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Jackson, Andrew

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Significance: As president, Jackson emphasized executive power and democracy (at least for white men) and rejected the idea that the Supreme Court has the exclusive authority to decide questions of constitutionality. The six justices he appointed dominated the Court for decades after he himself left office.


The son of Irish immigrant families, Jackson read enough law to be admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1787, and after moving to Nashville, Tennessee, he was appointed prosecuting attorney in 1788. He was a delegate to the convention that drafted the Tennessee state constitution and served on the state's supreme court from 1798 to 1804. However, he was a proud man with a volatile temper and got involved in several duels, including one in which he was wounded. He gained national fame in fighting against the British and Creeks in the War of 1812. As a commander, Jackson often demonstrated little patience for judicial power and principles of due process. After the battle of New Orleans, for example, he arrested a citizen for criticizing his continuation of martial law, and when a federal judge issued a writ of habeas corpus for the citizen, Jackson ordered the arrest of the judge. During his two terms as president, Jackson appointed six justices to the Supreme Court. Five were associate justices: John McLean, Henry Baldwin, James M. Wayne, Philip P. Barbour, and John Catron. Jackson also nominated William Smith, but Smith declined the nomination. In 1835 he elevated his close associate Roger Brooke Taney to chief justice. The Senate rejected Taney when he was first nominated, but following John Marshall's death, the Senate finally approved the selection after three months of partisan debate. Except for McLean, Jackson's appointees firmly defended proslavery positions and dominated the Court's decisions until the Civil War. With his belief in majority rule, Jackson denied that the Supreme Court was the final arbiter on the meaning of the Constitution. He sometimes placed his own judgment, as president, above that of the other two branches of government. He was generally opposed to federal funding of internal improvements. When he vetoed a project called the Maysville Road Bill, he argued that the bill was unconstitutional because of its “purely local character.” When he vetoed the extension of the Bank of the United States in 1832, he rejected the binding authority of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and insisted that each of the three branches must “be guided by its own opinion of the Constitution.” Judicial precedence was not binding “except where the acquiescence of the people and the States can be considered as well settled.” Believing that the bank was not proper or necessary government business, he argued that it was his duty to veto its extension. Jackson's most direct disagreement with John Marshall's court occurred in the case of Worcester v. Georgia (1832). Jackson's policy, expressed in the Removal Act, was to settle Native American tribes west of the Mississippi River, and he agreed with Georgia's policy of extending its state laws to Native Americans within its borders. When the Supreme Court ruled that Georgia had no authority over the Cherokees, Jackson reputedly declared, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” Jackson probably never used these words, and certainly he never claimed that a president could disobey a Court order. Ignoring the decision, nevertheless, he chose to use his executive power to persuade and coerce the Cherokees and other tribes to migrate westward. Although Jackson often took an expansive view of states’ rights, he firmly defended federal supremacy and the indivisibility of the Union during the nullification crisis, in which southern states insisted they had the right to repudiate federal laws that harmed their interests.



Further Reading

  • Cole, Donald. The Presidency of Andrew Jackson. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.
  • Remini, Robert. The Legacy of Andrew Jackson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana States University Press, 1988.
  • Watson, Harry L. Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990.