Getting to Know Andrew Jackson - Articles

Andrew Jackson and the Constitution
by Matthew Warshauer
In 1860, biographer James Parton concluded that Andrew Jackson was "a
most law-defying, law obeying citizen." Such a statement is obviously
contradictory. Yet it accurately captures the essence of the famous, or
infamous, Jackson. Without question, the seventh president was a man of
contradictions. To this day, historians have been unable to arrive at accepted
conclusions about his character or impact on the nation. Was he, as Robert
Remini has argued across the pages of more than a dozen books, the great
leader and symbol of a burgeoning mass democracy? Or was Jackson merely
a vainglorious bully with no vision for the nation, reacting in response to his
own sensitive pride, as Andrew Burstein and others have insisted?
Title page of Narrative and
Correspondence Concerning the
Removal of the Deposites and
Occurrences Connected Therewith, by
William J. Duane (Philadelphia, 1833).
Duane, Jackson’s Treasury secretary,
refused to withdraw government
deposits from the Bank of the US and
was dismissed from the Cabinet. (Gilder
Lehrman Collection)
There is much that one can look at in Jackson’s life when attempting to
arrive at conclusions. In particular, his relationship with the law and
Constitution offer a significant window into his worldview. Whether it was
illegally declaring martial law in New Orleans, invading Spanish Florida and
executing British citizens, removing federal deposits from the Bank of the
United States, or questioning the Supreme Court’s authority in Worcester v.
Georgia, Jackson acted in a manner that was at times distinctly illegal yet
widely hailed by supporters as being in the nation’s best interest. And before
we conclude that this support was partisan banter bestowed by his own
Democratic Party, we must remember that historians and legal scholars to
this day have wrestled with the larger ideological and constitutional meaning
of Jackson’s beliefs and actions. One thing is certain: Jackson had no qualms
about overstepping the law, even the Constitution, when he believed that the
very survival of the nation required it. Moreover, this perspective remains at
the heart of debate in a post-9/11 America. The essential question stands—
can a leader violate the law in order to ultimately save it and the nation?
Andrew Jackson’s fame came with the Battle of New Orleans in 1814 and 1815, where he demolished a seasoned British
army with virtually no loss to his troops. The victory launched the general to national stardom and ultimately the
presidency. Yet there were looming, constitutionally delicate issues that roiled beneath the surface of this victory, namely
Jackson’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and declaration of martial law. The first was authorized by the
Constitution, but the Supreme Court had determined that only Congress could suspend the privilege of the writ, which
allowed a judge to "bring a body" before the court thus making it impossible for an arresting authority (the police or
military) to hold a person indefinitely without filing charges. Jackson suspended the writ anyway, and went even further
by imposing martial law, which canceled all civilian authority and placed the military in control. The act was wholly
illegal. There existed no provision in the Constitution authorizing such an edict. The rub was that martial law saved New
Orleans and the victory itself saved the nation’s pride. After several years of dismal military encounters during the War of
1812 and the burning of the nation’s capitol to the ground in the summer of 1814, no one, especially President Madison,
was in the mood to investigate, let alone chastise, the victorious General Jackson’s illegal conduct. Thus Jackson walked
away from the event with two abiding convictions: one, that victory and the nationalism generated by it protected his
actions, even if illegal; and two, that he could do what he wanted if he deemed it in the nation’s best interest.
Jackson’s convictions came into play only three years later in 1818, when the indomitable general exceeded his orders to
protect the Georgia frontier by crossing into Spanish Florida, where he invaded two towns and executed two British
citizens for making war on the United States. Once again, Jackson’s actions were questionable, if not outright illegal. He
essentially made war on Spain without congressional approval, overstepped his own boundaries as a commander, and
summarily executed two men, which could very well have incited legal and military difficulties with Great Britain and
Spain. However, Jackson’s conduct was once again seen by many, including himself, as a necessary defense of the nation.
The Spanish had done nothing to stop the marauding Seminole Indians from crossing the border and attacking American
farms. The general’s actions were therefore justified as national self-defense by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams,
the sole member of President Monroe’s cabinet to support Jackson. Adams used the turmoil over the incident to convince
Spain that they should sell Florida for a measly $5 million.
Unlike Jackson’s use of martial law in New Orleans, Congress debated Jackson’s rogue behavior in Florida, with Henry
Clay announcing that the general was a "military chieftain" and dangerous to a young republic. Although legislators
wrangled over the matter, nothing significant resulted except that Jackson became a more and more polarizing figure,
particularly because of his political aspirations. When he ran for president in 1824, critics unleashed a torrent of abuse,
much of it focused on his lawless ways. Jackson was forced to respond, and commented specifically on his violations of
the Constitution. He noted that some in the nation believed him to be "a most dangerous and terrible man. . . . and that I
can break, & trample under foot the constitution of the country, with as much unconcern & careless indifference, as would
one of our backwoods hunters, if suddenly placed in Great Britain, break game laws." He continued, "it has been my lot
often to be placed in situations of a critical kind" that "imposed on me the necessity of Violating, or rather departing from,
the constitution of the country; yet at no subsequent period has it produced to me a single pang, believing as I do now, &
then did, that without it, security neither to myself or the great cause confided to me, could have been obtained."
Jackson’s ideological conviction about the flexible nature of the law and Constitution in the face of dangers confronting
the still-fledgling nation can be seen in many subsequent Jacksonian battles. When President Jackson confronted the Bank
of the United States in 1832, he did so with the belief that it was a corrupt fiscal monster threatening the nation’s
economic security. He not only vetoed the Bank’s recharter, which was within his right as chief executive, but went a step
further by removing federal deposits even after Congress had deemed them safe. Jackson transferred one secretary of the
treasury and fired another in order to secure the deposit removals. His actions were questionable, if not completely illegal,
and the Senate censured him by making a notation in their journal. They didn’t attempt impeachment for lack of support.
Other legal conflicts surfaced. Jackson allegedly defied the Supreme Court over Worcester v. Georgia (1832),
announcing, "John Marshall has made his decision now let him enforce it." The case revolved around Georgia’s attempt to
apply state laws to Cherokee lands. The Court had ruled against Georgia’s authority to do so and Jackson, dedicated to
Indian removal, allegedly challenged Marshall. Although there is little evidence to support the above quotation, it
certainly sounds like Jackson. Nonetheless, the case required nothing of Jackson and was ultimately settled out of court.
