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Run the eye across the history of the world. You observe that there are certain cycles, or ages, or periods of time, which have their peculiar spirit, their ruling passion, their great, characterizing, distinctive movements. He, who embodies in its greatest fullness, the spirit of such an age, and enters with most earnestness into its movements, received the admiration of his contemporaries. And why? because they see in him their own image. Because, in him is concentrated the spirit that has burned in their own bosom. Because in him exists, in bodily form, in living flesh and blood, the spirit that gives them life and motion. The spirit of God descended upon the Saviour of the world in the form of a dove. The spirit of an age sometimes descends to future generations in the form of a man, in proportion as an individual concentrates within himself, the spirit which works through masses of men, and which moves, and should move them through the greatest cycles of time, in that proportion, he becomes entitled to their admiration and praise. Because his countrymen saw their image and spirit in Andrew Jackson, they bestowed their honor and admiration upon him.

Washington McCartney, “Eulogy—on the Death of Andrew Jackson”

The Life of Andrew Jackson

Jacksonian Democracy: The Emergence of a More Democratic Republic

Today we accept the notion that democracy means that every citizen has a vote, with certain reasonable restrictions such as age, registration requirements and so on. In the early 1800s it was generally accepted that in order to vote, a person needed to have a legal stake in the system, which could mean property ownership or some economic equivalent. When government under the Constitution began, the people did not vote for presidential electors; U. S. senators were elected by the state legislatures until 1913. Even eligibility to vote for members of the House of Representatives was left to the individual states. Women, Indians and Blacks (whether slave or free) were restricted from voting almost everywhere. When Sam Houston was elected governor of Tennessee in 1828, his friends had to make him a gift of 500 acres of land, which was one requirement for holding that office.

The nation’s founders believed that “democracy” contained dangerous impulses, but by 1830 the term had become more acceptable and applicable to American institutions. Americans in the 1820s and 1830s gradually lost their fear that democracy would lead to anarchy. Each individual was to be given an equal start in life, but equality of opportunity did not mean equality of result.

In the decades surrounding the presidency of Andrew Jackson democracy broadened. Many states rewrote their constitutions, gradually eliminating property qualifications, taxpaying for voting, religious qualifications for office, etc. Presidential electors were more and more elected by the people, not the state legislatures; in most areas the electoral franchise was extended  to all free white males. European visitors such as Alexis de Tocqueville noticed the spirit of equality that pervaded the United States, unlike anything known in the Old World. By the late 1830s, the United States had become a full democracy for adult white males, but inequalities still existed: poor people were still poor, and while wealth may not have bought votes directly, it certainly was a prerequisite for any kind of real power. What was different about America was not that the gap between rich and poor had narrowed—indeed, the opposite was probably true—but that there were few systemic barriers (except for slavery) that prevented people from gaining wealth and power. However limited, the idea of America as a land of unprecedented opportunity was not inaccurate in the context of the times. Importantly, equality of opportunity did not necessarily mean equality of result, a concept with which Americans continue to wrestle in making political choices.

The other major change in the Jacksonian era was the emergence of a solid two-party system. The modern Democratic Party was founded under Jackson, and an opposition party—the Whigs—eventually evolved. When that party disappeared in the early 1850s, it was soon replaced by the Republican Party, giving the U.S. the basic political structure that survives to this day. Although many issues have changed since the 1800s, present-day Republicans and Democrats have much in common with their ancestors.

The Emergence of the Professional Politician

Another development in the Age of Jackson was that the idea of political service as a sort of noblesse oblige—which was the way people like Washington and Jefferson tended to look at it—was gone. Politics for many men became if not a career, then certainly something they pursued because they wanted to, not because they thought they ought to. What rewards they sought are no easier to establish for that time than they are today—recognition, a sense of power, perhaps financial gain and other factors were no doubt present in those who sought office or government related jobs, but in any case it became possible to think in terms of the profession of politics.

John Quincy Adams was probably the man who personified that transition, having served in a variety of public offices for most of his life during a career that went back to his father's time, but in the election of 1828 he was criticized for that fact: the notion of a professional politician still did not sit well with many. Still, many leading public figures of the early nineteenth century—Martin Van Buren, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun and others—were hardly ever out of office, and their careers were devoted to activities that advanced their political fortunes.

There were no professional politicians in the 1700s. Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Adams could be political, but they were not politicians in our sense of the term. They did not derive an appreciable part of their income from public office, nor did they spend much time campaigning for votes. Unlike Jefferson or Washington, who suffered financially from serving in government, successful public officials in the later period tended to leave office richer than when they had entered.

The growing federal and state bureaucracies made it possible for ambitious young men to make politics or government service a career. By the 1830s, Democrats were rewarding their workers with civil service jobs. In return, these bureaucrats “kicked back” a part of their income to the party, which used the funds to finance other campaigns. At the center of each political party was a corps of professionals, usually living off the public payroll, whose careers were inextricably tied to the success of the party. Eventually the phenomenon would become known as “machine politics.” Martin van Buren’s “Albany Regency” was an early example.  As one New York politician confessed, he would vote for a dog if his party nominated one.

