U.S. President Andrew Jackson: Surprising Facts about the Man on the Twenty Dollar Bill

When Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828, he was the first to reach that office as a self-made man. He was born into a poor family in South Carolina. During the American Revolution, Jackson lost his mother and two brothers and was wounded by a British officer.

Family tragedy seemed to follow Jackson throughout his life. As he ran for president, his detractors claimed that Jackson had lived with his wife before their marriage. Actually, they were married for two years before they realized that Rachel’s divorce from her previous husband had not been finalized. Rachel Jackson died from an illness before her husband’s inauguration. Jackson blamed her death on the nasty comments made during the campaign.

Historians have dubbed Jackson’s presidency the “age of the common man.” He was certainly unlike any other president the country had elected.

White House Portrait of Andrew Jackson

White House Portrait of Andrew Jackson

After his inauguration Jackson invited members of the public to attend a reception at the White House. To the dismay of the staff, so many people tried to cram into the White House that items were broken. Shortly after becoming president, Jackson indulged his fondness for chewing tobacco by installing twenty spittoons in the East Room.

Despite his dislike of formalities, Jackson’s terms as president had little impact on the common man. It’s true that more people (at least white, taxpaying males) got to vote in the election that sent Jackson to the White House. Through the Indian Removal Act he gave more white men the opportunity to acquire Native American land.

He did not, however, believe that social or economic equality was desirable. He stated, “Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, or education, or of wealth cannot be produced by human institutions.”

Jackson established the office of president as the chief power in American government for the first time. He made it obvious that he was not going to allow others to tell him what to do. He used the presidential veto more often than any previous president. For example, he vetoed the re-charter of the National Bank and federal support for internal improvements.

His ignorance of financial matters led to an economic crisis which harmed his successor, Martin Van Buren.


Guy Fawkes Day Celebrations in England and America

On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes planned to blow up King James I during a Parliament meeting by lighting over 20 barrels of gunpowder in the building’s cellar. The night before the planned attack, Fawkes hid in the cellar and covered the barrels with coals and fagots. Fawkes and a number of other Catholic men resented the anti-Catholic laws in England, and hoped to establish a Catholic government after they blew up the Protestant king. The plot’s mastermind, Robert Catesby, chose Fawkes for the task because he had recently returned from fighting a foreign war and wouldn’t be recognized easily.

Unfortunately for Fawkes and his co-conspirators, the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. Authorities arrested Fawkes that evening and tortured him on the rack to force him to name the other men. Catesby and four others were killed when they resisted arrest; Fawkes and the rest of the gang were found guilty of treason and executed.

In January of 1606, Parliament declared November 5 as a day of thanksgiving. According to tradition, children carried straw effigies of Guy Fawkes through the streets, asking passersby for “a penny for the Guy” so they could buy fireworks for the celebration. They recited verses from the poem “The Fifth of November,” which states “Remember, remember!/The fifth of November,/The Gunpowder treason and plot;/I know of no reason Why the Gunpowder Treason/Should ever be forgot!”

The holiday even spread to the American colonies, where it was referred to as Pope’s Day. Colonists did not focus on the figure of Guy Fawkes, but they did burn effigies of the Pope, the devil, and political enemies.


Guy Fawkes Night Celebration in England. Photo by Peter Trimming.

Unlike Britain, which still celebrates the original holiday, America does not. During the American Revolution, the colonies needed the support of France, which was a Catholic country. It became politically incorrect for colonists to hold an anti-Catholic celebration.

In England, however, people celebrate Guy Fawkes Day with fireworks, bonfires, parties, and burnt effigies of Fawkes and unpopular politicians. Children still go door-to-door before the holiday asking for “a penny for the Guy,” which is similar to the American custom of trick or treating on Halloween. Guards also continue the tradition of searching the Houses of Parliament, just in case any plots like the one Fawkes and his conspirators planned are afoot.

