1814-1840 Chapter V QUESTIONS OF JACKSON'S "REIGN"
MINOR PUBLIC QUESTIONS OF JACKSON'S "REIGN"
Andrew Jackson was born March 15, 1767. His parents had come from Carrickfergus, Ireland, two years before. He was without any education worthy the name. As a boy, he went into the War for Independence, and was for a time a British prisoner. He studied law in North Carolina, moved west, and began legal practice at Nashville. He was one of the framers of the Tennessee constitution in 1796. In 1797 he was a senator from that State, and subsequently he was a judge on its supreme bench. His exploits in the Creek War, the War of 1812, and the Seminole War are already familiar. They had brought him so prominently and favorably before the country that in 1824 his vote, both popular and electoral, was larger than that of any other candidate.
From a photograph by Brady.
As we have seen, he himself and multitudes throughout the country thought him wronged by the election over him of John Quincy Adams. This contributed largely to his popularity later, and in 1828 he was elected by a popular vote of 647,231, against 509,097 for Adams. Four years later he was reelected against Clay by a still larger majority. Nor did his popularity to any extent wane during his double administration, notwithstanding his many violent and indiscreet acts as President.
Much of Jackson's arbitrariness sprung from a foolish whim of his, taking his election as equivalent to the enactment of all his peculiar ideas into law. Ours is a government of the people, he said; the people had spoken in his election, and had willed so and so. Woe to any senator or representative who opposed! This was, of course, to mistake entirely the nature of constitutional government.
After all, Jackson was by no means the ignorant and passionate old man, controlled in everything by Van Buren, that many people, especially in New England, have been accustomed to think him. Illiterate he certainly was, though Adams exaggerated in calling him "a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and could hardly spell his own name." He was never popular in the federalist section of the Union. Yet with all his mistakes and self-will, often inexcusable, he was one of the most patriotic and clear-headed men who ever administered a government. If he resorted to unheard-of methods within the law, very careful was he never to transgress the law.
The most just criticism of Jackson in his time and later related to the civil service. It was during his administration that the cry, "turn the rascals out," first arose, and it is well known that, adopting the policy of New York and Pennsylvania politicians in vogue since 1800, he made nearly a clean sweep of his political opponents from the offices at his disposal. This was the more shameful from being so in contrast with the policy of preceding presidents.
Washington removed but two men from office, one of these a defaulter; Adams ten, one of these also a defaulter; Jefferson but thirty-nine; Madison five, three of them defaulters; and Monroe nine. The younger Adams removed but two, both of them for cause.
Yet of Jackson's procedure in this matter it can be said, in partial excuse, so bitter had been the opposition to him by officeholders as well as others, that many removals were undoubtedly indispensable in order to the efficiency of the public service. It is not at all necessary for the rank and file of the civil service to be of the same party with the Chief Magistrate, but it is necessary that they should not be so utterly opposed to him as to feel bound in conscience to be working for his defeat.
The fine art of party organization, semi-military in form, has come to us from Jackson and his workers. Before his time, candidates for high state offices had usually been nominated by legislative caucuses, and those for national posts by congressional caucuses.
State party conventions had been held in Pennsylvania and New York. Soon after 1830 such a device for national nominations began to be thought of, and the history of national party conventions may be said to begin with the campaign of 1832.
Jackson's dearest foe while in office was the United States Bank. Magnifying the dishonesty which had, as everyone knew, disgraced its management, he attacked it as a monster, an engine of the moneyed classes for grinding the face of the poor. Like Jefferson, like Madison at first, he disbelieved in its constitutionality. In his first message and continually in his official utterances he inveighed against it as a public danger, using its funds and patronage for party ends. This made him unpopular with many who had been his friends, so that in the campaign of 1832 Clay forced the bank question to the front as one on which Jackson's attitude would greatly advantage the whig cause.
He accepted Clay's challenge with pleasure, and from this moment gave the bank no quarter. We may call the contest of this year a pitched battle between Jackson and the bank.
Roger B. Taney.
In 1832 he vetoed a bill for a renewal of its charter, which was to expire in 1836, and in 1833 he proceeded to break it by removing the United States deposits which it held. Such removal was by law within the power of the Secretary of the Treasury.
Secretary McLane refused to execute Jackson's will. He was removed and Duane appointed. Then Duane was removed and Roger B. Taney appointed, who obeyed the President's behest. The bank was emptied by checking out the public money as wanted, at the same time depositing no more, the funds being instead placed in "pet" state banks, as they were called because of the government favor thus shown them.
The financial distress rightly or wrongly ascribed to this measure throughout the country, instead of injuring Jackson, probably, on the whole, made him still more popular, as showing the power of the bank. When Congress met in 1833, the Senate passed a vote of censure upon him for what he had done. Rancorous wranglings and debates pervaded Congress and the whole land. After persistent effort by Jackson's bosom friend, Senator Benton, of Missouri, this censure-vote was expunged by the XXIVth Congress, second session, January 16, 1837. This was before Jackson left office, and he accounted it the greatest triumph of his public life.
