By Brooks Clark
One of the unique things about Andrew Jackson’s handwriting is that his lowercase a’s often look like o’s. “When he gets to the top, he doesn’t go down before he goes on to the next letter,” said Daniel Feller, professor of history at UT.
Since he took over as editor and director of the Papers of Andrew Jackson project in 2003, Feller and his team have analyzed and transcribed thousands of letters, notes, and drafts handwritten by the seventh president of the United States.
“It helps to be steeped in this,” explained Feller, who can easily identify not only Jackson’s distinctive penmanship but also that of his cabinet members and secretaries.
Not long ago, Feller and his associate editors, Laura-Eve Moss and Thomas Coens, came across a letter from a collection in North Carolina. It began with “Dear Sir.” It had no signature and no date. “We looked at it and knew exactly what it was,” Feller said.
The mystery missive was the third draft of a letter that Secretary of the Navy John Branch wrote responding to Jackson’s order for him to socialize with Secretary of War John Eaton and his wife, Margaret.
This was the moment when the infamous “Eaton affair” came to a head. In the small social circle of Washington, DC, the Eatons had been ostracized by the wives of several cabinet members, and—in a plotline worthy of House of Cards—Jackson blamed his vice president, John C. Calhoun, for it.
“Many believed that Margaret Eaton was a loose woman,” Feller said. “Jackson insisted she was not.” The situation had simmered for months and threatened to tear the cabinet asunder. In no uncertain words, Jackson wrote that snubbing the Eatons was “an attack upon me,” and ordered Branch to stop.
Feller studied four versions of Branch’s reply, and found that each one is milder than its predecessor. “The first basically said ‘Don’t tell me what to do.’ The last said ‘I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong, but I’m happy to meet socially with my colleagues.’” The newly discovered intermediate draft was more tempered than the first but more heated than the last.
Evolution of Thoughts
Since 1971, the Papers of Andrew Jackson project has been dedicated to transcribing and publishing Old Hickory’s entire literary record. A worldwide search has gathered photocopies of every known and available Jackson document, including letters he wrote and received, official and military papers, drafts, memoranda, legal papers, and financial records—more than a hundred thousand pages in all.
So far the University of Tennessee Press has published nine volumes of The Papers of Andrew Jackson. Volume 9 is 987 pages and covers 1831. Feller and his colleagues are currently assembling Volume 10, which will cover 1832. About 500 hard copies will be printed, and a searchable digital version will be available to scholars around the world.
“Some of the more interesting revelations come from the drafts and what is crossed out. Among the mountains of drafts are cross-outs of entire pages,” Feller said. “You learn from these who Jackson is getting ideas from, and you see what stays in and what gets cut out.”
Feller cited the example of a personal memorandum book Jackson used to jot down notes, reminders, and policy ideas. Sometime in 1830, Jackson added some thoughts he received from Alexander Hamilton’s son James, a federal district attorney, about the Second Bank of the United States. The younger Hamilton asserted that the bank was unconstitutional and dangerous, having been granted a monopoly and exclusive privileges in exchange for doing the government’s financial business.
“Jackson copied what Hamilton gave him,” Feller said, “and he rewrote it again over several years, developing and honing a straight-line argument that it was dangerous for private interest and governmental authority to become so intertwined that they could not be separated from each other.”
On July 10, 1832, Jackson vetoed the bill to renew the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. Historians attributed this to various political and personal motives, but Feller believes Jackson’s notes in the memorandum book show there was nothing hasty or ill-considered about it. “It was very, very well considered, premised upon deep considerations of public policy,” Feller said.
Jackson’s populist words could easily fit into today’s post-downturn too-big-to-fail debates about Wall Street bailouts. In his veto, Jackson wrote, “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” When government adds advantages to the advantages that already exist, “the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers—have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.”
The Eaton affair is generally viewed as the catalyst that caused Jackson to supplant vice president Calhoun with Secretary of State Martin Van Buren. “In fact, we see in Jackson’s notes months before he blamed him for the Eaton affair that Jackson was realizing Calhoun’s views were disturbingly different from his own on key policy issues like political appointments, the distribution of the surplus revenue, and nullification,” Feller said.
Documents also show that Jackson was convinced that Calhoun, then secretary of war, had advised President Monroe in 1818 to discipline Jackson, who was general of the US Army in the South, for disobeying orders and attacking the Spanish in Florida. However, Monroe ultimately decided to back Jackson and use the leverage of his victory to persuade the Spanish to cede Florida to the US.
Feller sees Jackson in the early 1830s composing long, passionate letters late at night, “writing over and over again, rehashing his paranoid fantasies that Monroe had conspired with Calhoun against him, describing Calhoun as ‘cunning, and as deceitful as Satan’ and ‘the great political magician who works in darkness.’”
After Jackson privately accused Calhoun of trying to destroy him back in 1818, Feller said, Calhoun wrote a fifty-two-page explanation basically saying “I supported you publicly and that’s what mattered.” But Jackson continued to nurture his rages and was set to make his accusations public until a former senator, who had witnessed the Monroe administration discussions, confirmed that Calhoun had not stabbed his general in the back.
“Jackson had the ability to operate on several levels at the same time,” Feller said. “He was an extremely shrewd political operator, probably the shrewdest political operator of his day. On one level he could be setting political traps for Calhoun, on another he could be performing for the public, and on another level he was an astute, sophisticated policy maker.”
As the collection continues to be analyzed, even more insights will be gained about this multifaceted American president with a personality as unique as his handwriting.
To view samples of Jackson’s papers, visit thepapersofandrewjackson.utk.edu.