Peggy Shippen: Benedict Arnold’s Wife

Growing Up

Peggy Shippen grew up in an upper-middle class family in Philadelphia that didn’t support the American colonies’ complaints about Britain. Her father, Edward Shippen, believed that ordinary citizens could not govern without the upper classes telling them what to do. Her father found himself in a sticky situation when the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to discuss how the colonies should respond to Britain’s taxes on America. For a while, the Shippen family left their home for a place in the country. Peggy resented having to leave her fashionable lifestyle behind. By 1774 she was a teenage girl who was about to make her debut into Philadelphia society, but her father believed it was best to leave so he wouldn’t be forced to take sides in the debate.

The American Revolution

In 1777, the Shippens returned to their family home. The American Revolution had already started, and the British captured Philadelphia. Peggy and other young women flirted with the British officers and enjoyed dances and parties. One observer said, “all the young men are in love with Peggy.” Eventually the British left Philadelphia for New York, and American general Benedict Arnold was appointed as the city’s military governor. The ever-practical Edward Shippen welcomed him. Though he was twenty years older, Arnold soon fell in love with Peggy.

Arnold’s Troubles

Before their marriage, Benedict Arnold had career problems. He was charged with crimes against the army, including treating minor officials with disrespect, using public wagons for private property, and showing favor to Loyalists who disapproved of the revolution.  Arnold felt bitter that Americans did not appreciate his skills or the fact that he was lame as a result of fighting in battle. Though most of the charges were dropped and George Washington offered him a job as his number two general, it was too late. By then, Arnold and his wife were spying for the British.

Partners in Spying

No one knows whether Peggy suggested they hand over information about American troop positions and guns to the British, or whether Arnold was the first to bring it up. Regardless, Peggy and Arnold were complete partners once they committed to spying. In fact, one of Peggy’s former British acquaintances, Major Andre, became the recipient of Arnold’s letters in Britain. While Arnold supplied the military information, Peggy wrote and received the letters. She used a secret code and invisible ink to hide the contents of the letters. Major Andre held the letters up to a flame or poured lemon juice on them to read them. Using these methods, the Arnolds gave the British the information they needed to capture Charlestown, South Carolina.

Discovery of their Plans

As they gained success, Arnold negotiated a price the British were willing to pay for information about the New York fortress West Point. If the British had West Point, they could cut off communication between New England and the Congress at Philadelphia. Arnold asked to command West Point so he could tell the British when to strike. An unsuspecting George Washington gave him the job. In September 1780, a British warship was prepared to attack the fort. Unfortunately for the Arnolds, American soldiers ruined their plan with the capture of Major Andre. When the soldiers searched him, they found papers on him that revealed the plot, but did not mention Peggy’s involvement.

Arnold escaped on a British barge, leaving his wife behind to defend herself. She pretended to be shocked by her husband’s actions and acted hysterically. Luckily for Peggy, few men, including Washington, thought women were smart enough to be good spies. Washington and others also completely bought her act, and even felt sorry for her. Eventually, she rejoined Arnold in London, where she lived on money gained from her war activities.

Benjamin Franklin and Slavery

Throughout his life, Benjamin Franklin had a tendency to change his mind on political issues. For example, he initially supported the Stamp Act and only later decided that the American colonies should separate from Britain. Yet often Franklin ended up on the winning side of an argument, even if the argument was not settled in his lifetime.

Like his opinion of the American Revolution, Franklin’s views on slavery changed, too. He owned a couple of slaves at various times of his life and published ads for slave auctions when he worked as a printer. Still, he and his wife Deborah made sure that their slaves received an education from a Philadelphia school for black students. Most slave owners didn’t think slaves could learn, but after Franklin visited the school he commented that he had “higher opinions of the natural capacities of the black race.” He also published a few articles arguing against slavery. Until 1787, however, Franklin never gave the abolition of slavery his complete support.

By 1787, the year of the Constitutional Convention, Franklin became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. During the convention, he sought to include a statement about the freeing of slaves in the U.S. Constitution. Like many of the Founding Fathers, however, Franklin feared that the union between northern and southern states would not be created if he argued too forcefully for the end of slavery.

