Richard B Latner. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
The familiar labels “The Age of Jackson” and “Jacksonian Democracy” identify Andrew Jackson with the era in which he lived and with the advancement of political democracy. This honor may exaggerate his importance, but it also acknowledges the important truth that Jackson significantly contributed to shaping the American nation and its politics. Just as contemporaneous artists so often depicted him astride his horse overseeing the battlefield, Jackson bestrode some of the key currents of nineteenth-century American political life.
Jackson’s presidency began on a sunny, spring-like day, 4 March 1829. Dressed in a simple black suit and without a hat, partly out of respect for his recently deceased wife, Rachel, and partly in keeping with traditions of republican simplicity, Jackson made his way on foot along a thronged Pennsylvania Avenue. From the east portico of the Capitol, he delivered his inaugural address—inaudible except to those close by—in which he promised to be “animated by a proper respect” for the rights of the separate states. He then took the oath of office, placed his Bible to his lips, and made a parting bow to the audience. With great difficulty, he made his way through the crowd, mounted his horse, and headed for the White House and what had been intended as a reception for “ladies and gentlemen.”
What next took place has become a part of American political folklore. According to one observer, the White House was inundated “by the rabble mob,” which, in its enthusiasm for the new president and the refreshments, almost crushed Jackson to death while making a shambles of the house. Finally, Jackson was extricated from the mob and taken to his temporary quarters at a nearby hotel. “The reign of King ‘Mob’ seemed triumphant,” one cynic scoffed. There was little doubt that Jackson’s presidency was going to be different from that of any of his predecessors. Daniel Webster put it best when he predicted that Jackson would bring a “breeze with him. Which way it will blow I cannot tell.”
Webster’s uncertainty is readily understandable because Jackson was a relative newcomer to national politics. Jackson was born on 15 March 1767, in the Waxhaw settlement, a frontier border area between North and South Carolina, where his early life was marked by misfortune and misadventure. His Scotch-Irish father had joined the tide of immigrants seeking improved economic and political conditions in the New World, only to die after two years, leaving his pregnant wife and two sons. The third son, whom she named Andrew after her late husband, was born just days later. As a young man during the Revolutionary War, Jackson also lost both his brothers and his mother.
Despite these inauspicious beginnings, Jackson received some formal education at local academies and schools, and following the Revolution, he left the Waxhaw community to study law with two prominent members of the North Carolina bar. In the 1780s, after finding little legal work in North Carolina, he migrated to Tennessee, where he showed the good sense to identify himself with the Blount Overton faction, a group of prominent men bound together by politics, land speculation, and, increasingly, financial and banking interests.
The eager, hardworking, and talented young Jackson soon received a host of political rewards. He became a public prosecutor, attorney general for the Mero District, delegate to the Tennessee constitutional convention, a member of Congress, a United States senator, and a judge of the Superior Court of Tennessee. By the year 1800, he was the leader of the Western branch of the Blount-Overton faction.
Military positions also came Jackson’s way, and he gradually advanced from his appointment as judge advocate for the Davidson County militia in 1792 to be elected major general of the Tennessee militia a decade later. At the same time, he accumulated significant amounts of property, establishing himself as a member of the Tennessee elite by purchasing a plantation, first at Hunter’s Hill and then, in 1804, at the Hermitage, near Nashville.
Jackson’s enormous military success during the War of 1812, culminating in the Battle of New Orleans, made him a national hero, and during the winter of 1821-1822, political friends placed his name before the country as a presidential candidate in the election of 1824. His first presidential bid fell short, for in a four-way contest, Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote but failed to receive an electoral majority. The decision rested with the House of Representatives, and John Quincy Adams emerged victorious after receiving the support of Henry Clay. When Adams appointed Clay as his secretary of state and heir apparent, Jacksonians alleged a “corrupt bargain.” Jackson himself always believed that the will of the people had been corruptly overturned, and he denounced Clay as “the Judas of the West.” Although it is unlikely that Adams and Clay actually made a secret deal, Jackson had a telling point in that Clay’s action deprived the most popular candidate of the presidency. The incident strengthened Jackson’s conviction that a republic should be based on the democratic principle of majority, not elite, rule.
Four years later, Old Hickory was vindicated. In the election of 1828, he received about 56 percent of the popular vote and carried virtually every electoral vote south of the Potomac River and west of New Jersey. Yet Jackson’s victory was the product of a diverse coalition of groups rather than of a coherent political party. In addition to the original Jackson men from the campaign of 1824, there were the followers of New York’s Martin Van Buren and Jackson’s vice president, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun; former Federalists; and groups of “relief men,” who during the Panic of 1819 had bucked the established political interests by advocating reforms to help indebted farmers and artisans.
Further, there were few clear-cut issues dividing the candidates. Instead, popular attention was captured by a host of scurrilous charges that dragged the contest down to the level of mud-slinging. Rachel, for example, was accused of bigamy in marrying Jackson while she was legally attached to another man. Jackson men, in addition to harping on the corrupt-bargain charge, accused Adams of pimping for the czar while he was minister to Russia.
Nevertheless, there were signs even in that campaign of Jackson’s future course. The Jackson men of 1828 already displayed elements of the political organization that would emerge during his presidency. Significantly, his followers showed themselves more adept than the opposition at appealing to the people and organizing grassroots sentiment. The center of the Jackson campaign was the Nashville Central Committee, whose key members were Jackson’s earliest and closest associates in Tennessee politics, such as John Eaton, John Overton, and William B. Lewis. This committee linked together the numerous state and local Jackson organizations and worked closely with political leaders in Washington.
The Jackson committees encouraged a more popular and democratic style of politics by organizing rallies, parades, and militia musters; helping to sustain Jackson newspapers; and encouraging voters to cast their ballots for Jackson on election day. This was the first election in which gimmicks such as campaign songs, jokes, and cartoons were extensively used to arouse popular enthusiasm. Years before, Jackson’s soldiers had given him the nickname Old Hickory to signify both his toughness and their affection for him. During the 1828 campaign, his followers ceremoniously planted hickory trees in village and town squares, and sported hickory canes and hats with hickory leaves. Hickory poles, symbolically connecting Jackson to the liberty poles of the revolutionary era, were erected “in every village, as well as upon the corners of many city streets.” Jackson himself, while avoiding overt electioneering displays, carefully supervised this political activity.
The election of 1828 also hinted at Jackson’s future program. Until recently, Jackson was rarely considered a man with any coherent political views. Most accounts treated him as a confused, opportunistic, and inconsistent politician. Jackson, to be sure, had no formal political philosophy, but he adhered to certain underlying values and ideas with a degree of consistency throughout his long political career.
Jackson’s philosophy owed much to the teachings of Thomas Jefferson and to the tradition of republican liberty of the revolutionary generation. One of the unique products of the American Revolution was the new and distinctive definition it gave to classical and Renaissance traditions of republicanism. Revolutionary thinkers taught that liberty was always jeopardized by excessive power and that a proper balance and limitation of governmental powers was essential to assure freedom. In addition, this ideology of republicanism also emphasized that the character and spirit of the people—what was called public virtue—were fundamental to maintaining a free society. A virtuous citizenry was necessary to liberty, and whatever corrupted the people thereby corrupted their institutions. Rooted in an agrarian, premodern society, traditional republican thought warned of the competing dangers inherent in an expansive market economy, such as stockjobbing, paper credit, funded debts, powerful moneyed interests, a swollen bureaucracy, and extreme inequality of condition.
During the nineteenth century, Americans accommodated republicanism’s precapitalistic bias to the dramatic changes in transportation, communication, and economic activity that have been called the Market Revolution. Especially after the War of 1812, Americans acknowledged that it was no longer possible or even desirable to maintain a rigid agrarian social order. They increasingly accepted as beneficial certain material and moral aspects of a developing economy. Economic ambition, for example, need not breed only luxury and corruption; it could also promote industriousness, frugality, and other republican virtues. Nevertheless, many Americans continued to harbor anxieties that the emerging world of commerce, banking, and manufacturing endangered the conditions essential to maintain liberty. In short, the language of republicanism remained potent throughout the Jacksonian era, but its diagnosis of the condition of the American republic was subject to different interpretations.
These ideas left their mark on Jackson. It was evident in his highly moralistic tone; his agrarian sympathies; his devotion to the principles of states’ rights and limited government; and his fear that speculation, moneyed interests, and human greed would corrupt his country’s republican character and institutions. At the same time, he was not a rigid traditionalist. He accepted economic progress, a permanent and expanding Union with sovereign authority, and democratic politics. His philosophy, therefore, brought together the not entirely compatible ideals of economic progress, political democracy, and traditional republicanism.
In the campaign of 1828, Jackson’s sentiments distinguished him from Adams. While Adams viewed an active and positive government as promoting liberty, Jackson preferred to limit governmental power and return to the path of Jeffersonian purity. The comparison was by no means perfect. Jackson intended no states’ rights crusade, and he dissatisfied some idealists, particularly in the South, by endorsing some tariff protection and the distribution of any surplus revenue back to the states. Yet it was evident that, compared to his opponent, Jackson would qualify federal activity. He considered his victory a moral mandate to restore “the real principles of the constitution as understood when it was first adopted, and practiced upon in 1798 and 1800.” His specific program was to become clear only as his presidency unfolded.
Administration and Appointments
Among Jackson’s first responsibilities as president was the administration of government, including his selection of cabinet and other personnel. Some Jackson men, like the Virginia editor Thomas Ritchie, wanted Jackson to share power with an “old fashioned … consultative” cabinet, reflective of the cabinet’s increased status in the period following the War of 1812. But Jackson refused; he intended, instead, to control his cabinet. More than that, he was prepared to alter fundamentally the whole basis of presidential power by resting his authority directly upon the people. The president, Jackson claimed, was “the direct representative of the American people.”
