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Old Hickory to Young Hickory and the Manifest Destiny

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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

Despite receiving very little education, Andrew Jackson was revered as a self-made frontiersman and a champion of the common people. He was born very poor in a log cabin in South Carolina on March 15, 1767. He earned the nickname "Old Hickory" by those he commanded because he was strong and tough like a hickory tree. He was loved by his soldiers and the American people. Unaware of the peace treaty signed to end the War of 1812, Jackson led troops in a decisive battle against the British at the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815 which transformed him into America's greatest living national hero. From that point on, it was assumed he would one day be President.

He lost the controversial 1824 Presidential election to John Quincy Adams by the dubious "corrupt bargain" between Henry Clay and Adams. Jackson had won the popular vote and saw himself as the people's choice. When Clay was named Secretary of State, the "fierce fighter" Jackson was determined to topple the old "Eastern Establishment." Jackson stated, "Did the Presidency belong to the privileged few, as it had almost de facto from the beginning, or did it belong to a much wider America?" In 1828, four times as many voters as ever before voted with Jackson defeating Adams by a landslide with more than two-thirds electoral votes to become the first President outside the Aristocracies of Virginia and Boston west of the Allegheny Mountains. As seventh President, he promised to turn over government to the common man. Jackson was sworn in at "the People's Inaugural." For the first time, the White House was opened to public, after all, it was built by and for the American people. Thousands of ordinary Americans swarmed in to celebrate their hero. Many spittoons were installed by Jackson in the once elegant East Room. Although Jackson would later become known as "King Andrew I" by his political enemies, he handily won reelection in 1832 against Henry Clay.

His legacy was tarnished however by the "forced" Native American Indian Removal Act of Five Civilized Tribes to present day Oklahoma now popularly referred to as the "Trail of Tears." Was he a genocidal racist or a man of the people? Either way, as President, Jackson used his powers to strengthen the national government and improve the lives of ordinary Americans. He tenaciously opposed those who thought that individual states could nullify laws they didn't like. He fought against the Bank of the United States which he believed favored the rich. His most enduring quote in this regard was, "There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses." He dismissed nearly 2000 government employees in an effort to eradicate a "corrupt bureaucracy." When challenged by congress Jackson responded that a president was not responsible to the Senate, but solely to the American people. He insisted, "The people are the sovereign power, the officers are their agents."

After he recognized the Republic of Texas in 1836 he left office as popular as ever. Jackson retired to Hermitage and died on June 8, 1945. He obviously had dropsy either due to heart failure, but more likely to renal failure. "Gasping for breath...I am swollen from my legs to my abdomen and in bandages to my hips. My whole system a jelly. You can run a finger half an inch into the liver and the impression will last for minutes?" However, an article published in JAMA 1999:282:569-571 suggested he experienced mercury and lead poisoning through the therapeutic use of calomel (mercury chloride) and sugar of lead (lead acetate) from measurements of hair samples. It should be noted that two musket lead bullets remained lodged in his left shoulder and left lung which were considered contributors to the high lead levels identified by a recent analysis of his hair samples.

Martin Van Buren of Kinderhook, New York, unlike previous Presidents, was of Dutch rather than British ancestry. He was born on December 5, 1782 after the Declaration of Independence, therefore he was the first President born as an American subject. Van Buren started his long and influential career in politics as a New York state senator, then US senator and later governor of New York. He was an ardent supporter of Jackson in the 1828 presidential election and was named Secretary of State. In 1832, he was elected Vice President under Jackson. As Jackson's hand-picked successor, Van Buren defeated William Henry Harrison in 1836 to become the eighth President. He was the last Vice President elected to succeed the President under whom he served until George H W Bush was elected following Ronald Reagan in 1988. Van Buren was such a clever politician that he was referred to as "The Little Magician", "The Red Fox of Kinderhook" and "The Flying Dutchman." Shortly after he took office in 1837, his clever skills could not save America from a major financial panic causing banks and businesses to fail which resulted in severe economic depression. He established an independent treasury system to ensure solvency of the federal government but refused to help states and business with federal funds. "The less government interferes with private pursuits the better for general prosperity." Many blamed him for not doing more, and because he opposed the spread of slavery, he refused to annex Texas which further added to his unpopularity. He served just one term and lost to William Henry Harrison in 1840. Therefore, he was not an "OK" President. As an aside the term O.K. is said to have come from one of Van Buren's nicknames, "Old Kinderhook." However, he tried unsuccessfully for the presidency two more times. He died in Kinderhook on July 24, 1862 following pneumonia of asthmatic suffocation or congestive heart failure.

