  First, Jackson’s parents did not emigrate to America in 1755, but a decade later.  I’m not sure why Eckert moves the date back, unless it’s simply to reconcile the born-at-sea theory with the early birth theory.

Second, while there are four pieces of evidence given in support of the theory that Jackson was born in the 1750’s and/or at sea, what we really have here are only two sources.  According to Eckert, Lee’s corroboration of Kenton’s story is in the manuscript collection assembled by frontier historian Lyman C. Draper. The other three pieces of evidence are recorded in an article written by Judge James and published in a volume of historical materials published in 1859.  In other words, we don’t necessarily have four independent witnesses, but rather four pieces of testimony reported by only two independent sources.

The quality of those sources also seems questionable.  Kenton and Lee got one thing right—there was a survey being run along the VA-NC border in the fall of 1779. Dr. Thomas Walker was one of the party’s leaders, and perhaps he’s the man Eckert refers to as “Dr. Jonas Walker.”  But I can’t find any evidence that Jackson was present.  I’ve been unable to find any reputable biographies of Old Hickory that mention a surveying trip in 1779; they all indicate that in that year he was right where he had always been, growing up in the Carolina backcountry.  We know that he was in the Waxhaws in the early summer of 1780 as the British swept into the area after the fall of Charleston.  I suspect that Kenton and Lee encountered someone else—perhaps someone else named Andrew Jackson?—and conflated this encounter with the name of a famous person, either through the fog of old age or a deliberate desire to magnify their own exploits. After all, in 1833, when Kenton told his story to Judge James, Jackson had just started his second term as president.

I therefore see little reason to believe the Kenton story, and even less reason to think Jackson was a grown man in 1779.  It is much simpler to believe that Kenton was either mistaken or fabricated the story than it is to believe that all the other evidence we have about Jackson’s age is wrong, or that a public figure like Jackson was able to knock ten years off his age without anyone who knew him as a younger man calling his hand on it. After all, this was an age of intensely personalized politics, and Jackson’s critics weren’t reluctant when it came to digging up dirt on his past.

The testimony regarding the birth at sea also seems dubious to me.  The remark attributed to Jackson by Marshall Anderson contradicts other public statements (at least as early as 1824) in which Jackson claimed South Carolina as his birthplace.  If Jackson lied about his place of birth just so he could take a shot at the presidency, why was he telling people that he was born at sea as late as 1819, when he was already a public figure?

The other piece of evidence for the birth at sea is a bit of hearsay attributed to an elderly woman for whom we don’t even have a name.  And the story dates from 1840, by which time Jackson had achieved the pinnacle of his fame and power.  It seems more reasonable to assume that the old lady was muddling things up, as older folks sometimes do, by placing herself at the birth of someone who had become a celebrity and a beloved hero.

Here’s something else to consider.  Even if the story about a birth at sea were true, would it necessarily have made Jackson ineligible for office?  Most people assume that the Constitution restricts the office to natural-born citizens. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that: “No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”  The bit about being a citizen at the time of adoption was necessary, because technically none of the first presidents were “natural-born citizens.” Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison were all born in British colonies. No man who had attained the required thirty-five years of age necessary to become president had, at the time the Constitution was written, been born in an independent United States of America.

I suspect that even if Jackson was born at sea, he would have fallen under the “citizen at the time of adoption” clause.  After all, he had essentially lived his entire life in America, and had participated as a teenager in the Revolution.

Since politics of the 1820’s and 1830’s were even nastier than those of today, I’d imagine that if any of Jackson’s opponents had evidence that he was constitutionally ineligible for office, they would’ve used it.  The fact that Old Hickory’s detractors didn’t become the first birthers is itself pretty good evidence that Jackson was born where and when most people think he was.

I don’t intend this to be a criticism either of Eckert or of his book.  I enjoy his work, and I think The Frontiersmen is an absorbing read.  In fact, the entire “Winning of America” series is worthwhile for anyone interested in the early American frontier, even if Eckert’s free use of reconstructed dialogue and other novelistic techniques makes me hesitant to lump them together with standard non-fiction works of history.  I just thought the issue of Jackson’s birth was a neat little historical controversy that ties into recent political debates, and therefore the kind of thing that makes for good blog fodder.

7 Comments

Filed under History and Memory

Evaluating presidents across the pond

The Jacksonian America blog directs our attention to a British ranking of American presidents, which is well worth a look.  Washington stands at number three, so apparently there are no hard feelings.

I find it interesting that Jackson made it into the top ten.  I would’ve assumed that Old Hickory would represent the stereotypical America imagined and feared by Europeans—a product of the frontier, brash, violent, rough around the edges.  (Plus there’s that whole New Orleans business.)  Perhaps a commitment to populism, like charity, shall cover the multitude of sins.

Leave a comment

Filed under History and Memory