Coincident with this development was the disappearance of fundamental political issues—the actual nature of republican government—from American politics. In the 1790s, politics was intensely ideological, partly because of the influence of the French Revolution and partly because party leaders were intellectuals. The second party system emerged in a nation where it seemed as if that white, Protestant, small farmer and his family made up the soul of society and that only their interests should be protected and advanced. There were differences of opinion about how this was to be done, but those were disputes about means rather than ends.

Because politicians must campaign on something that resembles an issue in order to distinguish themselves from their opponents, they created issues. The ideal issue was one that everyone agreed on so that endorsing it would not lose votes. Unfortunately, it was hard to get votes by being for motherhood and apple pie, because any opponent would be just as enthusiastic about them. Nevertheless, then, as now, politicians had to take stands, and issues such as those discussed above—land, internal improvements, tariffs, the Bank—were the focus of political battles. The second best issue was one that was too complicated for the average person to understand. The tariff fit that qualification.

In his autobiography, Van Buren recorded an instance of how artfully he used the complexity of the tariff question to befuddle an audience. After his speech on the subject, he mingled with the audience and overheard the following conversation:

  • “Mr. Knower! that was a very able speech!”
  • “Yes, very able,” was the reply.
  • “Mr. Knower! on which side of the Tariff question was it?”

It would be years before the appearance of “political science” would make the study of government a formal academic discipline. But when we think a professional politicians today, we think not only of elected officers, but also of lobbyists, lawyers, huge professional Congressional staffs, millions of government employees, pollsters, and even components of the media who focus exclusively on the political arena.  Like most of American life, the profession of politics has grown and evolved enormously, but many of its roots can be found in the age of Jackson

Jackson’s Presidency

The contrast between the presidencies of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson is stark. Adams was well educated, worldly, highly articulate and experienced in international affairs. In demeanor he was subtle, diplomatic—if sometimes stuffy or pedantic—and he was perhaps the most intelligent and (for his time) best educated president in American history.  As a Harvard graduate and son of a former president, his beginnings were anything but humble.

Jackson’s popularity was based on his skills as an Indian fighter and war hero. The Battle of New Orleans was seen as a victory for the American farmer, affirmed the value of “undisciplined” fighters as opposed to the British regulars, and was thus seen as a triumph of “Americanism.” Although when elected president Jackson was a wealthy man of property and a slave owner, his origins were indeed humble.  Jackson was a symbol of the new age of democracy—the “age of the common man”—both an average and ideal American who was able to draw support from every section and social class. Jackson could be charming, and he was basically honest; there was never any doubt about his courage, either physical or moral. But he was anything but a thoughtful subtle intellectual. (He had resigned from his first tour in the Senate because he found the endless deliberations too boring.)

Jackson was a charismatic but not intellectual leader; highly intelligent, shrewd and practical. A true westerner at heart, and a slave holder, Jackson resented the North and East. On the other hand, he did not buy into the states' rights philosophy that was growing  stronger in that era. He had reputation as a hotheaded brawler who never forgave enemies. He was not above using that reputation to make an impression on people. (In a famous incident in the White House, he apparently lost his temper and fumed at some unwelcome guests, who fled in horror. When they had gone, he turned to an aide, grinned and said, “They thought I was mad, didn’t they?”)          

Jackson grew in office of president and made that office more democratic. He did not act as a “dignified chief of state above politics” but rather as a political infighter who saw his role as protecting the people from the excesses of Congress. His presidency was one piece of a long struggle over the nature of governmental power and authority: at which end of Pennsylvania Avenue does the real power reside, in Congress or the White House? Jackson saw the office of President as a protection against the power usurpers of the House, the Senate and the Supreme Court.

The Election of 1828

The election of 1828 was more of a “revolution” than that of 1800. Andrew Jackson won by 643,000 votes to Adams’s 501,000, 178-83 in electoral college. Far more people voted for president than in 1824, as the states were beginning to let the people select presidential electors. The age of Jackson was indeed a major democratic revolution and the election of that year was testimony to that fact.

The campaign was one of the dirtiest in American history, a series mudslinging attacks on personalities. John Quincy Adams was accused of “feeding at the public trough,” because of his long years of public service. He was called a “pimp” for providing an American girl as “gift” for the Czar of Russia, though, like his father, John Quincy was an extremely moral man descended from good old Puritan stock. Yet, as he had installed a billiard table in the White House he was charged with turning it into a “gambling den.” Meanwhile, Jackson was portrayed as a “drunk,” a brawler and an adulterer because Rachel’s divorce had not been final when they first got married. His famous duel with Charles Dickinson also led to the charge that he was a murderer.

Andrew JacksonA new two-party system emerged from the election of 1828. From then on, parties ran their candidates for President and Vice-president together as a ticket. John C. Calhoun was the last man to run for Vice President independently. (He was elected twice, under both Adams and Jackson.)