The idea that the chief executive was the people’s special representative became an established part of the presidential office, though not all occupants were as skilled as Jackson in making political capital of it. At the time, it was controversial. One prominent editor complained that whereas formerly the president’s essential duty was to execute the law made by other government branches, it had come to be claimed as “the true democracy, that the president is THE ‘GOVERNMENT.’ “ But Jackson’s supporters parried such protests. “That the practice is not usual is no objection to it,” responded Jackson’s official newspaper, the Washington Globe.
As befit a president who intended to lead, Jackson wanted a cabinet composed of “plain, business men” who would sustain a moderate states’ rights program, rather than prominent politicians who might undercut his authority and use their office as a stepping-stone to higher position. He also had to navigate carefully between the rival camps of Van Buren and Calhoun, both of whom were considered competitors for the succession. In the end, Jackson selected Van Buren as secretary of state, his friend Eaton as secretary of war, Samuel Ingham of Pennsylvania as secretary of the treasury, John Branch of North Carolina as head of the Navy Department, John McPherson Berrien of Georgia as attorney general, and Kentucky’s William T. Barry as postmaster general.
The selections generally fit Jackson’s criteria. There were no radical antitariff or protariff zealots who might stir trouble, and none, with the exception of Van Buren, was a major political figure. Both the Calhoun and Van Buren men felt disappointed, a sign of Jackson’s ability to maintain his independence of both groups. Almost unnoticed in the din of protest by dissatisfied office seekers was that Jackson had drawn the line against the followers of Adams and Clay. His would be, applauded one Jackson man, “a party administration.”
Jackson’s first cabinet proved a keen disappointment. Its members soon divided into hostile factions, and Jackson called it into session only rarely before it dissolved in the spring of 1831. But, contrary to most historical accounts, this was the exception, not the rule. Later cabinet appointments were generally more felicitous, and Jackson ordinarily met his cabinet on a regular basis, usually once a week, except when crises called for more frequent, even daily, sessions. Yet Jackson never granted his cabinet great formal power. Individual members like Van Buren might accumulate considerable influence, but Jackson looked to his cabinet primarily to inform and discuss, not to decide. The more important the issue to him, the more he used his cabinet only to gain political support for a predetermined policy.
From the outset, Jackson looked for advice from friends and associates not necessarily in the cabinet. He asked William B. Lewis, who held a job in the Treasury Department, to live in the White House, and he retained his nephew Andrew Jackson Donelson as his private secretary, while Donelson’s wife, Emily, served as White House hostess. More significantly, he gave special attention to a Kentucky editor and former relief leader named Amos Kendall, who landed an appointment as an auditor in the Treasury Department. In December 1830, Kendall was joined among Jackson’s close advisers by another Kentucky relief man, Francis Preston Blair, who arrived to edit the Globe. Along with Van Buren, the two Kentuckians constituted Jackson’s inner circle of advisers, though others would from time to time join them.
The opposition soon dubbed Jackson’s advisers the “kitchen cabinet,” by which they meant a close-knit group of “favorites who controlled and directed” him. The charge was unfounded. In reality, Jackson established a flexible advisory system composed of many people with overlapping responsibilities. The system was well suited to an active president who disliked official councils and preferred to consult informally with whomever he thought able to give useful advice.
The arrangement also left Jackson entirely free to make the final judgment and assume full responsibility for a decision. Jackson vigorously denied that others made policy for him, and his own closest aides agreed. Kendall summed it up best when he explained that influence depended on agreement with Jackson’s objectives and style: “There are a few of us who have always agreed with the President in relation to the Bank and other essential points of policy, and therefore they charge us with having an influence over him! Fools!! They can not beat the President out of his long-cherished opinions, and his firmness they charge to our influence.”
Jackson’s handling of administrative matters also refutes opposition charges that he was incompetent and irresponsible. In Jackson’s day, presidents were expected to oversee the day-to-day conduct of public business, such as appointments and removals, department reports, budgetary appropriations, and other administrative chores. Jackson showed the attention to detail, consistency, and tact required of good administrators. One observer reported that the president “looks personally into every thing … He frequently visits the executive offices, supervises the proceedings of the subordinate functionaries, and directs and stimulates them by his presence.” Little wonder that Jackson could report that his labors employed him “day and night” and that his situation was one of “dignified slavery.”
Meanwhile, economic growth, an increased and more widely dispersed population, and new government initiatives such as Indian removal strained old administrative arrangements. In the preceding forty years of constitutional government, there had been only two formal administrative reorganizations worthy of notice; but during Jackson’s presidency, almost every federal department was overhauled at least once, and the Post Office and General Land Office, which accounted for more than three-quarters of the civilian manpower employed by the executive branch, underwent major reorganizations. The civil service was enlarged, and new formal and elaborate bureaucracies appeared. Administrative rules better defined jurisdictions and responsibilities, and official duties were carefully checked and separated from private activities. According to Matthew A. Crenson’s prominent study, Jackson’s administrative legacy was the beginning of real government bureaucracy.
No aspect of Jackson’s administrative performance has been subjected to as much criticism as his policy of rotation in office. It has been viewed as a euphemism for the spoils system and as a major culprit in the decline of administrative standards during the Jacksonian period. During the campaign of 1828, there was an expectation among many Jackson supporters that his victory would be followed by the wholesale removal of Adams officeholders. To some extent, this reflected the wider participation by citizens in government and the practice of party politics in some states like Pennsylvania and New York, which had well-developed party organizations. No politician of Jackson’s skill could ignore the need to inspire and reward efforts made in his behalf. As his presidency progressed, Jackson found further justification in having loyal friends in office. Faithful office-holders brought the government closer to the people and assured that the people’s will, as expressed in his policies, was dutifully carried out. In short, partisanship was democratic.
But removals also resulted from Jackson’s concern for republican virtue. Jackson sincerely believed that his election was a victory over “the corrupting influence of executive patronage” and that the “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay was symptomatic of the extensive decay imbedded in the government. Jackson affirmed the reforming impulse behind removals in his first annual message. “Corruption in some and in others a perversion of correct feelings and principles divert government from its legitimate ends and make it an engine for the support of the few at the expense of the many,” he asserted. “Rotation” would prevent officeholders from assuming a permanent right to their positions, and public duties should be made simple enough so that all “men of intelligence” could perform them. Implicit in this message was Jackson’s idea that “rotation in office … will perpetuate our liberty.”
There was much outcry among officeholders and opposition spokesmen who feared a mass beheading of all who would not swear fealty to Old Hickory. Even some of Jackson’s own supporters, particularly in the South, expressed disapproval of large-scale dismissals and the appointment of inappropriate personnel, especially low-status newspaper editors. Jackson’s critics had a point. Partisanship explicitly entered more fully into the appointments process than ever before. In his first year in office, Jackson removed more officials than all his predecessors combined, and the purges and partisan appointments doubtless contributed to a decline in ethical standards. Certainly, no previous officer managed to bilk the government of as much money as Jackson’s collector of the Port of New York, Samuel Swartwout, who absconded with over $1 million and fled to Europe. While Jackson did not intend to introduce a spoils system, his policy opened the way for his successors to institute a more systematic policy of party patronage.
Yet, there was no wholesale proscription during Jackson’s presidency, and there were many positive aspects to his policy. Jackson made clear from the outset that reform would proceed “judiciously … and upon principle.” Only about one-tenth of federal officeholders were removed during his presidency, and not all of these were for political reasons. Especially in the upper echelons of the civil service, key figures remained in their positions, retaining their subordinates and giving stability to the system.
Although a few of Jackson’s appointments proved to be disasters—Postmaster General Barry’s tenure was marked by inefficient service and escalating debts—many of Jackson’s appointments were excellent. From his position in the Treasury Department, for example, Amos Kendall zealously lopped off excess expenditures, unmasked corruption, and improved efficiency. He boasted of saving thousands of dollars and shocked many opposition leaders by exposing his predecessor, Tobias Watkins, a furious Adams partisan, for defalcation. Even Adams conceded that “some of the dismissions are deserved,” and though he considered most of the new appointees “less respectable, he acknowledged that some were “good.”
The wrongdoing that did occur should also be seen within the context of a general deterioration of ethical standards in American society. The legal profession, the business community, and organized religion all showed a similar decline in internal discipline, and it is likely that Jackson’s administrative reforms were designed in part to counteract this slide. In the outcry over removals, it is often forgotten that Jackson’s presidency marked an era of creative administration.
The Eaton Affair
Jackson had barely taken office when he confronted his first political crisis. The trouble revolved around Secretary of War Eaton and his wife, Peggy. For various reasons, Eaton’s appointment was unpopular with many Jackson supporters. Compounding this difficulty was Eaton’s marriage on New Year’s Day 1829 to Margaret O’Neale Timberlake. Peggy, the daughter of a Washington tavern keeper, had gained an unsavory reputation for being too forward with her father’s boarders when her first husband, a naval officer, was away. Eaton was a frequent guest at the O’Neale tavern. When her husband died at sea, probably a suicide brought on by drinking, Eaton married Peggy after receiving Jackson’s opinion that marriage would disprove the charges of impropriety.
Washington society, already fearful that Jackson would have as little regard for its conventions as he had for Indians or British troops, saw Eaton’s appointment as a challenge and responded by snubbing Mrs. Eaton. Although some prominent Washington leaders, particularly Van Buren, associated with the Eatons, many did not. Among the families that excluded her were those of Calhoun, Ingham, Branch, Berrien, and Donelson. Doubtless recalling the slanderous attacks against his own wife during the recent campaign, Jackson decried the baseness of those who, in the name of morality, dragged the intimate and private relations of marriage into the public arena. “Our society wants purging here,” he concluded.
