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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

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The New Democracy at Washington

The Spoils System.—The staid and respectable society of Washington was disturbed by this influx of farmers and frontiersmen. To speak of politics became “bad form” among fashionable women. The clerks and civil servants of the government who had enjoyed long and secure tenure of office became alarmed at the clamor of new men for their positions. Doubtless the major portion of them had opposed the election of Jackson and looked with feelings akin to contempt upon him and his followers. With a hunter’s instinct, Jackson scented his prey. Determined to have none but his friends in office, he made a clean sweep, expelling old employees to make room for men “fresh from the people.” This was a new custom. Other Presidents had discharged a few officers for engaging in opposition politics. They had been careful in making appointments not to choose inveterate enemies; but they discharged relatively few men on account of their political views and partisan activities.

By wholesale removals and the frank selection of officers on party grounds—a practice already well intrenched in New York—Jackson established the “spoils system” at Washington. The famous slogan, “to the victor belong the spoils of victory,” became the avowed principle of the national government. Statesmen like Calhoun denounced it; poets like James Russell Lowell ridiculed it; faithful servants of the government suffered under it; but it held undisturbed sway for half a century thereafter, each succeeding generation outdoing, if possible, its predecessor in the use of public office for political purposes. If any one remarked that training and experience were necessary qualifications for important public positions, he met Jackson’s own profession of faith: “The duties of any public office are so simple or admit of being made so simple that any man can in a short time become master of them.”

The Tariff and Nullification.—Jackson had not been installed in power very long before he was compelled to choose between states’ rights and nationalism. The immediate occasion of the trouble was the tariff—a matter on which Jackson did not have any very decided views. His mind did not run naturally to abstruse economic questions; and owing to the divided opinion of the country it was “good politics” to be vague and ambiguous in the controversy. Especially was this true, because the tariff issue was threatening to split the country into parties again.

The Development of the Policy of “Protection.”—The war of 1812 and the commercial policies of England which followed it had accentuated the need for American economic independence. During that conflict, the United States, cut off from English manufactures as during the Revolution, built up home industries to meet the unusual call for iron, steel, cloth, and other military and naval supplies as well as the demands from ordinary markets. Iron foundries and textile mills sprang up as in the night; hundreds of business men invested fortunes in industrial enterprises so essential to the military needs of the government; and the people at large fell into the habit of buying American-made goods again. As the London Times tersely observed of the Americans, “their first war with England made them independent; their second war made them formidable.”

In recognition of this state of affairs, the tariff of 1816 was designed: first, to prevent England from ruining these “infant industries” by dumping the accumulated stores of years suddenly upon American markets; and, secondly, to enlarge in the manufacturing centers the demand for American agricultural produce. It accomplished the purposes of its framers. It kept in operation the mills and furnaces so recently built. It multiplied the number of industrial workers and enhanced the demand for the produce of the soil. It brought about another very important result. It turned the capital and enterprise of New England from shipping to manufacturing, and converted her statesmen, once friends of low tariffs, into ardent advocates of protection.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, the Yankees had bent their energies toward building and operating ships to carry produce from America to Europe and manufactures from Europe to America. For this reason, they had opposed the tariff of 1816 calculated to increase domestic production and cut down the carrying trade. Defeated in their efforts, they accepted the inevitable and turned to manufacturing. Soon they were powerful friends of protection for American enterprise. As the money invested and the labor employed in the favored industries increased, the demand for continued and heavier protection grew apace. Even the farmers who furnished raw materials, like wool, flax, and hemp, began to see eye to eye with the manufacturers. So the textile interests of New England, the iron masters of Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, the wool, hemp, and flax growers of Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and the sugar planters of Louisiana developed into a formidable combination in support of a high protective tariff.

The Planting States Oppose the Tariff.—In the meantime, the cotton states on the seaboard had forgotten about the havoc wrought during the Napoleonic wars when their produce rotted because there were no ships to carry it to Europe. The seas were now open. The area devoted to cotton had swiftly expanded as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana were opened up. Cotton had in fact become “king” and the planters depended for their prosperity, as they thought, upon the sale of their staple to English manufacturers whose spinning and weaving mills were the wonder of the world. Manufacturing nothing and having to buy nearly everything except farm produce and even much of that for slaves, the planters naturally wanted to purchase manufactures in the cheapest market, England, where they sold most of their cotton. The tariff, they contended, raised the price of the goods they had to buy and was thus in fact a tribute laid on them for the benefit of the Northern mill owners.

