Modern history


Jackson’s Third Term

“Andrew Jackson strengthened the presidency,” it is often claimed. True, Old Hickory extended the circle of presidential advisors, expanded the patronage to be dispensed, and broadened use of the veto power. He successfully combined the office of the presidency with leadership of his political party. He triumphed in confrontations with his rivals Biddle and Calhoun. Yet the power of President Jackson remained to a large extent a function of his personal popularity, that is, charismatic rather than institutional. He did not succeed in transferring all of his own power to his successors. Indeed, the second party system that resulted from his rule proved to be a period of weak presidents. (James Knox Polk was the only exception, and even he served but one term.) Jackson did not so much strengthen the institution of the presidency as set an example that later popular presidents could invoke. Martin Van Buren, however, did not make himself one of these. Adept at gaining power, he proved largely unsuccessful in wielding it. Jackson’s heir was fated to preside ineffectually over a time of economic hardship and bitter conflicts.

A son of Dutch innkeepers, Martin Van Buren of New York was the first president of non-British ancestry and the first to have been born a citizen of the United States. (His predecessors, all born before the Revolution, started life as British subjects.) Because he was Jackson’s chosen successor, Van Buren’s presidency has been dubbed Jackson’s third term. In most personal respects, of course, the New Yorker seemed utterly unlike Old Hickory: A small, dapper man, ingratiating, flexible, one who got his way through craft rather than assertiveness, he was famously evasive. A senator who made a bet that he could get the Little Magician to commit himself to an assertion once asked Van Buren if it was true that the sun came up in the East. “I invariably sleep until after sunrise,” replied the Fox of Kinderhook.1 Van Buren did, however, commit himself to “tread generally in the footsteps of President Jackson,” and in most respects he did so, retaining not only Jackson’s cabinet but the kitchen cabinet as well. In his inaugural address, Van Buren defined his goal as preserving the legacy of the Founders. He then humbly deferred to “his illustrious

1. Van Buren told this story on himself: Autobiography, ed. John Fitzpatrick (Washington, 1920), 199.

predecessor.” The personality of the outgoing president continued to dominate the occasion; “for once,” Thomas Hart Benton commented, “the rising was eclipsed by the setting sun.”2

Van Buren’s genial social skills impressed everyone, even his political enemies. A master of the new popular brand of party politics based on publicity, patronage, and organization, in private life he loved the traditional arts of conversation and hospitality. In combining political shrewdness with gracious living, Van Buren resembled the Republican patriarch Thomas Jefferson, whom he admired perhaps even more than he did Jackson. Van Buren played politics as a game, and he played it to win. He practiced a popular version of the game because the American playing field so dictated, but his instincts and tastes were deeply conservative. As U.S. envoy in England at the time of the great Parliamentary Reform Bill of 1832, he showed no sympathy for its modest extension of the suffrage. The personalities and mechanics of British politics interested him more than substantive issues.3 When she met Van Buren as president, Harriet Martineau observed, “His public career exhibits no one exercise of that faith in men and preference of principle to petty expediency by which a statesman shows himself to be great.” In fairness to Van Buren, however, if his brand of politics held little of high principle, neither did it evince the jealousy, spitefulness, and obsessive preoccupation with personal honor that characterized so many American politicians of the previous generation, including Alexander Hamilton, John Randolph, John C. Calhoun, and Jackson himself.4

In his appreciation for the role of party in politics, Van Buren went well beyond his model Jefferson. The Magician’s election as president put the final nail in the coffin of Monroe’s Era of Good Feelings, which John Quincy Adams had tried to perpetuate, and buried the Founders’ aspiration to nonpartisanship. A defender as well as a practitioner of the new politics, Van Buren pioneered the modern analysis of political parties as a legitimate feature of government instead of considering them (as all conventional political philosophers then did) a dangerous perversion. “It has always therefore struck me as more honorable and manly, and more in harmony with

2. Quotations from Major Wilson, The Presidency of Martin Van Buren (Lawrence, Kans., 1984), 37; Thomas Hart Benton, Thirty Years View (New York, 1857), I, 735.

3. Donald Cole, Martin Van Buren and the American Political System (Princeton, 1984), 223–24.

4. Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, ed. Daniel Feller (1838; Armonk, N.Y., 2000), 25. On the role of personal honor in the politics of the early republic, see Joanne Freeman, Affairs of Honor (New Haven, 2001).

the character of our People and of our Institutions, to deal with the subject of Political Parties in a sincerer and wiser spirit—to recognize their necessity, [and] to give them the credit they deserve,” he wrote in his autobiography.5The Bucktail faction that he led in New York state politics, nicknamed the Albany Regency once it gained power, exemplified the techniques of party manipulation and control that Van Buren transferred to the national stage. And it was a prominent member of the Albany Regency, William Marcy, who, when defending Van Buren’s New York state patronage policies, coined the famous phrase: “To the victor belong the spoils.”6

Party itself became a partisan issue in the presidential election of 1836. The Democrats held a national convention at Baltimore a year early in 1835, ostensibly to assemble representatives of their party’s faithful to choose their national ticket. In practice, the convention demonstrated the effectiveness of Jackson’s control over the party. Van Buren won nomination easily enough, but the Virginia delegation challenged Jackson’s choice for vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky. A fellow Indian fighter, reputed killer of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh during the War of 1812, Johnson enjoyed the favor of Old Hickory and his kitchen cabinet. He gained popularity with antievangelical voters through a congressional committee report (ghostwritten by postal clerk Obadiah Brown) resisting sabbatarian demands on the Sunday mail issue.7 He had also championed the abolition of imprisonment for debt, a favorite cause of eastern artisans. But the unmarried Johnson had kept an enslaved mulatto mistress named Julia Chinn and acknowledged his two children by her, making him persona non grata in some genteel southern circles. As a vice-presidential alternative Virginia fielded William C. Rives, a respectable planter and diplomat who gained enough support to prevent Johnson from getting the two-thirds vote he needed for nomination. Party leaders rode roughshod over Rives’s candidacy. Tennessee was one of four states that had sent no delegates to the Democratic convention; its state organization had been taken over by Jackson’s opponents. Jackson’s people simply brought in a man from Tennessee off the street and empowered him to cast all that state’s fifteen votes for Richard Mentor Johnson, putting the Kentuckian over the top. The statement issued instead of a

5. Autobiography, 125.

6. Quoted in Richard Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System (Berkeley, 1970), 250.

7. Both Brown and Johnson were Baptists who, like many others of that faith, distrusted efforts to remake the world and especially those enlisting cooperation between church and state. See Richard R. John, “Hiland Hall’s Report on Incendiary Publications,” American Journal of Legal History 41 (1997): 94–125.

platform identified the party with Old Republican principles of state rights and strict construction.8 Whigs declared the Democratic convention a mockery, deplored “the excesses of party” and pointed with pride to their own failure to hold any party convention at all. The Democrats, they charged, substituted party loyalty for independent judgment on issues.9

The Bank War had provoked defections from Jackson’s support in all parts of the country except New England, where the Democratic Party started out weak. As a result, Jackson’s top-heavy majorities in the South and West disappeared in 1836, and Van Buren faced serious opposition everywhere. However, disillusionment with Jackson did not immediately translate into a well-disciplined opposition party. Not all critics of Jackson and Van Buren even embraced the name “Whig”; Antimasons and Nullifiers maintained separate identities. A national convention of Whigs proved impossible to organize. Northern economic nationalists and southern state-rights Whigs could not get along; Calhoun refused altogether to join their cause. Absence of federal patronage to dispense compounded the opposition’s difficulties. The Whigs, in origin a congressional coalition, lacked the tangible basis for building a national party from the ground up that the Democrats possessed. Organizing a party was more difficult when one was out of power and critical of most of the methods by which the Democratic Party had been built. Mass politics as we know it developed only gradually, and the election of 1836 represented a stage in the process.

But while lacking a national organization, the opposition did have a constituency in all parts of the country. And so independent regional campaigns challenged Van Buren. William Henry Harrison, former governor of Indiana and victor over Tecumseh’s intertribal alliance at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, received the nomination of several state conventions and legislatures; he broke with tradition by actively campaigning. “Old Tippecanoe” gradually defined himself as the choice of most Whigs in the North and West. Deploring executive usurpation and expressing support for internal improvements and revenue sharing, Harrison gained Clay’s grudging endorsement.10 In the South, Jackson’s

8. Thomas Brown, “The Miscegenation of Richard Mentor Johnson as an Issue,” Civil War History 39 (1993): 5–30; Wilson, Presidency of Van Buren, 16; Cole, Martin Van Buren, 267.

9. Quotation from John Bell, speech at Nashville in July 1835, rpt. in Arthur Schlesinger Jr. et al., eds., History of American Presidential Elections (New York, 1971), I, 639.

