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Inside Andrew Jackson’s Mind

UT Researchers Sift 7th President’s Papers
By Megan Boehnke
Monday, December 9, 2013

Tucked inside the most recent 1,000-page volume of Andrew Jackson’s papers is a never-before-seen letter the former president penned to his niece.

In it, Jackson rails against his vice president and his family, making wild accusations and warning them that “a house divided will never stand.”

It’s a letter that only recently came to light when a descendant of Mary Ann Easton reached out to the University of Tennessee team charged with cataloging and printing the volumes.

“Historians are going to be quoting this letter forever,” said Daniel Feller, a history professor at UT and leader of the project.

Jackson, known as the first “people’s president,” is among the most written about and debated presidents in American history. His face is on the $20 bill, and he is credited with founding the Democratic Party.

But this new volume of his works shows Jackson as paranoid, calculating and slightly unhinged. He shared conspiracy theories about his vice president, wrote unsigned editorials supporting his own policies for the Washington Globe, and shrewdly haggled with his carriage repairman over a bill.

The university has spent the last 40 years compiling and publishing the papers of the Tennessean and seventh U.S. president. The Jackson Papers project, about halfway complete, has so far produced six volumes of papers covering the decades before Jackson’s time in the White House, and three volumes covering the first three years of his presidency.

The group works out of a room in the top floor of the Hoskins Library on Cumberland Avenue, where shelves line every wall from floor to ceiling.

On the shelves are boxes and in the boxes are folders. In the folders, organized by date, are some 25,000 documents—memos, letters, drafts and editorials—written to and by the former president. The volumes they produce, which take two to three years and are sold for $92 each by University of Tennessee Press, are purchased primarily by libraries and used by scholars, biographers and researchers.

The volumes not only offer references for those studying Jackson, but also researchers examining issues like American Indian removal and nullification.

“It may seem like a lot of work just for researchers and scholars, but they’ll be using this until the end of time,” Feller said.

The most recent volume, printed in October by UT Press, covers the year of 1831—perhaps the most salacious of Jackson’s presidency. The time frame includes the height of the lurid and well-documented “Petticoat Affair,” which centered on the wife of Secretary of War John Eaton.

Margaret “Peggy” O’Neale Timberlake was disliked by most of Jackson’s Cabinet and their wives, which led to the resignations of Eaton and Secretary of State Martin Van Buren. Jackson then demanded that the rest of his Cabinet step down.

The affair, along with a deep-seated rift dating back to their time in the military, was a point of contention with his own vice president, John Calhoun. Letters and editorials written by Jackson show him to be somewhat unhinged, paranoid and engrossed in conspiracy theories that he rambled about to friends and family, including in the letter to his niece.

“On the one hand, he had flown from reality with conspiracy theories,” Feller said. “But at the same time, he was calculating.”

The school is about halfway through the project, Feller said. It is publishing one volume for each year of Jackson’s presidency, from 1829 to 1835, and likely another two to three volumes from his post-presidential years.

To do the work, UT has received about $100,000 per year from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, an arm of the National Archives, and recently received a three-year renewable grant for $300,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The money goes toward hiring expert staff “who make this their life’s work,” Feller said, referring to associate editors Laura-Eve Moss and Thomas Coens.

The group has already moved on to compiling papers for 1832.

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