Franklin’s silence on the abolition of slavery lasted only until the Constitution was ratified and the new federal government was in place. In 1790, he submitted a petition on the society’s behalf to the U.S. Congress. Franklin declared that slavery contradicted the principles of the American Revolution, particularly the ideas that all men were created equal and that they were entitled to liberty. The petition stated that Congress had an obligation to ensure “the blessings of liberty to the people of the United States without distinction of color.”

The anti-slavery petition set off a heated debate in Congress. It angered pro-slavery advocates like Congressman James Jackson of Georgia. He stated that the Bible supported slavery and that slaves were needed to do the work on the South’s plantations. Though in poor health, Franklin didn’t miss the opportunity to mock Jackson’s speech in print. He compared it to a speech supposedly given one hundred years earlier by an Algerian pirate who had Christian slaves. The pirate argued that it was “in the interest of the state to continue the practice; therefore let the petition be rejected.” He also said that his religion permitted the enslavement of Christians, and that they were better off living as slaves than as free men in Europe “where they would only cut each other’s throats in religious wars.”

Like Franklin’s fictional Algerian pirate, Congress rejected the petition to end slavery. After the debate ended, George Washington wrote to a friend, “the slave business has at last [been] put to rest and will scarce awake.” The contradiction of slavery and the promises of liberty for all Americans awoke again in the nineteenth century, resulting in the Civil War. Once again, Franklin had picked the point of view that eventually prevailed.

The Childhood of Civil War General Robert E. Lee

Most history books show pictures of Robert E. Lee as an aging man with white hair and a beard. It’s almost impossible to imagine that this man was once a child. Like everyone else, the famous American Civil War general did have a boyhood, though it was not always happy.

The Lee Family Heritage

The potential for Robert E. Lee to be a great man started before his birth. Robert’s father, Henry Lee, served in the cavalry during the American Revolution. Henry impressed his general so much that he said Henry had “come out of his mother’s womb a soldier.” After the war, Henry served in the Continental Congress and encouraged his home state of Virginia to ratify the Constitution. By the nineteenth century, however, things started to go wrong for Henry Lee. He made bad investments and ended up in a debtor’s prison for a year.

His wife Ann Carter Lee gave birth to her son Robert in 1807, shortly before her husband’s imprisonment. She already had several children, and admitted to a friend that she did not want another child. Later on, however, when her husband left the family for the West Indies and never returned, Robert became her favorite.

Robert E. Lee Grows Up

Robert comforted his mother in her husband’s absence. He did household chores and served as a nurse to his ill sister and his mother. Though obedient to his mother, like most boys his age Robert enjoyed swimming and playing sports with his cousins. He especially loved tricking foxhunters by following hounds on foot. He became so good at taking shortcuts to find the foxes that when the adults arrived, Robert was already there. Even at a young age, Robert understood how to use geography and the element of surprise to his advantage—skills that would one day make him a great general.

Though Robert didn’t have a father, he did create a father image for himself. When the family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, http://www.alexandriava.gov/historic/default.aspx Robert and his siblings often visited President George Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis. Custis told the children stories about Washington and showed them Washington’s pistols and uniforms. Though Washington had died many years earlier, the people of Alexandria cherished their connection to the former hero. Washington’s career may have partly inspired Robert to pursue a military career, but in reality there was little money available for him to go to college. Luckily, he had family connections that helped him get one of the 250 spots available for the West Point cadets.

Robert At West Point

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point had many rules, and Robert was one of the few cadets who followed them. Others, like Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, partied and drank on a regular basis. Robert was a serious student who graduated second in his class. He was not a snob, however, and made close friends at West Point. His friend Joseph E. Johnson remembered that Robert “was the only one of all the men I have known that could laugh at the faults and follies of his friends in such a manner as to make them ashamed without touching their affection for him, and to confirm their respect.” His military training and the ability to positively influence others would come in handy when the U.S. Civil War broke out.

