The following post is part of a series on the self-made man in American history (and the last of this particular set in that series, focusing on the self-made man as farmer).
The greatest champion of the self-made yeoman farmer in U.S. history was Andrew Jackson. Like Washington, Jackson was a soldier who became president, and liked to refer to himself as “a plain cultivator of the soil.” His supporters used names like “farmer soldier” and “the Farmer of Tennessee,” and future cabinet member John Eaton alluded to Cincinnatus in claiming that Jackson would have preferred “to remain upon his farm and at his plough” rather than run for president in 1824 (a race he lost). Upon his death in 1845 a eulogist summed up Jackson’s life by saying “he wielded the axe, guided the plough, and made, with his own hands, the most of his farming utensils—as nature made him a farmer and mechanic, besides making him a statesman and a soldier."
Jackson resembles Jefferson, too. He also began his career as a lawyer, albeit of a far less polished sort. And like Jefferson he was in some respects an implausible representative of the yeoman. To paraphrase that eulogy, he was a soldier for sure; a statesman perhaps. But farmer or mechanic—about whom I’ll have more to say shortly— was a stretch. This was apparent to many people even in Jackson’s heyday. “One can sympathize with his opponents in their fury at the widespread image of Jackson as a farmer,” John William Ward wrote in his 1955 evergreen work of American Studies, Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age. “He was, as a modern student of Jackson has observed, what we should now call a member of the rentier class.” (It’s worth noting that the “modern student” Ward cites is Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., whose 1945 book The Age of Jackson did more than any other modern study to create the legend of Jackson as the paradigmatic self-made man.)
There’s little question that Jackson’s background was one of considerable adversity. Born on the frontier borderland of North and South Carolina in 1767, his father died while his mother was still pregnant. Jackson enlisted in the American Revolution when he was still a child, and had his face and hand slashed by a British officer who considered him impertinent, scarring him for life. His brother died during the war, as did his mother in tending to wounded soldiers. He emerged from such experiences with a toughness that was legendary, and in his ability to withstand a life of aches and pains—he once absorbed a bullet during a duel, refusing to collapse until he had shot his opponent dead—earned him the nickname “Old Hickory.” These were the raw materials his mythologists used to make him the avatar of the self-made man, and they were substantial.
But it’s not accurate to describe Jackson in log cabin terms. After his mother’s death he was raised by two uncles, who provided him with enough resources to present himself as a lawyer in the Tennessee territory. (The frontier set a low threshold for gentility, but it could not have been nonexistent.) Jackson’s formal education was spotty at best—he liked to joke he couldn’t respect a man who only knew one way to spell a word—but he had enough stature to get been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and then the U.S. Senate, by the time he was thirty. In 1804 he acquired the Hermitage, a plantation outside Nashville, and became a wealthy planter. The estate, focused on growing cotton—rapidly becoming the new staple crop of the South—was over 1000 acres and worked by approximately 150 slaves.
As with Washington, Jackson’s evident ambition and leadership skill extended to soldiering. He was appointed to the Tennessee militia in 1801 and elected major general the following year. He burst into national prominence during the war of 1812 for his exploits in the U.S. army leading a coalition of red, black and white soldiers at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, repelling a British invasion with minimal casualties. For the rest of his life, he would be referred as “General Jackson,” an honorific more substantial than mere election to the presidency.
One could say that Jackson was the first celebrity in U.S. history. Like many celebrities, he attracted passionate support as well as distaste among elites who wondered whether he was worth all the attention, and worried about what it portended. Such were the views of old man Jefferson according to Congressman Daniel Webster, who visited him at Monticello around the time of the election of 1824. According to Webster, Jefferson expressed admiration for Jackson’s military accomplishments, but was alarmed by Jackson’s rise and considered him unfit for president. (This was something Jefferson did not live to see, as John Quincy Adams prevailed in that race and Jackson had been dead for two years by the time Jackson was actually elected for the first of two terms in 1828.)
Such concerns notwithstanding, Jackson was widely viewed as Jefferson’s successor as leader of the plowman from the very start. Significantly, his victory at New Orleans was cast in precisely such terms. In a speech before Congress a mere twelve days after the battle, Georgia representative George Troup lauded Jackson and the spectacle of “the yeomanry of the country marching to the defence of the City of Orleans leaving their wives and children and firesides a moment’s warning.” (Echoes of the Minutemen here.) Troup hailed “the farmers of the country triumphantly victorious over the conquerors of the conquerors of Europe. I came, I saw, I conquered says the American Husbandman, fresh from his plough.” Julius Caesar, meet General Jackson.
For the next thirty years, Jackson would be at the center of American politics and culture. And for the next thirty years, he would be perceived as the chief spokesman of the yeoman farmer. Interestingly, even many of his opponents accepted this claim at face value, either mocking him for his crudity, or, when that failed, adopting a similar pose (as William Henry Harrison did in winning the presidency in his famous “log cabin and hard cider” campaign of 1840). So it was, for example, that Jackson cited “agriculture, the first and most important occupation of man” in his State of the Union address in 1831.
Such assertions didn’t necessarily come up all that often in Jackson speeches. But they didn’t have to: the policies he advocated were plain enough. Farmers were his core constituency in any number of political fights, whether in terms of lowering tariffs (which kept the prices of manufactured goods lower and made agricultural exports easier), opposing the Bank of the United States (a widely perceived source of agrarian financial oppression), and Indian removal (so there would be more land for settlers).