Jackson devoted an inordinate amount of time during his first year in office gathering evidence to prove Mrs. Eaton’s virtue and laboring to have his family and cabinet harmonize. His efforts had little effect, and the social war against Peggy Eaton continued unabated. Jackson was furious and miserable, but he continued to support the Eatons and insisted that loyalty to them was essential to his own success.
The Eaton affair inevitably spilled over into politics. Initially, Jackson assumed that Clay and the opposition were responsible. However, by the late fall of 1829, he had identified Calhoun as the arch-conspirator. Because Eaton, who was a Van Buren partisan, had refused to back Calhoun’s presidential aspirations, Jackson alleged, Calhoun thought it necessary to destroy him, whatever the consequences to the administration.
In retrospect, it is clear that Jackson exaggerated Calhoun’s responsibility. The Eaton controversy involved matters of decorum that would have made it difficult under the best of circumstances to harmonize the cabinet. Much opposition to the Eatons also emanated more from political hostility to Eaton and Van Buren than from devotion to Calhoun.
Yet if Jackson simplified, he also struck a core truth. While there is no direct evidence that Calhoun initiated the quarrel to strengthen his claims to the succession, he was doing nothing to put a stop to a scandal that was damaging Jackson’s credibility. One close Jackson associate put the issue squarely when he judged Calhoun a “madman” if he promoted the maneuvers against Eaton, and not a wise man if he does not put an end to it.”
Soon other difficulties mixed with the Eaton incident to separate Calhoun from Jackson. In the fall of 1829, Jackson learned that, as a member of Monroe’s cabinet, Calhoun had recommended that Jackson be punished for defying the president’s orders and pursuing the Seminole Indians into Spanish Florida. In May 1830, when Jackson received confirming evidence in written form, he forwarded the material to Calhoun and expressed his “great surprise” at these allegations. Calhoun began a correspondence in which he attempted to blame Van Buren’s friends for reviving the issue, but he was still forced to concede his opposition to Jackson’s Florida invasion. Jackson denounced Calhoun as a “hypocrite” who had “attempted to stab me in the dark.”
Jackson also grew increasingly irritated by Calhoun’s political independence, particularly his prominent position among the radical antitariff nullifiers. Their deteriorating relationship came to a head at the Jefferson Day Dinner in April 1830, which some Calhounites intended to use as an occasion to identify nullification with Jeffersonian principles. Jackson suspected that the proceedings would prove irregular, and he made the impending dinner the subject of “frequent conversations” with Van Buren. Having seen the list of regular toasts beforehand, he prepared his own and carefully rehearsed it with aides.
After the regular toasts were given, Jackson rose to provide the first volunteer statement. Tradition has it that he stared sternly at Calhoun and announced, “Our Union—it must be preserved.” The words struck home with great force, and one nullifier rushed to ask Jackson to insert the word federal be-fore Union. Jackson readily agreed, saying that he had written the phrase that way but had inadvertently omitted the word. Even so, Jackson’s declaration contrasted starkly with the sentiment offered by Calhoun: “The Union: Next to our liberty, the most dear; may we all remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the States and distributing equally, the benefit and burden of the Union.” This overly long toast did nothing to dispel the idea that he was not in accord with Jackson’s convictions.
Jackson’s alienation from Calhoun was largely complete by this time. Thereafter, occasional efforts were made to reconcile the two men, but never successfully. In February 1831, Calhoun placed himself totally outside the pale by publishing his correspondence with Jackson concerning the Seminole controversy. The effect was to challenge Jackson in public and to give the impression that Jackson was weak and had been manipulated by Calhoun’s enemies. “Mr. Calhoun does not attack the President, he says; yet he makes him out a dupe!” Kendall observed. The administration drew the line against “false friends,” and Calhoun was effectively read out of the party.
The final scene of the Eaton drama was played out a few months later, in April 1831, when Van Buren paved the way for a general cabinet reorganization by resigning from his position. While Calhoun had been losing Jackson’s confidence, Van Buren had been gaining it. The New Yorker, by showing the Eatons the same social consideration he gave to others and by lending his support to Jackson’s political goals, earned Jackson’s trust and affection. By January 1830, Jackson had concluded that Van Buren should be his successor. Van Buren’s enemies charged him with manipulating the Eaton affair to undermine Calhoun, but the truth is that Van Buren needed only to let events take their course and take advantage of “the indiscretions of Calhoun’s friends.” Jackson noted approvingly that Van Buren “identified him [self] with the success of the administration.” He could not say the same for Calhoun.
Yet Van Buren’s prominence placed him in a distressing situation. So long as he remained in the cabinet, he was certain to bring continued attention to himself as a possible intriguer. The public might blame him for the Jackson-Calhoun split and for the disturbances over the Eatons. Van Buren, consequently, hit upon the idea of resigning from the cabinet as a way to restore harmony to the party and cabinet and to remove himself from a precarious position.
Jackson reluctantly accepted Van Buren’s resignation, along with that of Eaton, and then discharged Branch, Berrien, and Ingham. Only Barry remained, leaving Jackson with virtually a free hand to select new members who would work better together. Jackson also appointed Van Buren minister to Great Britain, but on 25 January 1832, the Senate rejected his nomination. A tie was arranged so that Calhoun could cast the deciding vote against his rival. It may have been Calhoun’s hope that this act of revenge would weaken Van Buren and the administration. One senator overheard Calhoun reassuring his followers that the vote would hurt Van Buren: “It will kill him, sir, kill dead. He will never kick, sir, never kick.” But in the end, the rejection made Van Buren a political martyr and the inevitable choice for Jackson’s vice president at the upcoming Democratic National Convention.
Despite the extraordinary discord and division of Jackson’s first two years, he emerged from the fray with a more coherent and loyal following. The loss of Calhoun was more than compensated by the firmer attachment of the Van Buren interest. Similarly, the establishment of Blair’s Globe in December 1830, replacing Duff Green’s pro-Calhoun United States Telegraph, provided new energy for the administration. To be sure, Blair’s arrival from Kentucky was not auspicious: his already thin, cadaverous-looking frame was disheveled and bandaged from a mishap to his coach, leading a disappointed Lewis to comment, “Mr. Blair, we want stout hearts and sound heads here.” But Blair and his paper were all that Jackson could wish. Unlike Green, Blair was fully devoted to Jackson and his objectives, particularly on banking and currency matters. Blair also made the Globe a clearinghouse for party information and propaganda, by exchanging copies with over four hundred other papers and by extending its circulation. The paper gave Jackson greater control over his administration, greater authority with Congress, and closer ties to the voters.
Not all of Jackson’s energy was diverted by political rivalry and intrigue. Even as he was preoccupied with Eaton and Calhoun, he began to move forward with his program. Among the first issues to be addressed was the situation of the Indian tribes.
When Jackson took office, relations between the southern tribes, the state governments, and the United States had reached a critical juncture. Georgia had clashed with the federal government when President John Quincy Adams refused to implement a controversial treaty removing the Creek Indians. Although Adams backed down and negotiated another treaty ceding the disputed land to the state, the incident highlighted the plight of the remaining southern tribes, particularly the Cherokee. Perhaps no issue more clearly distinguished the two presidential candidates in 1828, for Jackson’s imposing record of conquest over the Indians, both by arms and treaty, contrasted dramatically with Adams’ protective posture.
In his first annual message of December 1829, Jackson proposed that an area west of the Mississippi River be set apart and guaranteed to the Indian tribes. There they could be taught “the arts of civilization” and perpetuate their race. Emigration to this new territory would be “voluntary,” but those who remained in the East would be subject to the laws of the states in which they lived and would “ere long become merged in the mass of our population.”
The idea of removing Indians westward had a long history and the federal government had made numerous treaties for the removal of Indians. But Jackson’s statement represented a shift in emphasis of sufficient magnitude to mark a new era in Indian-white relations. He proposed that efforts at civilizing the tribes now take place only in Indian territory, where the tribes would be free from corrupting contact with the advancing tide of frontiersmen. Determined to pursue removal with unprecedented vigor and directness, Jackson threatened that those Indians who remained behind would lose their tribal status and be considered individuals subject to state authority.
The administration’s Indian removal bill encountered stiff resistance in Congress, where humanitarian and political objections nearly defeated it. Only by skillfully mobilizing their forces did Jackson’s followers narrowly succeed in passing the measure on 26 May 1830. The final vote showed a considerable degree of party loyalty, making it the first important measure of Jackson’s presidency that distinguished the emerging Democratic party from the opposition.
Despite the public outcry against removal, the program had many defenders, among them Jackson himself. Disputing the idea that the Indian tribes could establish separate nations within the borders of existing states, he promised liberal and equitable exchanges for their present lands. He contended that only in the West could Indians avoid demoralization and even complete annihilation at the hands of an expanding “mercenary” white population. With the Indians secure in their new territory, the federal government could exercise “parental control” over their interests and make them “civilized.”
However sincerely intended, Jackson’s humanitarian concerns were laced with an ethnocentrism and paternalism that devalued Indian culture and advances. No matter that some Indians had adopted many of the trappings of white society, Jackson considered the tribes as obstacles to the progressive spread of a superior civilization over the continent. “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms … and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?” he asked. When Indians also protested against leaving their traditional and sacred lands, Jackson facilely compared their fate to the experience of the highly mobile white society. “Doubtless it will be painful to leave the graves of their fathers,” he acknowledged, “but what do they more than our ancestors did or than our children are now doing.” Thus, if Indians assumed white ways, as had many Cherokee, Jackson disregarded it; if Indians desired to retain their traditional values, Jackson treated them as potential men on the make. Jackson was no Indian-hater, but his proposed philanthropy was virtually as damaging as outright hostility.