Several significant political issues divided the people at the time, among them the National Bank and the protective tariff. Jackson managed to avoid taking firm positions on any issues and in fact managed to get on both sides of the tariff question, depending on what part of the country his people were in. This was done by a bill to create a tariff that was supposedly so high that it would never pass. It did pass, however, and became known as the “Tariff of Abominations,” which raised a storm of protest in the South led by John C. Calhoun.

When Jackson won the election, he invited his supporters to Washington to celebrate with them, and they came in numbers. Jackson’s inauguration is famous for the riotous behavior of his followers.  Wanting to get a glimpse of their hero, they stormed the White House for the post-inaugural reception, tracking mud everywhere and even standing on tables to get a better glimpse of their president. The locals complained that “barbarians” had invaded the White House, and the stewards finally saved day by taking the punch bowls outside while the crowd followed. If Jackson’s election was a victory for the common man, that man was all too common for some.

Jackson saw himself as President of All the People—defender of the “Common Man.” A prevailing view since the writing of the Constitution had been an assumption of the natural supremacy of the legislature. Jackson vigorously challenged that assumption. He saw himself as the direct representative of all the people and willingly used his authority on their behalf. He vetoed more bills than all his predecessors combined, challenging the view that the only grounds for a presidential veto were a bill's constitutionality. He expanded the power of his office, but did not favor unlimited power for the national government.

Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet

Realizing that the appointment of Cabinet members required respect for regional preferences, Jackson nevertheless desired to keep a cadre of close personal advisors at hand since Washington, despite Jackson’s experience, was still somewhat alien territory for the Westerner.  Besides, he was not a strong administrator, had little respect for experts—political or otherwise—and often made unwise choices, but as a strong and popular leader he knew how to govern if kept on track.  He assembled what became known as his kitchen cabinet, advisers who would literally gather in the kitchen of the White House to help the president formulate policy.  Members of this informal group included Duff Green, editor of U.S. Telegraph; Frank Blair of The Globe; and Amos Kendall, known as Jackson’s alter ego. It is well to recall that newspaper men in those times generally operated in the service of their political favorites.  Secretary of State Martin Van Buren was also a member of the group, the only “regular” cabinet member to be so privileged.  Jackson’s official cabinet was undistinguished, except for Van Buren, and even he had been a political appointment to satisfy northern interests

Jackson quickly adopted a system for replacing federal officeholders with his own supporters, a system his supporters referred to as “rotation in office.”  Opponents derisively dubbed Jackson’s process “the spoils system.”  Yet Jackson saw the process as beneficial for a democracy, as it was intended to inhibit the development of an entrenched bureaucracy and to allow more citizens to participate in the routine tasks of government.  Although the concept was not calculated to produce efficiency in governmental operations, Jackson felt that the average man was perfectly capable of doing government work.  In fact,  most of Jackson’s appointees to government positions were not common man but rather were drawn from the social and intellectual elites of the time.

Because Jackson viewed himself as a protector of the people’s rights against the power of the federal Congress, political relationships in Washington during the Jackson years were stormy. Jackson repeatedly challenged leaders in Congress, and leading senators and congressmen in turn saw Jackson as arbitrary and overbearing.  Clashes between Jackson and the Congress over issues such as the bank, tariffs, internal improvements and other issues were sharp and deep. Jackson’s liberal use of the presidential veto disturbed some elements in Congress, and his opponents began to refer to him as “King Andrew.”   Eventually that opposition cohered into a new political party, the Whigs.

The Peggy Eaton Affair

During Jackson’s first term as troubles were exacerbated by a scandal involving a woman. Needless to say it would not be the last time in American history that such occurred.

peggy eatonMargaret O’Neale Timberlake Eaton was not the focus of the first sexual scandal in American history, but she was at the center of one of the most interesting ones. Daughter of the keeper of a popular Washington tavern and boarding house, where she often charmed the clientele, Peggy was an attractive, vivacious young woman who captured the attention of some of the most powerful men in America, including Senator John Eaton, a close friend of Andrew Jackson.

As a young woman Peggy had married John Timberlake, a Navy purser who spent considerable time at sea. It was said that his untimely death in a foreign port was a suicide brought about by Peggy’s infidelity, a charge never proven. Whether true or not, Peggy got married again, this time to John Eaton, whom she had met in her father’s establishment and who soon became a Secretary of War in Andrew Jackson’s cabinet. Jackson had in fact urged Eaton to marry Peggy to quiet wagging tongues.

Soon after Jackson’s inauguration it became apparent that the wives of the other cabinet members did not approve of Mrs. Eaton’s allegedly lurid past. She was snubbed at White House receptions, and Washington political society refused to accept or return social visits from Mrs. Eaton, and pronounced themselves scandalized that Mrs. Eaton was even invited to participate in polite Washington company.

Jackson had known Peggy Eaton for some time and liked her. Perhaps more important, Jackson had lost his wife, Rachel, just months before his inauguration, and he blamed her death in part on what he saw as slanderous attacks on his own marriage (the old charge that Rachel and Andrew Jackson had been living in sin.) Always one to take offense at an attack on his own personal honor, Jackson naturally sided with Peggy and John Eaton and became furious with the allegations. He fumed: “I did not come here to make a cabinet for the ladies of this place, but for the nation!” 

