Modern history


Battles over Sovereignty

All the major political controversies of Andrew Jackson’s two terms in the White House involved issues of authority. Jackson exercised presidential authority in new ways, removing competent officeholders and vetoing more bills than all his predecessors put together. (The contrast with his immediate predecessor was particularly striking, since Adams had vetoed no bills at all.) Jackson engaged in contests of authority with Congress and barely avoided one with the Supreme Court. The Eaton Affair showed that even social intercourse could be a matter for the assertion of presidential authority. Ultimate authority, that is, sovereignty, became the subject of explicit and bitter debate during Jackson’s administrations. Rival claims of sovereignty for the states and the nation found expression in legal theory, rhetorical eloquence, and finally in political crisis. The president believed in the sovereignty of the American people and in himself as the embodiment of that sovereignty. The conflict between Jackson and the Second Bank of the United States escalated into a “war” waged in defense of both national and popular sovereignty. By the end of his presidency, Jackson had defended federal supremacy in the crisis with South Carolina even while encouraging neighboring Georgia to assert state sovereignty. In the last analysis, it was his personal authority, rather than that of the federal government or even the presidential office, which Jackson zealously maintained.


Jacksonians justified Indian Removal as a prerequisite to the westward extension of white settlement. But from the standpoint of Jackson’s western supporters, cheap land seemed just as important as the expulsion of the Native population. Western settlers and land speculators wanted to buy cheap from the government and sell dear to later arrivals. Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton, spokesman for the frontier, proposed the price of unsold public lands drop automatically over time until they found a buyer. After four years on the market, their price would reach a mere twenty-five cents an acre. “The public lands belong to the People, and not to the federal government,” he thundered.1 Benton termed his policy “graduation.” To achieve more rapid settlement of the West, his plan would severely

1. Register of Debates, 19th Cong., 1st sess. (May 16, 1826), 727.

curtail the potential value of the lands to the government. It meant abandoning hope of using revenue from the public lands for internal improvements or education and leaving the government without much leverage on the economy. It had therefore been opposed by the Adams administration. Anticipating a more sympathetic response from Jackson, Benton had supported him for president, in spite of the fact that they had once been such bitter personal enemies that Old Hickory still carried a bullet in his body from a shootout with Benton and his brother Jesse in 1813.

In reality, there was plenty of land for all, so much that the price stayed low. Land Office auctions in the 1820s seldom raised much more than the $1.25 minimum even for the best new acres. The Native Americans were dispossessed faster than their lands could be sold. Georgia didn’t even try to sell the Cherokee lands it seized; the state raffled them off in a lottery. In New England and the Chesapeake, people complained of depressed property values and abandoned farms because of the abundance of land in the West. Not surprisingly, some argued that Americans would be better off pushing industrialization and developing their infrastructure, instead of trying to expand the agricultural sector with more and more land. As Adams’s Treasury secretary, Richard Rush, had put it, “The creation of capital is retarded rather than accelerated by the diffusion of a thin population over a great surface of soil.” The growth of cities and towns would eventually provide commercial farmers with a better market. In the meantime, the government’s policy of keeping land prices low meant that farms were uneconomically large and too many people worked in the agricultural sector.2

When Jackson’s first Congress met in December 1829, land sales as well as Indian policy demanded the attention of the members. Senator Samuel Foot of Connecticut, speaking for the East, proposed a temporary moratorium on new lands being offered for sale until more of the existing stock of available land had found buyers. Benton responded on January 18, 1830, with a speech accusing Foot and New Englanders in general of trying “to check the growth and to injure the prosperity of the West.” Easterners wanted to keep “the vast and magnificent valley of the Mississippi for the haunts of beasts and savages.” Benton suspected a plot by northeastern industrialists, who “want poor people to do the work for small wages,” to prevent the masses from having the option of cheap land. He cried out for the South to come to the aid of the West.3

2. Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, Dec. 1827, quoted in Daniel Feller, The Public Lands in Jacksonian Politics (Madison, Wisc., 1984), 92; James Henretta, “The ‘Market’ in the Early Republic,” JER 18 (1998): 289–304.

3. Register of Debates, 21st Cong., 1st sess. (Jan. 18, 1830), 25–27.

The rising star of South Carolina politics, Senator Robert Y. Hayne, responded to the call. A protégé of John C. Calhoun, Hayne, like his mentor, had shifted from nationalism to particularism. In the past Hayne had never supported cheap land, but now he endorsed it in a state-rights version: The federal government should cede the public lands to the states where they were located. Western states would surely sell them cheaply, in a race with each other to entice settlers. Jackson was turning the Indian tribes’ lands over to the states; why not do the same with the rest of the public lands? The speeches of Benton and Hayne seemed to point the way toward a political alliance of South and West under Jacksonian auspices, directed against New England.

Then Daniel Webster spoke up. “Sir, I rise to defend the East.” Earlier a congressman from New Hampshire, Webster was now senator from Massachusetts. “Black Dan” (so called for his dark complexion) had changed more than his constituency, for he was undergoing a political transformation the mirror image of Calhoun’s. Formerly a free-trader who had invoked New England state rights in opposition to the War of 1812, Webster emerged as a leading defender of nationalism and a protective tariff when industrialization and cotton textile manufacturing in particular changed the economy of New England. Like Calhoun, Webster nursed presidential ambitions that would be forever frustrated. Unlike the South Carolinian, however, Webster had broad interests outside politics. He was the nation’s most famous trial lawyer, a man of letters and bon vivant. Though his private integrity was not above suspicion, his public persona impressed observers. The senator had a feeling for the theatrical; on public occasions he still dressed in the fashion of an eighteenth-century gentleman, with knee breeches and waistcoat.4 To his cult following, Webster represented the values of civilization, learning, and law that they found wanting in Andrew Jackson.

In this battle of words, Webster chose his adversary carefully: It would be Hayne, not Benton. New England had always been the friend of the West, Webster insisted. The American System of internal improvements and protective tariffs served the mutual interests of West and Northeast. A New Englander had authored the famous Ordinance of 1787, opening up the Old Northwest to settlement and ensuring its prosperity by excluding slavery, he pointed out. In accordance with the policy then established, sale of the public lands, with some of the proceeds going to education, “spreads about benefits and blessings which all can see and all can feel.” It “opens channels of intercourse, augments population, enhances the value of property, and diffuses knowledge.”

4. Robert Dalzell, Daniel Webster and the Trial of American Nationalism (Boston, 1973), 3.

But the “godlike Daniel” (a nickname his admirers used without irony) deliberately broadened the scope of his oration beyond land policy. In reaction to the Tariff of Abominations, South Carolina’s legislature had encouraged (without actually yet adopting) the theory that a state could nullify the enforcement of a federal law within its borders. The strident state-righter Thomas Cooper, president of South Carolina College, had even warned in 1827 that “we shall, before long, be compelled to calculate the value of our union,” in which “the South has always been the loser and the North always the gainer.” In reaction, Webster seized the opportunity to “deprecate and deplore” the conception of the Constitution as a mere compact among states that they were free to interpret or restrict. “I am a unionist, and in this sense a national republican,” he declared. The spokesman for New England had thrown down the gauntlet.5

Hayne rose to the challenge. The Yankee “has invaded the State of South Carolina, is making war upon her citizens, and endeavoring to overthrow her principles and institutions,” he proclaimed. Hayne defended slavery and deplored the “false philanthropy” that criticized both it and Indian Removal. He denounced the tariff and justified state nullification of federal laws.6 Vice President Calhoun, exercising his duty to preside over the Senate, could be seen passing notes down to prompt his younger friend’s wide-ranging response. But the Carolinians had played into their adversary’s hands. Webster longed for just such an opportunity to make an eloquent statement on behalf of the Union. His political goal was to identify New England with American nationalism so emphatically as to erase the memory of his section’s particularism in the previous generation. Ironically, Webster’s famous plea for the Union was every bit as sectional in motive as Hayne’s rationalization of state rights.7

Webster’s “Second Reply to Hayne” laid out a nationalist doctrine of constitutional origin and interpretation. The Constitution had not been created by the states, he declared, but by the people of the Union as a whole, who had distributed their sovereign powers among both state and

5. Webster is quoted in Merrill Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (New York, 1987), 173–74; Cooper is quoted in William Freehling, Prelude to Civil War (New York, 1965), 130.

6. Register of Debates, 21st Cong., 1st sess. (Jan. 25, 1830), 43–58, quotations from 46, 48, 58.

7. See Harlow Sheidley, “The Webster-Hayne Debate,” New England Quarterly 67 (1994): 5–29; Peter Parish, “Daniel Webster, New England, and the West,” JAH 54 (1967): 524–49.

federal agencies. The states thus possessed no logical right to determine the extent of federal sovereignty. Ultimately, however, the most salient feature of Webster’s address was not its argument but its evocation of patriotic feeling. In a society where elocution was practiced as an art form and oratory constituted a branch of literature, Webster displayed his mastery of the genre.

When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union, on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original lustre, not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured, bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as “What is all this worth?” nor those other words of delusion and folly, “Liberty first and Union afterwards”; but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart,—Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!8

Benefiting from some last-minute revisions made after its actual delivery, newspaper reprints and pamphlet versions of Webster’s “Second Reply to Hayne” circulated more widely than any previous speech in history. The communications revolution magnified the power of the spoken word: At least one hundred thousand copies sold. In fact, this and the other famous political orations of the time were delivered more for the sake of their distribution in print than in the hope of persuading their actual auditors. Webster’s peroration would be recorded in schoolbooks and memorized by the young for one hundred years and more.9

At first, Democratic newspapers scorned the address, but once Jackson had taken a stand against nullification they found themselves seconding Webster’s veneration of the Union. Hayne himself in later years acknowledged Webster “the most consummate orator of either ancient or modern times.” The New Englander’s eloquence helped forge the broad consensus of northern opinion that by 1861 was ready to wage war for the integrity of the Union. Abraham Lincoln called Webster on Liberty and

8. “Second Reply to Hayne (Published Version),” Papers of Daniel Webster: Speeches and Formal Writings, ed. Charles M. Wiltse (Hanover, N.H., 1986), I, 347–48.

9. As the author remembers from East Denver High School in the 1950s.

Union “the very best speech that was ever delivered” and drew upon it in composing his own First Inaugural.10

The rest was anticlimax. In May the Senate finally shelved the resolution by Senator Foot that had provoked the great debate. But neither did Benton’s plan prevail. At the close of the congressional session, the House of Representatives defeated a watered-down version of his graduation scheme. The president himself refrained from endorsing graduation, reflecting the influence of Van Buren’s wing of the party and freeing Jacksonian congressmen from the Mid-Atlantic states to vote their section’s interest against the bill. In a close roll call, graduation lost because Ohio cast 8 out of 12 votes against it. Representing the most populous and economically developed state west of the Appalachians, Ohio’s delegation no longer identified with the frontier.11

During the Webster-Hayne Debate, people generally assumed that President Jackson would sympathize with his fellow southern slaveholder in opposition to a Yankee Federalist. Probably he did up to a point, but once South Carolina challenged the fundamental nature of the Constitution, Jackson felt impelled to affirm the sovereignty of the federal government and show that, like Webster, he deplored the doctrine of state nullification. Unlike Indian Removal, the tariff issue did not seem to him of such overriding importance as to justify pitting state authority against that of the federal government.

On April 13, 1830, the Democratic Republican Party (now starting to call itself the Democratic Party) celebrated the birthday of its late founder, Thomas Jefferson. The president and all the rest of the party’s Washington officeholders attended a banquet with twenty-four formal toasts, typical of that hard-drinking and long-winded society. Robert Hayne gave the longest speech of all, celebrating Jefferson’s state-rights principles and concluding with a toast to “the Union of the States, and the Sovereignty of the States.” After the formal toasts came the “volunteer” toasts, and it was the president’s prerogative to offer one of these. In consultation with Van Buren beforehand, Jackson had resolved to rebuke the nullifiers by proposing a toast to “our federal Union.” In the heat of the moment, however, he rose and called out an even more forceful toast: “Our Union: It must be preserved.” He glared directly at the vice president. Calhoun, his

10. Hayne, quoted in Peterson, Great Triumvirate, 179; Lincoln, quoted in David Donald, Lincoln (New York, 1995), 270. See also William R. Taylor, Cavalier and Yankee (Cambridge, Mass., 1961, rpt. 1979), 109; Maurice Baxter, One and Inseparable: Daniel Webster and the Union (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 188.