Efforts to make removal treaties with the Indians began as soon as Jackson took office and continued throughout his presidency. Jackson himself occasionally participated in the negotiations. The administration focused on the southern tribes, beginning in September 1830 with the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek with the Choctaw, and proceeding with the Creek, Chickasaw, and, in 1835, the Cherokee. Less well known are the treaties made with the generally weaker tribes of the Old Northwest, such as the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi. Over the period of Jackson’s presidency, the United States ratified some seventy treaties, affecting approximately forty-six thousand Indians.
Jackson hoped removal would be humane, but the process was often harsh and violent. Treaties were concluded with leaders who represented only a portion of the tribe and who often benefited personally from the agreement; food and transportation for the westward journey were contracted with the lowest bidder; and those staying behind generally found themselves deprived of their landholdings and treated as second-class citizens. When Indians refused to remove or when, disappointed in their new lands, they tried to return, violence broke out. The Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Creek War and the beginning of the long and bloody Seminole War in 1835 are examples of the coercion inherent in removal. Finally, Jackson’s promise of Indian self-government in the West never materialized, and federal authority remained intrusive in Indian affairs. Under pressure of a rapidly expanding agricultural and commercial frontier, Jackson’s respect for states’ rights and reduced federal expenditures produced an arrangement that was neither just nor humane.
Indian removal showed that Jackson’s goal of assuring a virtuous yet progressive society was circumscribed by race. At the same time, he clarified other aspects of his program by reversing the trend toward expanded federal assistance for internal improvements. In his first annual message in December 1829, Jackson brought the issue to Congress’ attention by announcing that many people considered previous policy unconstitutional or inexpedient. “The people expected reform, retrenchment and economy in the administration of Government,” he explained privately. “This was the cry from Maine to Louisiana, and instead of these the objects of Congress, it would seem, is to make mine one of the most extravagant administrations since the commencement of the Government.”
Bogged down in the Eaton affair, Indian removal, and other matters, Jackson left it to Van Buren to choose an appropriate measure to initiate his new policy. Van Buren waited until April 1830, when a Kentucky congressman introduced a bill calling upon the federal government to purchase stock in a corporation to construct a road in Kentucky from Maysville to Lexington. The Maysville Road was considered by its advocates as part of a more extensive interstate road system and, therefore, deserving of federal support. The bill readily passed the House of Representatives at the end of April, with the backing of many Jackson men. Van Buren then brought it to Jackson’s attention during one of their daily horseback rides, and Jackson promptly agreed that since the road was located entirely within one state, it would serve admirably.
Rumors circulated that Jackson might veto the Maysville bill, and a group of western Democrats appealed to Representative Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky to present their case for the road. Johnson explained that the improvement was needed and that a veto would severely damage the Jackson party in Kentucky. Warming to his subject, Johnson dramatically declaimed, “General! If this hand were an anvil on which the sledge hammer of the smith was descending and a fly were to light upon it in time to receive the blow he would not crush it more effectually than you will crush your friends in Kentucky if you veto that Bill!”
Jackson rose to his feet and responded in equally fervent language, bluntly remarking that there was “no money” for the expenditures desired by the friends of internal improvements. “Are you willing—are my friends willing to lay taxes to pay for internal improvements?—for be assured I will not borrow a cent except in case of absolute necessity!” he heatedly proclaimed. Jackson soon ended the interview on a more amicable note, promising to examine the bill from all angles before making up his mind, but Johnson left the White House convinced that the bill was as good as dead. “Nothing less than a voice from Heaven would prevent the old man from vetoing the Bill,” Johnson explained to his colleagues, and he “doubted whether that would!”
Johnson was right, for Jackson handed down his veto, rejecting the bill on grounds that were both constitutional and pragmatic. Affirming that internal improvements could be constitutionally appropriated only for purposes of national defense and national benefit, Jackson condemned the measure as “of purely local character.” He also skillfully argued against the expediency of such proposals even if they fell within his constitutional rule. Recalling the American responsibility to perpetuate “the republican principle,” Jackson urged lightening public burdens, ending wasteful expenditures, and eliminating the corruption and special privilege associated with government investment in private corporations.
Over the eight years of his presidency, Jackson elaborated and refined his objections to internal-improvements projects. He warned that federal involvement risked jurisdictional clashes with the states and that government investment in private transportation companies delegated public responsibilities to private agencies and led to charges of “favoritism and oppression.” He also protested against the “flagicious logrolling” that encouraged inequities of burdens and benefits and was destructive of legislative harmony. Jackson was not against economic progress, but he maintained that demands for an extensive, federally sponsored system of improvements endangered republican government and distorted natural economic growth.
Internal-improvements spending did not cease during Jackson’s administration. Indeed, he spent more money—about $10 million—than all previous administrations combined. But given the pressure for improved communication and transportation facilities placed on all levels of government by economic expansion, evidence of Jackson’s commitment to restraint can be found in the lack of new proposals emanating from his administration and the discouragement of new pet projects caused by actual or threatened vetoes. Most of the money approved by Jackson was for projects already begun under earlier administrations or involved activities and locales that were clearly under federal jurisdiction. Jackson therefore halted the drive for a national system of improvements and located the major responsibility for projects on state and local governments and on private funding.
More than the Indian removal bill, Jackson’s internal-improvements policy began the process of identifying Jackson’s followers with a party platform. Jackson himself broadcast the idea that his position on internal improvements was a testing ground for the emerging party divisions. “The line . . . has been fairly drew,” he announced after issuing the Maysville message.
The veto also signaled a significant change in presidential power. Prior to Jackson’s presidency, the veto had been resorted to only nine times, generally on grounds of unconstitutionality or to protect the executive against legislative encroachment. Jackson exercised the veto on more occasions, a total of twelve times; frequently employed the pocket veto, by which a president withholds a bill, unsigned, until Congress adjourns; and expanded the grounds for vetoing a measure. Indeed, it was the portions of Jackson’s veto messages dealing with nonconstitutional matters that generally contained the most authentic examples of Jacksonian rhetoric and had the greatest popular appeal. In directing his vetoes to the people, moreover, Jackson enhanced presidential power and made the chief executive substantially the equivalent of both houses of Congress.
The Bank of the United States
Jackson’s style of reaching out for political issues was never better illustrated than his attack on the Second Bank of the United States. The bank had been chartered in 1816 to restore the country to a sound fiscal condition after near financial catastrophe during the War of 1812. It was a large corporation, managed and operated under both private and public auspices. Its capital was $35 million, partly subscribed by the United States government, and it was permitted to establish branches and issue bank notes. It was a profit-making institution that also provided public services such as transferring government funds around the country and functioning as a depository for the Treasury. Although it possessed no monopoly over the money supply, it exerted great influence over the nation’s financial affairs.
After a shaky start, the bank earned a reputation for fiscal responsibility under the presidency of Nicholas Biddle. It even gained considerable popularity among state bankers, who might have looked upon their giant relative as an enemy. Still, the bank’s support did not run deep; Jeffersonian constitutional scruples, traditional republican anxieties, and practical objections lingered among numerous Americans who considered its monetary policies either too lenient or too restrictive and its powers a potential threat to republican government.
Foremost among the doubters was Jackson. Having once been brought to the brink of insolvency by speculative adventures, Jackson became suspicious of all banks and their paper-money issues. His opposition to the national bank, therefore, was part of a broader antibanking and hard-money perspective. “I have been opposed always to the Bank of the U.S. as well as all state Banks of paper issues, upon constitutional ground,” he insisted. He also suspected that the bank had intervened in local and national elections and thereby constituted a danger to free government. Thus, when preparing his first annual message, Jackson rejected pleas that he exclude reference to the bank, responding to one worried counselor, “Oh! My friend, I am pledged against the bank.”
It is unlikely that Jackson thought in terms of the immediate destruction of the Bank of the United States. Rather, he intended to curb its abuses and explore possible alternatives. In his first message, he briefly observed that the bank’s charter was scheduled to expire in 1836 and that its stockholders would probably apply for a renewal. Claiming that both the constitutionality and expediency of the bank were “well questioned by a large portion of our fellow-citizens” and that the bank had failed to establish a uniform and sound currency, he tentatively suggested that Congress consider substituting an institution more closely attached to the government. A year later, he reiterated his apprehensions about the “dangers” of the bank and elaborated on his proposal for a modified national bank that would be an adjunct of the Treasury.
Yet the pace of events remained like a minuet with both sides eyeing each other warily. Jackson’s new cabinet, organized in the spring of 1831, contained two highly regarded figures, Louis McLane at the Treasury Department and Edward Livingston at the State Department, who sympathized with the bank. An all-out assault would doubtless have precipitated another cabinet crisis, something Jackson could ill afford. Perhaps, too, he preferred to delay further action until after the 1832 presidential election. Whatever his reasons, Jackson’s third annual message, delivered in December 1831, was more modest than his earlier ones. While affirming his continued misgivings about the bank, he ambiguously left the whole subject “to the investigation of an enlightened people and their representatives.”
Jackson’s moderation troubled antibank Democrats. They need not have worried, for events favored their cause. In January 1832, Biddle, acting on the unfortunate advice of political friends, submitted to Congress a memorial for renewing the bank’s charter. The timing was obviously calculated to make the bank a political issue. The National Republican party had nominated Clay as its presidential candidate in December 1831, and he was eager to test Jackson’s strength on this very question. The bank’s transparent political design further convinced Jackson that it was indeed a “monster” that threatened to corrupt the nation. As Roger Taney, Jackson’s new attorney general, explained, the bank’s application meant that “the Bank says to the President, your next election is at hand—if you charter us, well—if not, beware of your power.”