The situation deteriorated to the point where it became a difficult even for Jackson’s cabinet to conduct its regular business, so preoccupied were the members with the Eaton affair. Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s Secretary of State, was a widower and therefore safe from wifely criticism of Mrs. Eaton. Van Buren could therefore afford to be kind to Peggy, which gratified Jackson. Finally, as a way out of the “Eaton malaria,” Van Buren offered to resign and suggested that the rest of the cabinet do so also. Jackson gratefully accepted his offer and promised to aid Van Buren, which he did, naming him Ambassador to Great Britain.

There was more to this story, however. The attack on Mrs. Eaton had been led by Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun. Calhoun had been elected vice president both in 1824 and 1828 and had run separately from Jackson, and old animosities between Jackson and Calhoun dating back to Calhoun’s tenure as Secretary of War under President Monroe, when Jackson was chasing Indians in Florida, resurfaced when Secretary Eaton discovered evidence in War Department files. Van Buren’s appointment to the Court of St. James had to be approved by the Senate, and because of growing opposition to Jackson’s policies in the Senate, the vote for approval turned out to be a tie. Vice President Calhoun, presiding over the Senate, was thus able to cast the deciding vote against Van Buren. Henry Clay, a savvy politician himself, remarked to Calhoun that he had destroyed an ambassador but created a Vice President.

And so it was. In 1832 Andrew Jackson asked Van Buren to join him on the Democratic Party ticket as his running mate and candidate for vice president. Jackson and Van Buren were elected, and Van Buren succeeded President Jackson in the election of 1836. Thus the Peggy Eaton affair, the story of a woman scorned, rather than remaining a low-level scandal, altered the course of American political history, not the first time nor the last in which a woman would play that role.

Peggy’s colorful life did not end there. Some years later John Eaton died, leaving his widow a small fortune. But she was not destined to live a quiet retirement—at age 61 she married twenty-one year old Antonio Buchignani, her granddaughter’s dancing teacher and deeded all her belongings to him. Less than a year later he eloped to Italy with her granddaughter, and Peggy was forced to work as a dressmaker to support herself. She died in 1879 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in a grave next to that of John Eaton, whose name she reclaimed. At her funeral a large floral piece of white roses sent by President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes was placed on Peggy’s grave.

In her own autobiography Peggy Eaton wrote, “My likes and dislikes are not small. The fact is I do not believe I ever did exactly like or dislike anybody. I think they always hated everybody I did not love and always loved everybody I did not hate.”

The literature on Margaret O’Neale Timberlake Eaton Buchignani Eaton is considerable.

States’ Rights versus Union:  Daniel Webster's Union Address 

The issue of “Union” does not resonate with Americans today because we take it for granted. During the early 19th century, the idea of Union was for many Americans very much like our current feelings of patriotism, what many Americans feel on the 4th of July, or when they chant “U.S.A.” at an international sports event, or when the nation is successful in some significant endeavor. But the idea of “America,” was not universally shared in those times, as regional loyalties often outweighed national feelings. Robert E. Lee famously refused command of the federal armies at the outset of the Civil War, saying he could not raise his sword against his “country”—Virginia.

Yet people like John Marshall felt strongly about the meaning of the Union. When reflecting or his service during the American Revolution, he recalled it as an experience “where I was confirmed in the habit of considering America as my country and Congress as my government.”  Nathan Hale’s famous dying declaration, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” expresses the same sentiment. During the Civil War President Lincoln thanked soldiers for offering their lives in the service of “this dear Union of ours.”

The idea of Union was very strong among Americans, especially in the North. In 1861 thousands of young northern men and boys went off to fight for the concept of the Union. Prior to the Civil war, the prime articulator of that idea was Daniel Webster.

In 1830, when South Carolina was contemplating nullification of the “Tariff of Abominations” and perhaps even secession, a debate arose in United States Senate over the use of public lands. Westerners were arguing essentially a state sovereignty position with regard to federal lands, and South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne entered the debate on the side of the West, hoping to gain an ally for South Carolina's states’ rights position.

daniel websterCalling himself a Unionist, Daniel Webster deftly turned the debate from one over western lands and the tariff to an argument on states’ rights versus national sovereignty. Rejecting the charge that the eastern states, including his native New England, had attacked Southern or Western interests, Webster rejected Haynes’s claim that a state had the right to interpose itself between the federal government and its own citizens and expounded upon the meaning of the United States Constitution. Asking rhetorically whose Constitution it was, Webster Stated:

It is, sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people. The people of the United States have declared that this Constitution shall be the supreme law. We must either admit the proposition or dispute their authority. 

Rising to the full height of his oratorical power, Webster claimed at the conclusion of his lengthy address that he could not contemplate life without the Union. Referring to the American flag, “the gorgeous ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, he rejected notions of “Liberty first and Union afterwards,” but staked his claim firmly upon, “that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart,—Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!” It was said that ladies fainted and strong men wept at the power of the Divine Daniel’s words.

A young Whig politician in Illinois no doubt read Webster’s famous oration. Abraham Lincoln later incorporated the concept of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” into his Gettysburg Address.

