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You will occasionally see references to the possibility that Andrew Jackson believed the earth was flat. One source for this claim is a well-respected history of the period by Edward Pessen:

[James] Parton passed on the report that Nicholas Trist had been told by a member of Jackson's family that "the General did not believe the World was round." (source)

I know that Jackson had little formal education, but it's still shocking that a head of state in the 19th century would doubt that the world was round. Is it possible to confirm whether Jackson was a flat-earther? I see several ways to approach this question, though there may be others.

Did Jackson make any other statements on the shape of the earth?

  • Straightdope members note that John Quincy Adams was willing to support John Cleves Symmes' proposed journey to the center of the earth through a hole in the North Pole, but Andrew Jackson halted it. If the earth were flat, then Symmes' journey would be nonsense. Of course, it was nonsense anyway--but do we know why Jackson quashed the project?

Did Jackson ever approve or discuss westward sea voyages to Asia? Did he ever discuss Russian colonization of Alaska?

  • If Jackson ever sent a trade, diplomatic, or military mission to Asia, he likely would have talked to someone who could confirm that, yes, if you sail west you reach Asia. Alternately, did he ever discuss Russian claims on the west coast? I know how concerned he was by other European footholds in America, so I'd imagine he had thoughts on Russia-- and Russia's presence there doesn't make much sense if the earth were flat.

Does James Parton have a reputation for embellishing facts in his other works?

  • The evidence is hearsay, but I see no reason why a member of Jackson's family or Trist would lie about this. Trist, who was Jackson's private secretary, is reported to have been loyal to Jackson. On the other hand, the popular biographer James Parton may have had incentive to play up Jackson's reputation as an uneducated soldier. If Jackson was not actually a flat-earther, then I'd guess that Parton was the weak link. Then again, Trist lived until 1874 and so would have the opportunity to rebut any false attributions made to him.
  • I don't like this question, but I have to upvote. This is thorough, thought through, and researched. This is the kind of question that I admire. – Mark C. Wallace Feb 9 '15 at 19:13
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    @MarkC.Wallace: May I ask what you dislike about the question? I did think for awhile about whether I should ask a question that is basically, "I don't believe a claim made in a reputable history." But then I weighed the flimsiness of the evidence against the implausibility of the claim, and decided that someone might have some insight into the question that I've missed. And if I do get confirmation, I won't have to feel libelous when I walk around calling Jackson a flat-earther :) – two sheds Feb 9 '15 at 19:18
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    Crossing the Pacific between Asia and the Americas doesn't establish that the earth is round. Suppose I take a polar projection and claim that the earth just looks sort of like that, and is flat -- that's consistent with crossing the Pacific. An example of an observation that disproves a flat earth is that we see ships on the open seas sail over the horizon. Another example, from later in Jackson's lifetime, would be that telegraphy establishes that the sun is not at the zenith simultaneously at different locations. Jackson probably didn't spend time thinking about such scientific issues. – Ben Crowell Feb 11 '15 at 6:06
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The way that was phrased should be ringing bells right off the bat. The USA has a long and proud history of having tall tales (iow: outrageous lies) made up about opposing politicians. As a man who split and refounded the Democratic Party, and the first President from a "western" state, Andrew Jackson had more than the typical share of political opponents.

Here's how James Parton himself put it in his forward to his Jackson biography:

For many months I was immersed in this unique, bewildering collection, reading endless newspapers, pamphlets, books, without arriving at any conclusion whatever. If any one, at the end of a year even, had asked what I had yet discovered respecting General Jackson, I might have answered thus: “Andrew Jackson, I am given to understand, was a patriot and a traitor. He was one of the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. A writer brilliant, elegant, eloquent, without being able to compose a correct sentence, or spell words of four syllables. The first of statesmen, he never devised, he never framed a measure. He was the most candid of men, and was capable of the profoundest dissimulation. A most law-defying, law-obeying citizen. A stickler for discipline, he never hesitated to disobey his superior. A democratic autocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint.” So difficult is it to attain information respecting a man whom two thirds of his fellow citizens deified, and the other third vilified, for space of twelve years or more.

  • Well, it did ring bells off the bat, which is why I asked the question :) But then again, Trist should be a reliable and sympathetic source. And Trist was alive when Parton's book was published, so he could have rebutted any false attributions. So even though I agree that it feels like it's false, Pessen is a well-respected Jacksonian scholar, so I thought his acceptance of the claim deserved more scrutiny. – two sheds Feb 9 '15 at 20:53
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    Incidentally, Parton's description of Jackson is a pretty canny summary of the man, even with all of those seeming contradictions. – two sheds Feb 9 '15 at 21:41
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Almost nobody thought the Earth was flat by the 19th century. Even as early as Columbus, the argument was not that the Earth was round, but that it was small enough to go to India from Spain (it wasn't). The ancient Greek mathematician Eratosthenes was able to calculate the circumference of the earth with relatively good accuracy i.e. not flat. Columbus used Eratosthenes measurements and others' to convince the Spanish royalty that the Earth was smaller than it was. It was only after the new world was discovered that people began to be accused of being "flat-earthers" as just an unfounded insult to generally mean uneducated or outdated.

  • Yes, I know all of this. But the source admired Jackson so there is no reason to assume it was meant as an insult. – two sheds Aug 26 '15 at 14:46
  • At a guess, it would seem a friendly insult between friends of Jackson as it was from a family member to a loyal person. Because it is among friends it wouldn't so much as a literal insult as just a recognition and reminder to everyone that Jackson was not the best educated of men. – SophArch Aug 26 '15 at 16:19

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