11. Feller, Public Lands, 132–33.

voice strong but the hand holding his glass shaking with emotion, responded, “The Union. Next to our liberty, the most dear. May we always remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the states and by distributing equally the benefits and the burdens of the Union.” To observers, it was a duel through toasts, and it attracted nationwide comment.12

Jackson’s performance at the Jefferson birthday dinner displayed several characteristic features of his presidency: his confidence in Van Buren, his hostility to Calhoun, his impetuousness, his relative indifference to the tariff as an issue, and, above all, his determination to maintain the sovereign authority of the national government, which was the basis of his own authority as its president.


That the modern twenty-dollar Federal Reserve Note should bear Andrew Jackson’s portrait is richly ironic. Not only did the Old Hero disapprove of paper money, he deliberately destroyed the national banking system of his day. What is called “the Bank War” came about through a clash between two forceful personalities, Andrew Jackson and Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States. Once the conflict had been provoked, popular prejudices came into play and a dramatic conflict ensued. The sharply contrasting images of Jackson and Biddle appealed to different social constituencies, polarizing public opinion. The United States of America was not big enough for both Andrew Jackson and Nicholas Biddle to play the role that each envisioned for himself. In the end, their conflict had major consequences for the country’s economic development.

Nicholas Biddle had been born into an old Philadelphia family of respectability and prominence. Intellectually precocious, he studied at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton between the ages of ten and fifteen. At eighteen he was private secretary to the American minister in Paris. Back in Philadelphia he edited the leading American literary magazine, the Port-Folio, and wrote a history of the Lewis and Clark expedition using the explorers’ own notes. As a patron of the arts, he encouraged the Greek Revival architectural style. In the Pennsylvania state senate during the War of 1812 Biddle helped the federal government float war loans and backed Madison’s efforts to re-create the Bank of the United

12. Remini, Jackson, II, 233–36; John Niven, John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union (Baton Rouge, 1988), 173. Before publication, Jackson consented to having the word “federal” reinserted into his toast.

States. After Congress agreed to charter a Second Bank for twenty years starting in 1816, President Monroe appointed Biddle one of the government’s five members on the BUS board of directors. There he quickly demonstrated both an academic and a practical mastery of economics and finance. In 1823, following the retirement of Langdon Cheves, the stockholders elected thirty-six-year-old Biddle president of the Bank. From then on he dominated the board of directors much as John Marshall did his colleagues on the bench. Brilliant, versatile, public-spirited, and a gracious host, Nicholas Biddle seemed Philadelphia’s answer to Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson.13

The Second Bank of the United States was the largest corporation in the country; indeed, it was the only really nationwide business. Modeled on its precursor, the Bank Hamilton had founded, the Second BUS held the Treasury’s tax receipts on deposit and handled the federal government’s financial transactions. Like most other banks of the time, it issued its own paper currency; unlike most of theirs, its notes were legal tender and could always be exchanged for gold and silver. The government itself issued no paper money, only coins. By presenting the paper money of state banks for redemption, the national bank could limit their extensions of credit. The BUS made loans to other banks as well as to other businesses and individuals; unlike the Federal Reserve Bank of today, which is the debtor of its member banks, the Second Bank of the United States was the creditor of state banks. Like the Federal Reserve Bank of today, it marketed the Treasury’s securities to buyers from all over the world. The BUS handled virtually all foreign exchange transactions, a vital function for a debtor country with a chronically unfavorable trade balance. During the 1820s, the Bank rapidly expanded its practice of making commercial loans. Because its branches had a degree of autonomy, the Bank could accommodate the varying financial needs of different regions. The BUS was evolving into a modern central bank; that is, it could expand or contract the money supply so as to mitigate (within limits imposed by the gold standard) the swings of the business cycle. Under Biddle’s direction it did this at times, though usually it was content to police the currency of the state banks, making sure they had adequate specie reserves to back up their note issues.14

13. See Thomas Govan, Nicholas Biddle (Chicago, 1959).

14. See Peter Temin, The Jacksonian Economy (New York, 1969), 44–58; Bray Hammond, Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (Princeton, 1957), 300–325, corrected in some respects by Richard Timberlake, Origins of Central Banking in the United States (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 27–41.

The way in which the national bank combined public functions with private profit inevitably exposed it to criticism. Yet the BUS compared favorably with the contemporary Bank of England in this regard. The most authoritative and impartial expert on American finance at the time, Albert Gallatin, secretary of the Treasury under both Jefferson and Madison and now president of John Jacob Astor’s bank in New York City, assessed the performance of the BUS favorably. But if the Bank had done a good job under Biddle, it had not always done so under his predecessors. No real safeguards prevented the Bank misusing its power. Probably the worst feature of the national bank was its practice of lending money to prominent politicians and editors. This created at least the appearance of impropriety, even though the borrowers included not only its defenders like Clay and Webster (the latter the Bank’s retained counsel) but also critics like Jackson’s postmaster general, William Barry, and his successor, Amos Kendall.15Conflict-of-interest rules lay far in the future.

The Second Bank of the United States had not been an issue in the election of 1828; indeed, Biddle had voted for Jackson. Times were prosperous, the BUS was helping them stay that way, and the unpopularity of the institution subsided after the Panic of 1819 had died down. Yet the Bank retained a hard core of adversaries, and among these, it turned out, was the new president. Years before, Jackson had speculated extensively in land and promissory notes. When some of the complicated deals soured, he narrowly escaped financial ruin. From these youthful experiences the old man derived his distrust of banks and promissory notes and his horror of debt. That he found it impossible to live without recourse to banks did not affect these attitudes. Early in their relationship the president told his national banker, “I do not dislike your bank any more than all banks.”16

But in the White House, Old Hickory’s distrust of banks in general was soon overshadowed by his hostility toward the BUS in particular. Amos Kendall and Francis Blair, whose animosity to the national bank went back to their early careers in Kentucky, fanned these flames in their chief ’s breast. His First Annual Message in December 1829 raised the subject of whether the Bank’s charter should be renewed, although it had until 1836 to run. Jackson complained that the Bank had “failed in the great end of establishing a uniform and sound currency.” This was simply

15. Albert Gallatin, Considerations on the Currency and Banking System (Philadelphia, 1831); Glyndon Van Deusen, The Jacksonian Era (New York, 1959), 63.

16. Jackson to Biddle, Nov. 1829, quoted in Ralph Catterall, The Second Bank of the United States (Chicago, 1902), 184.

untrue; the Bank’s currency circulated at or very near par in all parts of the country. Though it sounded like the president wanted the national bank to be the only one issuing paper money, in fact, Jackson didn’t want any banknotes at all. A strict adherent to the gold standard, he believed that only precious metals should circulate as money. When Congress did not respond, he raised the subject again in his Second Annual Message, urging that a different national bank should be created, “shorn of the influence which makes that bank formidable.” Jackson proposed to make the national bank an arm of the Treasury itself.17 A better solution would have been to institute more effective government regulation of the BUS; a national bank under direct political control would have been an even more powerful and potentially dangerous institution than Biddle’s.

The Bank of the United States was the largest example in the country of a mixed public-private corporation, and Jackson criticized both its public and private aspects. Sometimes he waged his war on the Bank as an agency of overcentralized government, but more often he attacked it as a private enterprise that had received unjust privileges, an artificial monopoly unresponsive to government or public. What Jackson minded most about the national bank was that it constituted a rival power center. Biddle, self-confident to the point of arrogance, did nothing to hide his institution’s potential. Asked by a congressional committee if the BUS ever oppressed state banks, he responded, “Never,” adding candidly, “There are very few banks which might not have been destroyed by an exertion of the power of the Bank.”18 To Biddle this testified to his responsibility and restraint, but in the eyes of Jackson and his friends, it was a frank confession. Even if not exercised, such power was incompatible with the sovereignty of the people. The Jacksonian Senator Thomas Hart Benton warned that the Bank could “subjugate the government.” Jackson himself habitually referred to the Bank as “the Monster,” a word that implied unnatural and enormous power. The president’s confidant Amos Kendall predicted, “It will come to this: that whoever is in favor of that Bank will be against Old Hickory.”19

Although some people felt strongly about it, the public as a whole was not sharply divided into pro- and anti-Bank factions during the 1820s and early ’30s. Until the two leaders polarized opinions, most Americans were

17. Presidential Messages, II, 462, 529.

18. Quoted in Hammond, Banks and Politics, 297.

19. Benton quoted in Walter Buckingham Smith, Economic Aspects of the Second Bank of the United States (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), 234; Kendall quoted in Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution (New York, 1991), 322–23.

probably ambivalent or complacent in their attitude toward the Bank. Many leading Democrats in both the executive and legislative branches wanted the government to avoid a confrontation with Biddle’s institution. In Congress, the president’s anti-Bank proposals got nowhere. Intermediaries tried to work out some sort of modus vivendi between the two jealous chieftains. When Jackson reconstituted his cabinet in 1831 to resolve the Peggy Eaton problem, he appointed as his new Treasury secretary Louis McLane, the successful negotiator of the recent trade agreement with Britain. McLane was friendly toward the Bank. Biddle welcomed this action as good news. The bad news from his point of view was that Jackson, despite ill health, resolved to run for reelection. (The president’s chronic pain had been somewhat relieved when a surgeon finally removed from his left arm the bullet Jesse Benton had fired at him nineteen years before.)

The national banker faced a difficult situation. His institution’s charter would expire in 1836 unless renewed. The administration had sent him mixed signals, the public presidential denunciations mitigated recently by private equivocations from Jackson and reassurances from other high-ranking sources. In August 1831 Martin Van Buren left Washington as chief envoy (“minister plenipotentiary”) to Britain, a logical move for the former secretary of state; in his absence no clear presidential favorites emerged. The reconstituted official cabinet was mostly pro-Bank; Jackson’s unofficial kitchen cabinet, still anti-Bank. (Biddle confided his fear “that the kitchen would predominate over the parlor.”)20 So the bank president sought to be conciliatory. When Jackson complained that BUS branches in Kentucky had exerted influence against local Democratic candidates, Biddle investigated and tried to reassure Old Hickory. He appointed Democrats to the boards of directors of branch banks and made plans to hasten the retirement of the national debt, a project he knew to be close to the president’s heart.21

Meanwhile, in England, Van Buren enjoyed the cordial Anglo-American relations that followed the resolution of the West Indian trade dispute. He particularly admired the Tory military hero Wellington, who reminded him of Jackson.22 But in the Senate, Clay and Calhoun lay in wait to ambush the Fox. In January 1832, Van Buren’s nomination as minister plenipotentiary to Britain came up for confirmation. The Senate was

20. Quoted in Govan, Nicholas Biddle, 170.

21. See Donald Cole, The Presidency of Andrew Jackson (Lawrence, Kans., 1993), 95–100.

22. The Autobiography of Martin Van Buren, ed. John Fitzpatrick (Washington, 1920), 463–64.

closely divided between administration supporters and the opposition, and a tie vote was easily arranged. This gave Vice President Calhoun the satisfaction of casting the deciding vote against the man who had supplanted him in Jackson’s favor. Van Buren would have to return from London. “It will kill him, sir, kill him dead,” Benton overheard Calhoun exult to a friend. “He will never kick, sir, never kick.” Events proved Calhoun wrong, as they so often did. The Senate’s action cast Van Buren as a victim of political spite and endeared him to the president and Democratic faithful. When Jackson was informed of it in the middle of a dinner party, he jumped to his feet. “By the Eternal! I’ll smash them!” Rejection by the Senate has been rightly judged the best thing that ever happened to Van Buren. Benton’s warning to a National Republican senator proved accurate: “You have broken a minister and elected a Vice-President.”23 In due course, Van Buren would advance to the presidency itself.