Jackson and Calhoun

Although Jackson was a Democrat and Daniel Webster a National Republican and later a Whig, they did agree on the idea of Union. Standing poles apart from both was Vice President John C. Calhoun. Secretary of State Martin Van Buren and Calhoun began in a clash over who was to be the heir apparent to Jackson, a position Van Buren easily attained as Calhoun moved farther and farther to the states’ right position. Calhoun needed that position to keep strength in South Carolina, while Van Buren had a comfortable political base in New York. Jackson was not totally unsympathetic to states’ rights issues, but felt Calhoun and South Carolina went far too far afield in nullification of the tariff in 1832. The fact that that Floride Calhoun, John C.'s wife, had been one of the leaders of the assaults on Peggy Eaton did not help Calhoun's position in the least.

In the midst of the controversy over state’s rights, Jackson and Calhoun both attended an annual Jefferson Day dinner on April 15, 1830. When the time came for offering toasts, Jackson raised a glass and looked directly at the South Carolina delegation and proclaimed,  “Our Union, it must be preserved!” Apparently riled by Jackson’s pointed jibe (Martin van Buren claimed that Calhoun spilled his wine as he arose) Calhoun glared back at the President and declared, “The Union, next to our liberty 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!”

Thereafter John C. Calhoun became the leading spokesman for the Southern states rights position.  As such, his hopes for ever gaining the White House virtually disappeared. When Secretary of War John Eaton uncovered records in the war Department revealing that Calhoun had been critical of Jackson during the latter's foray in Florida in 1818, the rift between Calhoun and Jackson became permanent.  Martin Van Buren replaced Calhoun as vice president during Jackson's second term. 

Jackson and the Bank

Under President Nicholas Biddle the Second Bank of the United States recovered from its problems associated with the Panic of 1819 and was well-managed and acted as a central bank. It monitored the lending policies of state banks which, if left unregulated, were likely to cause inflation and exaggerate business cycle swings. The Bank’s stabilizing policies had strong support, especially among eastern hard-money advocates who feared paper money, but it did have opponents, and state banks generally disliked its regulating authority. To some the National Bank smacked of special privilege because it held a monopoly of public funds, yet was governed by a handful of rich investors.

Jackson came into office suspicious of the Bank of the United States and made vague threats against it. With the backing of supporters in Congress, Bank President Biddle asked Congress to recharter the Bank in 1832, four years before the old charter was due to expire. Henry Clay took up the Bank’s cause as a political tactic, hoping that congressional approval of the Bank would embarrass Jackson. Jackson’s opponents and Bank supporters thought that if Jackson vetoed the bank bill it would cost him the election.  If Jackson’s  veto were  overridden, the Bank would be guaranteed additional life.

Jackson was no fool: he declared war on the “monster” corporation, which he was convinced violated the fundamental principles of a democratic society. He vetoed the Bank recharter bill on the grounds that the Bank was unconstitutional, despite Marshall’s Supreme Court decision to the contrary, and called on the people for support. Jackson also claimed he vetoed the Bank charter because it violated equality of opportunity, and Congress upheld the veto. Clay and Jackson took their argument to the public in the election of 1832 where Jackson’s victory spelled doom for the Bank.

The Bank supporters and Jackson opponents badly misjudged both Jackson and people's attitudes toward the Bank.  After the election Jackson said, “The Bank tried to kill me, but I will kill it!” He showed his opponents no mercy and proceeded to destroy the Bank by withdrawing the government’s money and depositing it into selected state banks (called “pet banks”). Biddle then used his powers as a central banker to bring on a nationwide recession, which he hoped would be blamed on Jackson. That ploy failed, but Jackson’s destruction of the Bank cost him support in Congress, especially in the Senate, where fears of a dictatorship began to emerge.

Jackson, like Jefferson, was very hostile to banks. He once told Biddle, “It’s not this bank I don’t like, it’s all banks.” He didn’t understand that the purpose of the National Bank was to prevent the very thing he was concerned about—speculation of the kind that had led to the infamous “South Sea Bubble,” which ruined many investors.  Banks made money by manipulation, Jackson thought. There had been early attempts to politicize the bank, and Jackson believed the pro-bank people were his political enemies. More on the Bank.

The Election of 1832

The Presidential election of 1832 pitted Andrew Jackson against National Republican Henry Clay. (The Whig party would form from the remnants of the old National Republican Party during Jackson's second term.) The chief issue of the election was the National Bank, discussed above. Jackson's opponents who sought to use the bank as an issue to unseat him found that their plan backfired.

25A secondary issue was Jackson's veto of the Maysville Road Bill in 1830.  The bill would have provided federal funds to construct a road from Maysville to Lexington, Kentucky.  Jackson's veto message, drafted by Secretary of State Martin van Buren, stated that federal funds could properly be used only for projects “of a general, not local, national, not State,” character. He also took issue with providing funds to a private corporation:

A course of policy destined to witness events like these cannot be benefited by a legislation which tolerates a scramble for appropriations that have no relation to any general system of improvement, and whose good effects must of necessity be very limited. Congressional opponents of the bill had included future president James K. Polk of Tennessee, a staunch Jackson support later known as “Young Hickory.”

