…a question raised by a non-professional
It shall go without question that I am moved to write what follows by the news of the tragic death of actor and comedian Robin Williams, who died yesterday perhaps by his own hand, but a hand that was controlled by another self, one that suffered mightily from depression.
I have presented the case of Andrew Jackson, Jr., the adopted son of President Jackson, to my fine son-in-law, a distinguished psychologist and adjunct professor at Tulane. He did not dismiss it out-of-hand, but merely explained that it is far too complicated a problem to be diagnosed from a few items extracted from long-gone history.
Perhaps the fault was mine, for simply not being sufficiently fluent to offer what is known about the tragic case of the heir of the Hermitage and of the estate of the seventh president of the United States.
Presented here are a few facts about Andrew Jackson, Jr.: the ways of his early life, the circumstances under which he came to Hancock County MS, his strange actions while here, his flight to a new problem when he left.
We also know a little about his family, particularly his wife who was from a patrician family from up-east, and his son Samuel, a loving and dutiful son if there ever was one. In reflection about them, I have come around to be somewhat sympathetic to the man, whereas before I felt only empathy for those close to him.
Although few essays and no books of significance have been written about Andrew, Jr., there are facts which can be assembled, mostly from the biographies of his adoptive father. Also, letters written within the family are important descriptions of their personalities and activities.
What follows are essentially borrowings from my own articles about the Jackson family. Some excerpts are taken in whole from postings a reader may already have read, for which I apologize for any annoying repetitions.
Andrew Jr.’s early financial miscalculations
The President himself had enormous money problems through much of his adult life. While strong in character and of a resolute disposition, he clearly was unable to deny much to Andrew, Jr. who most likely was the primary cause of the President’s fiscal difficulties. When the President died in 1845, his assets included the Hermitage, its slaves, and other real estate, but no money. He borrowed $2,000 not long before his death, raising his total debt to $26,000. In 1840, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, he agreed to attend the celebration in New Orleans in spite of his declining health and advancing age. The reason: to borrow some much-needed cash from some of his loyal friends, including General Jean B. Plauche.
Andrew Jr.’s pattern of wasteful spending was evident from an early age. As a student, he accumulated a debt of $309 to his clothing outfitter in six and a half months. He bought a new wardrobe, including a ten-dollar hat, a $26 suit, and silk hose at $1.50 a pair. He had his own horse, his own body servant and imported kerchiefs.
In 1834, at age 26, he repurchased Hunter’s hill (which was adjacent to Hermitage and had been lost by forced sale by Jackson many years before) for $10,000. He signed one and two-year notes but could give his father no copies or details for nine months. It was a gross overpayment and the contract allowed the proceeds of cotton sales to go directly to the seller. As he would do in Mississippi, Andrew Jr. overestimated his cotton yields and went further into debt. The following year, when the second note was due, there were seven late frosts, killing half the crop. Still Jackson, Jr. was optimistic.
The Hermitage was severely damaged on October 13, 1834 by a disastrous fire during Jackson’s second Presidential term. Since President Jackson was busy in Washington running the affairs of the Nation, it fell to Andrew Jr. and his wife Sarah in 1836 to supervise the reconstruction and furnishing the new Hermitage. That year, the President had written to his son: “Our real wants are few, our imaginary wants many, which never ought to be gratified by creating a debt to satisfy them.” The cost to rebuild the Hermitage was four times the estimate. Still, in 1838, the President paid $7,000, mostly to satisfy the obligations of Andrew Jr. who had endorsed notes of others.
Jackson Jr.’s poor real estate investments continued with the purchase of Halcyon Plantation for which the President had to pay the first note in 1839 in the amount of $5,176. In the same year, Jackson Sr. refused to pay a two-year overdue note amounting to $550 for a carriage; his son had lied about the purchase.