The fact remained, however, that in this case and in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), when it was ruled that the Bank of
the United States was in fact constitutional, Jackson challenged the Court’s authority as the final arbiter. As president,
Jackson believed that his authority to deem what was constitutional equaled the Supreme Court’s.
Jackson’s views regarding American Indians also challenged the law. Treaties were and continue to be legal agreements
among sovereign nations. However, Jackson refused to believe that Native American tribes were sovereign and thus
viewed Indian treaties as an absurdity. Ultimately, he forcibly removed a number of tribes, most notoriously the Cherokee,
from their homes. The Trail of Tears is one of Jackson’s most infamous legacies. Yet even removal and issues of tribal
sovereignty fit within a larger context of Jackson’s convictions regarding national security and state sovereignty. The
general’s rise was due to his success as an Indian fighter on the frontier. He always, and to some extent legitimately,
viewed American Indians as a serious threat to settlers. As president, Jackson understood the sentiment of southern states
and their conception that states could not be erected within sovereign states such as Georgia. All of this, of course,
revolved around the larger issue of Native American dispossession and who rightfully owned of the land. This
ideological—and to some extent legal—issue remains unresolved.
A variety of other incidents in Jackson’s life and career expose the nature of his relationship with the law and
Constitution: the fact that he was a lawyer who engaged in dueling; his actions during the Nullification Crisis; and his
failure as president to follow federal guidelines concerning mail delivery of abolitionist propaganda. Most fit within his
larger conception of duty, honor, and what was necessary for the sanctity of the Union. Jackson’s ideology remains as
controversial now as it was in his own time. There are few easy answers. Yet this is what makes Jackson’s views and
conduct so relevant today. When presented with Jackson’s history, students invariably split down the middle over whether
he was justified in his conduct, regardless of legality. In this sense, Jackson continues to serve as an important source of
reflection when considering how America should and should not act when it comes to matters of national security.
Matthew Warshauer is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and author ofAndrew Jackson in
Context (2009) and Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law: Nationalism, Civil Liberties, and
Partisanship (2006).
Female Trouble: Andrew Jackson
versus the Ladies of Washington
by Catherine Allgor
Andrew Jackson was mad. It was February 1829, a wintry day in Washington, DC,
and President-elect Jackson was in a fury about the public’s reaction to his Cabinet
announcements. To be fair, Jackson was already angry when he arrived in the
capital a month before. The target for his anger: the ladies of Washington City.
The ladies who so infuriated Andrew Jackson were the white elite and middle-class
women of the city, members of local families and female kin of government
officials. By necessity, government officials were transient, coming to the capital
only part of the year and perhaps only for a term or so. Indeed, Jackson’s own
Rachel Jackson, miniature
portrait, ca. 1824, attributed to
daughter-in-law and official hostess, Emily Donelson, was a newcomer. But the
Mary C. Strobel. (Gilder
wives of prominent men with long careers such as Floride Calhoun, wife of
Lehrman Collection)
Senator and Vice President–elect John C. Calhoun, were capital fixtures. Local
families in Washington were year-round and often of long standing. Margaret
Bayard Smith, writer and journalist, had come to the new city during its first official year as the capital. Arriving in 1801,
she had lived there for almost thirty years with her husband, Samuel Harrison Smith, who began the National
Intelligencer newspaper.
Ruling-class women have played an important part in every city’s formation, but Washington women enjoyed particular
powers and freedoms. The Founders deliberately designed the new federal government with as little bureaucracy as
possible, in direct contrast to the monarchy they had fought against. They did not know that the republic they were
building would turn into a powerful nation-state that would require a strong federal government. Within this structure, the
Founders’ wives and daughters borrowed from older, courtly styles of politicking, creating a sphere parallel to their men
folk’s official one. The social world, ruled by women, was an early form of political machine that dispensed patronage,
made political deals, and entertained a good deal of legislative business. In the soft candlelight of an influential lady’s
parlor, male legislators felt they could make alliances and deals that would not stand the glare of the official spotlight. In
addition, in the decades before the United States became a two-party democracy, the incipient ruling class learned to work
together—not in Congress, where men beat each other with canes and shouted, but at social events, which required all to
be on their best behavior.
The ladies of Washington not only hosted the political game, they played it. In their informal way, they performed
functions that would become part of the official governmental structure in the years to come. Their "party machine"
presaged the institutionalized party machines that would function in the political landscape of the 1830s. These women
also acted as a kind of civil service. Fearing charges of corruption, male officials were reluctant to be seen giving out
government jobs, while their wives and female relations sponsored candidates freely. Any man who wanted a government
post knew the best route lay in petitioning a powerful woman.
The ladies of Washington were not feminists or radicals and would have been horrified if anyone had accused them of
playing politics. From their point of view, they were eminently respectable, moral women taking care of their family and
friends. If this meant giving a job to a deserving young man, well, it was all part of their role. But they were powerful and
enjoyed playing politics and, on occasion, expressing political opinions. And during the presidential election of 1828, they
expressed themselves on the topic of candidate Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson.
During the campaign, the supporters of Jackson’s opponent, President John Quincy Adams, painted Andrew Jackson as a
violent, backcountry savage. The infamous "Coffin Handbill" displayed a line of coffins representing the men Jackson had
killed in duels or executed as a military commander. Pro-Adams men also used the circumstances of Jackson’s marriage
to Rachel Donelson Robards to depict their rival as a lustful, angry man who would take whatever he wanted—in this
case, a woman from her husband.
The truth was that when Rachel Donelson Robards and Andrew Jackson met on the frontier, she was married to Lewis
Robards, a cruel man who had deserted her. When Rachel got word that Lewis Robards had divorced her, she married
Andrew in 1791. When the couple discovered a few years later that the divorce had not been finalized, they remarried
legally. By the time of the election, the Jacksons had lived happily together for decades, and Rachel Jackson was the soul
of respectability.
But opposition newspapers seized upon the story, painting Rachel Jackson as a loose woman and the Jackson marriage as
bigamous. In the end, the scandal did little to influence male voters. Legally improvised marriages were all too common
on the frontier. However, Rachel Jackson suffered more bad press: Washingtonians who did not credit the more
sensational stories still enjoyed mocking her country ways, and joked about her smoking her pipe in the White House.
Andrew Jackson kept most of this from his wife, who was already nervous about being First Lady. Sadly, a few days
before the victorious Jacksons were to leave for Washington, Rachel heard these stories, collapsed, and shortly died,
probably of a heart attack.