The Tariff of Abominations.—They were overborne, however, in 1824 and again in 1828 when Northern manufacturers and Western farmers forced Congress to make an upward revision of the tariff. The Act of 1828 known as “the Tariff of Abominations,” though slightly modified in 1832, was “the straw which broke the camel’s back.” Southern leaders turned in rage against the whole system. The legislatures of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama denounced it; a general convention of delegates held at Augusta issued a protest of defiance against it; and South Carolina, weary of verbal battles, decided to prevent its enforcement.

South Carolina Nullifies the Tariff.—The legislature of that state, on October 26, 1832, passed a bill calling for a state convention which duly assembled in the following month. In no mood for compromise, it adopted the famous Ordinance of Nullification after a few days’ debate. Every line of this document was clear and firm. The tariff, it opened, gives “bounties to classes and individuals … at the expense and to the injury and oppression of other classes and individuals”; it is a violation of the Constitution of the United States and therefore null and void; its enforcement in South Carolina is unlawful; if the federal government attempts to coerce the state into obeying the law, “the people of this state will thenceforth hold themselves absolved from all further obligations to maintain or preserve their political connection with the people of the other states and will forthwith proceed to organize a separate government and do all other acts and things which sovereign and independent states may of right do.”

Southern States Condemn Nullification.—The answer of the country to this note of defiance, couched in the language used in the Kentucky resolutions and by the New England Federalists during the war of 1812, was quick and positive. The legislatures of the Southern states, while condemning the tariff, repudiated the step which South Carolina had taken. Georgia responded: “We abhor the doctrine of nullification as neither a peaceful nor a constitutional remedy.” Alabama found it “unsound in theory and dangerous in practice.” North Carolina replied that it was “revolutionary in character, subversive of the Constitution of the United States.” Mississippi answered: “It is disunion by force—it is civil war.” Virginia spoke more softly, condemning the tariff and sustaining the principle of the Virginia resolutions but denying that South Carolina could find in them any sanction for her proceedings.

Jackson Firmly Upholds the Union.—The eyes of the country were turned upon Andrew Jackson. It was known that he looked with no friendly feelings upon nullification, for, at a Jefferson dinner in the spring of 1830 while the subject was in the air, he had with laconic firmness announced a toast: “Our federal union; it must be preserved.” When two years later the open challenge came from South Carolina, he replied that he would enforce the law, saying with his frontier directness: “If a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hands on engaged in such conduct upon the first tree that I can reach.” He made ready to keep his word by preparing for the use of military and naval forces in sustaining the authority of the federal government. Then in a long and impassioned proclamation to the people of South Carolina he pointed out the national character of the union, and announced his solemn resolve to preserve it by all constitutional means. Nullification he branded as “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 objects for which it was formed.”

A Compromise.—In his messages to Congress, however, Jackson spoke the language of conciliation. A few days before issuing his proclamation he suggested that protection should be limited to the articles of domestic manufacture indispensable to safety in war time, and shortly afterward he asked for new legislation to aid him in enforcing the laws. With two propositions before it, one to remove the chief grounds for South Carolina’s resistance and the other to apply force if it was continued, Congress bent its efforts to avoid a crisis. On February 12, 1833, Henry Clay laid before the Senate a compromise tariff bill providing for the gradual reduction of the duties until by 1842 they would reach the level of the law which Calhoun had supported in 1816. About the same time the “force bill,” designed to give the President ample authority in executing the law in South Carolina, was taken up. After a short but acrimonious debate, both measures were passed and signed by President Jackson on the same day, March 2. Looking upon the reduction of the tariff as a complete vindication of her policy and an undoubted victory, South Carolina rescinded her ordinance and enacted another nullifying the force bill.

Daniel Webster
From an old print
Daniel Webster

The Webster-Hayne Debate.—Where the actual victory lay in this quarrel, long the subject of high dispute, need not concern us to-day. Perhaps the chief result of the whole affair was a clarification of the issue between the North and the South—a definite statement of the principles for which men on both sides were years afterward to lay down their lives. On behalf of nationalism and a perpetual union, the stanch old Democrat from Tennessee had, in his proclamation on nullification, spoken a language that admitted of only one meaning. On behalf of nullification, Senator Hayne, of South Carolina, a skilled lawyer and courtly orator, had in a great speech delivered in the Senate in January, 1830, set forth clearly and cogently the doctrine that the union is a compact among sovereign states from which the parties may lawfully withdraw. It was this address that called into the arena Daniel Webster, Senator from Massachusetts, who, spreading the mantle of oblivion over the Hartford convention, delivered a reply to Hayne that has been reckoned among the powerful orations of all time—a plea for the supremacy of the Constitution and the national character of the union.