Deborah Read: Wife of Benjamin Franklin

Other than a surge of interest in Abigail Adams, wives of the American revolutionary era remain largely ignored, especially in school textbooks. How many of you have heard of Deborah Read? She was Benjamin Franklin’s wife. Their partnership contributed to Ben Franklin’s later successes, which though not always fun for his wife, led him to serve the revolutionary cause.

According to Franklin, he met Deborah Read while walking through the streets of Philadelphia with one bread roll under each arm and one in his mouth. He looked so odd that Deborah laughed aloud. Franklin may have made this part up, but he did end up lodging in her mother’s house. It was common at the time for women with little income to take in borders, and Deborah’s mother was a widow. Franklin proposed marriage to Deborah before he left for London to try and purchase a printing press. Deborah’s mother insisted that they wait until after Franklin’s trip. The idea seemed reasonable, but Deborah heard little from Franklin while he was in London and ended up married to someone else. John Rogers was a potter with a talent for running up debts. Whether they parted mutually or Rogers just left her, Deborah was alone again when Franklin returned.

He didn’t get the printing press, but he met many girls in London. Eventually he ran into Deborah again, who had news that her husband may have died—something that could never be proved. Franklin may have felt responsible for her loneliness or maybe he realized that she had the qualities he wanted in a wife. Either way, they moved in together as husband and wife. They couldn’t legally get married because Rogers might still be alive. The people of Philadelphia, including Deborah’s mother, accepted the match.

Deborah kept busy not only with housework but also with her husband’s printing business. She managed the accounts from Franklin’s business ventures for years and helped him expand printing franchises throughout the colonies. Franklin said of her, “Frugality is…a virtue I could never acquire in myself, but I was lucky enough to find it in a wife, who thereby became a fortune to me.” Thanks to Deborah’s help, Franklin retired early and focused on his inventions and politics. As Franklin became more famous, she entertained the crowds who dropped in to see him and bragged about how quickly she could make cakes for surprise visitors.

Franklin’s notoriety and love of politics led to subsequent trips to London where he represented the Pennsylvania Assembly. Deborah had no intention of coming with him. Instead she ran the postal service in his absence and bought more real estate. She even kept the family home safe from a mob that suspected Franklin of supporting the Stamp Act. Though she sent the children away, she stood her ground. She wrote Franklin, “Cousin Davenport came…Towards night I said he should fetch a gun or two as we had none. I sent to ask my brother to come and bring his gun also…I ordered some sort of defense upstairs such as I could manage myself. I said, when I was advised to remove, that I was very sure you had done nothing to hurt anybody, I had not given offense to any person at all, nor would I be made uneasy by anybody…but if anyone came to disturb me I would show proper resentment.” With the help of a few friends, Deborah saved the home, much to the pride and delight of her husband.

Both husband and wife seemed to sense that Philadelphia gave Deborah her own identity as a businesswoman and Franklin’s partner, whereas in London she would only be the wife of her famous husband. Enjoying his public life, Franklin did not return from London, even when he learned Deborah had a stroke. When she passed away Franklin came home to manage his interests and began to appreciate his “old and faithful companion.”

George Washington and the American Press

As we prepare to celebrate President’s Day and George Washington’s Birthday, it’s tempting to think of our first president as an icon who was beloved by the American people at all times. As the victorious general in the American Revolution and the first president, much of the public admired Washington. Like all presidents who came after him, however, even George Washington could not escape criticism in the press.

In the late eighteenth century, newspapers didn’t claim to stick to the facts or be objective. One particular paper, the National Gazette, criticized President Washington throughout his presidency. Every time Washington threw a birthday party for himself, the Gazette complained about it. After his sixty-first birthday, the Gazette stated, “who will deny, that the celebrating of birth days is not a striking feature of royalty? We hear of no such thing during the republic of Rome.” Perhaps the Gazette failed to realize that most people in ancient Rome did not live to be sixty-one. Anyway, the paper was determined to label Washington as wishing to act as a king—an idea that horrified revolutionaries who had just escaped the rule of the King of England.

