A question that occasionally surfaces in Jacksonville is, who was Andrew Jackson? In the 200th year of our city’s existence under that name, residents and visitors sometimes speculate as to why its early citizens identified themselves and their place with him. Unless new evidence turns up, speculate is all we can do.
Speculation using historical context can be helpful, though. In the context of 1822, Andrew Jackson had not yet become president. Later, beginning in 1824, he ran for the office three times, and was elected in 1828 and 1832. Before that he was an authentic national hero, owing to the U.S. victory over the British Royal Army at the Battle of New Orleans. There, forces led by General Jackson defeated a British attempt to gain control of the lower Mississippi River. The battle meant nothing to the outcome of the war, the treaty ending it having already been signed. In those years of slower communications, the news of peace had simply not yet reached the forces opposing each other at New Orleans.
The battle did catapult Andrew Jackson to national fame, however. Political contemporaries, such as James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, all had to reckon with Jackson as a potential rival, which indeed he eventually became. As a result, once Jackson became less occupied by warfare, Madison and Monroe tried to keep the battle-scarred general busy. The stratagem was always risky though. Tasked with enforcing a treaty in southern Tennessee between native peoples and white settlers, Jackson’s instinct to protect national security led him to view nonwhites as a threat to the Union – a presumption that foreshadowed his later decision as president to enforce the removal of native Americans from their lands. The wrenching tragedy now known as the “Trail of Tears” became a national disgrace, for which Jackson himself has long been abhorred. Similar logic informed Jackson’s view of slavery – he believed enforced abolition would break up the Union, whose integrity he defended throughout his life. During his presidency, when South Carolina threatened to leave the Union over a tariff, Jackson rejected any notions of “states’ rights.” He was hardly alone in fearing that the Union would come apart over slavery, as it did, 16 years after his death.
All that lay in the future though, when a few dozen Floridians signed a petition identifying their settlement along the St. Johns River as Jacksonville. Then and afterward, any connection between Andrew Jackson and the place that took his name remained practically nonexistent. Two recent biographies of Jackson make the point – in neither is Jacksonville even mentioned, and even the Florida territory that he governed for 10 months, from its western capital in Pensacola, appears only briefly.
In 1822, the residents of the place known as “Cowford” probably hoped to win attention and favor from their new national government by naming their fledgling town after an American military hero. Until the year before, most of them had been subjects of Spain, a weakened empire in particular disrepute on the North American continent. Striking a fresh and patriotic note would have seemed like sensible politics, and Andrew Jackson’s credentials as an American patriot were beyond question.
The Jaxsons of 1822 might have gained more had they named their place after the then Secretary of State and future president, John Quincy Adams. Jackson, even when president, showed little favor for the Florida city that carried his name. During Jackson’s two terms as America’s chief executive, Jacksonville’s time had yet to come, and indeed it remained a small enclave in a territory that was mostly a frontier. Florida only became a state on March 3, 1845. Three months later, Andrew Jackson died at his home in Nashville, Tennessee.
Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
CEO, The Jacksonville Historical Society