As it became known that slanders and satire had brought on Rachel Jackson’s death, Washingtonians reacted with shock,
sorrow, and unease. As a "man of the people," Andrew Jackson had already expressed his scorn for capital society and
"politics as usual." He threatened to clean house by sweeping aside long-term office holders. No doubt some ladies were
ashamed that they had made fun of this countrywoman, but they and others also feared the repercussions. Margaret
Bayard Smith echoed the thoughts of many when she mourned the loss of Rachel Jackson as "a wife who, it is said, could
control the violence of his tempers." Though grief can soften a man, Bayard Smith warned it could also "sour" him, and if
it did so in this case, "the public councils and affairs will have reason to deplore this awful and sudden event."
So Andrew Jackson’s anger was already at the boiling point on that cold February day in 1829, as he fumed about public
reaction to his Cabinet choice. All had hoped for a strong Cabinet of able men, who, in the absence of Jackson’s wife,
could curb the President’s impulses and temper. What they got was what the press called scornfully "a millennium of
minnows"—lesser men who could not control their leader.
The society women of Washington focused on one particular appointment: Andrew Jackson’s friend John Eaton, chosen
as secretary of war. In their view, John Eaton wasn’t the problem: his wife was. A beautiful widow, Margaret O’Neale
Timberlake Eaton was a local boardinghouse keeper’s daughter with a dubious sexual reputation. Among other
accusations, she was said to have started an affair with John Eaton before her first husband died. Washington’s elite would
not only be forced to interact with her, but since President Jackson and Secretary of State Martin Van Buren both were
widowers, and John Eaton was a Jackson favorite, Margaret Eaton would serve as the de facto First Lady. The ladies were
scandalized by this sudden ascension to the pinnacle of Washington society.
There was a deeper reason for their reaction, aside from the local knowledge of the new Mrs. Eaton. Andrew Jackson rose
to power as the first Democratic president. To many, "democracy" meant "rule by the mob," and there was doubt about the
value of the "common man." The elevation of "Peggy" (her detractors scornfully called her by this coarse nickname for
"Margaret") showed Jackson’s lack of judgment, as she was deemed "common" in both senses—ordinary and vulgar.
The day Cabinet posts were announced, a delegation of Washington insiders paid a call on the President-elect to warn him
that by "thrusting" Margaret Eaton on the ladies of Washington, by forcing them to interact with her at dinners and parties,
he would have trouble. Jackson reacted ferociously: "Do you suppose that I have been sent by the people to consult the
ladies of Washington as to the proper persons to compose my Cabinet?" Old Hickory saw the attacks on Margaret on par
with the attacks on his beloved Rachel. Margaret Eaton quoted Jackson: "I tell you, Margaret, I had rather have live
vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation." Little did he know that by not
listening to this particular segment of "We the People," he came close to dooming his administration.
Jackson’s reaction incited what became known as the "Peggy Eaton Affair," or the "Petticoat War," and the first shot was
fired during the Inaugural Ball. Washingtonians arrived at the ball already jittery. The inauguration ceremony had gone
well enough, but the reception had turned into a riot with revelers breaking glassware and furniture. Margaret Bayard
Smith wryly remarked, "It was the People’s day and the people’s President and the People would rule." The "Era of the
Common Man" had not begun auspiciously.
At the ball, the ladies of the administration, led by Floride Calhoun, cut Margaret Eaton dead, refusing to be introduced to
or to speak with her. From that night on, the "Eaton Malaria" spread. Calhoun and her allies (including the Cabinet wives)
persuaded even the President’s own daughter-in-law and hostess, Emily Donelson, to join with them against Margaret. By
their use of invitations and their behaviors at social events the ladies of Washington pressured everyone to choose sides.
Soon parties and balls became mini-demonstrations of whether one was a "Jackson man" or not. Social events had always
been somewhat partisan; now they became "life or death" declarations, stifling bi-partisan activity.
The men folk tried to keep up, jockeying for position, looking for any political hay to be made. Martin Van Buren, a
widower, took the Eatons’ side and positioned himself to be Andrew Jackson’s successor. (He would win the election of
1836.) Vice President–elect John C. Calhoun had assumed he would be the president after Jackson, but his wife’s role in
the "Malaria" pushed him out, contributing to Calhoun’s sense of alienation from the Union and his pro-secession stance.
At first it seemed that Jackson’s stubbornness would win, as he gave parties and dinners with Margaret Eaton on his arm.
Yet when Emily Donelson continued to side with the more experienced political women, Jackson sent her home, a
frustrating signal to the President that he could not exert authority even in his own family. Cabinet meeting after meeting
was held, either to refute the slippery charges of sexual impropriety (at one point Jackson thundered, "She is as chaste as a
virgin!") or to allow the President to simply "roar" at his Cabinet, insisting that the Cabinet families visit and socialize
with Margaret Eaton.
By the spring of 1831, as the affair dragged on, Washington society was afraid to move for fear of offending someone
important. Deadlocked, the parlors of the city closed. With no unofficial meeting place, political business stalled from the
Cabinet on down. The mighty Andrew Jackson, who fought like a lion in battle, could not prevail against a battalion of
Washington ladies.
Finally, Jackson admitted defeat. Martin Van Buren and John Eaton withdrew from their positions in order to break the
stalemate. When other Cabinet members with "anti-Peggy" wives refused to follow suit, Jackson fired them. The story of
the Eaton Affair, which had remained largely confined to Washington circles, suddenly became a national story. Never
before had a president fired his whole Cabinet. Americans across the United States, fearful that such a move forecasted a
coup d’état or worse, clamored to know the reason why. The disgruntled former Cabinet members, safe in their home
districts, were only too happy to oblige with a tale of executive tyranny. The nation’s newspapers exploded when they
discovered a woman at the center of this unprecedented housecleaning. They dubbed Margaret Eaton "the Doom of the
Republic," casting her as the sign of the federal government’s end. When the Eatons returned to Tennessee, and later
traveled to Spain in a delegation from the United States, it seemed the ladies of Washington had won.
But in the end, everyone lost. Andrew Jackson began his political career in the rough-and-tumble, all-male world of the
frontier. He was unaware of the role of women in politics and nation-building. Ironically, Jackson, who would become
famous for extending and furthering democracy, could not recognize their work as "political." For their parts, the elite
women of Washington overstepped their influence. To refuse a person of dubious reputation was a privilege wielded by
upper-class societies in all cities. Yet Washington City was different. By the 1820s, it was clear that Washington was built
by, on, and for national politics, and everything in the city—including its social life—needed to bow to that reality.