10. Michael Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (New York, 1999), 38–45. Harrison’s statement of principles is printed in Schlesinger et al., History of American Presidential Elections, I, 608–13.

longtime Tennessee friend Hugh Lawson White had been antagonized by Old Hickory’s abuses of power and defined his own candidacy as a crusade to restore moral responsibility in government. White ran more as a disaffected Democrat than as a Whig. He exploited southerners’ fears that no northerner could be trusted on the slavery issue. Outside South Carolina itself, those who had sympathized with nullification generally backed White.11 Making the best of their lack of organization, some opposition leaders decided that sectional campaigns actually provided a promising strategy; if Van Buren could be kept from getting an electoral college majority, the contest would be thrown into the House of Representatives.12

The election took place between November 4 and 23, and by the end of the month the results showed that the Whigs’ ideological appeal had gained them votes over Clay’s showing in 1832, but not enough to win. Van Buren got only 50.9 percent of the popular vote; if South Carolina had held a popular vote for president, he presumably would have received less than half the nationwide popular tally. But he won the electoral college, 170 to 124 for his combined opponents. Harrison got 73 electoral votes and showed strength in the Ohio Valley, Upper South, and Antimasonic areas. White carried the previous Jackson strongholds of Tennessee and Georgia. Massachusetts voted for its favorite son Daniel Webster, and South Carolina’s legislature obeyed Calhoun, casting the state’s electoral votes for Willie Magnum of North Carolina. Compared with Jackson, Van Buren ran better in New England, worse in the South and West, showing the effects of having a Democratic candidate from the Northeast. On the whole, however, Democratic partisanship substituted satisfactorily for Jackson’s personal stature and delivered Van Buren the victory. Virginia’s Democratic electors withheld their votes from Richard Mentor Johnson, so he ended up one vote short of a majority in the vice-presidential contest. The race was therefore decided by the Senate, in accordance with the Constitution, for the only time in history. To no one’s surprise, the Democratic Senate elected Johnson. The percentage of eligible males participating in the popular vote rose from 55.4 in 1832 to 57.8 in 1836; most new voters cast their ballots for one of the opposition candidates.13

11. Richard P. McCormick, The Presidential Game (New York, 1982), 166–74; William Cooper, The South and the Politics of Slavery (Baton Rouge, 1978), 54–58.

12. For example, Samuel Southard to Joseph Randolph, Dec. 30, 1835, cited in Michael Birkner, Samuel L. Southard (London, 1984), 164.

13. Holt, Rise and Fall of Whig Party, 45.

The outcome of the election of 1836 proved to contemporaries that partisanship trumped sectionalism as a basis for political effectiveness; the Whigs resolved to be better organized the next time. The Bank War, dominating Jackson’s second term, had polarized the voting public. Despite the Whigs’ inability to agree on a single presidential candidate, the election of 1836 provided a referendum on the administration’s financial policies. Opposition centered among the business community, which included not only industrialists and merchants but also the larger commercial farmers and planters producing export staples, all of whom relied on banking services and a stable credit system.14 Although the new incumbent hoped to put economic conflicts behind him, in fact they would dominate Van Buren’s presidency.

Former president John Quincy Adams contemplated a third term for the Jacksonians with deep forebodings:

The American Union as a moral Person in the family of Nations, is to live from hand to mouth, to cast away, instead of using for the improvement of its own condition, the bounties of Providence, and to raise to the summit of Power a succession of Presidents the consummation of whose glory will be to growl and snarl with impotent fury against a money broker’s shop, to rivet into perpetuity the clanking chain of the Slave, and to waste in boundless bribery to the west the invaluable inheritance of the Public Lands.15


Andrew Jackson’s greatest legacy to posterity was the Democratic Party. His popular appeal had created it; the decisions he reached in the White House became its policies. Where John Quincy Adams, like the framers, had believed in balanced government, Jackson believed in popular virtue—and in himself as its embodiment. A later admirer described the relationship well: “[Jackson’s politics] rested on the philosophy of majority rule. When a majority was at hand Jackson used it. When a majority was not at hand he endeavored to create it. When this could not be done in time, he went ahead anyhow. He was the majority pro tem. Unfailingly, at the next election, the people would return a vote of confidence, making his measures their own.”16 Until the Civil War transformed America, the

14. Joel Silbey, “Election of 1836,” in Schlesinger et al., History of American Presidential Elections, I, 577–600.

15. John Quincy Adams to Charles Upham, Feb. 2, 1837, “Ten Unpublished Letters of John Quincy Adams,” Huntington Library Quarterly 4 (1941): 383.

16. Marquis James, Andrew Jackson (New York, 1937), 430.

Democratic Party continued along the trajectory Jackson had set, endorsing popular sovereignty, opposing a national bank and national economic planning, promoting continental expansion, and protecting slavery. Although it responded to the democratization of American life, the Democratic Party was not the spontaneous creation of a mass movement from the bottom up. There were “bottom up” movements in the young republic—among them Antimasonry, nativism, sabbatarianism, and the early labor movement—but the Democratic Party was not among them. The national party convention, for example, invented by the Antimasons, was adopted by the Democrats and later the Whigs in order to unify the respective parties and validate their leadership, not because of grassroots demand for it.

Where Jackson had created the party, Martin Van Buren served it and owed his presidency to it. Van Buren made himself the party’s strategist, tactician, and official apologist. Ever since his rivalry with DeWitt Clinton, Van Buren had defined his public life in terms of party loyalty and limited government. John Quincy Adams having outraged him on both accounts, Van Buren had climbed aboard the Jackson wagon. As he explained in his letter to Thomas Ritchie of 1827, Van Buren envisioned the Democratic Party resting upon an alliance between “the planters of the South and the plain Republicans of the North.” Van Buren realized that an Old Republicanism of strict construction appealed both to common folk suspicious that government economic intervention advantaged special interests and to slaveowners fearing an activist government might some day move against the South’s “peculiar institution.”17

The American politics Van Buren understood so well reflected the broadening of the franchise in the generation following the War of 1812 and the communications revolution that made political information widely available. During the years after 1815, state after state abolished property requirements for voting; the actions of Massachusetts in 1820 and New York in 1821 attracted particular attention. Historically, such qualifications had been defended as ensuring that voters possessed enough economic independence to exercise independent political judgment. Now, voting increasingly came to be seen as the right of all adult males, at least if they were white. Reflecting the new attitude toward the suffrage, none of the states admitted after 1815 set property requirements. The change in opinion largely antedated industrialization and typically

17. Martin Van Buren to Thomas Ritchie, Jan. 13, 1827, Van Buren Papers, microfilm ed., ser. 2, reel 7.

occurred before a significant population of white male wage-earners had appeared. Proponents of the change saw it as enfranchising tenant farmers and squatters on the public domain, small shopkeepers, and craftsmen. They usually excluded free black men from the broadened suffrage. They did not realize that their new rules would enfranchise an industrial proletariat and the large influx of immigrants who would begin to arrive in the 1840s, for they did not foresee the appearance of either. As a result, suffrage liberalization occurred in many places with relatively little controversy. Rhode Island constituted an exception to the pattern of peaceful enfranchisement. There the issue was not confronted until 1842, after a significant degree of industrialization and immigration had occurred, and suffrage reform would come only after the state constitutional crisis known as the Dorr Rebellion. Virginia, reflecting the power of her tidewater aristocracy, withstood pressure to eliminate the property qualification until 1850. South Carolina, whose planter aristocracy remained the strongest of all, hung on to property qualifications until the Civil War.18

The widespread change in the conception of the suffrage, from a privilege bestowed on an independent-minded elite to a right that should be possessed by all male citizens, reflected in part the success of the American Revolution and general acceptance of its natural-rights ideology. The process may be compared with the decline of religious qualifications for voting or the progress of state-by-state emancipation of northern slaves, both of which had likewise reflected the triumph of natural-rights ideology where self-interested opposition was not very powerful. Broadening the suffrage also represented one aspect of a long-continuing process of gradual modernization in American society that antedated the Declaration of Independence. The franchise had been relatively widespread even in colonial times, because the property that qualified a man to exercise it was also relatively widely distributed. Compared with Europe, America had seemed democratic for a long time.19

Practical as well as principled considerations operated to broaden the suffrage in the young republic. Eager to attract settlers (who boosted land values), the newer states saw no reason to put suffrage obstacles in their path. Some of them even allowed immigrants to vote before becoming citizens. This in turn put pressure on the older states, which worried about losing population through emigration westward. For the most part, property restrictions on voting declined before the rise of the Democratic Party, which benefited from, rather than fought for, the liberalization of

18. See Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote (New York, 2000), 26–52, 67–76.

19. See, for example, Jon Butler, Becoming America (Cambridge, Mass., 2000).

the suffrage. Taxpaying qualifications sometimes remained after the elimination of property ones, and the Democratic Party did generally oppose these, while their Whig opponents often agreed in removing these restrictions too by the end of the antebellum period.20

