President Andrew Jackson is among America’s most controversial presidents. For many, he was a hero who would stand up for the little man and defend democracy, while for others he was an autocratic tyrant who ruthlessly exploited Southern slave labor to build his fortune. The controversies over the two terms that Jackson was president still divide historians who either defend him or see him as one of America’s poorest presidents. The controversial viewpoints discussed all stem from Jackson’s inclusion as a slave owner during his term as President of the United States (Inskeep, 2016).

President Andrew Jackson is among America’s poorest presidents…

The controversy over whether Andrew Jackson should be included on the list of presidents comes from conflicting viewpoints. One school of thought is that he was a magnificent man who defended the rights of the underclass, without racially discriminating against African Americans. This position is promoted by those who try to establish Jackson’s presidential achievements and downplay slavery to emphasize Jackson’s vast ability in facing foreign affairs and his leadership in implementing numerous changes in domestic policy, such as the emergence of a vigorous national bank and policy towards Native Americans.

On the other hand, some consider Jackson one of America’s worst presidents because they believe he abused his power to gain economic wealth at the expense of poor Southern whites and Native Americans. They include Jackson on the list of presidents who, in the words of one historian, “enriched himself by the blood, sweat, and tears of his people”1.

Jackson’s slave college…

In trying to establish whether Jackson should be included on that list of terrible presidents, it is first important to look at his presidency as a whole. The time frame for this discussion is from 1829 until 1837 when Jackson left office in disgrace (Inskeep, 2016). In all of his years as president he was a slave owner (which all presidents were during this era) but, by most historians’ reckoning, wasn’t as racist as some.

For those who attempt to defend President Andrew Jackson, they point to the fact that he was one of the first presidents who realized slavery was economically unsound and would have to be abolished. In 1835, he stated in his annual message to Congress, “slavery is morally wrong,” and called for gradual emancipation that would free slaves with families after they reached age 21. Jackson also banned slavery in the Florida territory and in Washington D.C., where he felt black slaves were already emancipated.


President Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, James Pierce, and James Buchanan were among the four presidents who served from 1849 to March 1861. Historians view these men as being inadequate and incompetent. They are weak, vacillating, incapable, and partly responsible for the descent of the nation into the Civil War (Jefferson et al., 1992).

For instance, President Zachary Taylor’s administration was plagued by violence, incompetence, and scandals. Zachary Taylor died when he fell ill on the way back to Washington from his Virginia estate in 1849. He was succeeded by Millard Filmore who served for only sixteen months. Historians point out that Filmore’s administration was marked by scandals and a decline in American armies from the Mexican War to the growing importance of naval power. James Buchanan preceded Filmore who served only two years as president before Abraham Lincoln took office. Historians point out that Buchanan’s presidency is marked by a lack of foreign policy success and failure to deal effectively with slavery and secessionist sentiment during Reconstruction.

Millard Filmore’s presidency is marked by a decline in the nation’s finances, excessive spending, and declining support for the presidency. Millard Filmore was known as a consummate insider as he served as governor of California before becoming secretary of state under President Polk in 1850. He was confirmed by the Senate despite opposition from Southern senators because he had not been a major political figure. Historians note that Filmore “sought to conciliate Southerners with tariff policies that were more favorable to foreign trade than to domestic manufacturing.” Despite being on good terms with Southern senators, Filmore broke with them when he signed the Crédit Mobilier bill which paid bondholders for loans made during the Mexican War.

James Pierce’s presidency is marked by a lack of success as he was blamed for the continuing sectional strife and growing distrust between the North and South. His administration enacted the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise. The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed settlers in each territory to choose whether to permit slavery in their region. Pierce’s administration attempted to pressure Britain and France into settling their claims for damages from the Mexican War. Unfortunately, he failed to win support from Congress or persuade Europe to compromise on American claims for over $15 million. Historians note that Pierce’s presidency was marred by bad luck and misfortune with several cabinet members dying before completing his term in office.

James Buchanan, on the other hand, has a more sympathetic reputation. Historian David Potter suggests that despite his rather lackluster track record, Buchanan’s attributes may have made him a better president than the aforementioned four men — he was a “good man of peace” who attempted to find compromises to prevent further conflict between North and South. Buchanan was also seen as possessing some wisdom in his later years, and this is what historians believe led to him being elected president again in 1856 as James Pierce’s vice-presidential candidate. Pierce died soon after the inauguration on March 4th, however, and so Buchanan continued in office until March 4th, 1861, when he resigned amidst the ongoing tensions between North and South over slavery.


Inskeep, S. (2016). Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab. Penguin.

Jefferson, T., Lincoln, A., Polk, J. K., Roosevelt, F. D., Grant, U. S., Fillmore, M., … & Hayes, R. B. (1792). Presidents of the United States. Sixth Annual Message (Dec. 2, 1806), in, 1, 1789-1897.