On January 8, 1815, Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson lead a ragtag group of American soldiers to an unlikely victory in the Battle of New Orleans. Nobody could have known it at the time, but that win propelled Jackson to become the first self-made man in the White House and helped him change the nature of presidential campaigns.
Jackson was a country boy who grew up poor and fatherless. His mother died during the Revolutionary War, around the same time he was a teenaged prisoner of war. By the time the War of 1812 broke out, he’d managed to become a wealthy frontier lawyer in a brand-new Nashville. He’d even served a brief term as Tennessee’s first Congressman. But even as an officer, Andrew Jackson was still just a militia volunteer, not a member of the regular army.
In New Orleans, Jackson commanded a motley crew of men cobbled together from southern farmers and free blacks who had joined their state militias, local Native groups, even a handful of pirates. At Jackson’s home, The Hermitage, interpreter Trey Gwinn points out the “huge contrast” between the Americans and their British opponents. The “redcoats” were one of the greatest armies of the time. Their ranks included men who had a hand in sending Napoleon into exile less than a year before. The British had more men, too, but they barely made a dent in Jackson’s line.
At the end of the short fight, roughly a quarter of the British forces were counted as casualties. Their top commanders were dead. Jackson had only lost thirteen men.
Victory Meant More For Morale Than Anything
Technically, it didn’t matter. Although the news hadn’t reached American shores yet, the Treaty of Ghent had been signed a few days prior in Belgium, officially ending the war. But that agreement didn’t count as victory for the United States. After all, the British had successfully invaded Washington, D.C. and burned down the White House.
“The morale of Americans was at a very low ebb,” Hermitage CEO Howard Kitell explains. “The victory at New Orleans just amazed people.”
Trouncing the British so thoroughly was a shot in the arm for American pride. Andrew Jackson had done what the folks in Washington could not: he helped the country believe in itself again.
Before the battle, few American’s had heard of Andrew Jackson. Afterwards, he was a national figure. Before long, Kitell says, people started talking about the Tennessean as a potential president.
That doesn’t sound so surprising now, but keep in mind that only one military veteran had served in the office at that time, and even George Washington otherwise fit a mold that didn’t match Jackson at all. Every U.S. president thus far had been born to the upper crust. They had all come from either Virginia or Massachusetts. No president to date had Jackson’s history of dueling, much less carried a musket ball in his chest from a fight gone wrong. When Andrew Jackson did run for the White House, it was a fight between the feisty “Old Hickory” and “Old Man Eloquent,” as John Quincy Adams was known: outsider vs. the establishment.
Jackson won the popular vote in 1824, but Adams went to the White House. A quarter of the nation’s population lived in states that didn’t yet hold a presidential election, instead letting the state legislature choose delegates to the electoral college. The electoral vote didn’t show a clear majority, so the question of who would be president was decided by Congress, which picked Adams.
The Popular Vote And A Populist Campaign
Four years later, election law had changed. Every white man had the right to vote and every state held a popular election. Jackson and Adams faced off again, but this time, Hermitage curator Marsha Mullin says Old Hickory’s homegrown military experience helped him invent ways of doing something brand new: courting the popular vote.
His campaign held political rallies, modeled on the custom of community “militia days.” But instead of using the offer of beer and hard cider to lure men to military practice, the refreshments drew crowds to hear speeches about the Hero of New Orleans. Bands played his campaign song, an anthem about one of the militia groups that served in the battle called “The Hunters of Kentucky.” It’s probably not a coincidence that the tune works nicely as a drinking song.
But Jackson he was wide awake, and wasn’t scared at trifles,
For well he knew what aim we take with our Kentucky rifles
Groups called “Old Hickory Clubs” held letter writing campaigns on Jackson’s behalf, but he also benefited from the popularity of lithographs showing scenes from the Battle of New Orleans. Those pictures almost worked like a campaign poster or sign would today, as Jackson supporters pointed to his leadership against the British as proof he had the right stuff to take the reigns in Washington.
But supporters of John Quincy Adams cited Jackson’s experience in uniform, too. Curator Marsha Mullin says they “were afraid he would he would be a military chieftain a kind of a tyrant.” Flyers and pamphlets emblazoned with coffins pointed to what they called “Jackson’s Bloody Deeds” during the war: his orders to execute six men under his command.
“He did have some soldiers shot for desertion,” Mullin explains. “By the rules of the military, that was perfectly correct, but when you lay it out in public in front of everybody else, it sounds pretty harsh.”
Both sides slung lots of mud in the 1828 election. Jackson’s wife, Rachel, was accused of bigamy; Jackson claimed Adams had procured a mistress for the Russian czar. There were wild claims of gambling, corruption, even cannibalism. The first experiment in letting the people truly decide who would be president was a very messy one.
But for the first time, more than a million Americans voted, and nearly 60 percent decided they could trust a Washington outsider. After all, Andrew Jackson was one of them—and he was the man who’d won the Battle of New Orleans.