Jackson was somehow fortunate in dealing with foreign nations. It was he who recovered for American ships that British West Indian trade which had been so long denied. Negotiations were opened with Great Britain, which, in 1830, had the result of placing American vessels in the British West Indian ports at an equal advantage with British vessels sailing thither from the United States--terms which, through the contiguity of those islands to us, gave us a trade there better than that of any other nation. This diplomacy brought the administration much applause.
When Jackson became President, France was still in our debt on account of her spoliations upon American commerce after the settlement of 1803. The matter had been in negotiation ever since 1815, but hitherto in vain. Jackson took it up with zeal, but with his usual apparent recklessness. A treaty had been concluded in 1831, as a final settlement between the two countries, binding France to pay twenty-five million francs and the United States to pay one and one-half million.
The first instalment from France became due February 2, 1833, but was not paid. Jackson's message to Congress in 1834, not an instalment having yet been received, contained a distinct threat of war should not payment begin forthwith. He also bade Edward Livingston, minister at Paris, in the same contingency to demand his passports and leave Paris for London.
Most public men, even those in his cabinet, thought this action foolhardy and useless; but Quincy Adams, neither expecting nor receiving any thanks for it, just as in the Seminole War difficulty, nobly stood up for the President. A telling speech by him in the House led to its unanimous resolution, March 2, 1835, that the execution of the treaty should be insisted on. The French ministry blustered, and for a time diplomatic relations between the two countries were entirely ruptured.
MINOR PUBLIC QUESTIONS
But France, affecting to see in the message of 1835, though voiced in precisely the same tone as its predecessor, some apology for the menace contained in that, began its payments. This money, as also all due from the other states included in Napoleon's continental system, was paid during Jackson's administration, a result which brought him and his party great praise, not more for the money than for the respect and consideration secured to the United States by insistence upon its rights. The President's message to Congress in 1835 announced the entire extinguishment of the public debt--the first and the last time this has occurred in all our national history.
An important measure touching the hard-money system of our country was passed in large part through the influence of President Jackson. By the Mint Law of 1792 our silver dollar was made to contain three hundred and seventy-one and a quarter grains of fine silver, or four hundred and sixteen of standard silver.
WHIGS AND DEMOCRATS
The amount of pure silver in this venerable coin has remained unchanged ever since; only, in 1837, by a reduction of the alloy fraction to exactly one-tenth, the total weight of the coin became what it now is, four hundred and twelve and a half grains, nine-tenths fine. The same law of 1792 had given the gold dollar just one-fifteenth the weight of the silver dollar. This proportion, which Hamilton had arrived at after careful investigation characteristic of the man, was exactly correct at the time, but within a year, as is now known, on account of increase in the relative value of gold, the gold dollar at fifteen to one became more valuable than its silver mate. The consequence was that the gold brought to the United States mint for coinage fell off year by year, until some of the years between 1820 and 1830 it had been almost zero. Gold money had nearly ceased to circulate.
Jackson resolved to restore the yellow metal to daily use. In this he was opposed by many Whigs, who, so zealous were they for the United States Bank, had become paper money men.
The so-called Gold Bill was carried through Congress in 1834, changing the proportion of silver to gold in our currency from fifteen to one to sixteen to one. It should have been fifteen and a half to one. Now gold in its turn was over-valued, so that silver gradually ceased to circulate, as gold had almost ceased before. This result was made worse after 1848, when there was a still further appreciation of silver through the discovery of gold in California and Australia. Silver dollars did not again circulate freely in the country until 1878, though they were full legal tender till 1873. Gold, on the other hand, was everywhere seen after 1834, though not abundant in circulation, owing to the large amounts of paper money then in use.
In 1836 the President ordered his Secretary of the Treasury to put forth the famous Specie Circular, declaring that only gold, silver, or land scrip should be received in payment for public lands. The occasion of this was that while land sales were very rapidly increasing, the receipts hitherto had consisted largely in the notes of insolvent banks.
Land speculators would organize a bank, procure for it, if they could, the favor of being a "pet" bank, issue notes, borrow these as individuals and buy land with them. The notes were deposited, when they would borrow them again to buy land with, and so on. As there was little specie in the West, the circular broke up many a fine plan, and evoked much ill-feeling. Gold was drawn from the East, where, as many of the banks had none too much, the drain caused not a few of them to collapse. The condition of business at this time was generally unsound, and this westward movement of gold was all that was needed to precipitate a crisis. A crisis accordingly came on soon after, painfully severe. It is unfair, however, to arraign Jackson's order as wholly responsible for the evils which accompanied this monetary cataclysm. It was rather an occasion than the cause.