Paralleling the extension of the suffrage, another nationwide development also responded to white male democracy: the decline of the militia. Jeffersonians of the founding generation had reposed great confidence in the militia as an alternative to a standing army that could be used against the liberties of the people it supposedly protected. This militia, organized in each locality, consisted of all physically fit white males of military age, who would supply their own arms and donate as much of their time as necessary to keep in training and readiness when called upon to deal with insurrection or invasion. This was the “well regulated militia” postulated in the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights and prescribed by the federal Militia Act of 1792. The militia had proved ineffective on many occasions in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 (George Washington never put much trust in it), but its gradual disappearance in the generation after 1815 had nothing to do with its military shortcomings. The militia gradually ceased to function because most male citizens resented it as an imposition, and hated serving in it so much that they either refused to show up for the periodic musters and drills, or if they came made a mockery of the occasion. Since the men who defied the militia laws also constituted the electorate, politicians dared not attempt to coerce service. White male democracy could successfully defy the law, as squatters defied landlords or Indian treaties. Militia units continued to function only in those few places where the men took pride in participating in them. When the war with Mexico came in 1846, the administration made little use of the militia and relied instead on its small professional army plus volunteers trained and equipped at government expense.21

The development of political parties represented a response not only to legal definitions of the suffrage but also to the conditions of its exercise. The typical antebellum American polling place displayed many of the worst features of all-male society: rowdy behavior, heavy drinking, coarse language, and occasional violence. (This rude ambience, in fact, was one of the reasons offered for excluding women from voting.) Commonly, two or three weekdays would be set aside for each election and declared

20. Keyssar, Right to Vote, 51–52.

21. See Richard Uviller and William Merkel, The Militia and the Right to Arms (Durham, N.C., 2002), 109–24; Richard Winders, Mr. Polk’s Army (College Station, Tex., 1997), 66–69.

holidays so men could come to the polling place and vote. With terms of office short and separate elections held for local, state, and federal offices, most communities underwent two elections a year, each preceded by publicity and demonstrations. Since election days varied from state to state, electioneering somewhere in the Union was more or less constant. Although public opinion polls did not exist, politicians had no difficulty keeping a finger on the public pulse at all times. Voting was sometimes oral and seldom secret. Even where written ballots were used, they were printed by the rival parties, each on paper of a distinctive color to make it easy for poll-watchers to tell which one a voter placed in the ballot box. A ballot would only list the names of the candidates of the party that printed it. To cast anything other than a straight party vote, a man had to “scratch his ticket”—line out a name and write in a different one. Challenging a voter could lead to physical conflict. When some states proposed requiring voters to register in advance, the Democratic Party generally opposed it. The prevailing electoral practices encouraged a large turnout, party-line voting, and various forms of partisan cheating, including vote buying and intimidation. Absence of secrecy encouraged most men in each community to vote the same way. This tendency toward local political homogeneity appeared strongest in rural areas, where everyone knew everyone else and where he lived, and threats of political retaliation carried strong conviction. The introduction during the late nineteenth century of the “Australian ballot” (printed at government expense and listing all candidates) was accounted a great reform.22

In light of the nature of the voting experience, it is not surprising that men voted from a mixture of motives. The issues themselves certainly did arouse many a voter for substantive reasons. Jackson’s Indian Removal and cheap land policies enjoyed wide approval in the West, helping account for his popularity there. The transportation revolution created new economic opportunities, leading some to welcome and others to fear economic intervention by local, state, or national governments. Beginning in 1819, fluctuations in the business cycle created constituencies for hard and soft money, the National Bank, free banking, or no banks of issue at all. The events of Van Buren’s administration would heighten the importance of economic issues in party politics that had arisen from Jackson’s Bank War.

In general, Van Buren’s Democratic Party appealed to people who for whatever reasons preferred limited government and free trade. Often

22. See Richard Bensel, The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Eng., 2004), ix–xiii,14–25; David Grimsted, American Mobbing (New York, 1998), 181–89.

these people saw themselves as “outsiders” suspicious that an active government would bestow favoritism upon “insiders.” Such outsiders included recent immigrants (generally the most strongly Democratic constituency of all), dwellers in provincial geographical areas bypassed by the arteries of commerce, and critics of the influential, activist Evangelical United Front. These outsiders felt more comfortable leaving matters to local communities where their views counted, rather than trusting remote (to them) cosmopolitan power centers. But in some parts of the country, those supporting the Democrats could be definite “insiders.” Many large cotton and tobacco planters and New York export merchants, for example, supported the Democratic Party because they had a vested interest in free trade. Representative James K. Polk of Tennessee encapsulated the desires of those who produced agricultural staples in a toast that became a Democratic slogan: “Sell what we have to spare in the market where we can sell for the best price; buy what we need in the market where we can buy cheapest.”23 Finally, those who felt most zealously committed to preserving white supremacy and expanding slavery, whether insiders or outsiders, found the Democratic Party safe and worried that the Whig Party’s program of expanding the federal government might make trouble at some point.

The centrality of the banking issue in party politics was no accident. A banking system that provided an effective source of credit constituted a necessary condition for the economic development of the United States. Banks also performed other essential financial services, mobilizing capital, providing information to prospective investors about risks and rewards, and facilitating financial transactions.24 Those most committed to promoting economic development supported the Whigs. Those who felt threatened by the prospect of economic change supported the Democrats.

Underscoring the issues themselves in arousing political interest was the communications revolution, with its mass of cheap, intensely partisan publications. Political pamphlets had been around for a long time, and there were also political books, for campaign biographies appeared of every presidential hopeful; but the most influential segment of the political media was the newspaper press. By 1836, both administration and opposition newspapers flourished in all parts of the country. So long as they exempted slavery from criticism, they enjoyed freedom of political expression

23. Quoted in Charles Sellers, James K. Polk, Jacksonian (Princeton, 1957), 149.

24. See Robert Wright, The Wealth of Nations Rediscovered: Integration and Expansion in American Financial Markets, 1780–1850 (Cambridge, Eng., 2002).

everywhere. Despite the harshness of the partisan press, no one attempted to revive the Sedition Act of 1798.

On occasion the communications revolution could itself become the subject of partisan debate. In 1832 the Senate spent a week debating a measure to grant all newspapers free postage. Supporters argued that it would promote political awareness among the electorate and help unify the nation. Opponents complained that it would enable people in the countryside to subscribe to big-city newspapers and undercut the local markets of the small-town press. The proposal went down to a narrow defeat, 22 to 23, with all Jacksonian senators voting no. Then as now, those who defined themselves as outsiders distrusted the influence of metropolitan opinion-makers.25 This attitude did not prevent the Jacksonians from creating big-city newspapers of their own and developing a sophisticated understanding of the role of the media of communication.

The newspaper editors of the time offer fascinating examples not only of colorful personalities but also of the interaction between politics and the press. Francis Blair came out of Kentucky, where he won his spurs as a spokesman for debt relief after the Panic of 1819. Chosen to run the Washington Globe as organ of the Jackson administration, Blair displayed across its masthead the slogan “The World Is Governed Too Much” and put out a paper that appealed not only to small farmers but also to recent immigrants and aspiring businessmen impatient with the national bank. The Globe, it has been said, served “the army of minor officeholders” as “a kind of continuing communique from national headquarters.”26 Blair was rewarded with the contract to print the record of Congressional debates, which he renamed the Congressional Globe. On occasion, he exploited this vantage point to suppress speeches by critics of the administration.

The new media opened new opportunities to talent and imagination. James Gordon Bennett, a self-made immigrant from Scotland, created the New York Herald and turned it into America’s best-selling newspaper. A Catholic who sometimes criticized his church’s clerical hierarchy, Bennett did much to define the Democratic Party’s urban constituency. Mordecai Noah, playwright, diplomat, and would-be founder of the Jewish community called Ararat, was rewarded for his Jacksonian journalism with an appointment as surveyor of the Port of New York. Alienated from the Democrats by the Bank War, Noah lost his patronage job, switched to

25. Richard Kielbowicz, “Modernization, Communication Policy, and the Geopolitics of News, 1820–1860,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 3 (1986): 21–35.

