We Americans recently celebrated President’s Day on February 19, an annual federal holiday and a holiday in most states as well. I am pleased to be making five visits over the course of five consecutive days to five sites in this region that have strong family connections to American presidents.
And I am especially pleased that this ‘Five Presidents in Five Days’ outreach takes me to Carrickfergus where Andrew Jackson’s parents once lived. Andrew Jackson’s presidential homestead, excellently maintained by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, stands as testimony to our ties of kinship, to our common bonds, and to the legacy of emigrants from across Co. Antrim who helped shape the United States of America.
This year marks a significant milestone in the remarkable story of the Ulster-Scots, or Scotch-Irish. Exactly 300 years ago, the first organised groups of emigrants boarded ships in Belfast, Larne, Londonderry, Newry and Portrush for the New World. In the years leading up to the early 1800s, over a quarter of a million men and women would follow them. In 1765, a ship left Larne harbour bound for South Carolina that carried two of these emigrants. Elizabeth Hutchinson and Andrew Jackson had a plot of land in the Bellahill townland near Carrickfergus during the first four years of their marriage. Like many, the promise of new opportunity and religious freedom led them on that perilous journey across the Atlantic. The Jacksons acquired 200 acres of farmland in a small settlement on the border between North and South Carolina. While Elizabeth was pregnant with their third child, her husband died unexpectedly. She gave birth to her third son in 1767, and named him Andrew after her late husband. Andrew’s mother subsequently worked as a live-in housekeeper and nurse for her sister who suffered poor health.
The Western frontier of the Carolinas at that time offered little opportunity for formal schooling, but Andrew’s resourceful mother found a way to provide Jackson an education from the local clergy. Encouraged by their mother, Andrew and his two brothers volunteered to fight for American independence in the Revolutionary War. He was captured when barely in his teens, and when he refused to shine the boots of an officer, he sustained a permanent facial scar from a sword cut. Andrew’s mother and two brothers died during the closing years of the war. As a 15-year-old, Andrew was effectively left with no immediate family. He subsequently studied law in North Carolina and was admitted to the bar in 1787. Jackson later moved to the frontier town of Nashville, where he enjoyed a successful law career.
Throughout the 1790s, Jackson helped lay the foundation for Tennessee’s statehood. He served as a delegate to the Tennessee legislature and in 1796 travelled to Philadelphia to lobby Congress for statehood. He became Tennessee’s first member of the U.S. House of Representatives, served as a judge, and later served his state as a senator.
Jackson led the Tennessee militia when the war of 1812 with the British began. He was later commissioned to be a major general. His victory against British troops at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815 made him a national hero. Ironically, news of the December 1814 peace agreement between the United States and United Kingdom had not yet reached the combatants, so that battle was actually fought after the war had ended.
Andrew Jackson, nicknamed ‘Old Hickory’, first ran for president in 1824 in a contest with four strong regional candidates. Although Jackson won more popular and electoral votes than any other candidate, he did not win the necessary majority of electoral votes. Per the U.S. Constitution, the House of Representatives (the larger house of Congress) then had the power to select the president, the only time that has happened in U.S. history. The House chose John Quincy Adams who had finished second in Electoral College votes. Jackson ran again four years later and won an overwhelming victory.
Consistent with his profile as a ‘man of the people’, Jackson invited the public to the White House to help celebrate his first inauguration. The large boisterous crowd that gathered there ended up doing damage to the furniture and building. Jackson’s two terms of office ushered in a period of what historians refer to as ‘Jacksonian democracy’. In state after state, the property ownership requirement for voting was dropped (although suffrage was still restricted to white men), and political decision-making moved away from political elites to new leaders.
Jackson favoured a limited federal government, but at the same time, he opposed state encroachment on federal powers. In his first term, he successfully negotiated an end to a divisive tariff application dispute with South Carolina. During his second term, he battled the Second Bank of the United States, which ceased to function in 1836. Jackson negotiated trade deals around the world, including with the United Kingdom. He is most often criticised by historians for the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced the removal of thousands of Native Americans from their homelands in southeastern states to lands west of the Mississippi River.
Jackson’s dramatic personal journey from poverty to the White House and his bold and sometimes temperamental leadership style have long attracted the attention of American historians and biographers. Some historians argue that Jackson was the first modern American president based on how he reshaped the Executive branch with decisive decision-making and appealed directly to voters.
Our seventh president remains a powerful presidential icon. His image has been on the U.S. 20-dollar bill since 1928. His home in Nashville, Tennessee, ‘The Hermitage’ is a popular tourist destination. Early in his tenure, President Trump selected a portrait of Andrew Jackson to hang in the Oval Office.
I commend the staff and volunteers at the Andrew Jackson House and U.S. Rangers Centre for all they do to preserve and highlight our shared history for visitors today and in the future. It is a great privilege to serve in a region where our ties are so strong, deep, and longstanding.