That same month, January 1832, Nicholas Biddle decided to apply for a renewal of the national bank’s charter four years early. Assured that the BUS possessed popularity enough to get such a bill passed, he hoped Jackson would defer to Congress and Secretary McLane rather than risk a fight with the Bank and its supporters in an election year. Once the president was safely reelected, Biddle reasoned, the odds would worsen: Then Jackson would feel he could indulge his prejudices and veto recharter. It was a gamble for high stakes. McLane advised Biddle against it: “If you apply now, you assuredly will fail,” he warned; “if you wait, you will as certainly succeed.”24 But Biddle suspected otherwise, and not without reason. The most probable explanation for the lull in White House criticism is that the president did not want his showdown with the Bank to come in an election year; but it would have been uncharacteristic for Jackson to back away entirely from a position held long and deeply.25 Henry Clay, National Republican candidate for president, welcomed Biddle’s decision. He hoped that Jackson would veto recharter and hand Clay a potential winning issue. Headquartered on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, the BUS enjoyed wide popularity in Pennsylvania, and the Keystone State was expected to be pivotal in the election.

23. Remini, Jackson, II, 349–50; Thomas Hart Benton, Thirty Years View (New York, 1854), I, 219, 215.

24. Quoted in Louis Masur, 1831: Year of Eclipse (New York, 2001), 141.

25. The biographer who has studied Jackson the most thoroughly, Robert Remini, supports this view. Andrew Jackson and the Bank War (New York, 1967), 75–77. On the other hand, Sean Wilentz has recently argued the viability of McLane’s hopes for a compromise recharter. The Rise of American Democracy (New York, 2005), 367–68.

Some pro-Bank Jacksonians on Capitol Hill tried to delay the recharter bill until after the election, hoping to avoid having to make an awkward choice between their leader and the popular Bank. Anti-Bank Jacksonians initiated a congressional investigation of the Bank but turned up nothing that changed minds. Memorials poured into Congress from all over the country, especially the West, supporting recharter. Most state banks supported it.26 In July 1832, Congress passed a measure to extend the Bank’s charter for fifteen years after its expiration in 1836. Many Democrats from the commercial North joined the opposition members in support; others would have liked to support the Bank but were dissuaded by the party leadership. Although Democrats dominated the House, 141 to 72, recharter passed by 107 to 85. Congressional voting correlated closely with that on Indian Removal two years earlier.

The president had made up his mind to veto the measure. He interpreted Biddle’s bid for early recharter as a declaration of war. When Van Buren returned from England and hurried over to the White House, he found Jackson pale as a “spectre” but steely with resolve. “The bank is trying to kill me,” the old warrior glowered, “but I will kill it!”27 The Bank did not have the votes in Congress to override a veto. All the cabinet secretaries except Attorney General Roger Taney (pronounced “Tawney”) advised the president to leave room in his veto message for some possible compromise in the future.28 But Jackson wanted to make an uncompromising, ringing statement that would rally voters. He enlisted a team of anti-Bank loyalists to help him compose his veto message, including Taney and Amos Kendall from the kitchen cabinet.

On July 10, 1832, Andrew Jackson issued the most important presidential veto in American history. The economic criticisms the veto message made of the Bank were necessarily weak. Jackson and his close advisors, “hard-money” advocates themselves, needed the support of “soft-money” supporters of paper currency and easy credit to kill the Bank; hence a discussion of economic issues had to be ambiguous. The message complained about the dangerous influence of foreign stockholders in the Bank, although they were not allowed to vote their shares, and it was actually to the advantage of the United States to attract overseas investment. (Of 350,000 shares, 84,055 were owned by foreigners.)29 In spite of Marshall’s repeated

26. Jean Wilburn, Biddle’s Bank: The Crucial Years (New York, 1967); John McFaul, The Politics of Jacksonian Finance (Ithaca, N.Y., 1972), 16–57.

27. Van Buren, Autobiography, 625.

28. Remini, Jackson, II, 365.

29. Catterall, Second Bank, 508.

Supreme Court decisions, Jackson rehashed arguments against the constitutionality of the Bank, taking the position that the executive and legislative branches were not bound by the judiciary and could judge constitutional questions for themselves. Jackson made at least one valid point: Considering how much the value of its shares was expected to increase as soon as recharter passed, the government should have charged the Bank more than $3 million for the renewal.30

Yet for all its deficiencies the veto message was a masterstroke. Jackson attacked the Bank more on political than economic grounds, as a threat to the sovereignty of the American people. The most memorable part of the message came near the end.

The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers—who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.

As the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has pointed out, the “resounding and demagogic language” of this passage “diverted attention” from the inability of the Bank’s critics to agree on a substitute for it.31 Jackson cast himself as defender of the natural social order and the artificial Monster Bank as its corrupter. But he coupled his appeal to the “humbler members of society” with an invocation of state rights.

Nor is our Government to be maintained or our Union preserved by invasions of the rights and powers of the several States. In thus attempting to make our General Government strong we make it weak. Its true strength consists in leaving individuals and States as much as possible to themselves.32

Jackson was capitalizing on a combination of populist resentment of the rich with faith in limited government and local autonomy. This represented

30. The veto message is in Presidential Messages, II, 576–91.

31. See Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Age of Jackson (Boston, 1945), 90.

32. Presidential Messages, II, 590.

a distinctively American political tradition going back to colonial times, expressed most notably in the Revolution and more recently by Antifederalists and Old Republicans. It reflected an advantageous ratio between land and population and the widespread attitude that if people were left to themselves they could improve their lot by their own efforts.

Jackson’s personal hostility toward the Bank resonated with much in American culture. He was obsessed with vigilance against enemies; Americans had a long-standing suspicion of conspiracies against them. Their recurrent fear of conspiracy had manifested itself in some ways well justified and others less well justified, against such varied targets as George III’s ministries, deistic “Bavarian illuminati,” rebellious slaves, and, most recently, Freemasonry.33 Throughout his public career, Jackson positioned himself as the champion of the people against a variety of conspiratorial adversaries. He had denounced a “corrupt bargain” for the presidency, dismissed privileged officeholders, and exposed Calhoun’s conspiracy against him. Now he was protecting American integrity against foreign influence, maintaining a strict construction of the Constitution against an activist Supreme Court, and, most of all, defending ordinary people against a conspiratorial Bank. The “virtue” of which Jackson spoke, and on which he believed the republic depended, belonged to the common people, not to a public-spirited elite. “The Jackson cause,” a Democratic newspaper summed up, “is the cause of democracy and the people, against a corrupt and abandoned aristocracy.”34

Nicholas Biddle, upon reading the veto message, commented that “it has all the fury of a chained panther biting the bars of his cage” and called it “a manifesto of anarchy.”35 When the Senate received the message, the debate turned nasty. Clay taunted Benton by reminding him of his gunfight with Jackson years before, and soon the two angry senators, shouting accusations at each other, needed to be restrained.36 All across the country, the veto message raised passions. At first, the Bank’s supporters actually distributed copies of the message in the belief that it confirmed their warnings about Jackson’s demagogy and irresponsibility. National Republicans accused him of waging class war, setting the poor against the rich. In the twentieth century, some of his historical admirers would

33. See David Brion Davis, The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style (Baton Rouge, 1969).

34. Quoted in Robert Remini, “The Election of 1832,” History of American Presidential Elections, ed. Arthur Schlesinger and Fred Israel (New York, 1971), I, 509.

35. Nicholas Biddle to Henry Clay, Aug. 1, 1832, quoted in Govan, Nicholas Biddle, 203.

36. Robert Remini, Henry Clay (New York, 1991), 400.

cheerfully plead him guilty to that charge.37 Jackson did indeed take advantage of popular resentments against banks in general in his campaign against the Bank of the United States. But the Bank War was not a class war of labor against capital or the propertyless against the propertied. Jackson gave voice to the feelings of farmers and planters who resented their creditors as much as they needed their financial services. But he was also supported by elements of the business community who had reasons of their own to join in an attack on the BUS. These included New York bankers who wanted Wall Street to replace Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street as the nation’s financial center; “wildcat” bankers operating on a shoestring, mainly in the West, who resented the way the BUS monitored their behavior; and soft-money entrepreneurs who hoped that without a national bank it would be easier to obtain credit. At the same time Jackson also drew support from people at the opposite pole of public opinion: those who sympathized with his own hard-money views and wanted to abolish paper currency.

The unpopularity of banks among working people derived not only from their age-old suspicion of the wealthy but more immediately from the uncertainty of paper money. When antebellum banks made loans, they lent out their own paper notes, which then circulated as currency. If the bank of issue was far away, its currency might circulate at a discount. With transportation difficult and communication slow, it could be quite inconvenient to redeem the currency and not even easy to learn whether it was creditworthy at all. Unscrupulous businessmen paid workers or other unsophisticated creditors with discounted notes and pocketed the difference. With so many different kinds of notes in circulation, in denominations varying from ten thousand dollars to five cents, counterfeiting was easy. No wonder that many citizens, especially wage-earners, distrusted paper currency in general and preferred hard money—gold and silver. A ten-dollar gold piece, called an eagle, was certainly safer than the note of an overextended, remote, or nonexistent bank. Hard money seemed to provide the many with protection from the unscrupulous few.38

The advocates of hard money did not condemn banks as agents of capitalism. They condemned them as recipients of government favor, because their charters granted them the privilege of creating currency, which gave investors in banks of issue an unfair advantage over other entrepreneurs.

37. See in particular Schlesinger, Age of Jackson; Sellers, Market Revolution.

38. See James Huston, Securing the Fruits of Labor (Baton Rouge, 1998), 219–31.

Hard-money Democrat Robert Rantoul protested that “it is wrong and unjust that a set of individuals who make it a business to let money, should be allowed to enjoy privileges which would be denied to men in other business.” As the economic historian Naomi Lamoreaux explains, “The crucial point was government intervention”—specifically, government favoritism.39 To the supporters of hard money, the BUS looked like the greatest of all recipients of such favoritism.

In their attack on the Bank of the United States, Jackson and his followers exploited hard-money sentiments. But in the event, Jackson’s victory over Biddle’s Bank did nothing to reform the abuses from which the average person suffered. The elimination of the national bank removed restraints from regional and local banks, enabling them to behave more irresponsibly than ever. Getting rid of the BUS, whose notes had constituted the most reliable form of paper money, only exacerbated the difficulties that continued to plague the currency until the Civil War. On the other hand, improvements in communication and transportation helped stabilize the currency as well as minimize price differentials around the country.

Where the election of 1828 had pitted a candidate against a program, that of 1832 pitted the same candidate with his organization against an institution. For all his charm, Henry Clay had much less public appeal than the Old Hero, though the Bank had a strong constituency. The National Republicans accordingly deplored the Bank veto and Indian Removal more than they celebrated their candidate. The Democrats exploited the patronage they had built up while in office and continued to refine their get-out-the-vote techniques. Their party did not issue any statement of principles but allowed the Bank veto message to suffice. The National Republican platform condemned Jackson’s “character” as well as his policies.40 In the last analysis, the election constituted a referendum on Jackson himself. Was he a tyrant (“King Andrew the First,” as a famous National Republican cartoon called him) or a popular tribune?

The failure of the National Republicans to incorporate the Antimasons hurt the opposition in the campaign. Clay, a nominal but inactive Mason, refused to repudiate the order in terms that would make him acceptable to the followers of the “blessed spirit.” Antimasonic leaders hoped to persuade former postmaster general John McLean to head a third-party ticket:

39. Naomi Lamoreaux, Insider Lending: Banks, Personal Connections, and Economic Development in Industrial New England (Cambridge, Eng., 1994), 38, where she also quotes Rantoul.