The outcome of the election was a huge victory for Jackson, the people’s man, despite charges that Jackson saw himself as “King Andrew” who could veto anything he did not like. The election also spelled the end of Henry Clay’s National-Republican Party. Jackson and van Buren got 688,242 popular and 219 electoral votes to Clay’s 530,189 popular and 49 electoral votes. Minor parties took some anti-Jackson votes away from Clay.

Jackson and the Tariff: The Nullification Controversy

The nullification controversy of 1832 was a major milestone in the national debate over federal versus state authority. Coming at a time when agitation over slavery and other issues that tended to divide the country along sectional lines was growing, the nullification controversy brought the states rights debate into sharp focus.

The root of the problem of protective tariffs is that they are almost by definition designed to assist certain segments of the economy. In the era in question, the country was distinctly divided along economic lines. Because a large percentage of Southern capital was put into land, cotton, and slaves, less capital was available for industrial for manufacturing enterprises, since in that volatile period in history they such investments were far riskier than cotton, the prime resource of the booming textile industry. Economists have determined that a reasonable expectation for return on investments in cotton was 10% per annum, an excellent return at any time. But because the cotton South did not produce much in the way of farm equipment, tools or other manufactured goods, they were dependent upon manufactured goods produced mostly in the north or in foreign countries.

High protective tariffs on manufactured goods, designed to aid American manufacturing, had the effect of raising prices on goods purchased throughout the country, but needed most heavily in South. Support for manufacturing interests was strong in the North, where the population had grown faster, meaning that there were more members in the House of Representatives from the North than from the South. Thus high protective tariffs were regularly passed.

John C. CalhounIn 1828 Andrew Jackson's supporters proposed a very high tariff bill that would allow Jackson to look friendly toward manufacturing in the North, while in the South his supporters could claim that the proposed tariff was so high that it would never pass, and that they therefore had nothing to worry about. But then the tariff did pass after all. Vice President John C. Calhoun (left) of South Carolina anonymously wrote an “Exposition and Protest” of the Tariff of 1828, which became known as the “Tariff of Abominations.” When a tariff bill passed again in 1832, because it was still too high to suit the needs of Southern agricultural interests, the State of South Carolina decided to nullify the tariff. They took their action very deliberately, calling a special convention and passing an “Ordinance of Nullification” that claimed not only that the tariff was not enforceable in South Carolina, but that any attempt to enforce it by state or federal officials would not be permitted within South Carolina.

The Ordinance stated that the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 “are null, void, and no law, nor binding upon this state, its officers, or citizens; and all promises, contracts, and obligations made or entered into, or to be made or entered into, with purpose to secure the duties imposed by said acts, and all judicial proceedings which shall be hereafter had in affirmance thereof, are and shall be held utterly null and void.”

South Carolina's ordinance placed the state on a collision course with President Andrew Jackson. Although Jackson was from Tennessee, and thus a Southerner (and slave owner), he was still much more a nationalist than an advocate of states' rights. To Jackson, the notion that a state could nullify a federal law, and that it could furthermore prevent him from exercising his constitutional duty, which is to “see to it that the laws are faithfully executed,” was too much. Jackson issued his own Proclamation to the People of South Carolina in which he called their nullification ordinance an “impracticable absurdity.” He said:

I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one state, 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.

Congress supported Jackson by passing a Force Bill which explicitly authorized him to use whatever force was necessary to enforce the law in South Carolina. (The Force Bill was more symbolic than real, as Jackson already had authority to enforce the law under the Constitution.) Meanwhile, Henry Clay set about getting a compromise tariff through Congress, and South Carolina, realizing that support for its position was weak, and not willing to push the fight any further, relented and repealed its Ordinance of Nullification. But then as slap in the face to President Jackson, it nullified the Force Bill, which was of no consequence since the bill had become moot upon South Carolina's repeal of the Ordinance of Nullification.

Larger Meaning of the Nullification Crisis. The nullification controversy is important because of its focus on the issue of states' rights. Most historians believe that behind South Carolina's nullification of the tariff was a deeper concern over the slavery question. The abolitionist movement was gathering steam, and there was fear throughout the South that somehow the federal government might move to abolish slavery. Nullification of the tariff then was seen by some as a test case as to whether or not nullification was viable. President Jackson's reaction and the support from Congress suggested that nullification could not be sustained. The next logical step, therefore, in opposing federal authority within a state was the act of secession.  Indeed the Ordinance of Nullification had concluded by stating that of force were used against South Carolina, “the people of this state will thenceforth hold themselves absolved from all further obligation to maintain or preserve their political connection with the people of the other states and will forthwith proceed to organize a separate government, and to do all other acts and things which sovereign and independent states may of right do.” South Carolina exercised that option almost 30 years later as the first state to secede from the Union following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.

