Jackson became a successful lawyer and local politician. He also prospered as a slave owner, planter, and merchant. He built a home and the first general store in Gallatin, Tennessee in 1803, and in 1804 he acquired the Hermitage, a 640 acre plantation in Davidson County, near Nashville, Tennessee. The Hermitage eventually grew to 1,050 acres. Its primary crop was cotton, grown by slave labor. He began with nine slaves, increased that number to 44 by 1820, and later had up to 150 enslaved persons. Throughout his lifetime Jackson may have owned as many as 300 slaves.
In December of 1817, Jackson was ordered by President James Monroe to lead a campaign in Georgia against the Seminole and Creek Indians. Jackson was also charged with preventing Spanish Florida from becoming a refuge for runaway slaves. Jackson was ordered to "terminate the conflict." He believed the best way to do this was to seize Florida. Jackson wrote to Monroe, "Let it be signified to me through any channel that the possession of the Floridas would be desirable to the United States, and in sixty days it will be accomplished." Monroe purposely gave Jackson ambiguous orders so as to maintain what would later be called "plausible deniability".
As President Jackson never had to deal with the issue of slavery directly. One wonders what Jackson would have done had been in the position of Abraham Lincoln because, although he was a slaveholder and a supported of the institution of slavery, he was also a strong union man, who threatened to hang any southern leader who tried to lead a secession movement. Even in retirement, he declined to support any talk of secession.
The most controversial aspect of Jackson's presidency was his treatment of Native Americans, which some have labelled as "ethnic cleansing." Jackson was a leading advocate of their removal. In his December 8, 1829, First Annual Message to Congress, Jackson said:
"This emigration should be voluntary, for it would be as cruel as unjust to compel the aborigines to abandon the graves of their fathers and seek a home in a distant land. But they should be distinctly informed that if they remain within the limits of the States they must be subject to their laws. In return for their obedience as individuals they will without doubt be protected in the enjoyment of those possessions which they have improved by their industry."
Following his election, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law in 1830. The Act authorized the President to negotiate treaties to buy tribal lands in the east in exchange for lands further west, outside of existing U.S. state borders. The removal plan was opposed by some northern politicians, but was popular in the South, where population growth and the discovery of gold on Cherokee land made the policy a popular one. The Cherokees sought a remedy in the courts by suing the in the 1832 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Worcester v. Georgia. In that case, the court held that Georgia could not impose its laws upon Cherokee tribal lands. Referring to the Chief Justice of that court, Jackson is often quoted as having said, "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!" Whether he said that or not is disputed, but it certainly is a sentiment he endorsed. He refused to allot any Federal resources to enforce the court's decision.
Jackson used the Georgia crisis to pressure Cherokee leaders to sign a removal treaty. A small faction of Cherokees led by John Ridge negotiated the Treaty of New Echota with Jackson's representatives, even though Ridge was not a recognized leader of the Cherokee Nation. The treaty was rejected by most Cherokees as illegitimate. Over 15,000 Cherokees signed a petition in protest of the proposed removal; the list was ignored by the government.
The treaty was enforced by Jackson's successor, Martin Van Buren, who ordered 7,000 armed troops to remove the Cherokees. This abrupt and forced removal resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 Cherokees on the "Trail of Tears".
More than 45,000 Native Americans were relocated to the West during Jackson's administration. Jackson's administration bought about 100 million acres of land from their leadership for about $68 million and 32 million acres of western land. Jackson was criticized at the time for his role in these events, and the criticism has grown over the years. Noted Historian Robert Remini called the Indian Removal era as "one of the unhappiest chapters in American history."