Nothing showed this more clearly than the Eaton Affair. As the political culture embraced a two-party system in the 1830s
and 1840s, the ladies of Washington continued to exert their political power—but they had learned that, in the capital,
society was always the handmaiden to politics.
Catherine Allgor’s book, Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington City Help Build a City and a
Government (2000), won the prize for the best first book from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.
Her political biography, A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (2006), was a finalist
for the George Washington Book Prize.
The Indian Removal Act
by Elliott West
In the early nineteenth century, as European empires and the fledgling United States
jockeyed for position in the West, true power was still in the hands of Native peoples.
They far outnumbered whites and controlled resources and routes of movement. Like
the outsiders, Native Americans too were in rivalry with each other. This contested
arena became even more unsettled as the US government removed most eastern
Native groups beyond the Mississippi River.
Indian peace medals were given
On maps of the 1830s the westernmost part of the United States was labeled "Indian
to tribes to seal the signing of
Country." The western Sioux (Lakota) consolidated their hold on the central and
treaties. This one, from 1829, has
northern plains and allied with the Cheyennes and Arapahoes to the south. In 1840
Jackson’s profile on the other
these three groups forged a peace with their longtime rivals on the southern plains,
side. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)
the Kiowas and Comanches. Now a wide corridor from Montana deep into Mexico
was dominated by an interlocking alliance of horseback peoples. Elsewhere, the
Apaches increased their influence in the far Southwest and northern Mexico, the Nez Perces in the Northwest, and the
Blackfeet on the northern plains. The shifting currents of power sharpened conflict over land and such resources as bison
An increasingly vigorous trade connected these independent Native peoples to the world outside. In exchange for goods
some groups supplied beaver pelts to white merchants while others provided white trappers with support including
protection, horses, and wives. After the beaver population was depleted around 1840, the fur trade shifted toward that of
bison robes. By the mid-1840s about a hundred thousand robes from the plains passed through St. Louis annually.
Trade enhanced Native American life. Besides prime items like firearms, western Natives acquired cattle, foods like
coffee and molasses, knives, tools such as cooking pots and metal hide scrapers, and luxury goods, including silverware
and jewelry. Trade had its downside, however. Much of what American Indians acquired they could not make themselves.
The more they relied on such items, the more vulnerable they became to those who provided them. In time, enriching
economic links became bonds of dependence.
For a glimpse of what lay ahead, western Indians might have looked toward the East. Tens of thousands of Native
Americans in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf Coast faced mounting pressures to
surrender their lands, including deliberately engineered trade imbalances. In 1803 Thomas Jefferson wrote to future
president William Henry Harrison that his government heartily encouraged selling goods on easy credit, for once debts
mounted, leaders of eastern tribes would be forced to "lop them off by a cession of lands."
The most powerful force pressing against Indians was the oldest—a land hunger that became especially ravenous after the
War of 1812 broke the last significant military resistance from Indians and opened lands west of the Appalachians to
white settlement. Between 1810 and 1820 Ohio’s white population grew by more than two-and-a-half times from around
230,000 persons to 581,000, while Alabama’s swelled by an astounding 1300 percent, from roughly 9,000 to more than
128,000. This left the federal government in a dilemma. It had agreed to treaties guaranteeing American Indians their
land, yet the flood of settlement seemed to demand opening that land to white newcomers. Washington’s answer,
developed primarily by Jefferson, was twofold. With the help of missionaries, agents would transform Native Americans
to fit into the dominant national culture of language, religion, and making a living. Those who resisted or moved too
slowly in this metamorphosis would be pushed to surrender their lands for others farther west. There the transformation
would continue.
Two factors complicated the situation. Tribes were increasingly divided by political rivalry between those prone to
accepting white ways and those holding to traditional ones. Then there was escalating pressure from individual states—
Georgia being the most aggressive—to force Native Americans to surrender their lands. When state laws interfered with
federal treaties, as Georgia’s did, they raised the issue of states’ rights. This, the most contentious legal issue of the day,
would escalate into civil war in 1861. The contention over states’ rights muddied the question of the place of Native
Americans within the American community.
In 1828, as demands for removal reached new heights, Americans elected as president Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. He
had built his political reputation in part by warring against Creek and Seminole peoples and had pushed hard for removal
during his rise to the White House. In the Indian Removal Act (1830), Congress authorized an aggressive effort to open
Native American lands to whites. To receive the removed tribes, it created the Indian Territory, comprising present-day
Oklahoma (minus its panhandle) and lands to the north up to the Platte River in Nebraska. To protect this country from
white intrusion, it would provide a "permanent Indian frontier" of military posts along the territory’s eastern boundary.
After 1830 the displacement of eastern tribes moved into full swing. Through chicanery, persuasion, bullying, and
sometimes violence, the federal government cleared the majority from their homelands by the mid-1840s, although
pockets remained—and are there today. Thousands of eastern Native Americans moved voluntarily, beginning well before
1830, but most resisted through legal means or armed rebellion.
The Cherokees chose legal resistance. Led by their principal chief, John Ross, they took their case to the US Supreme
Court. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that
because tribes like the Cherokees were "domestic dependent nations," states like Georgia could not interfere with federal
treaties. President Jackson’s agents nonetheless pressed ahead to enforce a removal treaty signed by a tiny minority of
Cherokees. When the vast majority refused to leave, the US Army moved in, rounded them up, and in 1838 and 1839
forced them on foot and by steamboat to the Indian Territory. Of the more than sixteen thousand on these "Trails of
Tears," it is estimated that two thousand died and many more dropped out to settle along the way.
As many as a hundred thousand American Indians were removed from east of the Mississippi. Defenders of the policy
claimed eastern Native Americans were out-of-step with the white ways of life. However, while many did hold firm to
traditional cultures, others had become English-speaking Christians who practiced white methods of agriculture and, in
the South, owned slaves. Ironically, they helped carry into the West the mores and institutions of the very people who
expelled them as cultural aliens. Their removal beyond the Mississippi added to the turmoil of a turbulent West. New
arrivals fought with Native Americans already there, and divisions among displaced groups led to bloody reprisals and
intertribal warfare.
