In 1796 Jackson took his seat as a member of the convention called to frame a constitution for the State of Tennessee. He thus entered on a brief career of public service, in the course of which he held three important offices. In the autumn of 1796 he was chosen to be Tennessee's first representative in Congress. A year later he was appointed United States Senator, and held the office -until he resigned in April, 1798. From 1798 until 1804, he was a justice of the Supreme Court of Tennessee.
These were all high places for so young a man, and one naturally expects his biographer to linger for many pages over his course while he held them. The fact that he held them is indeed important, for it shows how strongly he had established himself in Tennessee. But very little need be said of what he did while he held them. Indeed, it is amazing how little can be said.
In the convention he served on the committee to draft the constitution and took a somewhat prominent part in the debates, and there is also a tradition that he suggested the name of the State; but no notable feature of the constitution is clearly due to him. It might, however, have been due to the presence in the convention of such fiery spirits as he that it adopted a rule of order which throws into comical prominence the warlike character of early Tennesseans. Ride 8 declared : " He that digresseth from the subject to fall on the person of any member shall be suppressed by the Speaker."
The scant record of Jackson's services in the House of Representatives and in the Senate is of little importance to us save in three respects. It throws some light on his political opinions at that period; it gives us a glimpse of him as he appeared against the background of the most elegant society then existing in America, for Congress was sitting in Philadelphia, which had sixty-five thousand inhabitants and it led to one or two friendships which had an important bearing on his later career.
His opinions, however, were not expressed in speeches. He addressed the House but twice, both times on a resolution for paying troops whom General Sevier had led against the Indians without any order from the national government. The resolution passed, and added to Jackson's popularity at home. In the Senate it is not on record that he ever spoke at all. Many years afterwards, Thomas Jefferson, who was Vice-President in 1797-8, gave to Daniel Webster a rather curious explanation of the Tennessee Senator's silence. The accuracy of Webster's report of his famous interview with Jefferson at Monticello in 1824 has been questioned, but if it is correct, this is what Jefferson said of Jackson: " His passions are terrible. When I was president of the Senate, he was Senator, and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings. I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage."
His votes, however, and a few letters show clearly enough where he stood on the questions of the day. Parties were hardly yet formed under the Constitution, but in the strife between the followers of Hamilton, who went for a strong national government, and who became the Federalist party, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the followers of Jefferson, who went for the rights of the States and distrusted a strong national government, and who became the Republican party, he sided with Jefferson. Indeed, he belonged to the extreme faction of the Republicans, to which the term " Democrats " was applied, at first as a reproach. He favored the French, who were at war with England, and opposed the treaty with England which John Jay had just negotiated. He even went so far as to vote, with eleven others, against the address presented to President Washington after his final speech to Congress. The address was mainly given over to thanks for Washing-ton's great services to his country and to praise of his administration. The handful that opposed it showed at least courage. One of them, Edward Livingston, of New York, afterwards defended himself by drawing a distinction between Washington and his administration. At that time the partisans of France were very bitter over the firm course Washington took to keep the country out of the European contest, and over the treaty with England.
Livingston was one of the men with whom Jackson at this time formed a lasting friendship. He was an accomplished gentleman, a very able lawyer, and an advanced Republican. Another was William Duane, Jefferson's friend, the editor of " The Aurora," a newspaper which helped to build up the Republican party. A third was Aaron Burr, who then stood very high among the Republican leaders, and who excelled all other public men in charm of manner.
Another leading Republican of the time, Albert Gallatin, recalled Jackson afterwards as " a tall, lank, uncouth-looking personage, with long locks of hair hanging over his face, and a cue down his back tied in an eel-skin ; his dress singular, his manners and deportment that of a rough backwoodsman." Taking this with Jefferson's description of him, it seems clear that he made no strong impression at Philadelphia, and found himself out of place in the national legislature. Who, then, would have dreamed that the accomplished Livingston should win his highest fame by preparing a state paper for this unlettered person's signature; that this rough backwoodsman shoidd alone of all Americans surpass the polished Burr in the charm of his manners ; that Duane's little son should one day be called by his father's unpromising acquaintance to a place such as even Jefferson's friendship never conferred upon Duane himself. Of all who knew Jackson in Washington, Burr seems to have had the strongest hopes for his future.
Scant as are the traces of his labors as a legislator, even scanter are the records of his career on the bench during the six years that followed. The reports of the decisions of the Tennessee Supreme Court in this period are extremely meagre ; not one decision is preserved as Jackson's. But the stories told of Judge Jackson, like the stories told of the solicitor, the general, the president, are legion. One must suffice. A gigantic blacksmith named Bean had committed a crime and the sheriff dared not arrest him. " Summon me," said the judge, and himself walked down from the bench, found the criminal, and arrested him. It was while he was judge that his quarrel with John Sevier, who was again governor in 1803, came finally to a head. Two years before, the two men had been rivals for the office of major-general in the militia, and by a single vote Jackson had won, so that he was both general and judge when he and the governor met in what seemed likely to prove a fatal combat. However, neither was killed, and the quarrel was patched up. In 1804 Judge Jackson resigned. He had not yet found his true place in the public service. But he kept his commission in the militia, and those who like to magnify the work of chance may argue that the single vote by which he got that office determined his career.