40. Michael Holt, The Rise and Fall of the Whig Party (New York, 1999), 15.

His combination of probity and Methodist piety fit perfectly with their movement. When McLean declined, sensing a hopeless cause, the Antimasons held (in September 1831) the first national political party convention to nominate a presidential candidate. Voluntary benevolent and reform associations had held such conventions; the Antimasons thought of their own movement as similar. By this time they had succeeded dramatically in reducing the size and influence of Freemasonry. Confronted with so much unfavorable publicity, most Masons apparently abandoned their order. The number of lodges represented at the New York State Grand Lodge meeting plummeted from 228 in 1827 to 52 in 1832, and some of the remaining ones were kept alive only by a handful of Masonic brothers.41 Having gained its point, the Antimasonic tide had begun to ebb by 1832. Its convention’s nominee, former attorney general William Wirt, carried Vermont’s seven electoral votes and 8 percent of the popular vote.

The Antimasons’ procedural innovation proved more successful than their candidate. They had correctly judged that holding a national convention would give a party publicity and its candidate the legitimacy that went with a public selection process. The two major parties (as they may now be termed) rushed to follow the Antimasons’ example by holding national conventions to anoint Clay and Jackson their respective leaders. Clay’s running mate, John Sergeant, attorney for the BUS and like Wirt a legal counsel for the Cherokee Nation, demonstrated that both of the anti-Jackson parties sought to enlist the opponents of Indian Removal. When the Democrats met in Baltimore, Jackson let it be known that he wanted Van Buren for vice president, and his convention complied. The first Democratic National Convention adopted a two-thirds rule for nominations, initiating a policy that gave the South a veto over Democratic candidates for the next hundred years. (In 1860, this rule denied Stephen A. Douglas the Democratic nomination at Charleston, setting the stage for secession.) The Democratic convention also instituted the “unit rule,” under which each state cast its votes as a bloc and minorities within state delegations were squelched.

Biddle’s recharter bid failed as a National Republican campaign strategy. Jackson was reelected in triumph, with 219 electoral votes. Clay did worse than John Quincy Adams four years before, winning only 49 electoral votes. Though the anti-Jackson vote was divided, Wirt did not cost Clay the election, and tactical alliances between Antimasons and National Republicans were achieved in some states, including New York.

41. Steven Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood (Chapel Hill, 1996), 312–13. “When Masonry began to revive after 1840,” notes Bullock, “it shed many of the elements that had made it so troubling” (313).

The election proved Jackson more popular than the national bank—even in Pennsylvania, though by a much reduced margin.42 It also marked a stage in the gradual transition from the personal presidential campaigns of the 1820s to the party presidential campaigns that were to come.

The election returns of 1832, like those four years earlier, showed Old Hickory a markedly sectional candidate. South of Kentucky and Maryland he racked up 88 percent of the popular vote; no Clay ballots at all were recorded in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, where Indian Removal overshadowed everything else. Voter turnout (55.4 percent) fell slightly from 1828.43 The Bank issue cost Jackson some votes, although the veto message held his losses down and allowed the Democrats to make inroads in New England. Jackson’s 54.2 percent of the popular vote overall, though impressive, was 1.8 percentage points below his previous record, which disappointed him.44 (This is the only time that a president has been reelected to a second term with a smaller popular vote percentage than in his first election.)45 Further limiting the scope of Jackson’s victory, his party lost control of the Senate.

Most historians have concluded that Biddle’s decision to press for early recharter was unwise, although there is no reason to think that Clay would have done any better in the election if the Bank had not been an issue. Biddle’s only real hope to salvage something for his institution lay in trying to compromise with Jackson. Several of the criticisms that Jackson made of the Bank could have been accommodated if Biddle had been more flexible (for example, it would have been worth phasing out foreign stock ownership as the price of recharter). Instead of allying with Clay, Biddle could have urged Martin Van Buren to put in a good word for the BUS. Van Buren went along with the Bank War only reluctantly, viewing it as an unwelcome complication in his project of becoming Jackson’s White House successor.46 But to pull a charter renewal out of the hat may have been a trick beyond even the famous Magician. There is no assurance that Jackson would have accepted any accommodation with

42. See John Belohlavek, “Dallas, the Democracy, and the Bank War,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 96 (1972), 377–90, esp. 388.

43. Paul Nardulli et al., “Voter Turnout in U.S. Presidential Elections,” PS: Political Science and Politics 29 (1996): 481, graph 1.

44. James Curtis, Andrew Jackson and the Search for Vindication (Boston, 1976), 131.

45. Entire confidence should not be placed in the popular vote figures for 1832; see Remini, Jackson, II, 391.

46. See Edward Perkins, “Lost Opportunities for Compromise in the Bank War,” Business History Review 61 (1987): 531–50; Frank Gatell, “Sober Second Thoughts on Van Buren, the Albany Regency, and the Wall Street Conspiracy,” JAH 53 (1966): 19–40.

Biddle. Given the personalities of its two hostile protagonists, the Bank War probably could not have been avoided.

Jackson’s Bank War reinforced the political lines already established by Indian Removal and the Maysville Road veto. Taken together, the three issues shaped the party politics of the next generation. Indian Removal set the pattern for Jacksonian Democratic support for continental imperialism and white supremacy. The Maysville veto and the Bank War defined the Jacksonian attitude on economic issues. In both these cases the president struck down a highly visible symbol of centralized economic activity only to turn around and encourage the same kind of economic activity (internal improvements in the one case, banking in the other) on a decentralized, unplanned basis. It was economic planning, not economic progress or even government aid to individual enterprises, that Jacksonian Democracy characteristically opposed. In his annual message of December 1832, the newly reelected president rejoiced that “the free enterprise of our citizens, aided by the State sovereignties, will work out improvements and ameliorations which can not fail to demonstrate the great truth that the people can govern themselves.”47 The dual essence of Jackson’s Bank Veto—the defense of the people against the unfairly privileged and the strict construction of the Constitution—would remain the message of the Democratic Party for a long time to come.


Jackson interpreted his reelection as “a decision of the people against the bank.”48 But the BUS was not abolished because public opinion demanded it. Just as quite a few congressional Democrats had supported recharter, there were many voters—especially in Pennsylvania—who had backed Old Hickory in spite of, rather than because of, his Bank Veto. Martin Van Buren himself believed that nothing but Jackson’s personal popularity could have carried the day against the widespread support for the Bank. The historian Robert Remini has summed it up well: “The killing of the BUS was primarily the work of one man, and that man was Andrew Jackson.”49 The president of the United States was convinced that the Bank concentrated too much power in private hands. The ensuing “Bank War,” in origin a struggle over sovereignty, turned out to inflame hostilities of party and class.

47. Presidential Messages, II, 606.

48. Ibid., III, 7.

49. John S. Bassett, The Life of Andrew Jackson (New York, 1911), II, 650; Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Bank War, 43.

On March 19, 1833, the president polled his cabinet and advisors on the wisdom of removing the government’s deposits from the BUS. This would hit the institution’s capital hard, for the federal government had almost $10 million in the Bank, almost half of its total deposits.50 The president intended to retaliate for the role the Bank had played in the election and limit its influence during the remaining years of its life. (He seems to have feared the Bank might persuade Congress to reconsider the recharter issue, though his veto could certainly not be overridden.) Only Kendall and Taney responded to his proposal with enthusiasm; to most it seemed gratuitously provocative, since the Bank’s charter would expire anyway during Jackson’s second term. Particularly significant was the opposition of Treasury Secretary Louis McLane. By law, the deposits could only be removed from the Bank if the secretary of the Treasury made an official finding that they were unsafe there and communicated this finding to Congress. However, a Treasury inquiry had just shown that the BUS had $79 million in assets and $37 million in liabilities—clearly a solvent and safe bank. The House of Representatives had recently concluded an investigation of its own, undertaken at the president’s behest, by voting 109 to 46 to affirm the safety of the government’s deposits.51 Jackson had anticipated McLane’s reluctance to carry out removal and had a solution in mind. He reshuffled his cabinet, shifting McLane over to the State Department, where his views coincided with the president’s more closely, sending Livingston to be diplomatic envoy in Paris and appointing William J. Duane secretary of the Treasury on June 1. Duane was a known critic of the BUS, and Jackson assumed he would cooperate with removal.

To Jackson’s surprise, Duane proved no more willing to remove the deposits than his predecessor. Although the new secretary opposed renewal of the Bank’s charter, he informed the president in a letter of July 10 that he considered the deposits perfectly safe there in the meantime. Duane warned that removing the deposits to other banks would encourage the latter in reckless extensions of credit. The secretary took the position that he had to use his own judgment in finding the deposits unsafe in the Bank and could not simply defer to the wishes of the White House. “You called on me, sir,” he said to the president in a dramatic conversation on July 15, “to do an act for which I might be impeached.” When the president

50. Cole, Presidency of Andrew Jackson, 197. The amount fluctuated considerably as tax receipts were not uniform throughout the year.

51. William McDonald, Jacksonian Democracy (New York, 1906), 220; Catterall, Second Bank, 289.

declared, “A secretary, sir, is merely an executive agent, a subordinate, and you may say so in self-defense,” Duane responded, “In this particular case, Congress confers a discretionary power, and requires reasons if I exercise it. Surely this contemplates responsibility on my part.”52

Failing to persuade Duane to change his mind, on September 23 a frustrated Andrew Jackson summarily dismissed the secretary of the Treasury and put Roger Taney in his place. Taney’s was an interim appointment, allowing him to take over immediately without waiting for Senate confirmation; he retained the office of attorney general as well until replaced there by Benjamin Butler, Van Buren’s law partner. Taney promptly initiated a process designed as a fig leaf to legitimate removal: Rather than a sudden gigantic withdrawal of funds, the Treasury made no more deposits but continued to pay its bills with drafts on the BUS, thus gradually running down its account to zero by the end of 1833. Instead of putting its tax receipts in the BUS, the Treasury placed them in state banks scattered throughout the Union. Dubbed the “pet banks,” these were selected more for their political friendship to the administration than for their financial soundness, which was certainly no improvement over that of the BUS. The reasons for removal submitted by Taney to Congress related more to the Bank’s antiadministration activities than to its financial condition. Demonstrating the Jackson administration’s solicitude for overseas markets, Taney directed the pet banks to give merchants engaged in foreign trade preference when extending credit.53

Jackson had defied the wishes of Congress and most of his cabinet; he had violated the spirit, perhaps the letter, of the law. McLane and Cass, the secretaries of state and war, both tendered their resignations, which the president persuaded them to withdraw by publicly declaring that removal of the deposits was his personal decision, for which they shared no responsibility. Vice President Van Buren stayed out of town, distancing himself both literally and figuratively from the removal policy, which he feared would divide the Democratic party and jeopardize his hopes to succeed Jackson. The political and business communities were shocked. No parallel episode would occur again until 1973, when President Nixon fired two attorneys general in order to find one who would obey his order to dismiss the special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

52. Duane’s account is quoted in James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson (New York, 1861), III, 519, 530.

53. Senate Documents, 23d Cong., 1st sess., no. 2; Taney’s directions to the banks of deposit are quoted in Richard Timberlake, Origins of Central Banking in the United States (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 45.

William J. Duane, savaged in Francis Blair’s Washington Globe and the rest of the Democratic press as proud, petty, and stubborn, retired quietly to private life, taking with him a clear conscience. A hard-money Democrat like the president, he had steadfastly resisted a policy of taking the taxpayers’ money out of a solvent bank in defiance of the law and scattering it among doubtful institutions over which the government had even less control than over the BUS.54

After Congress came back into session in December, the Senate refused Taney confirmation and declared the reasons he had given for deposit removal “unsatisfactory and insufficient.” Impeachment of the popular president was not politically viable, given Democratic strength in the House. The Senate, however, was dominated by Jackson’s opponents, notably the National Republicans Henry Clay and Daniel Webster and the nullifier John C. Calhoun. These three eloquent statesmen, dubbed “the great triumvirate,” led the Senate into what is universally recognized as its golden age.55 A fourth spokesman should in fairness be added to their number: the redoubtable Jacksonian Thomas Hart Benton. Crowds flocked to the Senate galleries to witness their debates, for it was a generation that appreciated public speaking as an art form and relished the drama unfolding.