In 1845, as removal was winding down, Native America was on the cusp of momentous change. In the West Native
Americans rode a crest of power and affluence, while those in the East had lost out to a government determined to rule
unchallenged in the nation’s most desirable land. The official claim was that the new "permanent Indian frontier" along
the western edge of the United States would usher in a long era of stability and peace. But the forces that had expelled the
Cherokees, Shawnees, Chickasaws, Miamis, and others were already at work in the West. Whatever respite there was
would be measured not in generations or in decades but in months.
Elliott West is Alumni Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas. He is author of, among other
books, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (1998); The Way to the West: Essays on the
Central Plains (1995); and The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (2009).
The Culture of Congress
in the Age of Jackson
by Joanne B. Freeman
During an 1841 debate in the House of Representatives, Edward
Stanly of North Carolina said something derogatory about
Virginian Henry Wise. A few minutes later, Wise walked over to
Stanly’s seat. After some "earnest, and excited conversation . . .
Mr. Wise made a motion as if to invite Mr. Stanly out, to which
Mr. Stanly made a gesture of dissent. Mr. Wise . . . was observed
to slap Mr. Stanly in the face pretty severely with his open hand.
A scuffle then ensued, a number of members rushing to the scene
of the contest."
At this point, as an eyewitness recalled, Wise called Stanly:
The mace in the House Chamber, made by
William Adams, 1841, which the sergeant at
arms is authorized to use to restore order. (Office
of the Clerk, US House of Representatives)
"a mean, contemptible puppy and miserable wretch," to which Stanly replied[,] "You are a liar," when Wise struck
him, and [a] fight instantly ensued. Nearly all the members rushed to the spot where they were engaged. . . . The
Speaker crying at the exten[t] of his voice[,] "Order—order—order," exclamations from the crowd of "Damn him[,]
down with him"—"Where are your Bowie knives"—"Order gentlemen, for God’s sake come to order"—"Go it
Arnold"—"Knock him down" . . . Mr. Clarke, the Clerk of the House, seized the mace & went into the midst of the
melee & exclaimed[,] "Gentlemen, respect the symbol of authority, respect yourselves." Mr. Arnold & Mr. . . . Butler
of Ky. were seen in violent personal contest, & Mr. Houston of Ala. held an uplifted cane over Mr. Arnold’s head,
which some member arrested in its descent, & thus, probably saved Mr. A. a bloody coxcomb.
The enormous Dixon Lewis of Alabama ultimately ended the fight, separating the brawlers by placing his bulk between
We might expect to see such incidents amidst the rising tensions in the decade before the Civil War, but in fact, they
occurred as far back as the 1820s and ebbed and flowed through the 1830s and 1840s. These decades witnessed countless
extreme outbursts on the floor of Congress. Some never advanced beyond an exchange of deliberate personal insults and
talk of a duel. Some were actual fistfights. Some—canings or beatings—took place on the streets of Washington. A few
were all-out brawls with dozens of congressmen jumping over desks and brandishing weapons. Such tussles occurred
more frequently in the House; the Senate favored duel challenges. Although the frequency of these clashes varied from
year to year, decade to decade, taken as a whole, they offer an unexpectedly rowdy image of the antebellum Congress.
In fact, such violence was something of a norm in Congress. As Benjamin Brown French, assistant clerk of the House,
wrote to his sister in January of 1839, "This session is like all other sessions that I have seen—except there has, as yet,
been no fighting." Indeed, the threat of violence loomed large enough to become an invaluable rhetorical tool. As one
congressional columnist wrote in 1834, "A member may talk . . . and be very argumentative and speak to the point, but
hardly ten of those about him will know a single word that he has said . . . but let him at once change his manner and
pounce upon some fellow member with a small sprinkling . . . of personal abuse, the whole House is all attention."
Many of these encounters, particularly the most physically violent ones, involved southerners—but not only southerners
were involved. Once provoked, many northerners felt compelled to defend their honor and the honor of their state and
region by responding in kind, sometimes in ways that would not have been acceptable back home. As New Hampshire
Representative John Parker Hale put it in 1844, "although the people whom he had the honor in part to represent did not
acknowledge the obligations of that code of honor which was held in such high estimation by some, yet he could assure
the House that if it were understood that members must come into this House upon such conditions . . . the frozen regions
of the North, would not be wanting in men who were prepared to go wherever duty called them." Regional preferences
had to alter to suit circumstances on the national stage, where northerners, southerners, and westerners engaged in
political (and cultural) conversation.
This culture of threats and counter-threats posed a real challenge to the institutional workings of Congress. Freedom of
debate centered on congressional privilege: the exemption of congressmen from being questioned about words spoken in
debate. What, then, was the proper response for insults uttered during debate? Should the institution attempt to reconcile
the warring parties? Or should it ignore such matters—and their potentially deadly consequences?
At one time or another, Congress adopted both of these approaches. Sometimes, the House or Senate met in "secret
session" to settle a personal dispute. Other times, in particularly serious cases (like an open fistfight or a death in a duel), a
committee was formed to determine the proper response. Yet there were problems with this approach because the Speaker
could form a biased committee through strategic appointments. On other occasions, friends negotiated some sort of truce
behind the scenes, usually off the floor. Sometimes, a congressman formally (and publicly) waived the protection of
privilege so that he and his opponent could settle their dispute "like men"—probably with a duel. In other cases, the entire
question of privilege was simply ignored. To many northerners and southerners alike, relying on such institutional
safeguards felt cowardly. Personal honor could not be maintained behind a shield of congressional privilege; the personal
and the political were intertwined. The many violent outbursts provoked by the issue of slavery revealed this all too well,
binding together an inflammatory combination of political principles, party politics, regional loyalties, personal morals,
and personal reputations.
Throughout this period, neither the House nor the Senate enforced the rules consistently beyond declaring things "out of
order," and these types of declarations were often partisan. "Order depended more upon the party passions and capricious
feelings of members, than upon any established rules," complained Ohio Representative Alexander Duncan in 1841, after
being called to order by a Whig. "[D]uring this debate Mr. Van Buren has been called a jackass, and his cabinet and
cabinet officers knaves, fools, liars, swindlers, and thieves, but there was no Whig then to call to order; it was all right, all
fair, and all in order." Even when one congressman killed another in a duel, there was no punishment. When
Representative William Graves of Kentucky killed Representative Jonathan Cilley of Maine in 1838, an investigative
committee ultimately decided that Congress could not try its members for crimes that should be tried in civil courts.