26. Bernard Weisberger, The American Newspaperman (Chicago, 1961), 83.

the Whig Party, and founded the innovative, high-quality New York Evening Star in 1833.27

Anne Royall, forced to support herself as a fifty-four-year-old widow, established her reputation first as a traveling journalist and then as the incisive editor of a small Washington newspaper. She supported Jacksonian Democracy on the issues of her day, including the Bank Veto, Sunday mail transportation, and state-rights protection of slavery. Though he often disagreed with her, John Quincy Adams admired her spirit and called her “a virago errant in enchanted armor.”28 (The story of her securing an interview with a naked president while Adams was swimming in the Potomac is, alas, apocryphal.) At a time when many women found outlet for their talent and energy in church activities, Anne Royall pointed the finger of scorn at evangelical Christianity. The women of the First Presbyterian Church in Washington complained that she verbally harassed them on their way to church. Tried for the crime of being a “common scold,” Royall protested her freedom of speech. Political party lines were sharply drawn at her trial, for the Presbyterian women had ties to the outgoing Adams administration, while Jackson’s incoming secretary of war, John Eaton (husband of the controversial Peggy), appeared as a character witness for the defense. Upon Royall’s conviction, the judge imposed, instead of the traditional ducking stool, a fine, which sympathetic fellow journalists paid for her. Royall resumed her acerbic denunciations of the churches.29

The most important of Jacksonian journalists, however, was undoubtedly Amos Kendall. Gaunt, sallow, and prematurely white-haired, Kendall excited an almost superstitious awe among Washington insiders as the mysterious power behind the throne.30Although Lucretia and Henry Clay had befriended him as a poor youth, Kendall broke with the Clays in 1826 and embraced the cause of Andrew Jackson, helping Old Hickory to carry Kentucky in 1828. From then on he enjoyed Jackson’s confidence as did no one else save Van Buren. Kendall’s newspaper experience had honed his sense of how to shape a political message for the public. Within the kitchen cabinet, he formulated the rationale for the spoils system as “rotation in office” and ghostwrote the Bank Veto Message as well as several of Jackson’s other major state papers.

27. Jonathan Sarna, Jacksonian Jew: The Two Worlds of Mordecai Noah (New York, 1981).

28. John Quincy Adams, Memoirs, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Philadelphia, 1874–79), VII, 321.

29. Elizabeth Clapp, “Anne Royall’s 1829 Trial as a Common Scold,” JER 23 (2003): 207–32.

30. Martineau, Retrospect, 55.

In his nurture of the Democratic Party, Kendall synthesized the power of the press over public opinion with the power of patronage to create a network of self-interest. Although the customs offices, land offices, and Indian agencies all provided federal jobs, the postal system dominated the patronage machine that made the national Democratic Party work. The expansion of the Post Office thus fostered both the communications revolution and the development of a modern party system. Even before becoming its formal head, Kendall largely controlled appointments to branch post offices. Once postmaster general, he found a way to censor antislavery opinion from the mail. Kendall understood the potential of the communications revolution as well as anyone in America—as he would also demonstrate later as Morse’s partner in the telegraph industry. A man of stern financial probity and a modern sense of responsible management, he strove to impose order and accountability on what was generally a lax and informal postal administration. Kendall’s biographer rightly portrays him as a central figure in the communications revolution: “a newspaper editor, party organizer, political propagandist, postmaster general, telegraph builder, and [in the post–Civil War era] promoter of language for the deaf.”31

In spite of all the parties did, some eligible voters were inevitably neither well informed nor strongly motivated. Local political leaders realized that popular interest in the issues of the day and the propaganda of the party press required supplementing in order to “rouse the sluggish to exertion.”32 The electorate was a mobile population. Especially in the cities or west of the Appalachians, a significant percentage of the voters might have arrived in their community only recently. The core of longer-term residents used national party affiliation to reach newcomers not yet familiar with local issues. Local party leaders came from much the same social background whether they supported the Jacksonian or opposition cause. Seldom simple farmers, they were typically prosperous business and professional men, often with a personal stake in the outcome, either as officeholders or as a result of government economic policies.33 The leaders worked hard to bring out the party faithful, whether to sign petitions,

31. Matthew Crenson, The Federal Machine: Beginnings of Bureaucracy in Jacksonian America (Baltimore, 1975), 140–43, 157; Richard R. John, Spreading the News (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 219–23, 269–72; quotation from Donald Cole, A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy (Baton Rouge, 2004), 301.

32. Martin Van Buren, quoted in Ralph Ketcham, Presidents Above Party (Chapel Hill, 1984), 144.

33. Kenneth Winkle, The Politics of Community (Cambridge, Eng., 1988), esp. 176–78; Edward Pessen, Jacksonian America (Homewood, Ill., 1969), esp. 180–84.

attend local caucuses and rallies, or visit the polling place at election time. Their methods of political mobilization—the free drinks, the parades, the corruption and illegalities—have been satirized and criticized by contemporaries and historians alike. The French tourist Michel Chevalier, more reflective than many observers, thought American political demonstrations the counterparts of folk holidays and religious processions in his own Catholic country.34 Antebellum party campaigns fostered a spirit of group loyalty not unlike that associated with sports teams in our day. Get-out-the-vote practices may well have been more necessary to the Jacksonian campaigns of 1824 through 1836 than to their opponents because Democratic voters tended to be people less touched by the communications revolution.35 Contemporary complaints seemed to focus more on Democratic behavior. When the Whig Party finally mobilized effectively in 1840, it did so with techniques adapted to its own constituency, for each party devoted itself more to energizing its own supporters than to persuading the undecided. One way or another, by fair means or foul, the party leaders did their job effectively enough that voter turnouts increased to the point where they compare favorably with those of today, despite longer hours of work and the difficulties of getting from the family farm to the polling place.36

The less the right to vote came to depend on economic criteria like property ownership or taxpaying, the more clearly it depended on race and gender. Those few women in New Jersey who had once exercised the franchise had been deprived of it in 1807. Now, there appeared a movement to roll back the enfranchisement of black men, so as to identify the suffrage clearly with white manhood. Black males lost the right to vote in Connecticut in 1818, in Rhode Island in 1822, in North Carolina in 1835, and in Pennsylvania in 1838. When New York removed its property qualifications for white voters in 1821, it retained one for blacks. Of the states admitted after 1819, every one but Maine disenfranchised African Americans.37 The United States was well on its way to becoming a “white republic.” The issue of black suffrage consistently divided the political

34. Michel Chevalier, Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, trans. T. Bradford (Boston, 1839), 316–21.

35. See, for example, Michael Foley, “The Post Office and the Distribution of Information in Rural New England,” JER 17 (1997): 611–50.

36. The unsavory practices endured for the rest of the century; see Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin, Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 2000).

37. Keyssar, Right to Vote, 54–58, Table A4; Harry Watson, Jacksonian Politics and Community Conflict (Baton Rouge, 1981), 61.

parties: Federalists supported it and Jeffersonians opposed; Whigs supported it and Jacksonians opposed. Not surprisingly, wherever black men had the power to do so, they voted overwhelmingly against the Democrats. The English visitor Edward Abdy thought it virtually impossible to find an African American who was not “an anti-Jackson man.”38


After the election of 1836, Jackson’s administration still had several months to run and important business to conduct. At the top of the outgoing president’s own agenda stood personal vindication. Jackson and his friends wanted the censure passed against his removal of the deposits not merely repealed or rescinded but “expunged” from the Senate’s journal. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri led the fight to achieve this remarkable rewriting of history; with the Democrats controlling the Senate, 33 to 16, he led from strength. The Whigs argued that while the Senate could change its collective mind, the integrity of its journal as a record of events should not be violated. Calhoun reminded senators that the Constitution mandates each house to keep a journal of its proceedings, which implies that it should not be mutilated. After thirteen hours of eloquent debate, a vote of 24 to 19 decided the issue. The secretary of the Senate drew black lines around the censure motion passed three years earlier and wrote across its face: “Expunged by order of the Senate, this 16th day of January, 1837.” The page was not torn out, and the original censure remains legible. But the Old Hero felt gratified.39

Sixty-nine years old, weakened by illness and his physicians’ bloodletting, Andrew Jackson now looked upon America with increasing misgivings despite his political victories. The problem, ironically, arose from the country’s prosperity. The price of cotton, backbone of the national economy, rose on global markets. Europeans put their capital to work in American development. An influx of Mexican silver into U.S. banks stimulated the economy further. State governments invested money in internal improvements; state banks lent money to private corporations and individuals for capital investments of their own. Jobs multiplied. Prosperity of this kind helped Van Buren’s election, but it worried Andrew Jackson.

38. See Leonard Richards, “The Jacksonians and Slavery,” in Antislavery Reconsidered, ed. Lewis Perry and Michael Fellman (Baton Rouge, 1979), 99–118; Abdy is quoted on 103.

39. Thomas Hart Benton, Thirty Years’ View, I, 727–31. Benton accidentally gives March 16, 1837, as the date for expunging; January 16 is the correct date.