Under Clay’s leadership, the Senate debated and finally passed (on March 28, 1834) by a vote of 26 to 20 a motion of censure on the president—the only one in American history. Jackson, the censure read, had “assumed upon himself authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and laws.” When Clay first introduced his censure motion, the Old Hero wanted to challenge him to a duel. “Oh, if I live to get these robes of office off me, I will bring the rascal to a dear account,” he raged. After censure passed, the president chose a more appropriate response. He sent an indignant protest addressed to the Senate, defending his right to remove cabinet officers and arguing that impeachment was the only constitutional recourse against presidential malfeasance. Wisely, Jackson emphasized presidential prerogatives rather than the substance of the financial issue in his remonstrance.56 Posterity would vindicate the right of

54. [William J. Duane,] Narrative and Correspondence Concerning the Removal of the Deposites (Philadelphia, 1838); Sellers, Market Revolution, 334–36.

55. Merrill Peterson has written The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (New York, 1987).

56. Jackson quoted in Parton, Life of Jackson, III, 542. Clay’s speech calling for censure and Jackson’s remonstrance against it are reprinted in Harry Watson, ed., Andrew Jackson vs. Henry Clay (Boston, 1997), 214–31.

a president to dismiss cabinet members who refuse to follow his orders, but his right to order an officer to break the law (in this case, to remove the deposits without finding them unsafe) is another matter.57

As Van Buren had feared, the war Jackson waged against the Bank in his second term drove a substantial number of prominent men out of the Democratic Party. Those alienated included some of the president’s own associates, among them Gulian Verplanck, Willie Magnum, John Bell, Hugh Lawson White, and even his close friend John Eaton, for whom Jackson had sacrificed so much. Defections were particularly conspicuous among the business community and in the South, where large cotton planters appreciated the usefulness of a sophisticated banking system and the potential dangers to them of a strong presidency. As Davy Crockett of Tennessee put it, “If Jackson is sustained in this act, we say that the will of one man shall be the law of the land.”58 By 1836, twenty-eight of the Democratic congressmen who had voted to recharter the Bank had left the party.

Encouraged by such recruits, in the spring of 1834 Jackson’s opponents adopted the name Whig, traditional term for critics of executive usurpations. James Watson Webb, editor of the New York Courier and Enquirer, encouraged use of the name. Clay gave it national currency in a speech on April 14, 1834, likening “the whigs of the present day” to those who had resisted George III, and by summer it was official. To the complaints of the Democrats that the BUS constituted a rich men’s conspiracy against the public, the Whigs responded with their own accusations of conspiracy. The Jackson administration, they charged, represented a conspiracy by a few political favorites typified by the kitchen cabinet and pet bankers to substitute executive tyranny for the balanced government of the Founders.59 The Antimasons came around to join with National Republicans in the new Whig Party (though in Massachusetts they temporarily allied with the Democrats);60 for a time the nullifiers also cooperated with the Whigs on some issues. For the next twenty years Whigs and Democrats would constitute the two major parties of what historians call “the second party system.”

57. Congress challenged President Andrew Johnson’s right to remove cabinet officers without Senate consent by the Tenure of Office Act of 1867 and subsequent impeachment proceedings. Johnson was acquitted and the Tenure of Office Act eventually declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

58. David Crockett to John Durey, April 4, 1834, in The Boisterous Sea of Liberty, ed. David Brion Davis and Steven Mintz (New York, 1998), 375.

59. Remini, Henry Clay, 458–61; Major Wilson, “The ‘Country’ versus the ‘Court’: Republican Consensus and Party Debate in the Bank War,” JER 15 (1995): 619–48.

60. Holt, Rise and Fall of Whig Party, 37–38.

In response to the deposits’ removal, America’s leading banker was not disposed to roll over and play dead. “This worthy President thinks that because he has scalped Indians and imprisoned Judges he is to have his way with the Bank,” Biddle declared. “He is mistaken.” During the recent election campaign, Biddle had extended credit generously in an effort to make the Bank popular. Now he resolved to use its power over the economy differently. The loss of up to half of all its deposits would impel the Bank to curtail its loans considerably. Biddle chose to impose an even sharper economic downturn than strictly necessary on the country, to make sure that Jackson’s deposit removal would be noticed and deplored. The change from his previous easy money policy came swiftly, forcing some firms to curtail expansion plans and others into bankruptcy. Layoffs of workers followed. “All the other banks and all the merchants may break, but the Bank of the United States shall not break,” Biddle resolved.61

At first Biddle’s credit contraction had its desired effect: Memorials poured into Congress from all over the country pleading for the restoration of the deposits to the BUS. But when the petitioners waited upon the White House, the president responded to them: “Insolvent do you say? What do you come to me for, then? Go to Nicholas Biddle. We have no money here, gentlemen. Biddle has all the money.” Jackson did not exaggerate: During the thirteen months from August 1833 to September 1834, the specie reserves of the BUS increased from $10 million to $15 million, while at the same time the bank was diminishing its loans by 25 percent.62 Eventually the public—even including the business community, Biddle’s core of support—heeded the president and began to blame high short-term interest rates on the BUS. The national banker had overplayed his hand. He had confirmed in the minds of all observers the correctness of Jackson’s accusation: Nicholas Biddle wielded too much power.

In the end, Biddle’s contraction failed to help his cause. With the House controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Whigs, Congress did nothing either to restore the federal deposits or to define an alternative to the pet banks. As for recharter, Clay, Calhoun, and Webster had not even been able to agree among themselves on a strategy to pursue, though the cause was hopeless anyway. Under the urging of Whig leaders, Biddle relented, and the country was soon recovering from his artificial contraction, the only (brief) interruption in the otherwise continuous prosperity and economic expansion of the Jackson years. Actually, the recession had

61. Quotations of Biddle from Harry Watson, Liberty and Power (New York, 1990), 157; Thomas Govan, Nicholas Biddle (Chicago, 1959), 253.

62. Parton, Life of Jackson, III, 549–50; Catterall, Second Bank, 324.

been mild as well as short. State banks partly compensated for Biddle’s contraction by extending their own credit, and capital continued to flow into the country from Europeans investing in American transportation projects and state bonds. Biddle’s “panic,” as contemporaries called an economic downturn, was to some extent the creation of the press and opinion-makers in exaggerating the effects of Biddle’s contraction.63 The public’s response demonstrated the influence of the media in a time of expanding communications. Biddle proved to have less economic power than either he or his critics had believed, but he waged a battle for public opinion and lost. In the midterm elections of 1834-35, the state legislatures returned control of the Senate to the administration.

At the conclusion of its federally chartered existence, the BUS could have wound up its affairs with assets of $70 million (1.25 billion 2005 dollars) and outside liabilities of $26 million (including $21 million in circulating currency). Biddle, however, chose to seek a new lease on life for his institution with a state charter from Pennsylvania. The BUS repurchased its own shares of stock from the federal government for $7,866,145.49. But the great days of the Bank were over, and the state charter proved unwise. Biddle led the Bank into speculation in cotton futures that turned out badly, and in 1839 he retired to Andalusia, his home in the country. In 1841, the renamed United States Bank of Pennsylvania declared bankruptcy. Its creditors and depositors received partial compensation; the stockholders (by then predominantly foreigners) lost everything. When Biddle died in 1844 at the age of fifty-eight, his fortune had gone the way of his popularity.64

A comprehensive alternative to the doomed BUS had been the goal of William J. Duane’s brief time at the Treasury. He had advised Jackson to wait for Congress to reconvene and then draw up a plan in conjunction with the legislators. But Jackson’s impatience to remove the deposits from the BUS left no time to organize such an alternative plan and forced him to resort to the pet bank scheme, though he felt no real enthusiasm for it. Pet banks had been used before, during the interval between the end of the First BUS and the charter of the Second, and occasionally since in areas where the BUS had no branch, never with great success. Taney persuaded Jackson that the pet bank “experiment,” as he called it, deserved trying again.65 Events confirmed Duane’s doubts rather than Taney’s hopes.

63. Jacob Meerman, “The Climax of the Bank War: Biddle’s Contraction,” Journal of Political Economy 71 (1963): 378–88; Walter Buckingham Smith, Economic Aspects of the Second Bank (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), 171–72.

64. Catterall, Second Bank, 371, 375; Smith, Economic Aspects, 178–230.

65. Fritz Redlich, The Molding of American Banking (New York, 1947), 174.

On the whole, the state banks did not welcome Jackson’s destruction of the BUS. Where regional or state banking systems were strong, as in New York (whose banks contributed to a statewide “safety fund”), New England, and Virginia, state banks could be relatively indifferent to the BUS; elsewhere all but the most reckless wildcat bankers accepted the necessity of its policing functions. The capital-hungry West relied heavily on the resources of the national bank. The administration was genuinely worried that it might not be easy to find enough state banks willing to accept government deposits transferred from the BUS and felt relieved when Amos Kendall identified seven of them—not surprisingly institutions run by loyal Democrats.66

The pet banks responded to the government’s largesse by expanding their loans, not only quickly counteracting Biddle’s contraction but exacerbating the speculative boom that characterized the closing years of Jackson’s administration. The one that behaved the worst was Baltimore’s Union Bank, of which Secretary Taney was both legal counsel and a stockholder. By the time Taney was forced out of the Treasury by the Senate, he had been deeply embarrassed by the conduct of the pets in general and Baltimore’s Union Bank in particular. Taney’s successor, Levi Woodbury, made serious efforts to regulate the pet banks by threatening to withhold further deposits. But Woodbury’s sincere efforts were undercut by political pressures to multiply the number of pet banks so as to spread the federal money around. Pet banks became an additional form of Democratic Party patronage. Their number rose from seven to twenty-two, to thirty-five, and eventually to over ninety. It was impossible not to compromise standards of financial integrity in bringing so many banks into the fold, especially when almost all banks run by Whigs were kept off the list.67

The most important consequences of Jackson’s Bank War were unintended by the participants. The safety fund of the New York banks, together with the commissioners of the Erie Canal, had intervened at a critical junction to make funds available to counteract Biddle’s contraction.68 With the demise of the BUS, New York City, already the nation’s center of commerce, replaced Philadelphia as the center of finance, but Van Buren, New York’s leading administration spokesman, had not foreseen

66. McFaul, Politics of Jacksonian Finance, 16–48. Kendall avowed his preference for “politically friendly” banks; see Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Bank War, 117.

67. Frank Gatell, “Secretary Taney and the Baltimore Pets,” Business History Review 39 (1965): 205–27; idem, “Spoils of the Bank War,” AHR 70 (1964): 35–58; McFaul, Politics of Jacksonian Finance, 147–56.

68. Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham (New York, 1999), 575.

this and had been distinctly unenthusiastic about the Bank War. Meanwhile, Jackson and the hard-money advocates in his administration presided to their growing discomfiture over a speculative economy and a dangerously unstable banking system. High cotton prices and the inflow of capital from overseas prompted the founding of many new banks, a process further stimulated by the hope of attracting federal deposits. Jackson, who had declared his dislike for “all banks,” witnessed the total number of banks in the country double between 1832 and 1837.69

The administration tried to implement hard-money principles, encouraging people to bring gold to the mints for coinage (by slightly overvaluing it) and forbidding the pet banks to issue paper currency in small denominations. But the currency of other banks continued to circulate because most of the public found its convenience outweighed its risk, and when the Van Buren administration abandoned the pet bank scheme, the government lost what leverage it had had on the supply of paper money. Bank notes remained the typical American currency until the Civil War. The failure of the Jacksonians to replace paper with specie was on balance no bad thing, for an all-metallic circulation would have entailed problems even worse than those of bank notes. When the value of gold or silver rose on the world market, American coins would have been exported and the country left to suffer deflation. The consensus of modern economists is that had Jacksonian metallism been effectively adopted, the American money supply would have been significantly constrained and the economic expansion of the rest of the antebellum period inhibited.70

The outcome of the Bank War represented a symbolic victory for the president and the Democrats, but it brought little if any tangible benefit to the plain folk who constituted the party’s most faithful followers. The influence of wealth on American politics was not lessened, nor the opportunity for speculation decreased, by Jackson’s destruction of the Bank. It was America’s misfortune that the future of the national bank could not have been resolved through compromise and a larger measure of government supervision. Jackson and Biddle were both too headstrong for the country’s good. The great Bank War turned out to be a conflict both sides lost. The government ended up without the services of a central bank, with an uncontrolled and fluctuating paper currency, and powerless to mitigate the swings of the business cycle. The Bank of the United States ended up with

69. Benjamin Klebaner, American Commercial Banking: A History (Boston, 1990), 14.

70. David Martin, “Metallism, Small Notes, and Jackson’s War with the BUS,” Explorations in Economic History 11 (1973–74): 227–47.

a far inferior Pennsylvania charter and on a road that led to bankruptcy. Not until the National Banking Act of the Lincoln administration did the government issue paper currency of its own, and not until the establishment of the Federal Reserve System in 1913 did the United States have a central bank in the modern sense to which Nicholas Biddle aspired.


Vice President Calhoun observed the election of 1832 in brooding isolation, totally estranged from the rest of Jackson’s administration. The Bank was popular in his home state and had been so ever since the presidency of Langdon Cheves; South Carolinians owned more of its shares than citizens of any other state save Pennsylvania.71 Calhoun’s close associate George McDuffie led the fight for recharter in the House of Representatives. Yet Calhoun, reborn as a state-righter, could not swallow the rest of Clay’s program, the American System with its faith in protective tariffs. So the former nationalist found himself cut off from both major parties even while he consolidated his political position at home. South Carolina, the only state where the legislature still chose presidential electors, cast its eleven votes as a solitary protest. They went to John Floyd, the Virginia governor who had disappointed the advocates of gradual emancipation during the 1831–32 debate following Nat Turner’s Rebellion.

The political isolation of South Carolina and its leading statesman came about during prolonged debates over the protective tariff. The bizarre features of the 1828 Tariff of Abominations had been arranged to put Andrew Jackson in the White House, but once he got there, they presented a problem. The cotton South resented the tariff bitterly but lost its chief free-trade advocate within the administration when Calhoun fell from favor. Pressure to adjust the tariff then arose from a different consideration. Prosperity was filling the Treasury with revenues and the proceeds from land sales. The government expected to pay off the national debt by 1833, at which time either tariff revenues should be reduced or the federal government find ways to spend more money. Jacksonians dreaded the latter prospect since it would invite Henry Clay to exercise his imagination. Revenue could be reduced either by lowering the duties charged or by raising them so high that fewer items were imported. The new president’s views were carefully ambiguous (when elected, he was on record as favoring a “judicious” tariff). Far from crusading against the growth of a diverse market economy, Jackson mildly supported tariff rates

71. Catterall, Second Bank, 508.

that would nurture industrialization, especially defense industries.72 But tariff rates did not stir his feelings as did Indian Removal or the Bank.

While Jackson delayed addressing their problem, the planters’ resentment over the tariff seethed, most of all in South Carolina, where cotton producers were having difficulty squeezing a profit out of lands less fertile than those of the Creek Cessions to the west. South Carolina’s Piedmont had never recovered from the hard times following the Panic of 1819, and its people departed in droves, seeking better opportunities farther west. (By 1840, a third of all the people born in South Carolina were living in other states.) Radical state-righters like William Smith and Thomas Cooper blamed South Carolina’s woes on the tariff and made threats of secession if no redress were forthcoming. Calhoun’s good friend George McDuffie virtually became one of the Radicals. He harangued the U.S. Senate on how a tariff that imposed duties averaging 40 percent robbed cotton planters of the value of 40 percent of their crop—forty bales out of every hundred. McDuffie’s economic reasoning was flawed, but his “forty-bale theory” fell upon receptive ears in South Carolina. (A modern economist has calculated that a 40 percent tariff cost antebellum planters 20 percent of their real income from cotton—less than McDuffie claimed but still very significant.)73 After the enactment of the Abominations in the spring of 1828, Calhoun felt under serious pressure to do something. He needed a plan that would keep the Palmetto State in the Union while reclaiming control of his state’s protest from extremists. Calhoun’s patriotic love for the Union, which had earlier impressed John Quincy Adams, had not evaporated—and besides, he still nurtured the hope to succeed Jackson in the White House. As the historian Michael O’Brien has put it, Calhoun hoped to steer between “the Charybdis of Thomas Cooper’s radical idea of state nationality and the Scylla of Henry Clay’s Unionism.”74

Calhoun’s solution to the problem appeared in an elaborate treatise called The South Carolina Exposition, where he laid out a program to force a lowering of the tariff. Calhoun composed it in the summer and fall of 1828, in response to a request from a committee of the state legislature. He commenced with the assertion that protective tariffs were

72. Presidential Messages, II, 449–50, 523–25.

73. The “forty-bale theory” is analyzed in Freehling, Prelude to Civil War, 193–96. The modern calculation comes from John A. James, “The Optimal Tariff in the Antebellum United States,” American Economic Review 71 (1981): 731.

74. Michael O’Brien, Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South (Chapel Hill, 2004), II, 827.

unconstitutional, despite long-standing practice. The Constitution says, “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States” (Article II, section 8). Calhoun believed that this should be read as granting the power to tax in order to pay the debts, etc. Thus only tariffs for revenue were authorized; tariffs for protection were unconstitutional since they served a particular, rather than the “general,” welfare. Other interpreters, however, claimed there was no such limitation on the taxing power; they read the phrase “to pay the Debts” as a separate, additional grant of power to Congress. (Even if Calhoun’s grammatical interpretation be granted, the difficulty of deciding when a tariff is “for revenue” and when “protective” seems insuperable, since all tariffs have both elements, and the congressmen who voted for it probably did not all have the same motive. The Supreme Court has never drawn the distinction.) Calhoun marshaled arguments that the tariff hurt the agricultural exporting sector of the economy and that it was dividing the American public into hostile political camps. In his original draft, Calhoun warned that a protective tariff would divide not only South from North but “capitalists” from “operatives,” thus provoking not only sectional but also class warfare. This passage, however, was cut from the version that the committee presented to the legislature and published.75

Calhoun went on to describe a procedure by which an individual state could force a decision on matters of constitutional interpretation. The people of a state could elect a special convention to decide whether a certain federal law was constitutional. The convention would be empowered to declare an allegedly unconstitutional law null and void within the state; hence the term “nullification.” This state convention could also issue a call for a national convention to meet and clarify the issue, proposing amendments to the Constitution, if necessary. The Constitution does provide for supplementary constitutional conventions (none has ever been held), but only if two-thirds of the states, not just one, request it. Calhoun’s plan thus required multistate cooperation.

Calhoun’s entire scheme rested on the assumption that sovereignty resided in the people of the separate states and not in the national people. The logical strength of his argument resided in the fact that state conventions had originally ratified the U.S. Constitution. Calhoun believed that

75. Both versions of the Exposition are printed in The Papers of John C. Calhoun, ed. Clyde Wilson and Edwin Hemphill (Columbia, S.C., 1977), X, 442–534.

the same parties who had adopted the Constitution in the first place should possess the final power to interpret it. The sovereignty of these parties was indivisible and could not be shared. The federal government could perform functions of sovereignty, but only acting as an agent of the states. When the federal authority abused its trust, a state could “interpose” its sovereignty and arrest the enforcement of the offending law. What happened if, in the end, the Constitution was amended to give the federal government the power the aggrieved state had challenged? By the logic of Calhoun’s position, the state would still have the right to secede. Yet here Calhoun held back, displaying the residuum of his former nationalism and perhaps unwilling to indulge the Radicals that far. He concluded that after a definitive resolution of the constitutional question, any further resistance by the state would constitute “rebellion.”76 Nullification was Calhoun’s device to render secession unnecessary, to enable the planters to preserve their interests without it.

Taken as a whole, the South Carolina Exposition is an impressive argument on behalf of an unworkable proposal. (In an America where nullification prevailed, there might be scores of federal statutes whose operation was suspended in various states, while each awaited resolution in an endless succession of constitutional conventions.) Calhoun and most of the Carolina legislators hoped at the time that Jackson’s election would suffice to ensure a downward revision of the tariff, so the Exposition concludes with an admonition to wait and see. The vice president did not publicly reveal his authorship, sensing that it would surely offend Jackson. The South Carolina legislature was not yet ready to endorse the Exposition, but instead issued a brief official “Protest” against the tariff, perhaps also composed by Calhoun, which asserted the unconstitutionality of a protective tariff but described no nullification plans. Five thousand copies of the Exposition were printed for distribution in the hope of winning converts elsewhere in the South. If it proved popular enough, Calhoun could avow the authorship and use it to campaign for president later on a state-rights platform. Meanwhile, the Exposition would keep up the pressure for tariff reform. In January of 1830, its doctrine of sovereignty was defended by Hayne and attacked by Webster.

By the summer of 1831, Calhoun reluctantly concluded the time had come to go public with his views, even though doing so risked his long-term presidential hopes. He wanted to head off talk of secession, and he certainly no longer had anything more to lose by angering Jackson. On

76. Ibid., 528–29.

July 26, he published in a South Carolina newspaper what is called “the Fort Hill Address” (named for his plantation outside Clemson), an eloquent defense of state sovereignty and state rights. In it he rejected the federal judiciary as the arbiter of the Constitution, something he had not done in the Exposition. Conscious of a nationwide audience, he had less to say this time about the evils of a protective tariff. He emphasized that he was not opposed to industrialization and technological progress but welcomed them, not only for economic reasons but also “as laying the solid foundation of a highly improved condition of society, morally and politically.” Very likely this showed Calhoun’s wish to protect his standing with an American public that supported modernization, but of course his nationalist past justified the claim. If he worried that improved communication increased the likelihood that a consolidated national majority would emerge, resolved to impose its will, he did not make such a concern explicit. But clearly Calhoun no longer trusted, as James Madison had argued in The Federalist, that the sheer size of the United States would protect it against tyranny. Calhoun now wrote as a political theorist proposing state rights as a check on what would otherwise be the “unlimited and despotic” power of a national majority. He endorsed the concept of nullification while avoiding use of the word.77

Calhoun deserves his reputation as a brilliant political logician. His tragedy, and America’s, was that he turned his talents to immobilizing the federal government in the service of a slave economy. But he could not have done otherwise and retained his political base in his home state. As things turned out, Calhoun’s careful reasoning did less to encourage enthusiasm for state rights in South Carolina than news of Nat Turner’s Uprising a few days later. Governor Floyd of Virginia wrote the governor of South Carolina warning him of a widespread slave conspiracy led by literate blacks who found anti-slavery principles in the Bible and preached that “God was no respecter of persons; the black man was as good as the white; that all men were born free and equal.” This letter fanned flames of hysterical reaction in white South Carolina. The master of Fort Hill plantation shared in the renewed determination to assert the authority of the ruling race. One of his house slaves, named Aleck, chose these anxious times to escape; he was recaptured fifty miles away. Calhoun wrote an instruction that the man should be kept in the local jail for a week on bread and water, then given “30 lashes well laid on at the end of the

77. Calhoun to Frederick W. Symmes, July 26, 1831, ibid., XI, 413–40, quotations from 436, 438.

time.” Such punishment, he explained, was “necessary to our proper security.” Probably it did not occur to Calhoun that this order illustrated the problem of “unlimited and despotic” power even more graphically than his arguments in the Fort Hill Address.78

In both the Exposition and the Fort Hill Address, Calhoun invoked the authority of Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions and Madison’s Virginia Resolutions to the effect that states could interpose their sovereignty and nullify unconstitutional federal legislation. Jefferson was dead, but Madison still lived. The “Father of the Constitution,” last surviving member of the Philadelphia convention of 1787, had long since embraced the new Republican nationalism, and when the South Carolina Exposition was published, Madison repudiated it, insisting that the Virginia Resolutions had meant nothing of the kind. Madison asserted that the Constitution had in fact created a system of divided sovereignty, whatever philosophers might say about sovereignty being indivisible, and that no individual state could nullify a federal law. It is hard not to conclude, however, that Calhoun was fairly entitled to cite the Jefferson and Madison of 1798 in defense of his position on the Constitution as a compact among sovereign states. Like most politicians of that era, Madison did not like to admit that he ever changed his mind.79 Calhoun never admitted that he himself had changed his views on state rights, the tariff, or any other subject. He attached an exaggerated importance to logical consistency and always claimed to be entirely governed by deduction from first principles rather than any consideration of practicality or political advantage.