But Jacksonian politics could be complicated. Jackson would never have become one of the most powerful figures in American history without the support of yeoman farmers. But his political base never consisted solely of farmers. Indeed, he presided over the first stirrings of the economic transformation of American society. Industrial capitalism was a highly disruptive force, and it generated lots of opponents—not only yeomen and large planters, but also factory workers and small entrepreneurs threatened by mass production and financial consolidation. The “mechanic” referred to by the Jackson eulogist I cited earlier was rhetorically joined at the hip to the farmer in Jacksonian rhetoric. The two were repeatedly and explicitly linked, and such linkage was important in making him a truly national figure, particularly in places like New York City, where a nascent labor movement led by the Workingman’s Party pushed Jacksonian populism into new political territory. One might say that Democratic politics from the time of Jackson to that of (Franklin) Roosevelt involved a quest to fuse these two working-class sectors of the economy with shared goals and shared enemies. Sometimes, as in Jackson’s era, such fusion was possible. In others, like the Populist movement of the late nineteenth century, it proved elusive.
Insofar as the worldviews of the farmer and industrial worker could be fused, the binding element involved a shared belief in the power of the self-made man as a basis of personal and political legitimacy in American society. Jackson’s persona was crucial in this regard in ways that bridged (and in some cases obscured) any number of differences. In the emerging logic of the Jacksonian era, the self-made man could originate in multiple locales. But they all shared the same will to succeed, and a national environment where, whatever its climate, one could succeed. More than that: such success would be all the more gratifying because it could take root organically, without the artificial fertilizers of high birth or inside-dealing. Such reasoning was clear in another Jackson eulogy:
His origin was humble; and the poorest may learn from his career, that poverty is no insuperable bar to the soarings and triumphs of the free spirit. Nay! Let us rather say, as we remember how the soil of poverty has sent up its harvest of great men, our Franklin, our Adams, our [Patrick] Henry, and our Jackson; let us say, that as in the kingdom of geology the everlasting granite, the underlying basis of all other formulations is found in the deepest gulf, yet ever bursting upward from the abyss, towering aloft into the highest hills, and crowning the very pinnacles of the world; so in the kingdom of man.Whatever reservations we may have about a rich slaveholder who dispossessed Indians and gave little indication he was actually familiar with the life of the people who so enthusiastically supported him, there can be little doubt that Jackson’s credentials as an self-made man were considered authentic by a majority of yeomen farmers, and he continues to be discussed in such terms to this day.
And yet both Jackson and those supporters seemed to have a perpetually embattled air, as if their legitimacy was constantly in question. Such truculence has long been noted as central to Jackson’s political profile, typically expressed in terms of his opponents arrogating undue power to themselves. “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes,” he said in his famous 1832 speech vetoing the renewal for the charter of the Bank of the United States. “Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress.” The notion that things like banks, roads, and railroad companies were anything but a corrupt scheme was hard Jackson and his most enthusiastic partisans to credit.
In an important sense, however, Jacksonians, especially those in the generation that followed his departure from the White House in 1837, had reason to be aggrieved. A rising tide of industrialism was challenging the farm economy for cultural and political, no less than economic, supremacy. In the years to come, new models of the self-made man would make those of Washington and Jackson no less honorable, but increasingly obsolete.
That’s because an alternative model for the nation’s yeomen was beginning to emerge, one which rejected a core tenet of the self-made ideology that had patched the divide between the yeoman and the planter since the time of Bacon’s Rebellion: chattel slavery. Although only about a quarter of Southern households actually owned slaves in the decades before the Civil War (and most of those only had a handful), even small farmers saw the mere possibility of owning slaves as a basis for hope of upward mobility. But the free soil ideology that emerged in the second third of the nineteenth century increasingly asserted that slavery was actually the problem, not the solution, for farmers who could never achieve independence as long as big planters could effectively outcompete with them in the marketplace on the basis of unfree labor. This argument never gained total acceptance in the South, but was significant enough to furnish an important coalition in the emergence of the Free Soil party in the 1840s and the birth of the Republican Party in the 1850s.
We rightly think of Republicans as the party of Big Business, which they indeed have been for 150 years. But in its early years the party made a special effort to cultivate yeoman farmers, notably in its advocacy of a Homestead bill long blocked by proslavery advocates in Congress until it was finally signed into law early in Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. The Homestead Act was specially crafted with the self-made yeoman in mind. Under its provisions, any farmer who claimed 160 acres from the public domain, paid a small registration fee, and settled on it for five years would own it outright.
The Homestead Act never really lived up to the fondest hopes of its boosters. The law did create hundreds of thousands of new farms, mostly in the upper Midwest, but was sapped by a series of problems, ranging from land speculators who gamed the program to a lack of truly arable land (the law was amended to allow up to 320 acres 1890). In any case, the Republicans had other fish to fry in terms of banks, railroads, factories, and other manifestations of what was truly a new world order.
Farmers, of course, hardly disappeared. Their problems would be central to American politics for decades to come—it would not be until the 1920 census showed there were more people living in towns and cities than on farms. And they would continue to be honored in American politics, society and art, as indeed they are to this day. But the yeoman farmer, increasingly a source of nostalgia along with a careful dissection of his melancholy lot in the work of writers like Hamlin Garland and Willa Cather, lost his hold as the primary manifestation of the self-made man after the presidency of Andrew Jackson.
Interestingly, that title passed to the man he defeated twice, and who would ultimately lose four different presidential elections. It was he who finally introduced the actual phrase “self made man” into national political discourse. He had the evocative name of Henry Clay and it was Clay, far more than Jefferson or Jackson, whose career looked forward rather than back.
Coming soon: a series of posts about the self-made man and the transition from mercantile to industrial capitalism.