Jackson’s economic views were simple and heartfelt. He believed people should get ahead through hard work and thrift. Speculation and indebtedness bothered him. He associated the paper money that banks issued with speculation and preferred a currency based entirely on gold and silver. He wanted to apply to the government’s finances the same precepts of thrift and debt avoidance that he would advise an individual to follow. Jackson had thought that getting rid of the Bank of the United States would be a step toward the implementation of his principles, but it hadn’t worked out that way. Now, state bankers fought to get on the approved list to receive deposits of the federal government’s revenues so they could issue more paper. Jackson had insisted that the federal government must retire its own debt. Accordingly, in January 1835 the national debt had been paid off for the only time in history. But the revenues kept piling up, since land sales continued strong and the proceeds from the Tariff of 1833 reflected Americans’ yearning for imported goods. What should be done with the money? Jackson distrusted big government.

Henry Clay, as usual, had a plan. He revived his proposal for distribution of the federal government’s surplus revenue to the states, enabling them to expand both the transportation network and their public school systems, while avoiding constitutional difficulties about the exercise of federal power. Clay added that the proceeds of land sales should be earmarked permanently for distribution to the states for these purposes—an economically sound action to ensure that the proceeds from the nation’s major asset would be devoted to capital improvements and not current expenses. But Jackson feared distribution would only contribute to the speculative boom he so distrusted. Besides, it was Clay’s project. Jackson had vetoed Clay’s Distribution Bill of 1833 and remained skeptical.

Many congressional Democrats did not share Jackson’s misgivings. Although they didn’t want to make distribution a permanent policy, it seemed a plausible approach to the immediate problem of the federal surplus. So they joined with Whigs to pass, by a veto-proof margin, the Deposit-Distribution Act of 1836, a distribution measure applying only to the current surplus. Increasing the number of state banks in which the federal government kept its funds (“pet banks”), it ordered them to “deposit” some of those federal funds with the states. The $37 million federal surplus would be distributed to each state according to its electoral votes (thus including three-fifths of the slaves). Theoretically the money was a loan, to differentiate the measure from Clay’s own distribution scheme, but everybody knew the federal government would never ask for the money back (and it never has). Rather than split his party, the ailing president uncharacteristically went along with others’ wishes and signed the bill, though he did extract a concession in the form of a provision forbidding the pet banks to issue paper money in small denominations. The overwhelming support for the Deposit-Distribution Act in Congress demonstrated the widespread eagerness for internal improvements that permeated both parties. But theWashington Globe reflected Old Hickory’s personal sentiments in its denunciation of the measure.40

Jackson had some fight in him still, and he showed it in his Specie Circular of 1836. Disillusioned with the pet banks and their currency, Jackson ordered federal land offices to stop accepting paper money in payment except from actual settlers. Speculators would have to pay in gold or silver. The president had struck a blow against confidence in the economy: If the government wouldn’t accept bank notes, who should? “I found the people excited” by the circular, a western banker reported to the secretary of the Treasury. “They appear to distrust all Banks, they think Govt. has no confidence in them.” Fearful that Jackson’s financial Luddism would sabotage the whole credit system, Congress passed a bill revoking the Specie Circular.41 On the last day of his presidency, Jackson killed their revocation with a pocket veto.

The outgoing president wished to imitate George Washington and leave his countrymen with a parting admonition. He commissioned Chief Justice Taney to ghostwrite one for him. Although it is called Jackson’s Farewell Address, he never delivered it orally but simply approved it, signed it, and sent it off to the publisher. No eloquent speaker, Jackson entrusted his message—as the early presidents usually did—to the printed media.42

His Farewell Address reflected Jackson’s views as they had taken shape after eight years in the White House. First, he pointed with pride to his accomplishments, notably Indian Removal. Then, he identified two principles requiring vigilant protection: the Union of the states and popular sovereignty. He warned against sectionalism, which might lead to the breakup of the Union into “a multitude of petty states, without commerce, without credit,” the pawns of European intervention. He identified two specific dangers to the Union: nullification and abolitionism. The latter, interestingly, received his harsher condemnation; “nothing

40. Richard Latner, The Presidency of Andrew Jackson (Athens, Ga., 1979), 191.

41. Quotation from John McFaul, The Politics of Jacksonian Finance (Ithaca, N.Y., 1972), 188. The Luddites were English workingmen who opposed the industrial revolution that was taking away their jobs; they made themselves notorious by smashing machinery.

42. Remini, Jackson, III, 414.

but mischief can come from these improper assaults upon the feelings and rights of others.” Turning to popular sovereignty, Jackson found the chief menace to it in “the moneyed power.” The populist spirit of his Bank Veto Message reappeared. “Corporations and wealthy individuals” seek a protective tariff, which will weigh heavily upon “the farmer, the mechanic, and the laboring classes.” The moneyed power multiplies its leverage through banks and their paper currency, which produce “sudden fluctuations” in the economy and “engender a spirit of speculation injurious to the habits and character of the people.”

Despite this populist, anti-Bank rhetoric, Jackson did not attack capitalism in general. Nor did he hope for America to return to some mythic Arcadia of subsistence farming. Instead he praised America’s “rich and flourishing commerce” and rejoiced at her progress “in numbers, in wealth, in knowledge, and all the useful arts which contribute to the comforts and convenience of man.” Jackson and the Democratic Party valued laissez-faire as a guarantee that economic competition would take place fairly, without the intervention of government favoritism. In his closing, Jackson recommended building up coastal defenses and the navy, for “we shall more certainly preserve peace when it is well understood that we are prepared for war.”43

For the rest of the antebellum era, the Democratic Party retained the philosophy Jackson expressed, especially his willingness to nurture the Union by sheltering slavery from criticism. Van Buren divorced the government from banks altogether, with Jackson’s hearty approval. Faith in the people’s rustic virtue continued to coexist with pride in their economic development. Since the Democrats suspected that special interests would inevitably dominate government, they often protested that strong government meant favoritism to the few at the expense of the many. Yet in practice they showed no hesitation in using the power of government to promote interests they favored, particularly the perpetuation and extension of slavery. Popular sovereignty remained a favorite Democratic slogan, while Jackson’s endorsement of westward expansion and a strong defense establishment would be magnified into imperialism and conquest.


Moving into the White House, Martin Van Buren realized a goal he had long dreamed of and for which he had schemed ceaselessly. His daughter-in-law, the beautiful, aristocratic southerner Angelica Singleton

43. “Farewell Address” (March 4, 1833), Presidential Messages, III, 292–308.

Van Buren, served as official hostess for the long-widowed president, winning from even a critical French diplomat the admission that she would qualify “in any country” as a woman of “graceful and distinguished manners.”44 But events quickly frustrated Van Buren’s inclination to rest on his laurels and enjoy the presidency as a reward. Though he boasted in his March inaugural address of prosperity and the expansion of commerce, he had inherited an unstable economy and a party divided between hard-money and soft-money advocates. Before the month was over, a New Orleans cotton broker failed, then others followed. By April their New York City creditors were failing too, including even the House of Joseph, an arm of the Rothschild financial empire. On May Day the New York mercantile house of Arthur Tappan and Company, founder of the Journal of Commerce, collapsed, taking away the source of much antislavery philanthropic funding, although the Journal itself survived. The Panic of 1837 had begun.45

The crisis had causes both foreign and domestic. It reflected the chronic shortage of capital in the United States and the country’s dependence on inflows of foreign money. By paying off the national debt, Jackson had returned capital to Europe, and by destroying the BUS, he had made it harder to control the domestic money supply. (Jackson was over-reacting against the shocking example of Great Britain, where servicing the national debt in this period consumed 70 percent of the government’s revenues.)46Like the boom that preceded it, the panic manifested the extent to which America, even then, was enmeshed in a global economy.

The United States imported silver from Mexico, where it was mined, and customarily sent it on to China to pay for our unfavorable balance of trade with that country. But in the 1830s Chinese merchants preferred bills of credit on British banks over silver; these proved convenient in paying for Chinese imports of opium from India. American traders could provide these bills of credit because the British were lending us money. Silver then accumulated in the vaults of American banks, constituting a legitimate basis for their expanded issues of paper currency. With more money in circulation, domestic prices rose, including the price people paid the government for western land.47 On the international market, the

44. Adolphe Fourier de Bacourt, quoted in Cole, Martin Van Buren, 346.

45. Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City (New York, 1999), 611–16.

46. James Huston, Securing the Fruits of Labor (Baton Rouge, 1998), Table 15 on 140.

47. See Peter Temin, The Jacksonian Economy (New York, 1969), as modified by Richard Sylla, “Review of Peter Temin’s Jacksonian Economy,” Economic History Services, Aug. 17, 2001,

prices of cotton and other U.S. export staples soared in the 1830s. Yet the American appetite for European, particularly British, manufactured goods increased even faster. In 1836, U.S. imports totaled $180.1 million, $45.7 million more than the combined value of exports and the earnings of our carrying trade.48 For a while British investors made up the difference by extending credit to cotton factors and buying American securities. But then England suffered a poor harvest and had to import grain suddenly from the Continent. Needing money in early 1837, the Bank of England began to curtail the credit of British firms with large American investments. They in turn pressed their transatlantic debtors. The American financial system could not take the pressure.