In 1840, former President Jackson found it necessary to restructure the obligation for Halcyon Plantation. In the same year, ill after his return from New Orleans, the father wrote to his son, “Recollect my son that I have taken this trip to endeavor to releve [sic] you from present embarrassments, and if I live to realize it, I will die contented in the hopes that you will never again encumber yourself with debt that may result in the poverty of yourself and the little family I so much love.”
No manner of reasoning or parental appeal swayed young Andrew from his wasteful ways. The same year of the President’s plea, Andrew told his father of a $6,000 debt which was in truth $12,000 and in just a few months grew to $15,000. Defending his son, Jackson blamed $10,000 of the debt on “swindlers” who had taken advantage of his son.
But Andrew Jr.’s mismanagement continued and the President’s resource dwindled. During this time, the slaves of Halcyon Plantation were cold and hungry and the plantation overseer sought legal means to recover back wages. Jackson resorted to selling off his saddle mare; he sold beef from the smokehouse. One of President Jackson’s other ward was suffering with terminal cancer but the money that had been saved for a medical visit went to pay off more of Andrew Jr.’s debts. To make matters worse, Jackson’s political enemies, the Whigs, made political hay of the situation.
By 1844, Andrew Jr. was again endorsing notes for others, including one for his cousin. The following year, President Jackson, now an invalid and approaching death, was informed of a new $6,000 debt incurred by his adopted son. Still, before his death, the former president resisted the advice of others with regard to the disposition of his estate. Upon his death, the distribution heavily favored Andrew Jr.
A new high
Andrew Jr. continued to build massive debt, and in 1856, the State of Tennessee bought the Hermitage along with 500 acres for $48,000. It was with this money that Jackson Jr. paid off some debts and with whatever was left he went on a spending spree in Hancock County, buying plantations that he would soon lose for want of funds.
Family letters in HCHS
Letters written within the family after the move to Hancock County provide a great deal of personal information and the dynamics of their interpersonal relationships.
A close study of these letters, necessitated by the many travels of Andrew from the Coast while Sarah and Samuel stayed behind, provide vivid character studies of Jackson Jr., his wife, Sarah Yorke Jackson, and the second of their sons, young Samuel, only nineteen in 1856 when he was put in charge of Clifton, running the day-to-day operations of the large plantation with many slaves. It is evident from his many letters that he is a loving, dutiful son; but also a rather lonely young man while living at Clifton, as will be documented below from more of his letters.
In addition, the letters provide insight into the life and character of Andrew Jackson, Jr., who, once he had purchased these properties in south Mississippi, was often absent. Also evident is his penchant for changing his mind easily, almost whimsically, about important things, and his lack of accountability with regard to his commitments.
Sarah Yorke Jackson was a well-bred Philadelphian who had served for a time as First Lady in the White House during President’s Jackson second term. Prior to her marriage to Andrew Jr., she and her sister had been orphaned with limited means when their father died, having just lost two ships at sea.  Sarah can be described as a patrician who stayed at the Hermitage for a protracted period after the purchase of the Hancock County properties. She was devoted to her family, some of whom remained in Nashville. The letters indicate that she seldom if ever countered her husband’s bad decisions, and often supported his walking away from obligations. Like son Samuel, she was devoted to Andrew Jr. in a loving respectful way, regardless of his bad decisions.
The person revealed by the letters as the one with real strength of character is Samuel: respectful, usually optimistic, intelligent, long-suffering and courageous. Even when aware of his father’s inadequacies, he seldom complained. Though often lonesome, he was apparently too shy to accept a New Year’s dinner invitation form Judge Claiborne.
Andrew Jr. made his first purchase in Hancock County in December of that year buying the Clifton plantation, for which he paid $8,525. It was comprised of 647 acres, a working plantation adjacent to Judge Claiborne’s Laurel Wood Plantation. The heirs of Judge Lewis Daniells, who had died earlier that year, sold Clifton.