Although the Whig party deceptively portrayed William Henry Harrison as "the log-cabin and hard cider candidate" during his Presidential campaign, he was actually born in Berkeley, Virginia on February 9, 1773 as heir to one of the oldest and most distinguished families in America. His father, Benjamin Harrison, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and his grandson, also named Benjamin Harrison, was elected 23rd President of the United States in 1888. William Henry (the only President to attend medical school) attended medical school but disliked it and decided to pursue a military career. He became governor of the newly formed Indiana Territory. He negotiated treaties with Native Americans opening up about three million acres of wilderness for American settlers. Shawnee leader Tecumseh combined all Indian tribes from Florida to Canada along the banks of the Tippecanoe River in Northwestern Indiana to resist further encroachments of the white people. Harrison led American forces against Tecumseh in the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. However, his most successful victory came at the Battle of Thames in 1813 (present-day Ontario) where he soundly defeated the combined British and Indian forces. Among the slain was his archrival Tecumseh. It was this war hero and rough "log cabin" frontiersman appearance that Harrison used with his running mate, John Tyler, to tour the country attracting huge crowds chanting "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." Because of this, Harrison was nicknamed "Old Tippecanoe." He was the first Presidential candidate to actively campaign for office. Running purely on his past record and his popularity, he defeated a beleaguered Van Buren and became the 9th President of the US. He was the first President from the Whig Party. After delivering an exceptionally long inaugural speech in a downpour, he died of pneumonia on April 4, 1841 one month after his inauguration, making his term the shortest of any President in history. He was the first president to die in office and his death set a new precedent for the orderly transfer of power to the vice president. Also, his funeral set the standard of funerals for presidents to come. The type of president William Henry Harrison would have made will never be known, but his quote provided a glimpse of what would have been, "The only legitimate right to govern is an express grant of power from the governed."

John Tyler was born in Charles City County, Virginia on March 29, 1790. He descended from wealthy Virginia planters of tobacco. Tyler served with distinction in both houses of the Virginia legislature, as a two-term Governor and in both houses of congress before becoming the nation's first unelected President. He was thus known as "His Accidency" because he became President almost by accident. Tyler was a staunch supporter of state's rights, defected from the Democratic Party and joined the Whigs in protest of President Jackson's expansive use of federal power. The Whigs chose Tyler as Old Tippecanoe's running mate to balance the ticket and win the South. They never expected him to become President one month into Harrison's term. Among the highlights of Tyler's Presidency were a trade mission to China, the annexation of Texas and the admission of Florida to statehood. After his Presidency, he was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives during the Civil War and considered a traitor by the US government when he died in Richmond, Virginia on January 18, 1862. His notable quote, "...I can never consent to being dictated to..."

The "Dark Horse" the nickname given to James K Polk because he was the first unexpected candidate nominated for President. Born near today's Pineville, North Carolina on November 7, 1795, he became a Tennessee lawyer and with the help of Jackson, became Speaker of the House in 1835 then Governor of Tennessee from 1839 - 1841. He was relatively unknown when he unexpectedly won the Democratic Party's Presidential nomination. But was this unexpected? Recall Andrew Jackson's hand-picked successor, Van Buren. In 1844, the 77 year-old Old Hickory summoned Polk to an emergency conference at Jackson's estate, the Hermitage. From Polk's diary, General Jackson regretted the fatal error which Van Buren committed, that is Van Buren came out publicly against immediate action on the annexation of Texas. Polk wrote, "Jackson thinks the candidate…should be an annexation man and reside in the Southwest; and he openly expresses that I would be the most available man." This appeared to be a controlled plan by Old Hickory who mentored Polk who was latter dubbed "Young Hickory." Another fact, Jackson's controlled lingered on from his hugely popular hero reign from 1812 through his Presidency from 1829-1837 which extended beyond. Jackson was so admired he continued to receive write in votes for president after his retirement and death. But Old Hickory and Young Hickory can be traced back to none other Jefferson's grand vision of westward expansion.

In any event, Polk defeated the Whig nomination, Henry Clay, to become the 11th President and the youngest to date at age 49 in 1844. Polk claimed America had a "manifest destiny" to expand across the continent. As President, he oversaw the annexation of Oregon south of the 49th parallel by the Oregon Treaty of 1846 with Britain. However, as a result of the Mexican-American War in 1846 and the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty of 1848, the Texas border was established at the Rio Grande followed by purchase of lands encompassing California and Nevada, and parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

During Polk's administration, the first US postage stamps were issued and gold was discovered in California in 1848. Most importantly, he fulfilled all his campaign pledges including lowering the national tariff, establishing an independent treasury and promising to serve only one term. Polk was an extremely hard and dedicated worker who frequently pushed himself to exhaustion and rarely took a vacation. After he left office in 1849 to retire, he died of cholera just over three months later on June 15, 1849. It was believed he contracted cholera in New Orleans while on a goodwill tour of the South after leaving the White House.

In less than 75 years since the Declaration of Independence much of the shape of mainland America was near completion. While Jefferson did not support a strong Federal Government and preferred westward expansion, his powerful followers Old and Young Hickory wielded their executive powers to realize Jefferson's vision. A Jeffersonian America of the people, by the people and for the people. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


  1. Robert Winston, The Life of Andrew Jackson
  2. Marquis James, Andrew Jackson, Volume I - The Border Captain and Volume II - Portrait of a President
  3. John Niven, Martin Van Buren. The Romantic Age of American Politics
  4. Freeman Cleaves, Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Times
  5. Robert Seager II, And Tyler Too
  6. Edward P Crapol, John Tyler, The Accidental President
  7. Charles Sellers, James K Polk, Volume I - Jacksonian and Volume II - Continentalist

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