Contemporaries reacted to the Panic of 1837 in terms of their political allegiances. Democrats blamed the banks. Whigs blamed Jackson, and especially his Specie Circular. For a long time historians agreed with the Democrats and said that the pet banks had irresponsibly overextended their loans during the boom of 1836.49 But now we know that, monitored by the Treasury, the state bankers showed appropriate caution and that, except for Taney’s friends in Baltimore, the pet banks were generally responsibly managed.50 There is more truth in the Whig argument.

Jackson’s Specie Circular—which Van Buren left in force—did not set the panic in motion but (in the words of an economic historian) “rendered the panic inevitable.” The need to pay the Treasury for land purchases in specie drained specie out of the banking system. Between September 1, 1836, and May 1, 1837, the specie reserves of the major New York City banks fell from $7.2 million to $1.5 million, leaving them vulnerable to sudden shifts in the wind. Having destroyed the national bank and, with it, the paper currency in which people had the most confidence, Jackson then planted, through his Specie Circular, the seed of fear in the public mind that state bank paper was not safe either. Bank note holders therefore quickly became frightened by the string of failures triggered among international cotton brokers when the Bank of England contracted credit.51 The holders started a “run” on New York banks. On May 8 and 9

48. Douglass North, The Economic Growth of the United States, 1790–1860 (New York, 1961), Tables A-VIII, B-VIII, C-VIII on 233–34.

49. For this point of view, see Reginald McGrane, The Panic of 1837 (Chicago, 1924).

50. See Stanley Engerman, “A Note on the Economic Consequences of the Second Bank of the United States,” Journal of Political Economy 78 (1970): 725–28; Marie Sushka, “The Antebellum Money Market and the Economic Impact of the Bank War,” Journal of Economic History 36 (1976): 809–35 and 39 (1979): 467–74.

51. Peter Rousseau, “Jacksonian Monetary Policy, Specie Flows, and the Panic of 1837,” Journal of Economic History 62 (2002): 457–88, quotation from 457.

they withdrew a million dollars in gold and silver. No bank could withstand such pressure. On May 10, the New York banks, acting in concert, had to suspend specie payments, and within a few days the rest of the country’s banks had followed suit. By 1837, several years of hard-money agitation had born fruit. Everybody was trying to hoard gold and silver: the banks, the states, the public, even the federal government, through the Specie Circular. Yet the federal mints never produced enough coins for circulation, and the public resorted to foreign coins (like the tiny Spanish silver “picayune”). Farmers went on growing crops for lower prices, but outside the agricultural sector, economic activity declined. Faced with falling revenues, the Van Buren administration had to borrow money. The national debt, which Jackson thought he had eliminated permanently, reappeared and has been with us ever since.52

The Deposit-Distribution Act of 1836 compounded the banks’ difficulties by forcing them to pay out substantial sums to the states. Fortunately, many states simply deposited their money in the same bank that had been keeping it on behalf of the federal government. After the banks had suspended specie payments, they kept up their scheduled distributions to the accounts of the states the only way they could, in nonconvertible funds, and the states accepted this.53 Virtually all of the states spent their windfalls quickly. With the aid of the states’ expenditures, the economy started a tentative rebound in 1838. Some banks cautiously resumed the redemption of their notes. In May 1838, an alliance of Whigs and soft-money Democrats in Congress repealed the Specie Circular, and Van Buren bowed to their will. But then another serious economic blow fell: the Panic of 1839.

Southwestern frontiersmen had speculated as irresponsibly as any city-slicker banker. Lured by rising prices for agricultural commodities, especially cotton, land speculators overextended themselves recklessly, while planters hastened to expand production. By 1839, a cotton glut appeared in Liverpool, and the world price began to drop. The fall continued until cotton sold for less than half its 1836 price. The trade by which the United States had paid its way in the world no longer did so. The sale of public lands virtually ceased, and speculators found themselves stuck with inventory worth a tenth of what they had paid for it. The price of field hands fell, and the interstate traffic in enslaved workers shriveled. The Jacksonian destruction of the national bank had left the country without a

52. John Mayfield, The New Nation (New York, 1982), 125; Herbert Sloan, Principle and Interest (New York, 1995), 216.

53. Temin, Jacksonian Economy, 128–36, 147.

lender of last resort.54 It was 1819 all over again. Only this time, the depression lasted longer, until 1843.

Repercussions of the panic extended throughout the economy. As businesses cut back production or failed altogether, workers lost their jobs. The infant industries of the Northeast, shoes and textiles, laid off thousands of employees. The banks’ resumption of specie payment in 1838 proved brief. The Deposit-Distribution Act had created many new pet banks all over the country, scattering the government’s deposits among them, making it harder to mobilize what was left of the specie reserves. As a result the American banking system buckled under the pressure from British creditors after 1839. Eventually many banks failed, especially those involved in the cotton trade. Among these was Nicholas Biddle’s United States Bank of Pennsylvania, formerly the national bank and still the largest bank in the country, insolvent in 1841. The Panic of 1837 merged with that of 1839 into a prolonged period of hard times that, in severity and duration, was exceeded only by the great depression that began ninety years later, in 1929.55

Hard times blighted Van Buren’s entire term. Yet the president offered his suffering country nothing by way of relief. “Those who look to the action of this Government for specific aid to the citizen to relieve embarrassments arising from losses by revulsions in commerce and credit lose sight of the ends for which it was created and the powers with which it is clothed,” he told Congress. All the public could expect from the government was “strict economy and frugality,” and a warning not “to substitute for republican simplicity and economical habits a sickly appetite for effeminate indulgence.” The president rehearsed these stern platitudes not so much because they held out any economic hope as because they identified him as loyal to Andrew Jackson’s legacy. Like John Quincy Adams, Van Buren wanted to emphasize his embattled administration’s continuity with a more popular predecessor. But while hard money and little government had affirmed republican virtue during the prosperity of Jackson’s years, they lost some of their appeal during hard times. “It was one thing to invite the people to thrive on their own,” the historian Daniel Feller has observed, “another to tell them to suffer on their own.”56 By the end of his administration, the president had acquired the nickname “Martin Van Ruin.”

54. Rousseau, “Jacksonian Monetary Policy,” 487.

55. North, Economic Growth, 201–3, Table A-VII on 232.

56. “Third Annual Message” (Dec. 4, 1839), Presidential Messages, III, 554; Daniel Feller, The Jacksonian Promise (Baltimore, 1995), 193.

From a modern point of view, Van Buren’s embrace of laissez-faire seems paradoxical. The hard-money Jacksonian constituents he was courting did not oppose government intervention in the economy out of any preference for commercial values. On the contrary, they deeply distrusted large businesses, especially banks, and wanted to make sure government did them no favors. The only kinds of government intervention they knew about seemed to them to reinforce the privileges of the wealthy, not to counteract them. In another irony, the notoriously evasive Van Buren ended up far more rigidly committed to a particular economic and banking policy than the famously willful Jackson had ever been. Meanwhile, the Whigs, the party of the business community, reminded people that they favored government planning. Henry Clay deplored Van Buren’s “cold and heartless insensibility” and invoked his own American System of integrated development as a pathway to economic recovery. “We are all— people, States, Union, banks—bound up and interwoven together, united in fortune and destiny, and all, all entitled to the protecting care of a paternal government.” The depression gave the Whig Party a new lease on life. To their goal of rescuing the country from executive tyranny the Whigs now added the restoration of prosperity. “We have many recruits in our ranks from the pressures of the time,” observed William Henry Harrison.57 This was true at the level of leaders as well as voters. A number of soft-money Democratic politicians, calling themselves Conservative Democrats, gave up on Van Buren and went over to the Whigs. In the midterm elections the Whigs gained enough congressional seats that, by striking a temporary alliance with the Calhounites, they were able to install R.M.T. Hunter, an antiadministration state-rights Virginian, in the Speaker’s chair.