John Claiborne acted as intermediary in the sale and he also promoted to Jackson the purchase of a second plantation, that being 318 acres “on the Lake Shore” owned by Asa Russ. Although I have been unable to find a copy of the deed, it is known from the Claiborne letter that the asking price was $6,000. (This plantation was named by Sarah Jackson “Sea Song”; today it is occupied by Buccaneer State Park.)
So, in quick succession, Jackson bought the two spreads described above as well as the Mitchell Place, located near Clifton. While the price of the third site was less than for the others ($2,760), it was the largest at 1920 acres, fully three square miles.
As Samuel struggled at Clifton, Andrew Jr. already was allowing his enthusiasm for Clifton to wane. In a letter to his sister, Rachel Lawrence, dated May 22, 1857, Samuel says that Pa had returned, but “does not like this place as well as he did at first…He spoke of going to see a place near New Orleans…the prise <sic> of the place is $30,000. I told him I would not think of buying it. I would keep this place, three or four years any way and then if I sold and bought I would try to get our old home.”
Although his father was subject to swings of highs and lows, Samuel was normally positive, sometimes to the point of exaggeration.
Samuel’s hard work and best intentions, however, were not sufficient to offset his father’s constant financial problems. In a letter to his father written from Clifton on July 22, 1857, Samuel states: “You told me to say to Judge Beasley you would take the 80 acres next to Mr. Bass. Judge Beverly told me you had bought when you came down the last time And wrote to me to know if I had received a check from you he sayed <sic> you told him you should send it as soon as you arrived at Nashville. And he is very anxious to receive it, and has been expecting it every day since you left.”
In another letter, Samuel wrote: “I believe Pa does not like this place as well as he did at first, on account of the coco grass there is a great deal of it, and where there is any in the cotton the cotton is not worth a cent. And in a few years I think it will be over the whole place…”
Again, on July 22, 1857, Samuel penned the following: “You told me to say to Judge Beasley you would take the 80 acres next to Mr Bass. Judge Beverly told me you had bought when you came down the last time…waiting for his check…”
A new low
On the April 7, 1858, Andrew Jr. told Sarah that he was writing “a very unpleassant <SIC> and melancholy letter,” announcing “a great misfortune… our beautiful Little Residence there is all Burned down and lies in ashes …alass, alass—what will become of us It is a hard case—well it is done and it cannot be mended—let us never despair – but hope for the best — I shall go I shall go <SIC> on tomorrow to Clifton –& there deposit all our Furniture until we can arrange things to suit us better…but alass—alass—alass—what shall we do.”
The letter, obviously written very quickly, then laid the blame for the fire squarely on the carelessness of the servants Ben and Creasy. He suspected them of having lit a fire while surreptitiously sleeping in the house. It is perhaps illustrative of Andrew’s personality that he had also blamed the servants for the burning of the Hermitage in 1834. On that occasion, he wrote: “Oh had I been there, it might have been prevented. The cursed Negroes were all so stupid & confused that nothing could be done until some white ones came to their relief.”
The expectation of the house being rebuilt so quickly was overly optimistic. This is shown in Sarah’s letter of February 19, 1859: “…our house is not near finished. Your Pa thinks it will be completed in one month….”
In addition, Sarah told her daughter, “Your Pa has had two letters respecting the property for sale –which he has replied to, inviting the gentlemen to visit the place and judge for themselves – Col Claiborne- says he would not take less than 50$ an acre for his.”
In1860, Sarah write to Andrew III, saying it was “…necessary to sell as many more [slaves] this fall. He is very much cast down and discouraged, and he is resolved to sell out. If he cannot find any purchaser at private sale he will put all up at auction this fall and sell for whatever he can get. I think he would do better to abandon it, and settle elsewhere.”
After the fire, Andrew Jr. ignored the story that Ben and Creasy had told to Samuel, if indeed he had heard that story, or had contrary evidence. He continued, saying “…my god it is too bad—there seems a (illegible) hanging over us—what shall we do—.”