A solution to the Jackson administration’s tariff quandary presented itself when John Quincy Adams returned to Washington in 1831 to take a seat in the House of Representatives from his home district in Massachusetts. The Democratic majority in the House offered him the chairmanship of the Committee on Manufactures. Ostensibly a courtesy to an ex-president, in reality this enabled the administration to delegate public responsibility for the necessary adjustments in the tariff.80

Adams characteristically relished both the task and the responsibility.

78. Quotations in this paragraph are from Niven, John C. Calhoun, 183.

79. Madison’s principal statements on nullification between April 1830 and March 1833 are in Writings of James Madison, ed. Jack Rakove (New York, 1999), 842–66. On their inconsistency with his position in 1798–1800, see Kevin Gutzman, “A Troublesome Legacy: James Madison and ‘the Principles of ’98,’” JER 15 (1995): 569–89. For a sympathetic exposition of Madison’s thinking in 1830–33, see Drew McCoy, The Last of the Fathers (New York, 1989), 138–51.

80. Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Union (New York, 1956), 240–47.

Consulting with Secretary of the Treasury McLane and resisting pressure from Clay to expand the scope of protection, he drafted a measure that successfully resolved the complexities of the problem. Duties were moderately reduced on items not produced in the United States, though key domestic industries such as iron and cotton textiles retained sufficient protection. In a special gesture to conciliate plantation owners, duty on the cheap woolens in which slaves were clothed was slashed from 45 percent to 5 percent; this was Adams’s own idea. The outcome was a major legislative achievement for the New Englander, which should be remembered to balance his legislative failures as president. His bill passed with handsome majorities from both sections in the House and won in the Senate the votes of most northerners and exactly half the southerners.81 The northern business community had come to recognize that their enlightened self-interest lay in tariff rates that could endure rather than ones that inflamed southern agitation. Most southerners saw the measure as a significant amelioration of their grievance and were now content to back Jackson for reelection rather than pursue any more drastic remedy such as the one South Carolina was touting. Hailed as a “bill of compromise,” Adams’s Tariff of 1832 largely removed the issue from the presidential election of that year. Adams felt satisfied to have resolved a national problem in such a way as to avoid a confrontation between the sections, even though the outcome produced an electoral benefit to Jackson.82

In South Carolina, however, many refused to accept the Tariff of 1832 as the resolution that it seemed elsewhere. South Carolina politics were distinctive. It was the only state that had successfully resisted political democratization in the years since independence. By a compromise agreed in 1808, the tidewater controlled one house of the state legislature and the more populous up-country the other; large planters dominated both houses through property qualifications and local custom. The legislators in turn chose the governor and most other state officers as well as the presidential electors. South Carolina’s plantation aristocracy lived in a world of conspicuous consumption, male rivalry, and a heightened sense of personal and family honor. To these haughty patriarchs, tariffs represented an insult as well as an injury.

81. Register of Debates, 22nd Cong., 1st sess. (June 28, 1832), 3830–31 (House); (July 13, 1832), 1293 (Senate). South Carolina and Virginia were the only states both of whose senators opposed the bill.

82. The best account of the Tariff of 1832, correcting confusions in some others, is in Donald Ratcliffe, “The Nullification Crisis, Southern Discontents, and the American Political Process,” American Nineteenth-Century History 1 (2000), 1–30.

Within South Carolina’s peculiar polity competed three political factions: Calhoun’s own following, who included Robert Hayne; state-rights Radicals, led by William Smith and Thomas Cooper; and the Unionists, who despite their opposition to protectionism did not countenance nullification as a remedy. Although led by planter magnates like the other factions, the Unionists numbered among their followers up-country yeoman farmers and Charleston merchants.83 Earlier Calhoun had allied with the Unionists, but since 1825 he had sometimes cooperated with the Radicals, and in 1828 both Calhounites and Radicals had backed Jackson. Taking up the cause of nullification enabled Calhoun to firm up his alliance with the Radicals, whose political strength in the state was growing. In the state elections of October 1832, the Radicals and Calhounites together gained the two-thirds majority in the legislature that they needed to call for a nullification convention, finally overcoming the long resistance of the Unionists. Seizing the opportunity, they ordered a quick special election for November 12, and the voters returned a convention overwhelmingly in favor of nullification.

Why did South Carolina’s political community insist on pursuing nullification when the rest of the South felt comfortable with Jackson and thought it could live with the Tariff of 1832? Fears for slavery, while widespread in the South, alarmed whites the most in the state with the highest proportion of the population enslaved (54 percent in 1830). Ever since the Missouri Compromise, those in South Carolina called the Radicals had felt apprehensive regarding the future of slavery. In 1827, a powerfully argued pamphlet called The Crisis appeared in South Carolina under the pseudonym “Brutus,” linking the protective tariff and internal improvements with the slavery issue. The American Colonization Society, the author warned, constituted a stalking-horse for the general abolition of slavery. Brutus (whose real name was Robert J. Turnbull) declared that in the face of growing northern strength and ever-broadening constitutional interpretation, only consistent insistence on state sovereignty could forestall eventual emancipation by Congress.84With such anxieties in the back of their minds, Calhoun and the Radicals with whom he now cooperated wanted to try out nullification as a means of pressuring the majority into making concessions. If they could make the procedure work in the case of the tariff, they would have the tactic to use whenever needed, and the

83. On Charleston’s division between nullifiers and Unionists, see William and Jane Pease, The Web of Progress (New York, 1985), 71–82.

84. The Crisis; or, Essays on the Usurpations of the Federal Government. By Brutus (Charleston, S.C., 1827).

protection of slavery would be that much more secure. Proud of his invention, Calhoun hoped that he could demonstrate nullification’s effectiveness and hush rash talk of secession. For the Radicals, the tariff provided an occasion for testing a novel weapon on behalf of a state-rights philosophy they had long held. Unlike Calhoun, they had no qualms about secession as another option to exercise.85

That South Carolina’s nullification was intended as much to defend slavery as to bring down the tariff is clear in the intertwined motives of the low-country growers of rice and long-staple cotton. Like the up-country producers of short-staple cotton, they sold their crops on the international market. Compared with the growers in the Piedmont, the great coastal planters of rice and luxury cotton suffered less from the competition of more fertile lands to the west and consequently felt less squeezed financially. But the tariff, by reducing the supply of dollars in foreign hands, limited the overseas market for their crops and encouraged their customers to look for alternative sources of supply. Rice producers suffered more from the tariff than cotton producers because the world demand for rice was more economically “elastic.”86 Furthermore, with over 50 percent of their total wealth invested in human beings, these particular large-scale capitalists felt that they had the greatest stake in the slave system of anyone in America. The swamps where their rice grew bred mosquitoes. Workers of African descent, carrying partial immunity to malaria along with traditional knowledge of rice culture from their homeland, seemed ideally suited to tend the rice crop. The aristocrats spent much of the year in Charleston, away from their plantations, leaving their holdings to slaves performing pre-assigned “tasks” (typically a half acre of rice land per worker) under the supervision of enslaved overseers called drivers.87

Ironically, the South Carolina low country was simultaneously the area where slaves enjoyed the greatest autonomy and the area where masters were most fanatically devoted to slavery. In parts of the low country the ratio of blacks to whites reached ten to one, and no place were the barriers

85. The classic study of nullification in South Carolina is William Freehling, Prelude to Civil War (New York, 1965).

86. Knick Harley, “The Antebellum American Tariff,” Explorations in Economic History 29 (1992): 375–400.

87. Philip Morgan, “Work and Culture: The Task System and the World of Lowcountry Blacks,” WMQ 39 (1982): 563–99; Peter Coclanis, “How the Low Country Was Taken to Task,” in Slavery, Secession, and Southern History, ed. Robert Paquette and Louis Ferleger (Charlottesville, Va., 2000), 59–78; Judith Ann Carney, Black Rice: African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge, Mass., 2001).

against any criticism of slavery more formidable. South Carolina had been founded in the seventeenth century by colonists from Barbados and had long maintained ties of trade and culture with the British West Indies; now, planters read in their newspapers that Parliament would soon abolish slavery in the British Empire. Nullification might be a useful resource if Congress should ever try to follow that example.

On November 24, 1832, South Carolina’s Nullification Convention passed an ordinance declaring that the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were both unconstitutional and that “it shall not be lawful” after February 1, 1833, “to enforce payment of duties imposed by the said acts within the limits of this state.” The deadline was later extended; its purpose was to provide time for Congress to repeal the protective features in the tariff under this new ultimatum. The ordinance concluded with a threat to secede if the federal government attempted to coerce the state.88 Carrying out the mandate of the ordinance, South Carolina’s state legislators commenced preparations for resistance to federal authority, including raising twenty-five thousand volunteer militiamen, though they expected to avoid armed conflict. They summoned Robert Hayne back from Washington to become governor of the state and elected Calhoun to replace him in the Senate, showing that (despite the threat of secession) the most extreme Radicals would not be in charge. Accordingly, Calhoun resigned his lame duck vice presidency on December 28, 1832, and took his seat on the Senate floor.89

The nullifiers felt encouraged by Jackson’s support for South Carolina’s Negro Seamen Law and for the Georgians in their defiance of the Cherokees’ treaty rights, both of which might well be considered forms of nullification. But they were wrong to think he would support them this time. Jackson was the last person to back away from a confrontation, and he took nullification as a patriotic and personal challenge from a man he had already come to distrust and loathe. The president regarded the nullification movement the same way he did the national bank, as a conspiracy against republican liberty prompted and led by a demagogue’s ambition. Though he and Calhoun were both Scots-Irish cotton planters born in South Carolina, and both considered themselves heirs of Jeffersonian Republicanism, they actually differed significantly in temperament and outlook. Calhoun represented a mature slaveholding aristocracy and conceived himself its philosopher-statesman. Jackson thought and spoke as

88. The Ordinance of Nullification is printed in Benton, Thirty Years View, 297–98.

89. The only other vice president to resign has been Spiro Agnew in 1973.

an outsider to aristocracy. He typified the slaveholding man-on-the-make made good, an old soldier rather than a philosopher. Like Calhoun he was preoccupied with sovereignty, but to him it represented not a theory but a matter of deeply felt personal authority. As commander in chief, Old Hickory would not tolerate mutiny. Calhoun and Jackson shared an old-fashioned concept of manly honor that required vindication at any cost. The most serious constitutional crisis faced by the American republic between the adoption of the Constitution and the Civil War was also a showdown between two resolute individual men.