The recharter bill passed the Senate on 11 June and the House on 3 July 1832. Jackson met it with a veto that pulsed with the language of Jacksonian democracy. It pronounced the institution a private and privileged corporation whose concentration of political and economic power promoted corruption and threatened liberty. Jackson scored the bank for its “exclusive privileges,” claiming that most of its stock was held by foreigners and Americans “chiefly of the richest class.” He accused it of operating inequitably, particularly against the West, and of “gross abuse” of its charter. Most especially he warned that the principles embodied in the bill contravened the basic principles of republican equality. Government, Jackson proclaimed, should 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 should not add “artificial distinctions” to the inevitable natural and just differences among men and “make the rich richer and the potent more powerful.”
Jackson’s opponents assailed the veto as “the very slang of the leveller and demagogue.” They had a point. Superficially, the message implied conflict between the rich and the poor. Yet its ideas were more complex. The veto did not call for the redistribution of wealth or for class war. Instead, it blended a progressive regard for equal opportunity and “competition,” with the apprehension that special privilege and monopoly promoted corruption, concentration of power, and a dangerous degree of inequality. The bank veto appealed to concerns that were both contemporary and nostalgic, as Jackson tried to reconcile an expanding and increasingly market-oriented society, of which the bank was a key agent, with the Revolution’s ideal of a virtuous republic.
Inevitably, the bank became the paramount issue in the 1832 presidential election. Illustrating the rapid development of party organization during this period, the Democratic party’s first national convention met in Baltimore in May 1832 and nominated Jackson and Van Buren. Although it was more fully attended than its rivals’, the Democratic meeting was not the first national political convention. The previous December, the National Republicans had assembled in Baltimore to select Clay and John Sergeant of Pennsylvania as their standard-bearers. Even earlier, in September 1831, the nation’s first major third party, the Anti-Masons, convened in Baltimore. This party originated in upstate New York in 1826 when an itinerant stonemason named William Morgan disappeared after threatening to publish the secrets of Freemasonry. When local Masons obstructed the investigation into Morgan’s kidnapping, a storm of grassroots protest erupted in western New York and spread throughout New England, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and other northern states. Anti-Masons soon organized politically and, inspired by moral and egalitarian ideals, advocated the eradication of the Masonic order as well as a variety of other reforms. Finding that the likely presidential contenders in 1832, Jackson and Clay, were both high-ranking Masons, Anti-Masonic leaders decided to nominate their own candidate. In September 1831, delegates from thirteen states nominated William Wirt of Maryland for president and Amos Ellmaker of Pennsylvania for vice president.
The two opposition parties proved no match against Jackson’s popularity and his party’s organizational efforts. During the campaign, special-edition newspapers, parades, barbecues, and rallies supplemented an extensive network of Hickory Clubs and state and local organizations. Jackson, while carefully avoiding overt efforts at soliciting votes, managed to make numerous public appearances when returning to Washington in the early fall from a summer stay in Tennessee. The campaign, therefore, advanced the movement toward a popular, voter-oriented style of politics.
Jackson won a smashing reelection victory. His estimated 55 percent of the popular vote and 219 electoral votes demonstrated his continued special appeal to the voters. In contrast, Clay received 37 percent of the popular vote and 49 electoral votes, while Wirt gained only 8 percent of the popular vote and 7 electoral votes. The Anti-Masonic party soon dissolved, its members being absorbed by both the Democratic party and the new Whig party. But there was no time to savor the triumph, for even as the results were recorded, Jackson’s attention was primarily focused on South Carolina and the issue of nullification.
The nullification crisis was precipitated by South Carolina’s bitterness at Jackson’s failure to urge a major downward revision of tariff rates. Protective tariffs were considered unconstitutional, inexpedient, and inequitable throughout the South, but resentment was most extreme in South Carolina. There, the tariff was a great symbol of southern oppression, and nullification became the appropriate remedy. As devised by Calhoun, nullification’s chief theoretician, in his Exposition (1828) and Fort Hill Address (1831), each state retained the final authority to declare federal laws unconstitutional. Acting through a convention, a state could pronounce a federal law null and void within its limits while remaining in the Union.
Jackson was a moderate on the tariff issue. He considered modest protection necessary to ensure the production of goods necessary for national defense and security, to establish a parity with European manufacturers, and to raise sufficient revenue to pay the national debt. He did not doubt the constitutionality of tariff protection. He vowed, therefore, to pursue “a middle and just course” on the tariff, a policy that was also politically expedient because of the lack of consensus among Democrats on the subject.
As for nullification, Jackson’s contempt was un-reserved. He declared it an “abominable doctrine” that struck at the very roots of the Union, which he considered “perpetual,” and it violated the principle of majority rule. He distinguished nullification from traditional states’ rights principles. States’ rights “will preserve the union of the states,” Jackson explained, but nullification “will dissolve the Union.”
In the spring of 1831, nullifier leaders went on the offensive. They organized themselves to take control of South Carolina and issued increasingly hostile attacks against the tariff and the administration. When Congress assembled in December, Jackson tried to defuse the controversy by recommending that tariff rates be lowered. Certainly pressure from South Carolina forced his hand on this matter, but tariff reform also comported with his evolving program. The approaching end of the national debt made excessive rates appear to be a special privilege of manufacturers, at the expense of ordinary citizens. High tariffs also provoked sectional strife and undermined “liberty and the general good.”
Congress responded with a reform tariff in 1832, returning schedules to approximately what they had been in 1824. The measure was unacceptable to nullifiers, however, who won more than two-thirds of the seats in the South Carolina legislature the following October and called a state convention. Meeting in Charleston on 19 November 1832, the delegates approved the Ordinance of Nullification, which declared that the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were null and void and that after 1 February 1833 it would be illegal to enforce the payment of import duties within the limits of South Carolina. The convention further warned that any use of force against the state would provide grounds for secession.
Jackson viewed the situation as grave. He regarded the nullifiers as reckless and disappointed demagogues who sought to ride to power on the ruin of the nation. Republican government was always susceptible to subversion from within, and the nullifiers seemed hell-bent on a separation of the Union. Jackson therefore developed a strategy designed to avoid provoking war while isolating and intimidating South Carolina. He sent arms and equipment to the loyal Unionists in the state, readied the army and navy, orchestrated expressions of patriotism throughout the nation, and promised prompt federal military intervention if nullifiers resisted federal laws and over-awed South Carolina loyalists.
When Congress convened in December 1832, Jackson made a new conciliatory gesture by announcing his commitment to further tariff reform. Yet it seems unlikely that he had much confidence that this would placate South Carolina. Instead, he probably hoped to isolate the state from southern moderates, who would now have little reason to sympathize with extremism.
Indeed, to show his determination to hold fast against nullification, Jackson issued the Nullification Proclamation on 10 December. Composed with the assistance of Kendall, Blair, and especially Secretary of State Edward Livingston, whom Jackson charged to use his “best flight of eloquence,” the proclamation pronounced nullification “incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.” He urged South Carolinians to retrace their steps and called upon all Americans to give their undivided support to the Union and “to inspire new confidence in republican institutions.”
Led by Van Buren’s followers, moderates in Congress sought to end the conflict by supporting a lower tariff bill introduced by Gulian C. Verplanck of New York. But to Jackson the situation remained critical, and on 16 January he sent Congress a message, informing it of South Carolina’s actions and requesting explicit confirmation of his right to employ state militias and federal forces against the dissidents.
The resulting Force Bill, as it became known, received bipartisan support—its floor manager in the Senate was Daniel Webster—and though many southerners disliked the measure, its passage was all but assured from the time it was introduced. Jackson considered the act necessary to “show to the world” that the United States was prepared “to crush in an instant” rebellion and treason. At the same time, he made no effort on behalf of the Verplanck bill, preferring to postpone tariff revision until nullification was put down.
Prospects for compromise brightened considerably toward the end of January 1833, when a public meeting in Charleston resolved to delay nullification until Congress completed deliberations on tariff reform. A few weeks later, Clay and Calhoun made public their agreement to underwrite a compromise tariff that would provide a face-saving retreat for the nullifiers. The Clay tariff proposal sacrificed the principle of tariff protection for time, by slowly bringing rates down to a revenue standard. Jackson conspicuously refused to shift his priorities by making Clay’s bill an administration measure. But most legislators considered the Compromise Tariff of 1833 as essential as the Force Bill, and by the beginning of March, both proposals had passed Congress. Significantly, Jackson signed the Force Bill first, declaring that it gave “the death blow” to nullification.
The threat to the Union was over, and most Americans breathed a sigh of relief. Yet there were those who, like Jackson, had doubts that the new tariff would bring enduring sectional peace. In the spring of 1833, when some nullifiers denounced the new tariff and called for continued and unceasing efforts to protect the South and slavery from prejudicial legislation, Jackson predicted that the nullifiers, having failed to break up the Union on the tariff issue, would now grasp “the negro, or slavery question” as their “next pretext.” Additional signs of restiveness in the South were evident among many Democrats, who considered Jackson an unreliable guardian of states’ rights.
Even so, the nation had weathered the storm. Jackson had vindicated the Union, demonstrated that states’ rights principles were compatible with nationalism, and displayed remarkable skill in wielding presidential power. One leading Democrat remarked at this time, “He is a much abler man than I thought him. One of those naturally great minds which seem ordinary except when the fitting emergency arises.”