This is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of antebellum congressional violence both indoors and out: only a handful of
congressmen were punished. No congressman was ever expelled for fighting, and only a few were formally censured. A
few duelists were arrested by civil authorities but immediately released under promise of good behavior. Some brawlers
paid fines that were often disproportionately small. Some had their offensive words "taken down" on the record—with no
judgment attached—but even this seemingly minimal punishment elicited outrage. To men so concerned with their
reputations and constituencies, being reprimanded on the public record was unbearable.
Why all this violence during the age of Jackson? In part, it stemmed from the constellation of highly charged issues under
debate. Jackson’s polarizing policies and politics stirred up controversy at a time when the looming issue of slavery was
becoming a dangerously charged force. Jackson’s high-handed manner of dealing with Congress—and his blatant
attempts to slap at his congressional opposition—didn’t help matters. For example, in his last annual message to
Congress, Jackson boasted of his administration’s virtue and pure motives—a deliberate slap at the Whig charges of
corruption that had plagued his administration. Whigs responded by demanding two committees explicitly aimed at
"investigating" the workings of Jackson’s administration. Jackson’s public popularity made him all the more aggressive in
his tactics and policies, further fueling political tensions. It also helped to personalize national politics, centering it on the
figure of Andrew Jackson and framing the period’s politics as a clash between Jackson’s personal and political supporters
and his personal and political enemies.
Congressional violence was also fueled by the press. Broadcasting the doings of Congress to a national audience with
ever-increasing speed and efficiency, this burgeoning communications network made it difficult, if not impossible, for
congressmen to patch up grievances through quiet accommodation and compromise. In the 1790s, they might have been
able to settle matters out of the public eye, but with the exponential growth of the press in the 1820s, this changed. In
1800, roughly one million individual newspapers were sent through the US postal system; by 1820, this number had
increased to six million; by 1830, it had almost tripled to sixteen million, and by 1840, thirty-nine million newspapers
were sent through the mail—an increase of roughly a million newspapers a year. Between 1820 and 1840, newspaper
circulation multiplied from six million to thirty-nine million.
Joined with the ever-growing multitude of reporters whose regular business was covering Congress, newspaper exposure
made it difficult for combative congressmen to hide. Harsh words exchanged on the floor of the House or Senate could be
instantly transmitted nationally. Sensitive to their home audiences, congressmen felt compelled to defend the reputations,
rights, interests, and standing of their states with fist-clenched diligence. An expansive national audience made it difficult
to tolerate offhand slights and insults; extreme accountability meant increased tolerance. That same audience was a nearirresistible attraction for publicity-seeking politicians hoping to please constituencies back home. So renowned was such
constituent-pleasing claptrap that it garnered a nickname, thanks to North Carolina Representative Felix Walker, who
explained to exasperated colleagues that they could ignore his long-winded speech because he was speaking only to
Buncombe, North Carolina. "Buncombe speeches" were often extreme, given their local focus, particularly when they
touched on the topic of slavery, so they too stoked political passions. ("Buncombe" eventually became synonymous with
"empty banter," and by 1900 had been shortened to "bunk.") Ironically, the press—a nationalizing influence that
stimulated democracy and legislative accountability—contributed to the chaos at the Capitol.
This chaos in Congress reflected the times. Antebellum America was a violent place—a rough-and-tumble, violently
partisan, expanding nation young enough to be experiencing something of an identity crisis. Organized party politics was
in its youth and often ruthless. Nativism, racism, and the nation’s burgeoning crowded cities contributed to an outpouring
of street violence. Regionalism ran rampant, driven by the shadow of slavery. Thus, in many ways, the culture of
Congress in the age of Jackson represented the spirit and mentality of that era. Congress was truly a representative body,
just as it was meant to be. In this sense, Congress is a fascinatingly unique institution—a place where national sentiment,
sectional interests, and the bonds of Union are reflected and played out in the interplay of elected representatives. During
the first half of the nineteenth century, Congress reflected national sentiment with a vengeance.
Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history at Yale University, is the author of Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the
New Republic (2001) and the editor of Alexander Hamilton: Writings(2001).
King Andrew and the Bank
Andrew Jackson stares down the national bank and wins.
by Daniel Feller
HUMANITIES, January/February 2008, Volume 29, Number 1
On July l0, 1832, President Andrew Jackson sent a message to the United States Senate. He returned unsigned, with his
objections, a bill that extended the charter of the Second Bank of the United States, due to expire in 1836, for another
fifteen years. As Jackson drily noted, the bill was presented to him on the Fourth of July, a day freighted with portent.
Today Jackson's Bank Veto and the political conflagration known as the “Bank War” that it touched off seem arcane and
nearly incomprehensible. While misdeeds among the rich and powerful still garner headlines and incite congressional
inquiries, the core instruments of our economic system-the network of banks capped by the Federal Reserve; the corporate
form of business enterprise; the very dollars in our wallets, issued and guaranteed by the federal government—are utterly
taken for granted. That these could have been the subject of controversy, that anyone could seriously contemplate
organizing American capitalism differently, seems nearly unthinkable. Andrew Jackson is recalled today, when recalled at
all, for other things, primarily as the architect of forced Indian removal. His face on the $20 bill is a mystery to many, an
outrage to some, and, to the knowing, a curious irony.
Yet, in its day, nothing galvanized American political conflict more than banking, currency, and finance. In the republic's
first half-century, no subject, save foreign relations and war, gave greater vexation to American statesmen or aroused
more heated public debate. The creation of the original Bank of the United States in 1791 sparked the first major division
within President George Washington's administration, which later ripened into the Federalist and Democratic-Republican
parties. Jackson's veto in 1832 repeated the process: It became the touchstone issue in his reelection campaign and
precipitated the organization of the Whig and Democratic parties, the latter, still surviving, now the oldest mass political
party in the world. The very language of Jackson's veto, departing sharply from all that came before, furnished a political
grammar since claimed by Populists, Progressives, New Deal liberals, socialists, free marketeers, libertarians—in short,
by just about everybody.
Clearly, one cannot fully appreciate Jacksonian, and indeed American, politics without confronting his Bank Veto. Yet to
make sense of the document requires imagining a world in some ways very different from our own. Americans were
already by the time of the Revolution a famously enterprising people, yet their enterprise required capital far beyond
available means. Credit was vital but often uncertain. The country's only legal money, gold and silver coin, was in chronic
shortage, never plentiful enough to serve in everyday exchange. Banking in the early United States therefore grew by the
forced hand of government. By special individualized acts of legislation, state and federal governments incorporated
banks and authorized them to lend their own credit in the form of banknotes. Ostensibly redeemable in specie, these notes
passed in lieu of coin in daily commerce, serving in practice, though not in law, as money.