Jackson’s response to the nullification crisis stands as his finest hour. He combined firmness with conciliation. The firmness appeared unmistakably in his historic presidential proclamation on December 10. Nullification, the president told the people of South Carolina, was “in direct violation of their duty as citizens of the United States” and “subversive of its Constitution.” In Jackson’s straightforward logic, nullification was tantamount to secession. The president must execute the law; resistance to such execution would have to be forcible. Calhoun’s arguments for peaceful nullification were specious, Jackson declared. “Do not be deceived by names. Disunion by armed force is treason.90

The proclamation drew upon the legal acumen of Secretary of State Edward Livingston, who had faced the foe with Jackson eighteen years before at New Orleans. Besides exposing the impracticality of nullification, it defended the constitutionality of protective tariffs and refuted Calhoun’s theory that states retained complete sovereignty within the Union. To many contemporaries, including the dying John Randolph, it seemed Jackson had forsaken the Old Republican faith and endorsed the nationalism of Daniel Webster and John Marshall. Back in 1830, as senator from Louisiana, Livingston had endorsed a synthesis of nationalism and state rights based on a theory of divided sovereignty, shared by both state and national authority; this was the standard doctrine in the Democratic Party and would remain so for many years to come. But in December 1832, Jackson insisted that his proclamation endorse the unqualified principle of national sovereignty.91

In the face of South Carolina’s challenge, Jackson responded with both toughness and responsibility. The commander in chief reinforced the garrisons of Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney in Charleston harbor and

90. Presidential Messages, II, 640–56, quotations from 640, 654; italics in original.

91. Richard Ellis, The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights, and the Nullification Crisis (New York, 1987), 11–12, 81–88.

dispatched two armed revenue cutters to the scene. People both within and without South Carolina started to fear civil war. Eight thousand armed South Carolina Unionists enrolled, ready to answer a presidential call to oppose the state militia. The president ordered General Winfield Scott to prepare for military operations, but like Lincoln a generation later he cautioned that if violence broke out, the federal forces must not be the aggressors.92 To deter the nullifiers from attacking the Unionists in their midst, Jackson warned a South Carolina congressman that “if one drop of blood be shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man of them I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find.” When Robert Hayne ventured, “I don’t believe he would really hang anybody, do you?” Thomas Hart Benton replied, “Few people could have believed that he would hang Arbuthnot and shoot Ambrister . . . I tell you, Hayne, when Jackson begins to talk about hanging, they can begin to look out for ropes!”93 In January 1833, the president asked Congress for power to deal with the emergency, notably by shifting the collection point for customs duties to offshore federal ships and forts, beyond the range of the nullifiers’ control. Angry Carolinians dubbed it “the Force Bill,” though the measure actually rendered an armed clash between state and federal authorities less likely. At the same time Representative Gulian C. Verplanck of New York, a Democratic free-trader, introduced a drastic tariff reduction backed by the administration, which would immediately cut duties in half. Jackson wanted to make sure of the loyalty of the rest of the cotton South, and on the tariff issue he was willing to compromise.

The really critical aspect of the situation would be the response of the other southern states to South Carolina’s initiative. Only with their support could a single state make nullification a viable precedent. In the end, this support did not come. Not even Mississippi and Louisiana, where the percentage of slaves in the population was almost as high as in South Carolina, came to their sister state’s aid, for neither shared her attitude toward the Tariff of 1832. Enjoying newly cultivated, rich soil, southwestern cotton-growers did not feel as hard pressed as those in South Carolina, while Louisiana sugar-growers actually favored protectionism. So no call went out for a new constitutional convention to settle the validity of tariff protection. Instead, legislatures in eight southern states passed

92. See documents rpt. in William Freehling, The Nullification Era (New York, 1967), 170–71, 175–80.

93. Augustus Buell, History of Andrew Jackson (New York, 1904), II, 244–45; italics in original.

resolutions condemning South Carolina’s nullification. Most disappointing of all to the nullifiers, Virginia’s Governor Floyd, Calhoun’s longtime friend, failed to persuade that commonwealth’s legislature to support them. Sharply divided along the same East-West line revealed by the post–Nat Turner debate, the Virginia legislature ended up passing a compromise resolution critical of both nullification and the president’s proclamation against it.

During the crisis, vice president–elect Van Buren exerted less influence than usual over administration policy. As architect of the Tariff of Abominations, Van Buren had much to answer for. Ironically, the state legislature that gave Jackson the hardest time was that of New York. Van Buren’s Bucktail Democrats proved such ardent state-righters that the president wound up depending for support in New York on Antimasons, National Republicans, and dissident Democrats.94

While Jackson’s willingness to coerce South Carolina if necessary undoubtedly worried southerners and doughfaces, his new support for tariff reduction, his record on Indian Removal, his professions of faith in strict construction, and his undoubted devotion to slavery and white supremacy combined to reassure them. His Force Bill provoked eloquent congressional oratory on state and national sovereignty, but little serious opposition. The Force Bill passed the House with more than a three-quarters majority (149 to 48) and the Senate with but one dissenting vote (though nine southern senators, including those from South Carolina, stayed away).95 For the time being at least, the slaveholding South appeared content to rely for protection on normal politics, with a sympathetic president representing the will of a majority of the electorate, rather than on a novel and drastic theory about state sovereignty. The Carolinian pursuit of nullification as a remedy for hypothetical future injustices seemed to most southerners, however much they disliked protectionism, a quixotic quest after an abstraction. The way Calhoun operated as South Carolina’s ambassador in the negotiations that followed vindicated this judgment. For the sake of abstractions, honor, and promises about the future, he would forgo many of the tangible tariff concessions he could have extracted.

Calhoun scorned to accept Verplanck’s bill because it came from the administration. Instead, he preferred to work out a settlement with Henry Clay, although this meant dealing with someone far more seriously

94. Ibid., 122–57.

95. Register of Debates, 22nd Cong., 2nd sess. (Feb. 20, 1833), 688 (Senate); (March 1, 1833), 1903 (House).

committed to the tariff than Jackson. Clay took Adams’s tariff as their basis for discussion. To placate northern sheep raisers and mill owners, he removed Adams’s major concession to the South and put the duties on raw wool and cheap woolen cloth back up again. The resulting tariff he agreed to lower by tiny increments over the next eight years, then finally in 1842 lowering it substantially to 20 percent across the board. What did Calhoun get out of this? He was promised that the process would eventually lead to a tariff where all rates would be fixed ad valorem, so no particular products were being “protected,” and one could claim that the whole tariff structure existed for revenue only. In fact, however, many articles that did not compete with domestic producers were allowed in entirely free of duty, which would hardly have been the case if the tariff had really been for revenue only. Calhoun signed off on the deal, although South Carolinians earlier had claimed a 12.5 percent tariff should suffice for revenue. Instead of the Verplanck bill, the nullifiers got Adams’s compromise measure minus its most important concession, plus promises—which, however, a future Congress might rescind. Clay had driven a successful bargain, granting (as he explained privately) “a nominal triumph” to Calhoun, “whilst all the substantial advantages have been secured to the Tariff States.”96

Congress passed both Jackson’s Force Bill and Clay’s Compromise Tariff of 1833 on the same day, March 1. Together they resolved the nullification crisis. Jackson and Clay were both strong nationalists, but they demonstrated very different styles of political leadership. Jackson’s deserved reputation for violence, often an embarrassment, had in this case served the national interest when combined with his responsible actions. Henry Clay’s consummate skills as a negotiator proved as valuable in the end. Together, the two leaders presented the “olive branch and sword” (or, less elegantly, the “carrot and the stick”) to the nullifiers. A substantial body of northeastern congressmen, led by Daniel Webster, voted against the compromise tariff, on the grounds that the Force Bill alone sufficed and that South Carolina was not in a strong enough bargaining position to deserve even a symbolic reward for its conduct. In Columbia the Nullification Convention reconvened on March 11, declared victory, repealed nullification of the federal tariff duties, and then, in a final gesture of defiance, nullified the (now moot) Force Act.97

96. Henry Clay to Nicholas Biddle, April 10, 1833, Papers of Henry Clay, ed. Robert Seager II (Lexington, Ky., 1984), VIII, 637. My interpretation of the compromise follows that of Ratcliffe, “Nullification Crisis.”

97. See Merrill Peterson, Olive Branch and Sword: The Compromise of 1833 (Baton Rouge, 1982).

Clay also got another measure through Congress on March 1, his Distribution Bill. This, an early example of revenue-sharing, “distributed” federal revenues to the states for internal improvements, education, and African colonization, with the money to come from public land sales. The Distribution Bill would have enacted a major portion of the American System, and also operated indirectly to prevent the tariff from being reduced below 20 percent, since without land proceeds, the federal government would need the tariff revenue. Whether the Distribution Bill was an integral part of the compromise settlement depended on whom one asked. Clay viewed it so, as a measure to help reconcile northerners to future tariff reductions. Jackson decided it was not, and pocket-vetoed it. Earlier in his presidency, he had favored distribution, but that was before the plan carried Clay’s label. Jackson’s previous support for distribution had reconciled his sympathy for farmers needing internal improvements with his strict interpretation of the Constitution. Now, however, to sign the Distribution Bill would acknowledge that Clay deserved credit for a comprehensive resolution of the nullification crisis. This was too much to bear, so Old Hickory chose another way to please the West: selling the public lands to settlers as cheaply as possible. His new stance aligned him with Benton, who had been so loyal an administration supporter. Calhoun had been bitterly opposed to the Distribution Bill; its veto meant he emerged from the settlement with a somewhat better deal. Internal improvements would be left to the private sector and unplanned, ad hoc subsidies; the cause of African colonization, having missed its best funding opportunity, withered away.98

Objectively, in terms of national politics, the nullifiers had lost. The other southern states had not rallied to their side. Both the legislative and executive branches of the federal government had demonstrated their resolve to suppress nullification. And the tariff that came out of it all would not significantly lower rates until nine years in the future. Yankee farmers expressed their impression that nullification was mere bluster by calling their scarecrows “calhouns.”99 But in South Carolina it was an altogether different story. There the alliance between Calhoun and the Radicals became permanent. Unrepentant, the nullifiers solidified their control of state politics and from then on provided their great spokesman with an unchallenged local power base. The biggest losers from the crisis, in fact, were the South Carolina Unionists; starting in 1834, they were virtually precluded

98. See John Larson, Internal Improvement (Chapel Hill, 2001), 187–193; John Van Atta, “Western Lands and the Political Economy of Henry Clay’s American System,” JER 21 (Winter 2001): 633–65.

99. Peterson, Olive Branch and Sword, 55.

from holding state office by a test oath swearing primary loyalty to the state and only conditional loyalty to the federal government.100 Henceforth the aristocratic South Carolina state-righters played a lone hand for high stakes in national politics, from time to time allying with the Democratic Party only to bolt it, sometimes courting Whig allies, more often trying to rally the South as a section to embrace their own extremist agenda. The president recognized that the nullifiers had not been destroyed, and privately warned that they would make trouble again. Next time, he predicted, they would seize upon “the negro, or slavery question.”101 But never again would Calhoun’s theory of nullification be taken seriously enough to be tried. Instead, the doctrine of secession, which Calhoun had hoped to preempt, lived on, now endorsed more strongly than ever by the ardent defenders of slavery.

In the wake of the crisis, Jackson enjoyed a brief period of cross-party popularity, as National Republicans acknowledged his veneration for the Union. Webster in particular reached out to embrace his fellow nationalist. At his second inauguration on March 4, 1833, the president instructed Americans on the necessity of Union to their trade, communications, prosperity, and peace.

You have been wisely admonished to “accustom yourselves to think and speak of the Union as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity” [an allusion to Washington’s Farewell Address]. Without union our independence and liberty would never have been achieved; without union they can never be maintained. Divided into twenty-four, or an even smaller number, of separate communities, we shall see our internal trade burdened with numberless restraints and exactions; communication between distant points and sections obstructed or cut off; our sons made soldiers to deluge with blood the fields they now till in peace.... The loss of liberty, of all good government, of peace, plenty, and happiness, must inevitably follow a dissolution of the Union.102

That summer Jackson toured New England, where he was greeted with acclamations, delivered a patriotic address at Bunker Hill, and received an honorary LL.D. from Harvard (despite objection from John Quincy Adams, a member of the Board of Overseers). The story that he was asked to address the degree ceremony in Latin and replied, “E pluribus unum, my friends, sine qua non!” is apocryphal.103

100. Ellis, Union at Risk, 180.

101. AJ to Andrew J. Crawford, May 1, 1833, Correspondence of AJ, V, 72.

102. Presidential Messages, III, 4.

103. Remini, Jackson, III, 79.

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