Shortly afterward, in June 1833, Jackson departed from Washington on a tour of the East Coast, providing himself with a refreshing break from the recent arduous responsibilities of office and permitting the country to renew its commitment to the Union through patriotic celebration. The response in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and elsewhere was magnificent. The enthusiasm was genuine and almost universal. In Cambridge, Jackson was awarded an honorary degree of doctor of laws from Harvard. When Adams complained about this debasement of Harvard’s reputation, he was met with a telling response from the president of Harvard: “As the people have twice decided that this man knows law enough to be their ruler, it is not for Harvard College to maintain that they are mistaken.” But Jackson was compelled to cut short his itinerary when he collapsed from fatigue and bleeding from the lungs. He was taken by steamer back to Washington, where his life remained in danger for two days, before he rallied.
Removal of Deposits
Even as the tour proceeded, Jackson was deeply immersed in politics, for the issue of the Bank of the United States again pressed upon his attention. The bank’s charter continued in effect until 1836 and then permitted the institution two years more to wind up its affairs, during which time it could try to reverse its fate. Indeed, Jackson thought there was sufficient evidence that Biddle would neither acknowledge defeat nor work harmoniously with the government. He alleged that since the veto, Biddle had circulated propaganda for the bank, aided Clay’s presidential campaign, and mismanaged bank funds.
Equally ominous, the recent alliance of Clay and Calhoun gave new life to the opposition, which, Jackson predicted, would seek recharter as the centerpiece of a system of expanded governmental powers. He considered the situation a “crisis,” and he determined to remove the government’s deposits from the bank, relying instead on a system of selected state banks, called pet banks. In preparation, he shuffled his cabinet personnel, shifting the conservative McLane from the Treasury Department to the State Department and appointing the Pennsylvanian William Duane to replace McLane.Throughout the summer of 1833, Jackson confronted evidence of serious resistance to removal from probank Democrats, cabinet members, and even good friends like Van Buren and Ritchie. At the end of July, he fled the sultry capital for his Virginia vacation resort at the Rip Raps to ponder the situation. As the steamboat conveyed the party down the Chesapeake, an incident occurred that showed Jackson’s unflagging self-assurance. The Chesapeake waves were unusually high, seemingly endangering the old vessel and its occupants. An aged passenger exhibited a good deal of alarm, but Jackson retained his composure. “You are uneasy,” Jackson said to the gentleman. “You never sailed with me before, I see.”
Deciding to put to rest further discussion of his intentions, Jackson returned to Washington, called his cabinet together, and explained that there could now be “no excuse for further delay.” Though most cabinet members swung reluctantly to his side, Duane stubbornly resisted issuing the order changing the government’s depository. Jackson, who regarded Duane as “either the weakest mortal, or the most strange composition I have ever met with,” fired him and replaced him with Roger Taney. On 25 September, Taney ordered that as of 1 October, future government revenue be placed in state banks.
The removal order set off a last, mighty struggle with the Bank of the United States. Biddle retaliated by turning the screws on the economy, reducing loans, calling in debts, and curtailing other activities. “This worthy President thinks that because he has scalped Indians and imprisoned Judges he is to have his way with the Bank. He is mistaken,” Biddle fumed.
At the same time, opposition leaders, who were beginning to adopt the name Whig, denounced Jackson. “Executive usurpation,” they cried, trying to undermine Jackson’s popular appeal. During the so-called Panic Session of Congress, Senate Whigs managed to pass two resolutions in February and March 1834, rejecting Taney’s reasons for removing the deposits and censuring Jackson’s actions as “not conferred by the Constitution and laws.”
As economic distress spread throughout the country, many Jacksonians hesitated. But Jackson refused to bend or to lose control of the situation. “Go to Nicholas Biddle,” he told complaining delegations seeking redress. The president also turned the tables on the Senate by issuing a “Protest” detailing its own transgressions and disregard of constitutional procedures.
The tide of events soon turned in Jackson’s favor. In February 1834, Pennsylvania’s governor, George Wolf, turned against the bank, and in Congress the president’s backers counterattacked. Finally, on 4 April 1834, after prolonged debate, House Democrats passed four resolutions that sustained both the bank veto and the removal of the deposits. Having failed to alter Jackson’s policy, the bank’s directors voted in July to end the contraction.
Jackson had once again prevailed. “Biddled, Diddled, and Undone” was the epitaph for the bank penned by one Democratic editor. To be sure, Jackson lost some supporters over the removal issue, mostly among southern states’ rights radicals, who used the question of “executive usurpation” as a pretext for joining the Whig party. But like other Jackson policies, removal clarified party lines and firmed the commitment of those who remained loyal.
Destroying the national bank was one thing, but assuring the nation a stable and secure monetary system was another. Following removal, therefore, Jackson began his campaign to reform banking abuses. His administration’s fondness for hard money—gold and silver—is probably the most difficult of all Jackson measures for twentieth-century Americans to understand. In an era when banking was virtually unregulated and an expanding economy fueled demands for more and more credit, paper money was an obvious target for reformers, who held it responsible for a cruel economic cycle of booms and busts. They also complained that it sapped public virtue by encouraging speculation, robbing “honest labor” of its earnings, and making “knaves rich, powerful and dangerous.” Attacks against excessive paper issues reflected concern for actual banking abuses as well as anxiety and, for some, resistance to the onrushing Market Revolution.
Administration efforts to encourage what the Globe called “Jackson money” only partially succeeded. Congress revalued gold in 1834, but the precious metal never became a circulating medium for ordinary commercial transactions. Moreover, Congress dragged its feet for two years before imposing restraints on small bills, so that Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury, who succeeded Taney, was compelled to take action on his own authority. In April 1835, he ordered that after 30 November the pet banks refuse bank notes under $5 for payment of government dues. In early 1836 the ban was extended to cover notes under $10.
During his second administration, Jackson also turned his attention to the issue of a successor who would perpetuate his program and party. Van Buren had long been his choice, and in the summer of 1834, Jackson informed Van Buren that he was insisting that party leaders take a stand against the Bank of the United States, national banks in general, “and in favor of you.” Van Buren, however, had drawbacks. As a northerner, he was suspect to many southerners, and his reputation for political scheming left a trail of political resentment. Rebellion against a Van Buren succession flared throughout the South and consolidated behind the candidacy of a slaveholding Tennessean, Senator Hugh Lawson White.
In order to unite the party behind Van Buren, Jackson urged that a national convention meet early. In response to the administration’s call, delegates convened in Baltimore on 20 May 1835 and nominated Van Buren, along with the popular Kentucky military hero and senator Richard M. Johnson. Johnson’s earlier open relationship with a mulatto woman and his two daughters by her stirred resistance among many southern Jacksonians who preferred Virginia’s William C. Rives for the vice presidency. But Jackson’s fiat went forth, and Johnson won the necessary two-thirds vote.
Southern apprehensiveness about the Van Buren-Johnson ticket becomes more understandable in light of renewed northern antislavery activity at this time. Jackson’s presidency coincided with the formation of state and national antislavery societies, the publication of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, and the expansion of abolitionist efforts to awaken the nation’s conscience. Although abolitionists focused primarily on nonpolitical tactics, their activities inevitably intruded into politics. During the last two years of the Jackson administration, therefore, the slavery issue was reintroduced to American politics for the first time since the fiery Missouri debates of 1819-1821.
In the summer of 1835, shortly after the Democratic convention adjourned, antislavery forces organized a campaign to distribute propaganda tracts through the mails to the South. The southern response was predictable. Southern state legislatures passed laws to keep out such “incendiary literature,” and many southern postmasters refused to deliver abolitionist mail. At Charleston, South Carolina, on 29 July, a mob of some three hundred incensed citizens stormed the post office to seize abolitionist material. Although persuaded to disperse, a few Carolinians returned that night and took possession of the literature, which they burned the following evening on the Charleston parade grounds.
The Jackson administration’s handling of this controversy has generally been interpreted as evidence of its southern orientation. According to one account, the Democratic party’s pro-South and pro-slavery bias was the “darker side to Jacksonian Democracy.” The Jackson administration certainly was hostile to abolitionism and any efforts to disturb the South’s “peculiar institution.” It showed a continuing solicitude for southern opinion and interests, and it embraced the racial tenets of “herrenvolk democracy,” which affirmed the equality of whites and their superiority over non-whites. Jackson himself was a substantial planter, owning many slaves, and while he insisted that they be treated “humanely,” he showed no disposition to disturb the legal and constitutional arrangements that maintained the slave system. Yet Jackson’s position on the slavery issue was more complex than this.
The Democratic party was a national organization, and northern attitudes about slavery and civil liberties had to be given weight. Moreover, Jackson’s denunciation of abolitionism did not signify that he considered slavery a positive or permanent good. Rather, he thought that by maintaining sectional calm, Providence would, in time, somehow eradicate the evil. Indeed, he generally perceived the growing slavery controversy as artificial and political, with both abolitionists and southern extremists seeking to divide the Union to serve their separate ends. The permanency of the Union and the American experiment in liberty went hand in hand; both were directly threatened by agitation over slavery. And so, too, was the Democratic party. The administration therefore sought to put a damper on the slavery issue by placating southern worries while resisting extreme proslavery demands.
With Jackson vacationing in Virginia, the administration’s initial response to the mails controversy fell to the recently appointed postmaster general, Amos Kendall. Seeking to intercept the mails with as little noise and difficulty as possible, Kendall adopted an evasive strategy of refusing officially to sanction the action of local postmasters who detained the mail, but also declining to order it delivered. He thus left postmasters to their own discretion.
