Our 9th President is Prettier, but . . .
Does that make Him any Nicer?

By Jack Neely

A while back, through an unlikely set of circumstances I'd rather not go into, I found myself in Disney World. To be precise, it was a particular nation within Disney World called the Magic Kingdom. I would preserve my dignity by saying I was appalled at the whole gaudy mess, but to be honest I found myself irresistibly drawn into parts of it, circling various attractions while feigning disinterest, as if I were afraid someone I knew might spot me and learn my awful secret.

      The biggest vortex was the Hall of Presidents, which I began circling around faster and faster until I was sucked right in the door. I told myself I was there just to see how bloody awful it was and sat in the third row and waited through a simplistic audio-visual retelling of American history. Then the curtain came up and suddenly there were 41 well-dressed guys who didn't seem a bit like robots. They appeared to breathe and sway and blink and made gestures with their hands.
New Jackson
      It wasn't perfect. Abe Lincoln, who actually talked, looked a little like Baloo. (I worried that if there were a short circuit in the animatronic controls, he might just hop up and start bellowing about "Bear Necessities.") William Henry Harrison, I thought, should have coughed at least once because he was down with pneumonia his entire one-month term. But it was impressive, seeing all those guys in one place. While Clinton was talking, I found my eyes wandering over to the most striking figure on the stage: Andrew Jackson. The Disney people don't let him speak, which is probably a wise thing, but he's definitely the coolest-looking president, ghostly tall, with a long coat and a high mane of white hair.

      The real Andrew Jackson, of course, wouldn't have cared to be in the same room with most of those other guys and, if brought to life, might go around kicking each of them off the stage. As Clinton droned on about brotherhood or something, I pictured 39 presidents beaten unconscious on the floor while Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt wrestled for the championship.

      I stepped out into the sunshine thinking about Jackson, wondering why I've never gotten a handle on him. I've read books about him. I've been in his house. I've seen his grave. I've stared at the statue of him in Jackson Square in New Orleans. And for a couple of years I lived in a city named for him. But I still don't know the answer to the essential question I probably asked the first time my parents took me to the Hermitage: Was he a good guy or a bad guy?

      Not a week after my bemusement at Magic Kingdom, I was back home in Knoxville, in the lobby of a Gay Street bank, staring at another surprising image of Jackson. The teller handed me two portraits of him. I couldn't help noticing that they weren't quite identical.

old Jackson       On the new $20 bill, Tennessee's most famous president doesn't look any worse than he used to. Teenagers made fun of that oval portrait because Old Hickory looked like he smelled something peculiar. It was probably a realistic expression for Jackson, who spent most of his political career suffering from gout, chronic dysentery, a dueling wound that never quite healed — and a world of enemies.

      Now he looks a little handsomer, milder, healthier, nicer. He looks as if maybe he's gotten a subtle facelift since we saw him last. Now he's humbler, more approachable. His eyes are leveled, now content to rest on a human plane.

      He doesn't look quite as angry or appalled as he used to, glaring up into the air at someone a little taller than he was, probably God. Though the oval's 50 percent bigger than the old one, it leaves out his cloaked torso and has none of the suggestion of his turning leftward in defiance.

      In the new portrait the basic arrangement of his hair is the same, yet it somehow looks styled, by Metz and Kerchner maybe, with a cream rinse that makes it darker, then rolled and carefully blow-dried. In the old portrait, Jackson's white hair looked as if it was alarmed at growing on such a head.

      He does look a little melancholy now, maybe even perplexed, as if he'd just spotted Rachel sharing a private moment with Daniel Webster. And, I have to say, he looks a little vacant.

      When Jackson was striding down Gay Street in the 1790s, he didn't look much like either of those pictures. By contemporary accounts, he was tall and striking but wore his dark red hair in a long pigtail that he tied with an eelskin.

      At 28, he was one of the youngest delegates to the state Constitutional Convention at Gay Street and Church. At 29, he became our Congressman; Tennessee had only one. At 30, he was a rare voice in favor of William Blount's technically treasonous conspiracy to seize Spanish Louisiana; when Blount abdicated, the state legislature sent Jackson to fill out his term. However, Jackson didn't like the U.S. Senate much, and soon quit. At 31, Jackson became perhaps the youngest former U.S. Senator in American history. And here he settled for the life of a circuit-riding judge, holding court in Nashville, Jonesborough, and Knoxville, which was then the state capital.

      For the next six years, Jackson was in Knoxville so often he apparently kept rooms here; I don't remember who told me it was somewhere on Church Street. Rather than settling down and cooling off, as many of us do after we turn 30, Jackson only seemed to get more agitated, especially when he was here in town. The largest of the several chips on his shoulder was the fact that he had married his wife, Rachel, before she was properly divorced.

      That chip may have had something to do with his rise to power. In 1990, I read a fascinating new book called The Birth of the Modern by a sometimes-controversial British scholar named Paul Johnson. It's 1,000 pages about the entire Western World as we know it and how it was invented in a relatively short period in the early 19th century by a few mavericks like Napoleon, Beethoven, Byron, several English inventors and engineers — and Andrew Jackson, who was a romantic hero, inspiring democratic ideals even in Europe.

      I was recovering from my surprise that Jackson should be central to this Englishman's history of Western Civilization, when on page six of this tome was a description of an event in my hometown. It was the scene in front of the Knox County Courthouse in 1803 when John Sevier accused Jackson of adultery, and Jackson drew his cane sword and challenged the former governor and beloved war hero to a duel. It ended in an embarrassing, unresolved draw a few days later somewhere along Kingston Pike, when Sevier's horse got spooked by something, probably Jackson himself, and trotted away with Sevier's pistols. But Johnson implies the conflict may have emboldened the young judge and become a defining moment in his life. Andrew Jackson enjoyed little rest after that and vented his lingering rage at the world, which he changed for better and for worse.

      After that scene, both statesmen looked pretty silly, but we were more likely to give John Sevier the benefit of the doubt. He remained the greater hero in East Tennessee. Andrew Jackson could always count on drawing a big crowd in Knoxville, but there was gathering dissension here, especially after he became president. Since then, even the prevailing political divisions of Tennessee have been blamed on the Jackson-Sevier scrape, with the definitive Democrat Jackson dominating Middle Tennessee and the more-conservative proto-Republican Sevier still holding sway in the East, but it may have reverberated much farther than that.

      On State Street is the grave of one of Jackson's most prominent foes in Washington: Hugh Lawson White, a co-founder of the anti-Jackson Whig Party who, in 1836, put his career on the line when he tried hard to scuttle Old Hickory's fondest plans to succeed himself with his vassal, Martin Van Buren. The city fathers never got around to erecting the tall marble obelisk once planned for the grave of the Tennessean who stood up against the Tennessee president.

      They did put up an obelisk to an earlier Jackson foe, about three blocks away. John Sevier, who died in the pre-Alabama wilderness in 1815, would be surprised to learn he'd one day be buried in downtown Knoxville, on nearly the very spot of his original confrontation with Andrew Jackson. His marker is impressive, but little known away from Gay Street.

      Meanwhile, in 1998, a bank across the street from Sevier's grave hands out hundreds of portraits of Jackson every day.

      In that new picture, does Andrew Jackson look a little happier? Maybe he does. Wouldn't you be?

[ Jack Neely writes for Metropulse, Knoxville's alternative weekly newspaper, where this article first appeared as a Secret History column].

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Copyright The Southerner 1999.

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