It is worth reading South Carolina's Ordinance of Nullification and Andrew Jackson's proclamation to understand the depth of the arguments on both sides. Jackson's argument carried the day, but for many Southerners the issue of states' rights was still an open question. (See Appendix)

Cherokee Indian Removal

Without much doubt the ugliest event in the Jackson years was the removal of the Cherokee Indians from Georgia to reservations located west of the Mississippi River. Andrew Jackson had built much of his reputation as an Indian fighter during the Creek Wars, but historians have not called him an Indian hater. He respected Indians as worthy enemies, but when the state of Georgia clashed with the Cherokee, there was little doubt that Jackson would come down on the side of Georgia.

The Cherokee had previously been recognized as a nation with laws and customs of their own. They had done much to try to accommodate themselves to the white culture, even translating the New Testament into the Cherokee language. But an 1828 Georgia law declared that the state had jurisdiction over Indian Territory, and when gold was discovered on Indian land, and Indians sought legal relief to hold onto their property, and the issue came to the Supreme Court in Worcester v. Georgia. The Supreme Court said that Georgia laws had no force on Cherokee land, but sent no marshals to Georgia to enforce their decision. Jackson defied the court, saying that “the decision of the supreme court has fell still born.”

Still trying to hold onto their land the Cherokee again sought legal relief and brought the case of Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Marshall clearly sympathized with the Cherokee position:

“If courts were permitted to indulge their sympathies, a case better calculated to excite them can scarcely be imagined. A people once numerous, powerful, and truly independent, found by our ancestors in the quiet and uncontrolled possession of an ample domain, gradually sinking beneath our superior policy, our arts, and our arms, have yielded their lands by successive treaties, each of which contains a solemn guarantee of the residue, until they retain no more of their formerly extensive territory than is deemed necessary to their comfortable subsistence. To preserve this remnant the present application is made.”

Unfortunately, Marshall took an uncharacteristically strict view of the Constitution and claimed that the Cherokee did not have the legal right to sue in the United States Supreme Court: 

“If it be true that the Cherokee Nation have rights, this is not the tribunal in which those rights are to be asserted. If it be true that wrongs have been inflicted and that still greater are to be apprehended, this is not the tribunal which can redress the past or prevent the future.”

Since there was no other court save that of public opinion and humanity, in which the Cherokee would similarly have enjoyed little success in those times, the Cherokee were eventually forced to leave Georgia and settle in Indian country, now the state of Oklahoma.

Jackson felt that the Indians would be better off “out of the way” and settled his policy on “voluntary emigration west of the Mississippi.” Although the removals conducted under the control of the United States Army were generally peaceful, thousands of Cherokee were removed along the “Trail of Tears” to the West.  Provisions for the Indians en route were scant, and weather conditions including frozen rivers led to the death of many along the way. Some of the tribes resisted, and fighting occurred from time to time, but the majority of the Cherokee and other tribes were settled, much against their will, in the trans-Mississippi territory.

President Andrew Jackson's Message to Congress 'On Indian Removal' (1830)

President Jackson was concerned about the rapid expansion of the nation westward, which would obviously bring about more contact with Indians. The Indian Removal Act of May 28, 1830, justified the removal policy, and Jackson set forth his position on the issues in his message to Congress of December 6, 1830.

The Indian Removal Act was passed to open up for settlement those lands still held by Indians in states east of the Mississippi River, primarily Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and others. Jackson declared that removal would “incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier.” Clearing Alabama and Mississippi of their Indian populations, he said, would “enable those states to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power.”

White inhabitants of Georgia were particularly anxious to have the Cherokees removed from the state because gold had been discovered on tribal lands. Violence was commonplace in Georgia, and in all likelihood, a portion of the tribe would have been decimated if they had not been removed.

Removal of the Indian tribes continued beyond Jackson’s tenure as President. The most infamous of the removals took place in 1838, two years after the end of Jackson’s final term, when the Cherokee Indians were forcibly removed by the military. Their journey west became known as the “Trail of Tears,” because of the thousands of deaths along the way.

Jackson on Cherokee Indian Removal

Rise of the Whigs—all those opposed to “King Andrew”

king andrewPresident Jackson continue to spar with opponents in Congress throughout his second term.  In 1833, feeling that he had a mandate to deal with the bank as a result of his reelection in 1832, Jackson ordered the secretary of the treasury to announce that public funds would no longer be deposited in the Bank of the United States. By the end of 1833, 23 state banks had been designated as depositories of federal funds, and the first funds had been transferred to a bank in Philadelphia.  When the Senate called for papers dealing with Jackson's decision on the bank, Jackson refused to submit them, claiming “executive privilege,”—the notion that Congress had no right to demand that he account for his private dealings with his Cabinet.

In 1836 a specie circular was issued directing that only gold silver and a limited amount of paper would be accepted for the payment of purchases of public lands.  The specie circular put pressure on the state banks, known as “pet” banks. Jackson's bank policies eventually contributed to the panic of 1837.

Foreign Affairs under Jackson. Through a series of negotiations Jackson had improved trade relations with Great Britain during his first term.  Jackson then began to pursue negotiations regarding claims against France left over from the period before the war of 1812. The French government agreed to pay 25 million francs against those claims, but when the French government failed to make good on those payments, Jackson threatened reprisals against French property. Jackson's blustery language offended the French and eventually all outstanding matters with Great Britain and France were settled for the time being.