Upon learning of the situation in Charleston, Jackson angrily denounced the abolitionists as “monsters” and suggested that those who subscribed to the papers have their names recorded by the postmaster and exposed in the public newspapers. Yet Jackson did not justify mob action or the complete interdiction of abolitionist mailings. He denounced the “spirit of mob-law” as evidenced in Charleston and thought that the instigators should be “checked and punished.” Reminding Kendall that federal officials had “no power to prohibit anything from being transported in the mails that is authorized by the law,” he suggested that the papers be delivered only to those who were “really subscribers.”
The mails controversy became a leading question when Congress convened in December 1835. In his annual message, Jackson noted the “painful excitement” caused by the abolitionist tracts and recommended that Congress prohibit their circulation in the South. His proposal prompted a heated debate in the Senate when Calhoun objected to giving Congress power to exclude material. Such authority, Calhoun alleged, would equally permit the federal government to “open the gates to the flood of incendiary publications.”
Calhoun urged that state law, not Congress, be the arbiter of what was incendiary, and in February 1836, he reported a bill declaring it unlawful for postmasters in states and territories to receive and put into the mail any material “touching” the subject of slavery that was addressed to any area where such material was prohibited. Not everyone found Calhoun’s distinction clear. At least one key Jacksonian asserted that Calhoun’s bill was actually an administration measure because it ultimately relied upon federal authority to enforce the ban.
Northern Whigs led the opposition to Calhoun’s bill, protesting that it violated freedom of the press. Significantly, a number of loyal Jacksonians, including Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and John Niles of Connecticut, also considered the proposal “preposterous and mischievous.” After considerable discussion and revision, the bill barely survived a test vote in the Senate on 2 June when a tie was broken by Vice President Van Buren. It then failed on a final vote when enough northern Democrats combined with northern and borderstate Whigs to defeat it. The tally was more sectional than partisan, indicating how slavery jeopardized party unity. Eventually, toward the end of the session, the Senate approved a Post Office Department reorganization plan that explicitly forbade postmasters from detaining the mail. But southern state laws remained on the books, and federal law became, in the words of one historian, “largely a dead letter in the South.”
Although Congress had failed to adopt his recommendation, it is hard to think that Jackson was disappointed by this course of events. The mails controversy subsided as southern states quietly nullified federal law without resorting to federal legislation that many northerners found objectionable. The Democratic party’s position was to muffle rather than inflame the slavery issue, and the Globe, after blaming defeat for the mails bill on the Whigs, let the subject rest.
A second slavery question proved more nettle-some to the Jackson administration. This was the antislavery campaign to petition Congress for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the District of Columbia and in federal territories. The trouble erupted early in the session when, on 18 December 1835, South Carolina congressman James Henry Hammond announced that he “could not sit there and see the rights of the southern people assaulted day after day, by the ignorant fanatics from whom these memorials proceed.” He demanded that the petitions not be received by the House.
Hammond’s action precipitated a bitter debate that, in one form or another, lasted a decade. Southern radicals like Hammond intended from the outset to use the petitions as a way of ascertaining northern attitudes toward slavery and to establish the principle that slavery lay entirely outside of congressional authority. Aside from the Vermont abolitionist congressman William Slade, no northerners spoke in favor of the prayers of the petitions. Instead, northern spokesmen defended the right to have antislavery memorials respectfully received and handled. Northern Whigs again led the defense of the right of reception, but they were joined by a number of prominent Jacksonians like Samuel Beardsley of New York, who warned that northern freemen would not tolerate having their petitions forbidden or treated with scorn.
As in the mails controversy, Jacksonians tried to “sink the irritating topic into instant insignificance.” After weeks of speeches and political maneuvering, Democrats eventually rallied behind a resolution offered by Henry L. Pinckney of South Carolina, calling for a select committee to deal with the materials. Southern radicals were furious that Pinckney had seemingly conceded the power of the House to act upon the subject of slavery at all. But the resolution passed the House handily, with the overwhelming majority of Democrats, particularly from the North, in support.
In May 1836, Pinckney presented his commit-tee’s report to the House. Denouncing the “sickly sentimentality” of antislavery reformers, it proposed resolutions denying constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in the states; declaring that Congress “ought not” to interfere with slavery in the nation’s capital; and, finally, tabling with no further action, and without printing or referral, all petitions and other material relating to the subject of slavery or its abolition. The last resolution was the famous “gag rule.”
As expected, Pinckney’s motions were condemned by some as an invasion of southern rights and by others as a violation of the right of petition. In order to prevent the discord from getting out of control, Jacksonian leaders quickly cut off debate by moving the previous question and rushing a vote on the resolutions. All passed easily, and the slavery issue in Congress was temporarily held in abeyance under the combined restraints of party loyalty and the gag rule.
But the controversy over petitions continued to agitate national politics, in part because the gag rule provided a concrete and attractive target for antislavery advocates who linked their cause to the broader one of civil liberties. Annual debates over the gag rule strained the Democratic party, whose members were torn between sectional allegiance and party loyalty. In 1844 enough northern Democrats refused to go along with their southern colleagues, and the gag rule died. Jackson deplored the increased sectional bitterness that marked national politics during his presidency. He urged Americans to remember that the foundations of the Constitution and the Union were laid in the “affections of the people” and in their “fraternal attachment” as members of one political family. His sentiments were heartfelt, but time would demonstrate that his appeals for moderation, for unionism, and for patience in awaiting Providence’s will were ineffectual nostrums for the great moral and legal issues posed by slavery.
While the slavery controversy agitated political waters, Jackson also found rough sailing in his campaign to reform banking excesses and the nation’s money supply. Although the deposit system was generally performing well, serious problems were becoming evident. The country was in the midst of an inflationary surge propelled by an influx of silver and by overbanking and speculation, and the pet banks were doing their share in dangerously expanding credit. These conditions produced a surplus of tariff and land revenues, which accumulated in the pets. Other institutions resented the pets’ access to federal funds and demanded a portion.
As a result, when the administration proposed a measure to regulate the pet banks, Congress severely modified it. The resulting Deposit Act of 1836 was a multipurposed affair. It provided some needed restrictions on small paper bills but also limited the amount of federal money that could be held in each pet bank. The effect was to increase radically the number of pets and sacrifice control over the deposit system.
Even more objectionable to Jackson was a provision that distributed the surplus federal revenue to the states. Jackson had once supported distribution, though only under certain conditions, but he now considered the measure unconstitutional and inexpedient. It made the states dependent on the federal government for revenue, encouraged speculation and excessive paper issues, and created pressures on Congress to raise the tariff to replace the lost money. Indeed, he considered this measure so harmful that he actually prepared a veto. Only after Congress made federal funds a deposit subject to recall, rather than an outright grant, did he reluctantly sign the bill.
Jackson’s approval was clearly motivated by practical concerns. In an election year, Democrats rivaled Whigs in promising states the benefits of the surplus, and a presidential veto would have damaged Van Buren’s prospects. Besides, distribution was simply the price that Jackson had to pay for getting some degree of bank regulation.
In the aftermath of the bill’s passage, Jackson made it evident that his signature spelled no retreat from his hard-money policy. In July 1836, he issued the Specie Circular, which directed government agents to receive only gold and silver in payment for public lands after December 1836, a measure designed to diminish land speculation and to “preserve the deposit banks” by increasing the specie backing of bank notes. The Specie Circular generated a storm of protest; Congress passed a bill at the close of Jackson’s presidency repealing it, but Jackson pocket vetoed the bill. “I have the great republican principles to sustain, the constitution to preserve, protect and defend, and the most vital principle of it is the currency, and I have to maintain a consistency of character in all my acts to make my administration beneficial to republicanism,” he explained.
Jackson’s banking and currency program must receive mixed grades. The pet-bank system aggravated the inflationary pressures of the mid-1830s and contributed to the inevitable Panic of 1837, shortly after Jackson left office. His efforts to regulate and reform bank paper had only a modest effect in controlling speculation and bringing about economic stability.
Criticism of Jackson’s program should be balanced by the realization that economic fluctuations are international in scope and that the federal government had only a limited ability to shape the course of economic affairs. It is doubtful the boom-and-bust cycle of the 1830s would have been avoided if Jackson had rechartered the national bank. Moreover, Jackson should be credited for the social and moral considerations that inspired his actions. He perceived, if only dimly, that the rapid changes associated with the Market Revolution undermined traditional values and relationships, and jeopardized the rough equality of condition that underpinned a republican society. His warnings about concentrations of political and economic power and about the debilitating effects of corruption have become part of the American reform tradition.
The spring of 1836 brought one clear-cut triumph for the president: the successful conclusion of a settlement with France over spoliation claims dating from the Napoleonic era. When Jackson took office, negotiations with France had reached a “hopeless” condition, according to Secretary of State Van Buren. Jackson informed Congress in his first annual message that he intended to break the logjam.
Jackson’s minister to France, William C. Rives, prodded and flattered the reluctant French government into signing a treaty in July 1831. By its terms, France agreed to pay the United States 25 million francs, and in return, the United States paid a small sum to extinguish French claims against the American government and reduced the duties on French wines. Jackson happily announced the settlement the following December and submitted the treaty for ratification; it was approved unanimously.
Celebration proved premature when France, embroiled in financial and political difficulties, refused to appropriate money to implement the treaty. At first, Jackson accepted the word of the king and his ministers that the fault lay in the French Chamber of Deputies. But by the summer of 1834, his confidence in the king diminished too, and in October he began talking about taking “strong measures.”
Jackson labored with more than usual attention over the foreign affairs section of his December 1834 message to Congress. One evening, he was brought the page proofs as revised by Secretary of State John Forsyth. Donelson began to read them while Jackson paced the floor, pipe in hand. When Donelson seemed to slur over a key passage dealing with France, Jackson paused. “Read that again, sir,” he said. Donelson repeated the words more distinctly. “That, sir, is not my language,” Jackson exclaimed, striking out the unauthorized revisions and writing his own original phrasing.
