Jackson's Birth Marked in Memphis, the City He Co-Founded

By Bill Dries

While President Donald Trump’s Nashville visit – including a tour of Andrew Jackson’s plantation The Hermitage – drew much of the national political attention Wednesday, March 15, a much smaller observance of what would have been Jackson’s 250th birthday took place in a courtroom in Memphis, the city he co-founded.

The bust of Andrew Jackson in the D’Army Bailey County Courthouse is believed to be the oldest bust of a U.S. president. It was cast in 1835 and over the decades it has shown more than normal wear and tear. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

A group of 20 people, most leaders of the United States Daughters of 1812 organization, gathered in a courtroom at the D’Army Bailey County Courthouse and around the 19th-century bust of Jackson in the hallway outside the room.

An American flag and a Tennessee flag were posted in the courtroom along with the American flag with fewer stars – the flag of 1812, the war that made Jackson a military hero after he had entered politics but before he was elected president.

The observance included a wreath-laying ceremony by the statue and cake and punch in the marble south corridor of the courthouse, where Jackson’s bust is the most prominent feature.

“He liked horses, politics and chocolate candy,” said Bettie Gustafson, the honorary state president of the Daughters of 1812, handing down personal memories of a still-vivid and still-controversial political patriarch.

“What I would like to ask is that you spread patriotism wherever you go,” Gustafson told the group.

The 1835 bust, which Shelby County historian Jimmy Ogle says is the oldest known bust of a U.S. president, is as much a monument to the controversy as it is to Jackson.

It bears ample evidence of the turbulent reaction to Jackson, who served as president from 1829 to 1837. With a Caesar-like tunic around his shoulders and a prominent crest of hair over deep-set eyes and a narrow nose, Jackson’s stone countenance is discolored and in some places badly scoured and misshapen by attempts to repair damage that is not nature’s normal wear and tear.

The U.S. Daughters of 1812 gathered Wednesday, March 15, to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of President Andrew Jackson.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

A panel in the base looks newer than other parts.

The statue arrived in Court Square just before the Civil War bearing a quote from Jackson from the nullification crisis of 1832: “Our Federal Union, It Must and Shall Be Preserved.”

In the nullification crisis, a precursor to the secession of the southern states that started the Civil War, South Carolina declared that federal tariffs were null and void within the boundaries of the state. Jackson’s vice president, John Calhoun, resigned after disagreeing with him on the issue.

Congress gave Jackson the authority to use military force against South Carolina after the state’s legislature approved a nullification ordinance and began to make military preparations.

After Tennessee seceded from the union in 1861, a mob in Court Square vandalized the bust and damaged the panel with the quote.

The bust didn’t return to public display until 1921 in the then-11-year old courthouse with a new panel in the base bearing the same quote.

In Memphis’ first definitive history – written in 1888, 43 years after Jackson’s death – author John M. Keating notes that when Jackson went to Philadelphia in 1796 as Tennessee’s first representative in the U.S. House, an unnamed observer described him as “a tall, lank uncouth looking personage, with long locks of hair hanging over his face and a queue hanging down his back, tied in an eel skin, his dress, singular, his manners and deportment those of a rough backwoodsman.”

Then and now there remain questions about how literate Jackson was.

“The incapacity of General Jackson has become so proverbial, that it would be mere affectation of delicacy to be silent,” Keating wrote in a half-page-long footnote.

The footnote was to a passage about Jackson’s description in the Philadelphia Portfolio newspaper of what had just become Memphis. Jackson allegedly wrote that the area was “the only site for a town of any magnitude between the mouth of the Ohio and Natchez.”

Keating believed Jackson’s impression of the area in passing through had prompted his close friend and adviser, John Overton, the most active of the city’s founders in its affairs and development, to buy the land grant for what became Memphis.

Most modern historians agree that Jackson wasn’t really that familiar with Memphis’ development beyond its temporary place in his real estate portfolio as he negotiated with the original owners of the land – the Chickasaws.

“None of the three co-founders really were,” Ogle said of Overton and James Winchester as well as Jackson. “They were prominent power brokers and politicians in the central part of the state. Jackson started selling his off for a lot more than he purchased it for and got accused of profiteering on it when he went to the White House.”

But Ogle says Jackson’s role in the War of 1812, notably at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815 – a month after the Treaty of Ghent, which negotiated an end to the war, was signed a long ocean voyage away in Belgium – secured the city’s future.

“That’s what established American control once and for all,” he said. “Before the Civil War this was one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, all because of the westward movement. … And then the rest is history, I guess.”