Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 3. Segment 6

You might have noticed that the first few presidents of the United States were all from Virginia or Massachusetts. They were all aristocrats, born into successful, prosperous families, with the time and opportunity to be well educated. But what if you were living in nineteenth century America in Tennessee and you were poor? Would you have a chance to be president? After Andrew JacksonSee It Now - Andrew Jackson was elected the seventh president, you knew you had a chance. If Andy Jackson could be president, then any white man born in the United States could be president.

"Let the people rule." That was the motto of this man of action, a poor boy from Carolina and then western Tennessee who became a lawyer, a judge, a landowner, a general, and a military hero See It Now - Andrew Jackson, Military Hero. He was always doing things and going places and changing the world he lived in. His soldiers called him "Old Hickory" because they said he was strong and straight as a hickory tree. But John Quincy AdamsSee It Now - John Quincy Adams, the man Jackson replaced as president, couldn't abide him. He called Jackson "a barbarian and [a] savage who can scarcely spell his own name."

John Quincy Adams was a good president, but he was wrong about Andrew Jackson. Jackson took that word democracy, which scared some people, and glorified it. He called his presidency a revolution, and he was right. He made people's government—democracy—respectable.

When Old Hickory was elected the seventh President of the U.S. in 1828, the people—ordinary people—knew they had elected one of their own. They wanted to be there to see him take office. It seemed to people in Washington as if everyone in the West came to town for the big day. And they all wanted to get into the White House—at the same time See It Now - Andrew Jackson's Inauguration. They poured in through the mansion's doors in their buckskin clothes and muddy boots. They climbed on the satin chairs and broke glasses and spilled orange punch. The erudite Margaret Bayard Smith was an appalled eyewitness. She wrote: Hear It Now - Margaret Bayard Smith "Ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses, and such a scene of confusion took place as is impossible to describe—those who got in could not get out by the door again but had to scramble out the windows…. The President [was] … almost … torn to pieces by the people in their eagerness to shake hands with Old Hickory…. It was the people's day,… and the people would rule Check The Source - Andrew Jackson's Inaugural Reception!"

Some Washington leaders thought mobs would take over the government. But it didn't happen. Andrew Jackson did change the presidency—it was never the same again. Most people think he made it stronger. For many of the earlier presidents, democracy had meant government for the people. For Jackson, democracy meant government by the people. Before, only men who owned property had been able to vote. That would change. The vote would be extended to all white, male citizens whether they owned land or not. It was a big step.

An early political scientist named Francis Lieber wrote: "There are thousands of men without property who have quite as great a stake in the public welfare as those who may possess a house or enjoy a certain amount of revenue."

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