Monday, April 11, 2011


I’m teaching a new course (for me) on The Presidency. I’d rather be offering a new course on The Politics of Drugs and/or The Politics of Oil, but times are tough in the CSU system. Last week we started discussing President Andrew Jackson. Below I provide more information for my students. I start with a brief introduction on the party system that Jackson helped shape. The rest is drawn and edited from the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. prize-winning classic, The Age of Jackson.

Led by Thomas Jefferson, the emerging Anti-Federalist party (soon to be Democratic-Republicans and, later, simply “Democrats”) originally drew their support from small farmers who didn’t want the federal government intervening in their affairs. This helps explain why the south, filled with slave-holders, embraced states’ rights and the idea that commerce - whether it was guided by slavery or not - was the special province of the trader.

Later, southerner and war hero, Andrew Jackson would unite southern farmers and urban workers under a party that was energized by new laws that extended the franchise to all white males (and not just property owners). This was a group primed to be organized, and ready for a populist message. Machine politics and city patronage would emerge, and would grow significantly as immigrants streamed into east coast cities. And General Andrew Jackson would be at the forefront of this American revolution.

With his personal style and military history attracting humble newcomers, westerners and advocates for the “New Frontier” (Manifest Destiny, and all that) gravitated to Jackson, which allowed him to pull together a number of disparate interests into a strong Democratic party.

On the Federalist side things weren’t going so well. In fact, Andrew Jackson had grown so popular that opposition to Jackson was the real driving force behind the Whig party. In fact, the Whig party derives its name from the derisive references to Andrew Jackson as “King Andrew I” by his opponents (the Whig party represented the constitutional monarchists in England), who abhorred his aggressive approach to governing.

But what really got his opponents upset was how Jackson used his populist appeal to defeat his arrogant, and very well financed, political opponents over “the bank” issue.

It was 1830 and President Andrew Jackson was being pushed on whether he would support the Second Bank of the United States when its charter came up in 1836.

Opposed to the bank because he believed it worked against the interests of the “humble members” of society – Jackson was particularly disturbed by the conditions of the Second Banks charter. Specifically:

* While the bank was a repository of public funds - courtesy of the U.S. government – it could draw on the funds to use at its discretion without paying interest.

* As a private corporation doing the nation’s banking business, the bank was exempt from paying taxes to the states.

* The bank had a virtual monopoly on its services to the U.S. government, and couldn’t be challenged by other banking institutions.

* The bank could create currency, and did so through the clever use of branch drafts, which gave it tremendous power over the ebb and flow of economic activity in the nation.

But what really cut at Jackson’s nerve was the conduct and attitude of the second Bank’s President, Nicholas Biddle.

Made president of the bank at the age of 37 Biddle rarely consulted with the banks Board of Directors, governed largely by fiat, and ignored requests for information from federal authorities, all of which compelled one government (and President-appointed) board member to quip:

“We know absolutely nothing. There is no consultation, no exchanges of sentiments … We are perfect cyphers.”
Worse, Biddle went on record saying that the government and, specifically, the President of the United States had no business interfering in the affairs of his bank. He wrote flatly:

“… no officer of the Government, from the President downwards, has the least right, the least authority, the least pretence, for interference in the concerns of the bank.”
But Biddle really drove home his point by pointing out that the officers of the bank should be prepared to “execute the orders of the board, in direct opposition, if need be, to the personal interests and wishes of the President and every officer of the Government.” The Second Bank, after all, was a private institution that had to answer to its share holders.

Biddle’s cause gained the support of Congress, in part because of the powerful political players working for him – especially Kentucky’s powerful representative Henry Clay (pictured) and Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster. Webster's support was assured, in part, because of the money he secured from the bank on a regular basis. He once wrote to a contemporary: “If it be wished that my relation to the Bank should be continued, it may be well to send the usual retainers."

Biddle’s hand was also strengthened by the fact that he had 2/3 of the nation’s newspapers on his side (due, in part, to the amount of ads placed by the bank and its clients).

When Henry Clay became his party’s presidential nominee in 1832 - with John Sawyer, a lawyer for the Second Bank, as his running mate – the stage was set for confrontation. Nicholas Biddle was ready to force the recharter issue, and show everyone who really ran the country.

Looking at the political horizon, President Jackson replied to his Secretary of State (and future president), Martin Van Buren, “The bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me, but I will kill it.”

JACKSON’S BATTLE: “Either the state is sovereign …”
President Jackson’s passion on the bank issue, however, was not driven solely by political self-preservation. He firmly believed that the moneyed elite should have no special claim over government privileges and benefits. They were already blessed. Similarly he was of the opinion that the state existed to serve the humble members of society:

“It is to be regretted, that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinction in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, or education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions … [still] every man is equally entitled to protection by law …”
It’s at this point that Andrew Jackson’s position rises to a level that separated him from his contemporaries, and from almost all of those who would succeed him in the White House. Touching on the moral sentiments that Adam Smith embraced when he wrote about the “laws of justice” in The Wealth of Nations (1776), Jackson added:

“… but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages … to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society - the farmers, mechanics, and laborers - who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.”
For President Jackson the battle lines were real. While people like Daniel Webster believed that those with money and property should control the state, Jackson argued that the state existed to prevent the rich from abusing the people, and their position. As labor leader Theophilus Fisk put it at the time, “Either the state is sovereign or the banks are” (124).

At the end of the day Jackson vetoed the re-chartering of the Second Bank of the United States, and against all odds went on to win a second term as president. His opponents had failed to understand the depth of Jackson’s popularity, and how he had struck a chord with America’s newly enfranchised electorate (all white males, and not just property owners could vote).

Jackson’s decision was viewed as such a stunning rebuke of America’s moneyed elite that the Boston Globe would equate his actions to Jesus expelling the money changers from the temple.

Still, there were three years left on the banks charter. And Nicholas Biddle was in no mood to go quietly. He promptly withheld credit, made money more expensive, and started calling in loans – all in the name of “winding down business.” But his real goal, as time would show, was to induce a panic and force Congress and the President into saying “I guess we really need you – here’s your charter back” (a lesson for modern presidents).

But Jackson wouldn’t budge.

Soon, a mob threatened to camp on Capitol Hill, to protest removing the U.S. government’s deposits from Biddle’s bank. Again, Jackson was unmoved. When a group of “quaking” Congressmen arrived to ask what should be done about the mob, the old General reassured them:

“Gentlemen, I shall be glad to see this federal mob on Capitol Hill. I will fix their heads on the iron palisades around the square to assist forever all attempts to control the legislation of the Congress by intimidation and design.”
No doubt recalling Jackson’s record against the British, his almost superhuman brushes with death (he fought in 13 duels), and how he had just beaten the odds against America’s most powerful moneyed elite, the mob disappeared over time.

My question to our politicians today is: Where is our modern Jackson?

- Mark

Addendum: Click here for my President's Day post on Andrew Jackson.

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