Fact Friday #4 - Seven (and) Eleven


 

Seven. Eleven. Two numbers 4 singular digits apart that garner different immediate reactions depending on who you talk to. For some, their first thought may be of one of the 53,000 7-Eleven retail convenience stores around the world famously known for Slurpees, Big Gulps, and other, dare I say, desirables. And yes, while there are numerous locations in the 704 area code, unfortunately they’re headquartered in Dallas, Texas. So you would be #wrong if you thought this edition of Fact Friday was about them. For others, the first thought is undoubtedly of the wildly popular dice game, craps, or “seven/eleven as it was called in back street games of the 1920’s and 30’s.” Or maybe classic Ice Cube lyrics from “Today Was a Good Day” (1992) referring to the same. But alas, the version of the game that we know today has French roots. So again, “no dice.” No, this week’s edition of Fact Friday is dedicated to the relatively unknown piece of trivia that the 704 gave birth to both the 7th and 11th Presidents of the United States. Andrew Jackson, the 7th President, was born somewhere near the then-unmarked (1767) border between North and South Carolina in what is now Waxhaw. Jackson’s face may be one of the most recognizable in U.S. history, as he is squarely centered on the front of our $20 bill, the 3rd most circulated bill in existence. Only the $1 and $100 bills exist in larger quantities. According to Federal Reserve data, there are more $20 bills in circulation than there are people on Earth. In a bit of irony, Jackson actually opposed paper money, preferring gold and silver. Looking back on Jackson’s presidency through today’s lens, it’s easy to categorize his 2-term tenure as contentious, at best, having signed into law the Indian Removal Act, which forced Native American tribes off their land and to relocate to Oklahoma. Their migration later became known as the Trail of Tears. But in the late 1920s when he was chosen to replace Grover Cleveland on the $20 bill, his popularity remained high, as he was referred to as the first “people’s president” seen as a “champion of the working class against the business community.” For this, Franklin D. Roosevelt was a fan of Jackson. James K. Polk (the 11th President) was born 28 years after Jackson near Pineville, just north on the trading path from where Jackson’s family lived. Though both were rooted in 704, the two actually met in Tennessee when Polk was eleven and his father moved there to farm. Here, Jackson was a major public figure and had been a practicing attorney, elected judge and senator, and appointed major general of the Tenn. militia. Following Polk’s graduation from UNC Chapel Hill with honors, Jackson influenced him to enter politics, to include Congress, the governorship of Tenn., and with Jackson’s backing and influence, the presidency. Polk’s tenure is equally controversial. Having been credited with paying the national debt, winning the war with Mexico, and successfully negotiating the acquisition of territories to the south and west, including Texas, New Mexico, California, Oregon, and Washington, after his death it was discovered that he secretly owned slaves on a plantation in Mississippi during his tenure as President. 

Polk was President of the United States during a time when slavery began to dominate American politics. Polk's presidency coincided with the eruption of the territorial slavery issue, which within a few years would lead to the catastrophe of the Civil War. Polk himself owned substantial cotton plantations-- in Tennessee and later in Mississippi-- and some 50 slaves. Unlike many antebellum planters who portrayed their involvement with slavery as a historical burden bestowed onto them by their ancestors, Polk entered the slave business of his own volition, for reasons principally of financial self-interest.  Based on diaries Polk left behind, life at the Polk estate was brutal and often short. Fewer than one in two slave children lived to the age of fifteen, a child mortality rate even higher than that on the average plantation. A steady stream of slaves temporarily fled the plantation throughout Polk's tenure as absentee slavemaster. Yet Polk was in some respects an enlightened owner, instituting an unusual incentive plan for his slaves and granting extensive privileges to his most favored slave. Polk sought to hide from public knowledge the fact that, while he was president, he was secretly buying as many slaves as his plantation revenues permitted. Shortly before his sudden death from cholera, the president quietly drafted a new will, in which he expressed the hope that his slaves might be freed--but only after he and his wife were both dead. The very next day, he authorized the purchase, in strictest secrecy, of six more very young slaves. By contrast with Senator John C. Calhoun, President Polk has been seen as a moderate Southern Democratic leader. But some suggest that the president's political stance toward slavery-- influenced as it was by his deep personal involvement in the plantation system-- may actually have helped precipitate the Civil War that Polk sought to avoid.

 

Andew Jackson / $20 Federal Reserve Note

The James K. Polk Family (1846)