Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"The High Minded Honourable Man": Honor, Kinship, and Conflict in the Life of Andrew Jackson Donelson

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"The High Minded Honourable Man": Honor, Kinship, and Conflict in the Life of Andrew Jackson Donelson

Article excerpt

Andrew Jackson Donelson and James K. Polk approached the President's Mansion after taking their evening constitutional. Donelson had not been a sociable companion. His thoughts had been on his uncle, Andrew Jackson, and the many times that the two of them had walked this same path as President Jackson had pondered the "prominent events of his administration." Donelson contemplated what had changed in his life since the shrubbery, which he had passed on previous strolls years ago, had matured. His wife, Emily, had died, and he had remarried. He had helped the man beside him become president and had convinced the Texas government to accept annexation. Jackson had died three months earlier, a loss from which Donelson was still recovering. Perhaps most important, he still had not achieved his uncle's expectations of one day "befing] selected to preside over the destinies" of the nation. The chance for his own greatness was swiftly passing him by, Donelson thought. '

Donelson's self-reflection that fall evening in 1845 may have gone even deeper than he recalled to his wife, Elizabeth. Throughout his life, he had been intimately connected to a nationally recognized celebrity in the person of Andrew Jackson. Born into one of the elite families of middle Tennessee, the young Donelson grew up as a ward in the household of his uncle and aunt, Andrew and Rachel Jackson, after his father died. They treated him like a son, and it was under his uncle's tutelage that he learned how to become a southern gentleman. Jackson taught him, implicitly and explicitly, that virtue was necessary to become a good citizen of the American republic; that ambition was required to survive and advance in the republic; and that honor was the key to achieving these often-conflicting goals.2

The bond between Jackson and Donelson was not simply that of a father and son, however; it also exemplified what those who study honor call the patron-client relationship. This type of relationship, as historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown describes it, consists of "a non-contractual arrangement whereby two individuals of unequal power . . . agree on the basis of mutual interest and cordiality to do favors for each other." For Donelson, this meant that he received all of the benefits of being the General's scion. His name, his education, his social status, his career-all were tied to the person and image of Andrew Jackson. In return, his uncle expected Donelson to heed his advice, pursue the goals laid out before him, perform the duties asked of him, and, above all, demonstrate unquestionable loyalty. Violating the obligations implicit in the relationship could be disastrous for both parties.3

Donelson's relationship with Jackson sheds light on how the southern political order functioned during the early republic. Historians have long recognized the role of honor, patriarchy, and kinship in the antebellum South, but they have not always made clear the effect of these social concepts on the career ambitions of aspiring southern politicians like Donelson. The relations between uncle and nephew also illustrate how Jackson related to his inner circle of advisors, but historians have largely ignored Donelson's role in the so-called Kitchen Cabinet, which was minor not only because he was young but also because he defied his uncle during the Eaton affair. Donelson's involvement in that incident, however, offers a prime example of how Jackson's "passions" often ruled both his political and personal actions and how real and perceived breaches of honor could affect relationships within American political parties.4

Living a life of honor was a foundational element of antebellum southern society. As Wyatt-Brown has defined it, honor is "essentially the cluster of ethical rules, most readily found in societies of small communities, by which judgments of behavior are ratified by community consensus." The three basic components of honor include, according to Wyatt-Brown, "the inner conviction of self-worth, the claim of self-assessment before the public, and the assessment of the claim by the public, a judgment based upon the behavior of the claimant. …

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