The system in which the federal government deposited its funds in “pet” state banks had originated in haste when Jackson removed the deposits from the BUS. Jackson had always regarded it as an “experiment.” Although Treasury Secretary Woodbury had dutifully regulated the pets, an administration committed as a general principle against federal regulation and planning did not find the task congenial. When the pets along with other banks suspended specie payment for a year starting in May 1837, hard-money Democrats complained that the public trust had been betrayed. It was time to rethink the government’s relationship with banking. With Jackson’s blessing, Van Buren summoned a special session of Congress in September 1837 and asked for legislation to authorize

57. Henry Clay, “Speech on the Sub-Treasury” (Sept. 25, 1837), in his Life, Correspondence, and Speeches, ed. Calvin Colton (New York, 1857), VI, 74; William Henry Harrison, quoted in Holt, Rise and Fall of Whig Party, 64.

removing the taxpayers’ money from all banks, placing it in an Independent Treasury. (The term was used to signify not only independence from banks but also independence from British capital, which had invested heavily in the old BUS.) Each major city would have a Sub-Treasury for local convenience. In the meantime, Van Buren removed the government’s deposits from the pet banks by executive action on the grounds that they did not pay specie as required by law. But his request for a statutory Independent Treasury stalled in Congress, where Whigs and soft-money Democrats pointed out that removing federal deposits from state banks had a deflationary effect and worsened the depression. Not until July 1840, nearly three years later, did Congress finally enact the Independent Treasury law the president wanted. Van Buren’s relaxed style in the White House, emphasizing gracious living, did not make for effective legislative management. It took the additional round of bank failures in 1839 and the need for Democrats to present a unified party in the coming election to prompt congressional action.58

Once the federal government legally “divorced” its pet banks (as the saying went), responsibility for bank regulation fell to the states. At the state level, Democrats pursued a variety of banking policies. “Politically the Jacksonians were happiest and most united when they were hunting down the dreaded bank enemy, but once they had their adversary cornered they never knew quite what to do,” one historian has noted. Some Democratic state governments opted to regulate banks, some for a state-run monopoly bank, while some merely banned bank notes below ten or twenty dollars. In New York state, the Albany Regency protected the interests of its favored banks against popular demands to charter additional ones. In the Old Northwest, on the other hand, Democrats came to agree with Whigs that “free banking” provided the solution: Any group who could meet certain standard requirements could incorporate a bank. Democratic politicians throughout the country were primarily interested in building their political party, not in pioneering government regulation of the banking industry. In Massachusetts, the Whigs established a state commission to oversee banks after the failure of a Democratic-owned pet, the Commonwealth Bank; when the Democrats came into power, however, they abolished the commission.59

58. Wilson, Presidency of Van Buren, 99, 114; Cole, Martin Van Buren, 359.

59. McFaul, Politics of Jacksonian Finance, 96–102, 211, quotation from 96. Also see William Shade, Banks or No Banks: The Money Issue in Western Politics (Detroit, 1972); Edwin Dodd, American Business Corporations Until 1860 (Cambridge, Mass., 1954), 276–309.

The depression dealt harshly with state-sponsored internal improvements, and state-run banks suffered even more. Before the downturn had run its course, eight states plus Florida Territory defaulted on interest payments of their bonded indebtedness. All were in the South or West except for Pennsylvania, two-thirds of whose bonds were held overseas. The federal government not only refused to bail out the states but did not even come to the rescue of Florida Territory. American international credit-worthiness sustained a heavy blow. The English poet William Wordsworth, whose family had invested in Pennsylvania securities, declared the state’s “high repute, with bounteous Nature’s aid,/Won confidence, now ruthlessly betrayed.”60

After prosperity returned, Pennsylvania and most of the other states resumed interest payments, but Arkansas, Mississippi, and Florida (a state after 1845) repudiated the principal itself, as did Michigan in part. The federal government suffered a loss of its own, since it had invested the original endowment of the Smithsonian Institution in Arkansas bonds. This repudiation had long-term effects on the credit rating of states in the South. A generation later, when the Confederacy tried to market securities in London, British banks remembered that their worst credit experiences had been with southern states and that Jefferson Davis of Mississippi had defended repudiation. Accordingly, they limited their commitment.61


From the Executive Mansion, Martin Van Buren continued to apply the maxim he had expounded in his 1827 letter to Thomas Ritchie, that the Democratic Party must rest upon an alliance of the plain republicans of the North with the slaveowning planters of the South. The president felt comfortable with such an alliance. In New York politics, his faction had shown less enthusiasm than DeWitt Clinton’s for the state enacting emancipation. Van Buren’s family had owned slaves before New York’s emancipation law took effect, and he himself had owned at least one person as late as 1814. Possessing no moral feelings on the subject, the president justified his solicitude for slavery as preserving the Democratic Party and the Union of the states. In waging his campaign in 1836, Van Buren had bent over backward to reassure southern politicians that, although a northerner,

60. William Wordsworth, “To the Pennsylvanians” (1845), in his Poetical Works (Oxford, 1947), IV, 132.

61. William Graham Sumner, History of Banking in the United States (New York, 1896), 395; Jay Sexton, “Debtor Diplomacy: Finance and American Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era, 1837–1873” (D.Phil. thesis, Oxford University, 2003), chap. 1.

he could be trusted to protect their “peculiar institution.” He supported censorship of the mails and pledged himself to oppose any effort to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia (where Congress possesses plenary legislative power), a promise he repeated in his inaugural address. When a newspaper in Oneida, New York, backed both Van Buren and abolitionism, his campaign dealt with this embarrassment by instigating a mob (led by a Democratic congressman) to destroy the paper’s office.62 In the House of Representatives, Van Buren’s supporters secured passage of a “gag rule” forbidding even the discussion of petitions addressing the subject of slavery either in the District or anywhere else. On the strength of such assurances, the Red Fox had carried several slave states, including Virginia, where he enjoyed the support of Ritchie’s Richmond Junto.63

Van Buren faithfully fulfilled his proslavery promises once in the White House. His secretary of war, Joel Poinsett of South Carolina, went so far as to demand universal military training for able-bodied white males in their state militias, making sure force would always be available to suppress slave uprisings. (Whigs denounced the proposal as creating a “standing army,” and it got nowhere.)64 Even John C. Calhoun’s state could find no fault with the president’s dedication to slavery. The radical nullifier Thomas Cooper assured Van Buren that the South Carolina political establishment endorsed him: “Your pledges on the abolition question are felt and approved,” he wrote; “they will tell greatly in your favor in the South.” When Van Buren ran for reelection in 1840, Calhoun returned to the Democratic fold and supported him. Reversing his long-standing support for national banking, Calhoun embraced the Independent Treasury. In actuality, defending slavery trumped economic policy for the South Carolinian. With his characteristic zeal for abstractions, Calhoun insisted on the Senate passing six resolutions in favor of the “stability and security” of slavery in the South. Well might John Quincy Adams comment in his diary that Van Buren’s presidency illustrated the successful synthesis (first achieved, he noted, by Thomas Jefferson) of “the Southern interest in domestic Slavery with the Northern riotous Democracy.”65

62. Cole, Martin Van Buren, 271; David Grimsted, “Rioting in Its Jacksonian Setting,” AHR 77 (1972): 376, n. 34.

63. See William G. Shade, “Martin Van Buren, Slavery, and the Election of 1836,” JER 18 (1998): 459–84.

64. John Niven, Martin Van Buren (New York, 1983), 464–65; Cole, Martin Van Buren, 366–67.

65. Thomas Cooper to Martin Van Buren, March 27, 1837, quoted in W. Cooper, South and the Politics of Slavery, 99; John Quincy Adams, Jan. 1, 1840, Memoirs, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Philadelphia, 1874–79), X, 182.

White supremacy remained central to Jacksonian Democracy throughout the second party system, no less pervasively than economic development was to Whiggery. Virtually every aspect of the Democratic political outlook supported white supremacy and slavery in particular one way or another: Indian Removal, local autonomy and state sovereignty, respect for property rights, distrust of government economic intervention, criticism of early industrial capitalism, and (as will become evident) Texas annexation.66The Democratic Party endorsed slavery and condemned antislavery explicitly and often, not only in the South but in the North. “The whole democracy of the north,” declared the Washington Globe, national party organ, “are opposed upon constitutional principle, as well as upon sound policy, to any attempt of the abolitionists” to accomplish their purposes.67 Where congressional Whigs would divide along sectional lines when votes involved slavery, northern Democrats could usually be found supporting their southern colleagues. A study of 1,300 antebellum politicians has identified 320 of them as “doughfaces,” that is, northern congressmen who voted with the South on critical issues involving slavery. All but ten of these doughfaces turned out to be Democrats.68Van Buren’s early strategic decision to ally with slaveholders, like the decisions of local party politicians to play to northern working-class racism, helped make the Democratic Party more proslavery than its rival. But probably the most important determinant of party attitudes existed at the grassroots level. Many Whig voters, particularly those in the northern evangelical, Antimasonic wing of the party, wanted to improve the moral quality of American life and disapproved of slavery. Northern Democratic voters, on the other hand, concerned themselves less with moral issues outside their own local community. Slavery seemed somebody else’s problem, one they were content to let their politicians deal with expediently so long as they could rest assured that blacks would not be moving into their neighborhood and competing with them for jobs. From their standpoint, slavery had the virtue of keeping most African Americans in the South.69

66. Jean Baker, Affairs of Party: Political Culture of the Northern Democrats (Ithaca, N.Y., 1983), esp. 177; John Gerring, Party Ideologies in America (Cambridge, Eng., 1998), esp. 165; more generally, Don Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic (Oxford, 2001).