The connection of banks and government was fraught with financial and political peril, especially in a young republic
whose citizens craved riches and yet resented every hint of aristocratic privilege. Banking was poorly understood, not yet
professionalized, and its amateur practitioners sometimes wreaked disaster on their customers. Indeed, men commonly
sought bank charters not as an outlet for investment, but as a source of credit—not looking to lend, but to borrow. In a
financial sleight of hand, the required paid-in capital to start a bank often consisted of IOUs to be redeemed by the bank's
own profits.
That lawmakers could ordain credit, and hence create wealth, by merely waving a legislative wand struck many citizens as
strange and malign. Corporations themselves were a novel form of business organization, not yet standardized or widely
utilized. To many simple farmers and tradesmen, the granting of special favors, including the prize of limited liability, by
means of legislative bank charters recalled the hated British system of monopoly and corruption. Paper money was also
suspect-with good reason, since if issued imprudently it had a way of becoming worthless. No less than former President
John Adams in 1813 damned chartered banking as a giant swindle, a "Sacrifice of public and private Interest to a few
Aristocratical Friends and Favourites."
In 1790, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed to incorporate a Bank of the United States. Modeled on the
Bank of England, it was intended frankly to buttress the new government by entangling its finances with the interests of
moneyed men. Though serving public purposes, the Bank was to be a profit-making institution, with private shareholders
holding four-fifths of its stock and electing four-fifths of its directors. It was, said Hamilton, “an essential ingredient” in
inspiring confidence in its prudent management that a national bank "be under a private not a public direction, under the
guidance of individual interest, not of public policy."
Opposed by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and his ally James Madison, Hamilton's Bank nonetheless passed
Congress and became law. In operation it accomplished all its architects had hoped, stabilizing the country's chaotic
currency and helping retire its Revolutionary debt. But many Jeffersonians never accepted it, and when its twenty-year
charter came up for renewal in 1811, with Congress in their control, they killed it.
The government's ensuing flirtation with bankruptcy in the War of 1812 taught them their mistake. In 1816, Congress
chartered a Second Bank, again for twenty years. Like its predecessor, it was a predominantly private entity serving public
purposes. The four-to-one private-public ratio in ownership and directorate was retained, and the Bank's capital was
advanced from $10 to $35 million, a huge sum in those days. Authorized to establish branches throughout the states, the
Bank was the country's only financial institution of truly national reach. While competing with state-chartered banks for
private business (and controlling their lending by collecting their notes for redemption), it would also be the federal
government's banker, charged with brokering its loans and with receiving, storing, transporting, and disbursing federal
funds. The Bank's notes were legal tender. In return for its “exclusive privileges and benefits,” including a congressional
pledge to create no competing institution, the Bank was to pay the government a bonus of $1.5 million.
Opening for business in the midst of a postwar boom, the Second Bank promptly discredited itself by speculation,
stockjobbing, and, at some branches, outright fraud. But under the discreet management of its second president, Langdon
Cheves, and his successor, Nicholas Biddle, it soon repaired its condition and reputation. By the end of the 1820s it had
proved not only useful but, to many eyes, indispensable.
But not to Andrew Jackson. Jackson came to the presidency with a deep sense of grievance against his enemies, real and
imagined, in the existing political establishment and with a conviction that the government had fallen from Jeffersonian
austerity into profligacy and corruption. This he was determined to reverse. The Bank was barely mentioned in Jackson's
1828 successful campaign against incumbent John Quincy Adams. But, after assuming office, Jackson learned of branch
officers using the Bank as what one Jackson partisan called “an engine of political oppression” against his followers.
Asked to explain, Bank president Biddle pronounced the charges “entirely groundless.” He affirmed the Bank's
forbearance from politics-and its complete independence from executive control.
Then, in November 1829, Biddle approached Jackson with a proposition. The Bank would assume the last of the
dwindling national debt to enable its full discharge before the end of Jackson's term, an object that Biddle knew was dear
to the president's heart. The quid for this quo was an early recharter for the Bank, which would send its stock soaring and
provide a windfall for shareholders.
Intended to placate Jackson by showing the Bank's friendship and usefulness, Biddle's offer had the opposite effect. To
Jackson it was a backstairs deal smelling of privilege and corruption, something close to a bribe. Already suspicious of the
Bank, from that moment he turned irrevocably against it. In his first annual message to Congress just a few weeks later, he
startled everyone by raising the question of recharter and declaring his opposition. The Bank's constitutionality and
expediency were “well questioned,” said Jackson, “and it must be admitted by all that it has failed in the great end of
establishing a uniform and sound currency.” It was a statement at variance with facts. The Bank's notes, unlike those of
many state-chartered banks, circulated everywhere at face value, their integrity unquestioned. They were as good as gold.
To Jackson it did not matter. In the Bank, Jackson found a concrete focus for all his fears of aristocratic subversion—fears
he shared with many citizens. “I was aware that the Bank question would be disapproved by all the sordid, & interested,
who prised self interest more than the perpetuity of our liberty, & the blessings of a free republican government,” he
confided shortly after the annual message. “This monied aristocracy” was everywhere at work, buying up voters and
lawmakers and “silencing opposition, by its corrupting influence, & preparing for a renewal of its charter, which I viewed
as the death blow to our liberty.”
The recipient of this disclosure was none other than James Alexander Hamilton, son of the late Treasury secretary and
himself a federal district attorney and Jackson confidant. Hamilton had helped craft the passage opposing recharter in the
annual message. Now, at Jackson's prompting, he prepared a detailed critique, arraying objections to the Bank under two
heads. The Bank was unconstitutional, because Congress had no power to charter corporations and withdraw them from
the regulatory and taxing power of the states. (This was the Jeffersonian position, which the Supreme Court under Chief
Justice John Marshall had rejected in the landmark case of McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819.) The Bank was also
dangerous to liberty, because its concentrated power gave it a “fearful influence” over citizens' lives and an unchecked
sway over government, inviting corruption and oppression.