Another paper, the Aurora, published rumors about Washington’s disloyalty to America when he served as General of the Army. The letters portrayed him as a “lukewarm patriot”, which was untrue. Even when the army suffered from bad weather or defeat in battle, Washington was determined to defeat the British. The paper did not bother to check the source of the letters as might be expected today. Instead the paper’s owner printed what he liked, and he liked to criticize Washington.

The usually mild-mannered Washington lost his temper with these attacks on his character. According to Thomas Jefferson, he once swore at an article in the Aurora, something he rarely did in front of others. Even before becoming president, Washington had never been a fan of the press. As a general he complained that reporters hurt the American cause by revealing too much information. As president, he publicly pretended not care what the press said, though in letters to friends he wrote that he was tired of being attacked “by a set of infamous scribblers.” Personal attacks by his countrymen hurt him in a way that no enemy ever had.

Some historians claim that Washington retired from the presidency after two terms to show the press that he did not want to become king, though other reasons like ill health also played a role. Still, by retiring to his plantation, Washington could finally silence critics who wanted to portray him as a man obsessed with power. Now the press would have to turn its wrath on another president.

The History of the Purple Heart

If you have family members who served in the U.S. military, one or more of them may have received an award called the Purple Heart. Though it did not always have the name it does today, the Purple Heart was awarded early in the history of the United States.

The idea of giving a Badge of Merit, as it was called then, was conceived by General George Washington following the end of the American Revolution. In 1782, Congress could not afford to give extra money to soldiers who showed exceptional bravery while serving in the Continental Army. Washington knew there were men who deserved special recognition, so he issued a general order that created the Badge of Merit.

Originally, the requirements for receiving the badge included instances of “unusual gallantry”, “extraordinary fidelity and essential service” to the U.S. army. The badge was shaped in “the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding.” The word merit was crocheted into the fabric.

We know that at least three men who served in the Revolutionary War received the Badge of Merit. There were probably others, but their names aren’t known because the book which listed its recipients was lost. Washington meant the badge to be given to U.S. soldiers in future conflicts; however, its use declined after the Continental Army disbanded. The first newly named Purple Heart was given to General Douglas MacArthur in 1932.

Both the design of the Purple Heart and the requirements for receiving it have changed. The Purple Heart now displays a bust of George Washington and his coat of arms.  It is given to members of the U.S. military who were killed or wounded by enemy action or who were mistreated as prisoners of war.

Slavery and the American Revolution

The democratic ideals of the American Revolution probably caused African American slaves to hope that their status in society might improve. Slaves took part in the revolutionary movement and assumed new roles in the process. Slaves served the British and American armies and received bounties, land, or freedom in return. After the war a movement to abolish slavery began in the North. Various Northern states called for a gradual abolition of slavery so that slaves born after a certain date would be set free.

Although the American Revolution caused slaves to assume new roles and gave some their freedom, in general African Americans did not achieve the freedoms which the Declaration of Independence claimed for all men. It was one thing to limit slavery in the North, but slavery was most common in the South where it was an important part of the economic system. Plantation owners felt they needed slaves to work in the fields, and they did not want to lose their cheap labor. To southerners, the principles of liberty established in the Declaration of Independence did not apply to African Americans. Slaves were thought of as property and not as men so they could not be considered equal. Despite America’s promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, slavery remained a fact of life for most African Americans, depriving them of each of these rights.

The failure of the American Revolution to grant basic rights to African Americans was not changed by the Constitution which developed after the fighting stopped. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not attempt to abolish slavery, though some wanted to, because they knew the southern states would not accept a constitution that eliminated their labor force. Establishing a constitution that would unite the states was more important to members of the convention than African American rights. The constitution permitted Congress to limit the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, but it failed to give those slaves who were already in the U.S. any additional freedoms. The failure of the Constitutional Convention’s delegates to fully address slavery meant that African Americans would continue to struggle for equality with whites for years.