Events in Texas (which will be covered in a later chapter) also got the attention of Jackson's administration, and when the independent Republic of Texas made overtures about joining the United States, Jackson demurred, fearing war with Mexico.

The Election of 1836

By 1836 Jackson’s leadership had produced generally united Democratic party.  The party nominated Martin Van Buren as successor to Jackson who promised to “tread generally in the footsteps of President Jackson.” Although the party had no formal platform it did agree on some general political positions. It tended to be skeptical of businesses and anything perceived as special privilege, and it generally conformed to Thomas Jefferson's positions, including equal opportunity, limited national government, and political freedom, to which Jackson’s Democrats added the concepts of social equality and faith in the common man. In addition, Democrats were in favor of the Jeffersonian concept of free public education, an idea that was spreading across the nation, far ahead of most of the rest of the world.

Jackson's opponents had coalesced into the Whig party, generally united against whom they saw as “King Andrew.” When the Whigs could not agree on a single candidate, they decided to run multiple candidates in the hope of throwing the election into the House of Representatives, where the Whigs would be able to determine the outcome.  The leading candidate was Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and the Whigs also nominated William Henry Harrison as the candidate to run in the West and Hugh L. White to run as a states’ rights candidate in the South. The Whigs’ “favorite son” nominating tactic failed, however, and Martin Van Buren succeeded Jackson to the presidency.

Martin Van Buren as President

As the first of several presidents and presidential candidates from New York, and the first of Dutch descent, Martin Van Buren had the misfortune to be inaugurated at just about the time when the Panic of 1837 set in.  Problems had begun with the decrease in land sales brought about by the specie circular, and real estate troubles were followed by problems with stocks and commodity prices, especially van burencotton in the South.  An acute banking crisis, also resulting from policies of the Jackson administration, caused bank failures and other economic problems.  Protests broke out over inflationary prices, and Van Buren’s measures failed to halt the economic downturn.  As generally happens in times of economic depression, the incumbent party was assigned the blame, whether properly or not.

 Abolitionist sentiment had begun around 1830 and was getting stronger by the time and Van Buren became president.  As debates in Congress grew increasingly bitter, Congress eventually adopted a gag rule requiring that “all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions or papers relating in any way or to any extent whatever to the subject of slavery or the abolition of slavery shall, without being printed or referred, be laid upon the table and that no further action what ever shall be had there on.” Former President John Quincy Adams, now a congressman from Massachusetts, argued repeatedly for the right of petition and earned the title “Old Man Eloquent.” (Adams’s speech before the Supreme Court in the Amistad” case was another famous example of his eloquence.)

The presidential campaign of 1840 was one of the more colorful in American history and became known as the “Log cabin and Hard Cider” campaign. Although Clay was still a powerful figure, the convention nominated William Henry Harrison and John Tyler as its candidates.  Their chief unifying position was still opposition to the Democrats, and Harrison's popularity was based upon his winning the Battle of Tippecanoe.  (Thus the slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!”)  Newspaper ads, parades, rallies and other symbols of the sort which soon became popular in presidential campaigns, were all part of the scene in 1840, so there was little discussion of hard issues.  The campaign soon degenerated into a mud slinging contest in which wild charges were flung in all directions.  The only mature element of the campaign was the fact that two organized political parties were vying against each other. Harrison's popular vote margin was about 150,000 out of 2½ million votes cast, but his majority in the electoral College was 234 to 60.  Harrison’s presidency became the shortest in history, lasting just over 30 days as he became ill from delivering his inaugural address during nasty weather and died.  Vice President John Tyler succeeded to the presidency, the first vice president to move up to the White House upon the death of a president.

Toward Greater Understanding: Books on the Jacksonian Era

As always, literature on this era of American history is plentiful. Here are some titles by a few of America's finest historians:

  • H.W. Brands, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times
  • Robert V. Remini, the premier historian of the era:
    • Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Empire, 1767-1821. Vol. 1
    • Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832. Vol. 2
    • Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845. Vol. 3
    • Daniel Webster: The Man And His Time
    • Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union
    • Andrew Jackson [A condensed edition of his three-volume biography.]
    • The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America's First Military Victory
  • Jon Meacham. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
  • Merrill D. Petersen, The Great Triumvirate:Webster, Clay, and Calhoun
  • John F. Marszalek, The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House
  • Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815
  • Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
  • Lynn Hudson Parsons, The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828

The spirit of an age sometimes descends to future generations in the form of a man. . . in proportion as an individual concentrates within himself, the spirit which works through masses of men, and which moves, and should move them through the greatest cycles of time, in that proportion, he becomes entitled to their admiration and praise. . . Because his countrymen saw their image and spirit in Andrew Jackson, they bestowed their honor and admiration upon him. —Washington McCartney, “Eulogy—on the Death of Andrew Jackson”

The recent biography by H.W. Brands is a superb account of Jackson's life and accomplishments.
Robert V. Remini's three-volume biography is a classic. Jon Meacham's book is also very fine.

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