His depression continued the next day when he again wrote to Sarah: “My God – how dreadful and apaling <sic> it is – what is the matter and what is to become of us – it seems our heavenly Father intends to punish me for my sins – of that his rod may now cease – and that we (I) may alter the course of my life – if spared a Little Longer.”
Then, in the very next lines, his spirit turned apparently optimistic and positive: “I shall go to Clifton — & do the best I can – I intend to put Ned and Phill – with a good carpenter – Mr. Johnson – and rebuild – this summer and hope by the Smiles of Providence – to have all ready for us – by the Fall – say by November or the 1st of December – so cheer up – never despair ([?]) I trust all will come out right yet.”
On the following Friday, Andrew Jr., in spite of the troubled times, was looking to buy another place, and hoping to “get it payable in cotton.”
In a little dated November 13, 1860, Samuel seemed certain of the impending sale. “We will be able to sell this place without any trouble I think there are good many that are anxious to purchase the shell [bank]. Pa’s price is ten thousand dollars, cash.”
Continuing the November letter, Samuel, dutiful as usual, did not express doubt of his father’s judgment. He did, however, comment that others urged caution. “Pa and I went over to the City on last Friday expecting to start up to the Ark. River & other places but on arriving in the City & hearing the election news & finding so much excitement found it necessary one of us should return…So I returned and left Pa in N.O. Mr. Nelson, Mr. Woodlief & others advised him not to purchase at present.”
One week later, Samuel advised his sister of their status. “We went over to New Orleans two or three days after the election but found Lincoln was elected and so much excitement we thought it prudent for me to return. I left Pa in N.O. not knowing what he would do, but we are compelled to leave this place and seek one where we can make a living, it is impossible to stay here another year…I hope he may success in Ark. I wou\
In a postscript written perhaps several days later, Samuel said that his father had arrived unexpectedly: “… he has been up onn <sic> the bayou (illegible) in the upper portion of Louisiana and says it is the finest country undoubtedly in the world and there is a place for sale containing 800 acres, I expect he will buy it.”
On November 25th, Samuel communicated his excitement to his mother regarding the prospects of the farm on Bayou, near Delhi, Louisiana. “This place is offered at $35 per acre payable in four years…the land is as rich as it possibly can be.”
On the first day of May, 1861, the Circuit Court of Hancock County rendered judgments against Andrew Jackson Jr. totaling $36,727. Among the petitioners were Asa Russ, John Toulme, and J.F.H. Claiborne and John Martin.
The largest debt was to W. R Adams, in the amount of $28,980. The Civil War having intervened, Jackson’s properties were not offered for sale until the first Monday of February 1870. Four parcels were auctioned to the highest bidder at the courthouse door, including Sea Song and Clifton plantations. Roderick Seal purchased the first for $1,000, and the second for $3,650. Seal also bought the other parcels, one of 40 acres for $50 and the other of 80 acres for $100.
Thus ended the short, mostly unsuccessful, experiences of the Jacksons in south Mississippi.
There remains in my mind the question of why the former president would continue to support the profligacy of his son. I once had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Remini, the author of the three-volume biography of the President Andrew Jackson; I asked him how it could be that with all the experience of his lifetime, and having had the recommendations of his advisors, Jackson could leave much of his estate to son.
His answer was simple; he said that the former president was a man who had “extreme loyalty.” Perhaps that is as good an explanation as possible. However, one might return to the 1840 quote, above, wherein the President said:
“Recollect my son that I have taken this trip to endeavor to releve [sic] you from present embarrassments, and if I live to realize it, I will die contented in the hopes that you will never again encumber yourself with debt that may result in the poverty of yourself and the little family I so much love.”
Like all of us, he may have been mistaken in allowing his wishes to color his reason. He may have truly believed that were he to leave his son “unencumbered,” Andrew Jr.’s character would be changed and that he would never again need to borrow or to make bad investments.
The question remains unanswered.