The War on the United States Bank.—If events forced the issue of nationalism and nullification upon Jackson, the same could not be said of his attack on the bank. That institution, once denounced by every true Jeffersonian, had been reëstablished in 1816 under the administration of Jefferson’s disciple, James Madison. It had not been in operation very long, however, before it aroused bitter opposition, especially in the South and the West. Its notes drove out of circulation the paper currency of unsound banks chartered by the states, to the great anger of local financiers. It was accused of favoritism in making loans, of conferring special privileges upon politicians in return for their support at Washington. To all Jackson’s followers it was “an insidious money power.” One of them openly denounced it as an institution designed “to strengthen the arm of wealth and counterpoise the influence of extended suffrage in the disposition of public affairs.”

This sentiment President Jackson fully shared. In his first message to Congress he assailed the bank in vigorous language. He declared that its constitutionality was in doubt and alleged that it had failed to establish a sound and uniform currency. If such an institution was necessary, he continued, it should be a public bank, owned and managed by the government, not a private concern endowed with special privileges by it. In his second and third messages, Jackson came back to the subject, leaving the decision, however, to “an enlightened people and their representatives.”

Moved by this frank hostility and anxious for the future, the bank applied to Congress for a renewal of its charter in 1832, four years before the expiration of its life. Clay, with his eye upon the presidency and an issue for the campaign, warmly supported the application. Congress, deeply impressed by his leadership, passed the bill granting the new charter, and sent the open defiance to Jackson. His response was an instant veto. The battle was on and it raged with fury until the close of his second administration, ending in the destruction of the bank, a disordered currency, and a national panic.

In his veto message, Jackson attacked the bank as unconstitutional and even hinted at corruption. He refused to assent to the proposition that the Supreme Court had settled the question of constitutionality by the decision in the McCulloch case. “Each public officer,” he argued, “who takes an oath to support the Constitution, swears that he will support it as he understands it, not as it is understood by others.”

Not satisfied with his veto and his declaration against the bank, Jackson ordered the Secretary of the Treasury to withdraw the government deposits which formed a large part of the institution’s funds. This action he followed up by an open charge that the bank had used money shamefully to secure the return of its supporters to Congress. The Senate, stung by this charge, solemnly resolved that Jackson had “assumed upon himself authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and laws, but in derogation of both.”

The effects of the destruction of the bank were widespread. When its charter expired in 1836, banking was once more committed to the control of the states. The state legislatures, under a decision rendered by the Supreme Court after the death of Marshall, began to charter banks under state ownership and control, with full power to issue paper money—this in spite of the provision in the Constitution that states shall not issue bills of credit or make anything but gold and silver coin legal tender in the payment of debts. Once more the country was flooded by paper currency of uncertain value. To make matters worse, Jackson adopted the practice of depositing huge amounts of government funds in these banks, not forgetting to render favors to those institutions which supported him in politics—“pet banks,” as they were styled at the time. In 1837, partially, though by no means entirely, as a result of the abolition of the bank, the country was plunged into one of the most disastrous panics which it ever experienced.

Internal Improvements Checked.—The bank had presented to Jackson a very clear problem—one of destruction. Other questions were not so simple, particularly the subject of federal appropriations in aid of roads and other internal improvements. Jefferson had strongly favored government assistance in such matters, but his administration was followed by a reaction. Both Madison and Monroe vetoed acts of Congress appropriating public funds for public roads, advancing as their reason the argument that the Constitution authorized no such laws. Jackson, puzzled by the clamor on both sides, followed their example without making the constitutional bar absolute. Congress, he thought, might lawfully build highways of a national and military value, but he strongly deprecated attacks by local interests on the federal treasury.

The Triumph of the Executive Branch.—Jackson’s reëlection in 1832 served to confirm his opinion that he was the chosen leader of the people, freed and instructed to ride rough shod over Congress and even the courts. No President before or since ever entertained in times of peace such lofty notions of executive prerogative. The entire body of federal employees he transformed into obedient servants of his wishes, a sign or a nod from him making and undoing the fortunes of the humble and the mighty. His lawful cabinet of advisers, filling all of the high posts in the government, he treated with scant courtesy, preferring rather to secure his counsel and advice from an unofficial body of friends and dependents who, owing to their secret methods and back stairs arrangements, became known as “the kitchen cabinet.” Under the leadership of a silent, astute, and resourceful politician, Amos Kendall, this informal gathering of the faithful both gave and carried out decrees and orders, communicating the President’s lightest wish or strictest command to the uttermost part of the country. Resolutely and in the face of bitter opposition Jackson had removed the deposits from the United States Bank. When the Senate protested against this arbitrary conduct, he did not rest until it was forced to expunge the resolution of condemnation; in time one of his lieutenants with his own hands was able to tear the censure from the records. When Chief Justice Marshall issued a decree against Georgia which did not suit him, Jackson, according to tradition, blurted out that Marshall could go ahead and enforce his own orders. To the end he pursued his willful way, finally even choosing his own successor.

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