Jackson copied Hamilton's headings into his private memorandum book. Over the next two years, he recopied and
reworked his bill of particulars, always under the same two heads: The Bank was unconstitutional, and it was dangerous to
liberty. Meanwhile, the question of recharter simmered. In his 1830 and 1831 annual messages, Jackson reiterated his
opposition to the Bank. He proposed in its stead a wholly government institution—in name a bank, but in effect an arm of
the Treasury, without power to make loans, acquire property, or issue notes.
In 1832, Congress acted, but not as Jackson recommended. A bill to extend the charter, slightly modified, of the existing
Bank passed both houses by healthy majorities, though less than the two-thirds required to override a veto. To Jackson the
bill's timing confirmed his strictures about the Bank's meddling in politics. Biddle had decided to press for recharter at the
urging of Senator Henry Clay, Jackson's opponent in the presidential election only months away. In effect, they dared
Jackson to veto.
He did, in a message that became
the rhetorical apex of his
presidency. Treasury official
Amos Kendall and other
wordsmiths helped hone the Veto,
but the governing ideas, drawn
straight from Jackson's
memoranda, were clearly his own.
Following Jefferson, and
contradicting the Supreme Court
in McCulloch, Jackson denied the
Bank's constitutionality and
affirmed his right to judge that
question independent of Congress
or the courts. Ingeniously, and
perversely, he targeted foreign
stockholders for special censure.
Much of the Bank's stock was, in
fact, held abroad, especially in
Britain. The charter screened
“Downfall of Mother Bank,” Henry R. Robinson, 1833
management from foreign
interference by barring noncitizens from serving as directors or voting their shares. They could invest, but not control. By
an economist's rationale, a more benign vehicle for inviting capital into America's developing economy could hardly be
contrived. Yet Jackson's arguments turned investment into subversion. Bank dividends, he complained, siphoned off
American money overseas, and the immunity of foreign stockholders from domestic taxation would lure ever more stock
abroad, concentrating the Bank's control within a narrowing sphere of domestic holders and inviting their subservience to
foreign dictation. “If we must have a bank,” Jackson warned, “it should be purely American.”
But the real heart of the Veto was its attack on exclusivity and favoritism. Sounding the loaded words “monopoly” and
“privilege” over and over like a tocsin, Jackson laid out his core theme: The Bank's charter gave its stockholders a
promise of pelf and power not accessible to other citizens. It made them “a privileged order, clothed both with great
political power and enjoying immense pecuniary advantages from their connection with the Government.” Jackson's
peroration conveyed both the Veto's essential meaning and its inescapable ambiguity:
It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions
in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be
produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy,
and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just
advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, 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. There are no
necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and as
Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified
In all the presidential messages—inaugurals, annuals, vetoes—that came before, there is nothing like this. Other
presidents had sometimes warned Americans of foreign perils, or the dangers of factionalism and divisiveness among
equally well-disposed and meritorious citizens. Andrew Jackson warned them against their government—and each other.
And yet, what exactly does it mean? Jackson's frank branding of Americans by occupation and circumstance, his bold
counterposing of rich and poor, and his solicitude for the working “farmers, mechanics, and laborers” against the “rich
and powerful” seemed to many then and later a promulgation of class warfare—an anathema to some, a battle cry for
others. Yet his acknowledgment of inevitable wealth disparities and his solution of “equal protection” and minimalist
government echo more of market economics than of the welfare state. Some historians see Jackson in a straight line of
working-class champions, foes of capitalist dominion, running from Thomas Jefferson through Franklin Roosevelt. Others
see him as the spokesman of enterprise, assailing a confining, repressive politico-economic establishment to liberate the
wealth-creating energies of “superior industry, economy, and virtue.” There is strong evidence on both sides.
And still another question lurks. If Jackson pointedly stretched the ranks of people who mattered politically to include
“farmers, mechanics, and laborers,” did that portend a further extension, beyond the white male electorate, to include
women, slaves, and Indians? Without question, Jackson did not himself intend so. But words once spoken may have a life
of their own. Whether one sees Jackson's invocation of “the humble members of society” as weighing on the side of
inclusion or exclusion, erecting boundaries or breaking them down, has everything to do with how one judges his legacy
and reputation.
The veto held up in Congress, as all knew it would. In the ensuing campaign, both sides, remarkably, distributed the
message as a campaign document-Jacksonians to show his patriotism and egalitarianism, foes to exhibit his ignorance and
demagoguery. Jackson trounced Clay in the election. Afterwards, to defang the Bank, whose present charter was still in
effect and whose political resourcefulness was by no means exhausted, Jackson withdrew the federal government's
deposits and lodged them with various state-chartered banks. Biddle retaliated by curtailing loans, causing business
distress. Intended to force a recharter, his action instead discredited the Bank by reinforcing Jackson's warnings of its
irresponsible power. Jackson's removal of the deposits prompted his foes to coalesce under the name of Whigs, a term
denoting opponents of royal prerogative. In 1834, a Whig Senate formally censured Jackson—an action which
Jacksonians, now calling themselves Democrats, expunged from the Senate record as soon as they gained a majority. The
defeated Bank accepted a charter from the Pennsylvania legislature and continued after 1836 as a state institution.
The destruction of the Bank loosed American enterprise from its only central restraint. Gorged with federal deposits and
with no one to control their note issues, state banks went on a lending spree that built up a speculative bubble and ended,
just as Jackson left office in 1837, in a sickening crash. Jackson's culpability for the ensuing depression is still debated.
Jackson himself came to oppose all chartered banks and banknotes, state as well as federal, and to favor a return to gold
and silver “hard money”—a radical deflation which Whigs charged would throw progress back a century. In Jackson's
farewell address on retiring from office, he elaborated the language of the Veto, condemning bank paper as an engine of
oppression and warning of the insidious "money power" and of the growing control exerted by faceless corporations over
ordinary citizens' lives.
Jackson's Democratic successors Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk cemented his victory over the Bank. A new
independent Treasury assumed the handling of government finances, realizing Jackson's aim of severing government from
the business of banking. For a generation, that business remained semi-organized and essentially directionless. The
exigencies of the Civil War forced the first steps toward nationalizing the banking system and the currency, a process
completed with the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913.
The immediate circumstances that prompted Andrew Jackson's ringing expostulations have long since passed away.
Whether his words carry an enduring message would be for later generations, including our own, to decide for themselves.
Daniel Feller is a professor of history at the University of Tennessee—Knoxville and director of The Papers of Andrew
Jackson, a project supported by NEH.
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