The message was direct and to the point. It recapitulated the history of the negotiations and, while disclaiming any desire to intimidate or threaten France, recommended that Congress authorize reprisals against French property. The statement temporarily worsened relations with France, and there was talk of war when the French government recalled its minister. Yet neither side acted precipitately. In France, Minister Edward Livingston explained that Jackson’s message was intended to heal the diplomatic breach, not insult the French. Somewhat mollified, the Chamber of Deputies soon appropriated money to pay the claims but attached a proviso that no money should be paid until France received a satisfactory explanation of the language in Jackson’s message.
Jackson refused to concede any point of honor. In his message of December 1835 and in a special message the following January, he decried the right of any foreign power to dictate the language used by a president. He would issue, he said, no “servile” apology. Jackson also called for commercial retaliation if France continued to refuse payment. But Jackson, too, carefully avoided provocation by reaffirming his peaceful purposes and reiterating his good opinion of the French people.
Though matters remained in a precarious condition for some weeks, the issue was soon resolved. In February 1836, Great Britain offered to mediate the dispute, and France quickly accepted the accommodating portions of Jackson’s December message as a satisfactory explanation. In May, Jackson announced to Congress the termination of the controversy, along with the information that the first four installments of the debt had been paid.
The resolution of the French crisis was only one of Jackson’s diplomatic accomplishments. Contrary to popular notions, Jackson actually devoted considerable energy to foreign affairs. About one-third of his annual messages related to foreign policy. Skillfully combining energy, bluster, tact, and patience, Jackson set a course to expand American commerce, resolve long-standing claims, restore American prestige, and enlarge America’s territorial boundaries.
As a result of Jackson’s leadership, the United States achieved a number of diplomatic triumphs, in addition to the agreement with France. These included the settlement of spoliation claims against Denmark, Portugal, and Spain and trade agreements with Russia, Spain, Turkey, Great Britain, and Siam. The treaty with Great Britain reopened American trade with the British West Indies, while the agreement with Siam was the first between the United States and an Asiatic nation. Partly owing to these diplomatic initiatives, American exports increased more than 75 percent and imports grew 250 percent during Jackson’s presidency.
Jackson was not entirely successful in foreign affairs. Missions to China and Japan accomplished nothing, and efforts to dislodge Great Britain’s position in South America failed. Most conspicuous, Jackson’s attempt to acquire Texas fell short. For years, he had considered Texas essential to the security of the Southwest, and as president, he was willing to spend $5 million to purchase it. He even countenanced the scheming and shady operations of his representative in Mexico, Colonel Anthony Butler, who at one point, for example, proposed that he head a military occupation of Texas. Jackson endorsed the letter “A. Butler: What a scamp,” yet he delayed replacing Butler with a more respectable agent until near the end of his presidency.
By that time, events in Texas made further diplomatic efforts impossible. In 1835 fighting broke out between the American settlers and the Mexican government, and by the spring of 1836, the Texans had routed the Mexican army and were appealing to Jackson for recognition and annexation. Despite his desire for Texas, Jackson proceeded cautiously. In part, he was unconvinced that Texas could maintain independence against Mexican military strength. Even more worrisome were possible domestic repercussions, since antislavery forces were already making Texas a slavery and sectional issue. Annexation would further strain national loyalties, divide the Democratic party, and jeopardize Van Buren’s election chances.
Jackson therefore rejected annexation and left the initiative for recognition to Congress. Not until 3 March 1837, after Van Buren’s election had been safely decided and after Congress had led the way with appropriate resolutions, did Jackson nominate a chargé d’affaires to the Republic of Texas. It was one of his last acts as president. He had not achieved complete success in the Southwest, but he had managed to bring closer to fulfillment his objective of expanding and securing American boundaries in that region.
By the time Jackson retired from the White House, he had significantly altered the office of the president and the course of American history. In expanding the veto power, basing his authority on the will of the people, and intervening in legislative matters, he dramatically enhanced the chief executive’s political and legislative powers. The president was now the focal point of national politics.
Jackson also advanced the formation of the Democratic party and, with it, the second American party system. Not only did he encourage the development of such organizational devices as the national convention, but his program and principles became the dividing line that separated Americans into opposing political camps. By the end of his second term, the country had two national political parties, each extending its structure deep into the electorate. This new political system had a distinctly more voter-oriented and democratic style than the previous one. Jackson was by no means exclusively responsible for these changes, but by bringing the presidency and national politics closer to the electorate, he contributed significantly.
Finally, Jackson stamped on the Democratic party a commitment to the principles of limited government, equality, and public virtue as the basis of a healthy republic. Sensing that progress toward a market-oriented society posed dangers to free institutions, Jackson attacked privileged monopolies, paper-money banking, speculation, excessive government expenditures, burdensome taxation, and consolidated power as diseases that sapped republican government and public virtue. He sought to revitalize Jeffersonian principles as a way of reconciling desirable economic advances with the republican ideals of the past.
To be sure, key elements of Jackson’s program, such as Indian removal and the gag rule, revealed that his egalitarian rhetoric applied only to whites. Yet in an important way, Jackson succeeded in delineating the conflict between democratic equality and economic development, and he made the kind of defiant effort to reconcile these forces that one would expect of Andrew Jackson.
Jackson was almost seventy years old when he retired to the Hermitage. He found comfort in the presence of his family and relations, particularly the children of his adopted son, Andrew Jackson, Jr. The Hermitage again became a seat of hospitality for friends, as well as a shrine to the Democratic faithful who made pilgrimages to visit the General. Jackson gave careful attention to his plantation, which had been poorly managed by Andrew, Jr., in his absence. He also put his religious house in order when, in 1838, he joined the Presbyterian Church. His religious affirmation was not followed by a noticeable decrease in the number or intensity of epithets he hurled at opponents.
But problems also plagued Jackson’s retirement. His health, always precarious, deteriorated, leaving him increasingly weak and feeble. He suffered from tuberculosis and dropsy, complaining of headaches, coughing, and swelling. Yet Jackson carried on, giving credit for his continued life to the restorative powers of Matchless Sanative, a cough medicine that he claimed made “a new man” of him. Most likely it was Jackson’s will and spirit, not Matchless Sanative or the ministrations of physicians, that held death at bay.
Equally worrisome were the debts that cast a shadow over the Hermitage. They were almost entirely the result of his adopted son’s bad business judgment and immaturity. Jackson assumed these obligations, selling land and borrowing money, using the valuable Hermitage as collateral. His indebtedness eventually ran to over $25,000, and the Hermit-age began to look neglected.
Ever a politician, Jackson continued his involvement in public affairs. The Panic of 1837 brought hard times until the early 1840s. Whigs and conservative Democrats blamed Jackson’s banking and hard-money policy, and urged Van Buren to repudiate the Specie Circular. Jackson responded by denouncing the “perfidy and treachery” of the banks, and he pressed Van Buren to hold firm on the circular. When Van Buren refused to rescind the order and recommended to Congress an independent treasury system by which the government would divorce itself from banks and place its funds in separate repositories, Jackson fully approved. His endorsement strengthened Democratic resolve to pass the so-called divorce bill in 1840.
Jackson also took a keen interest in Van Buren’s reelection campaign of 1840. He roundly condemned the Whig party’s log-cabin and hard-cider tactics as “an attempt to degrade our republican system,” and he even stumped for Van Buren in western Tennessee. When the Whig ticket of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler won, Jackson’s spirits temporarily sagged, but they quickly revived as he urged Democrats to unite around Van Buren.
Jackson’s greatest influence on public affairs during his post-White House years came after Tyler assumed the presidency following Harrison’s sudden death. When Tyler made the annexation of Texas a leading administration measure, Jackson bent his energies toward its accomplishment. Although the Texas issue had volatile political and sectional overtones, Jackson focused only on what he deemed “national” considerations, particularly the benefits of checking English influence over Texas and securing American borders.
Jackson’s enthusiasm for expansion strained his political relationship with Van Buren, Thomas Hart Benton, and other Democrats who balked at immediate annexation. But Jackson would not relent; he was “for the annexation regardless of all consequences.” In April 1844, Van Buren published a letter opposing immediate annexation, and Jackson reluctantly and painfully withdrew his support and advocated the nomination of “an annexation man.” He worked behind the scenes to push the candidacy of his fellow Tennessean James K. Polk, who eventually emerged with the Democratic presidential nomination in 1844.
Increasingly weak and debilitated, Jackson summoned up his reserves of strength to promote Polk’s election, scrawling letters of advice and encouragement to party leaders and helping to secure Tyler’s withdrawal as an independent candidate. He called Polk’s victory “glorious,” and when news of the Democratic triumph was followed at the end of February 1845 by word that Congress had passed a joint resolution annexing Texas, Jackson rejoiced. In May he advised the newly inaugurated “Young Hickory” also to uphold American claims to Oregon. “No temporising with Britain on this subject now, temporising will not do,” he counseled.
The strong words belied the physical deterioration that had set in. “I am I may say a perfect Jelly from the toes to the upper part of my abdome [sic],” he informed Blair toward the end of May. Surgery on 2 June brought only temporary relief from the dropsy, and on Sunday, 8 June, Jackson died. He was seventy-eight years old. In accordance with his “republican feelings and principles,” he was buried two days later alongside his wife in the Hermitage garden after a service that was as simple as possible. There were nationwide ceremonies in honor of Jackson, and while a few embittered partisans refused to attend, most Americans genuinely sorrowed at the passing of a man who, for half a century, had shaped the nation’s destiny.