This Day In History: March 15

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Future President Andrew Jackson is born in a backwoods region between North and South Carolina to Irish immigrant parents on March 15, 1767. Jackson was essentially an orphan—all but one member of his family were killed during the Revolutionary War—who rose from humble beginnings to become a celebrated soldier and one of the nation’s most influential presidents.

Jackson was a 13-year-old soldier when he was captured by the British during the American Revolution; he is the only former prisoner of war ever to become president. After the war, Jackson embarked on an impressive military and political career that included stints as a Tennessee lawyer, plantation owner, delegate to the Tennessee Constitutional Convention, Tennessee Supreme Court justice, Tennessee senator (twice), victorious leader of the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, and governor of the Florida Territory. He was defeated by John Quincy Adams in his first presidential campaign in 1823, but turned around and beat Adams four years later.

From the country’s inception, political participation had been largely restricted to an elite land-owning class of men. In contrast, Jackson’s presidential legacy endures in the phrase Jacksonian Democracy–the idea that American politics should involve the greater participation of the common man. He vowed to end political corruption, proposed federal policies to limit the power of wealthy elites and facilitated settlement of the American frontier. Further examination reveals, though, that Jackson was also a racist and a hothead. A slave-holding southerner, Jackson’s agitation for extended voting rights applied only to white males. His persecution of Native Americans and Mexicans, both as a military leader and in his presidential policies, were low points in American history. While Jackson abhorred abuse of power, he nevertheless advocated a strong executive branch and favored limiting the powers of Congress. In fact, Jackson was criticized for his own abuses, including his zealous use of the veto. Political cartoonists portrayed Jackson as King Andrew to illustrate his fondness for vetoing Congressional bills.

Contemporaries described Jackson as argumentative, prone to physical violence and obsessed with dueling to solve conflicts. (Estimates of the number of duels Jackson engaged in range from a minimum of 5 to around 100.) In 1806, Jackson dueled with a man named Charles Dickinson over an argument stemming from a horse-racing bet. Jackson received Dickinson’s first bullet in the chest next to his heart, put his hand over the wound to staunch the flow of blood and stayed standing long enough to kill his opponent. As president, when an attempted assassination failed, Jackson beat the perpetrator with his walking stick. Jackson’s all-around toughness earned him the nickname of Old Hickory.

After serving two consecutive terms as president, Jackson retired to his Tennessee estate, The Hermitage, and died at age 78. This colorful and controversial president is pictured on the $20 bill and was briefly immortalized on the Confederate $1,000 bill.