67. Washington Globe, May 18, 1835.

68. Leonard Richards, The Slave Power (Baton Rouge, 2000), 109–112.

69. See John McFaul, “Expediency or Morality: Jacksonian Politics and Slavery,” JAH 62 (1975): 24–40; Joel Silbey, The Partisan Imperative: Dynamics of American Politics Before the Civil War (New York, 1985), 87–115.

Both Democratic and Whig parties committed themselves to nationwide organization, and in both cases, the party’s felt need to maintain a southern wing inhibited criticism of slavery. But there was an important difference. The Whigs tolerated antislavery among their northern supporters, while the Democrats did not. Congressional voting statistics bear out the generalization that whereas the Whigs divided over slavery, Democratic members, even in the North, toed the party’s proslavery line.70 Democrats who nursed antislavery sentiments were silenced or required to recant as the price of party loyalty. “No man, nor set of men,” promised the Democratic Party’s Address to the People of the United States in 1835, can “even wish to interfere” with southern slavery “and call himself a Democrat.”71 One of the very few Democrats to dare express any sympathy for the abolitionist movement was the journalist William Leggett. Leggett worked for the Democratic New York Evening Post, and when its editor, William Cullen Bryant, went to Europe in 1835, he left Leggett temporarily in charge of the paper. Leggett exercised his authority to run editorials condemning the censorship and mob violence directed against abolitionists. The administration, furious, disowned Leggett; Bryant came home to fire him and reclaim control of the Post. Leggett, despite years of service to the party, found himself blackballed and his attempt to gain a Democratic nomination for Congress in 1838 thwarted.72 Another example illustrates the same point. The Christian philanthropists Arthur and Lewis Tappan had a brother named Benjamin who was, like them, a critic of slavery, but, unlike them, a Democrat and a rationalist. When Benjamin Tappan ran for the U.S. Senate from Ohio in 1838, he had to repudiate antislavery as the price of getting the Democratic nomination. Tappan justified his conduct to himself with the reflection that Van Buren’s Independent Treasury was more important than the slavery issue.73 By contrast, in 1838 Ohio’s Whig Party elected the ardent abolitionist Joshua Giddings to Congress. Antislavery sentiment was as strong in Massachusetts as in any state of the Union. Marcus Morton, a Massachusetts Democrat, had cautiously expressed antislavery views during his political career. His party required him, however, to repudiate antislavery before confirming him as Collector of the Port of Boston—“thus

70. Thomas Alexander, Sectional Stress and Party Strength (Nashville, 1967).

71. Quoted in Silbey, Partisan Imperative, 90.

72. After Leggett died, the party revoked his excommunication and placed his statue in Tammany Hall. Walter Hugins, Jacksonian Democracy and the Working Class (Stanford, 1960), 48.

73. Daniel Feller, “A Brother in Arms: Benjamin Tappan and the Antislavery Democracy,” JAH 88 (2001): 48–74.

demonstrating,” in the words of a historian sympathetic to Morton, “how little room then existed in the Massachusetts (or for that matter, the Northern) Democracy for an antislavery politician.”74 Meanwhile the two-thirds rule at Democratic National Conventions made sure that no one could receive the party’s presidential nomination without southern support. The Whigs had no such rule, and sometimes the northern wing of their party got the nominee it wanted. In shaping the Democratic Party the way they did, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren forged the instrument that would transform the minority proslavery interest into a majority that would dominate American politics until 1861. The “slave power” of which abolitionists and free-soilers complained was no figment of their imagination.75


Political opposition to the slave power in these years came chiefly over the so-called gag rule. With their mass mailings to southern addresses shut out, abolitionists had turned to circulating antislavery petitions to Congress. The gag rule, preventing the discussion of these petitions in the House of Representatives, represented another aspect of southern politicians’ continuing efforts to prevent the abolitionists from influencing public opinion. “The moral power of the world is against us,” Francis Pickens of South Carolina warned his fellow southerners. “England has emancipated her West Indies islands. France is also moving in the same direction.” In an age of improved communication, only an intellectual blockade could resist the spread of the idea of freedom. “Sooner or later, we shall have to contend” with abolitionism; better to stifle its expression now, before it gets any stronger, he insisted.76 Abolitionists exercised the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances” guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. No one dared prohibit them from composing, circulating, or signing their petitions, but southerners like Pickens wanted to deny abolitionists the chance to use Congress as a forum to publicize their views.

The gag rule complemented the censorship of the mails and, like that policy, originated with the extremists of South Carolina. James H.

74. Jonathan Earle, “Marcus Morton and the Dilemma of Jacksonian Antislavery in Massachusetts,” Massachusetts Historical Review 4 (2002), 60–87, quotation from 63.

75. See Silbey, Partisan Imperative, 87–93; and Leonard Richards, The Slave Power (Baton Rouge, 2000).

76. Francis Pickens in the House of Representatives, Jan. 21, 1836, quoted in Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 311.

Hammond, a young Carolinian hothead, conceived the idea that the Houses of Congress should refuse to receive petitions touching slavery on the grounds that Congress had no authority over the subject. The whole Calhoun clique picked up on the notion, hoping it would further their long-term strategy of uniting the South under their leadership; perhaps thus Calhoun could realize the White House ambitions he still nursed. The project required them to make two constitutional arguments: one, that Congress lacked legal authority to abolish slavery anywhere, even in the District of Columbia; and two, that the freedom of petition guaranteed by the Bill of Rights did not imply that the government would pay any attention to petitions once delivered. The Carolinians were on much stronger ground in the second of these arguments than in the first, but both issues got debated at length. In the Senate, Calhoun’s proposal for a gag rule ran into opposition from Henry Clay and others. An informal practice soon substituted for a formal gag. As soon as a senator introduced an abolitionist petition, another would move that “the question of its reception be laid on the table.” A motion to table an issue is not debatable. The motion would carry and the petition be quietly buried without discussion, action, or even official reception. This practice prevailed from 1836 to 1850. The Senate, despite its fame as a chamber indulgent of long debate, contrived thus to stifle debate over slavery.77

However, most petitions in those days went to the House of Representatives, because it was the people’s chamber, senators being chosen by state legislators. The House scheduled a considerable amount of time for members to present petitions and had rules governing the process. With its larger, more disparate and disorderly membership, elected directly and every two years, the House could not resolve the petition issue as readily as the Senate.

The House Democratic leaders of 1836 refused to let the pariah Calhoun seize credit with southerners for resolving this issue. They picked up on a rival version of the gag, suggested by another South Carolinian, Henry Pinckney. Pinckney’s rule resembled the Senate’s practice. It would allow antislavery petitions to be received but then immediately “table” them—that is, lay them aside with no discussion. This process still effectively insulated Congress from the petitioners’ opinions, while not raising the awkward constitutional questions of the Calhounite approach.

77. William Lee Miller, Arguing Against Slavery (New York, 1996), 115–19; Lonnie Maness, “Henry Clay and the Problem of Slavery” (Ph.D. diss., Memphis State University, 1980), 153–61; Daniel Wirls, “The Overlooked Senate Gag Rule,” JER 27 (2007): 115–38.

The southern followers of Hugh Lawson White, originally attracted by the Hammond-Calhoun proposal, climbed on board Pinckney’s bandwagon. The House adopted Pinckney’s version of the rule on May 26, 1836, 117 to 68, with most southerners and northern Democrats voting for the gag over the opposition of northern Whigs. With a presidential election pending, the Van Buren and White campaigns had together successfully preempted Calhoun’s little band as protectors of slavery.78

The instigators of the gag had reckoned without John Quincy Adams. The elder statesman of the House persistently criticized, evaded, subverted, and undermined the gag rule. He presented himself as defending, not the substance of the abolitionists’ views, but their constitutional right of petition. (He himself supported gradual emancipation, not the immediate abolition of slavery, and introduced a constitutional amendment to that effect, knowing, of course, that it had no chance of passage.) As great a master of parliamentary procedure as any member of Congress in history, Adams invented innumerable devices for getting around the gag. He introduced petitions at the start of each session before the rules had been officially adopted, then would challenge the continuation of the gag and force a vote on it. He would inquire of the Speaker whether a certain petition was permissible and then read from it. He would ask if a petition could be referred to a committee instructed to explain why it could not be granted. People sent him petitions not only from his constituency but from all over the country, cleverly worded so as not quite to fall under the ban. Many of the petitions now asked for the repeal of the gag rule. It was he, of course, who named it “the gag.” In his dogged battle, Old Man Eloquent earned the respect of his bitterest foes. The Virginia state-righter Henry Wise called him “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed.”79

Although Adams did not share the abolitionists’ belief in immediate, uncompensated emancipation, his efforts proved of incalculable benefit to them. They responded by circulating more petitions than ever. Many of their petitions were signed by people who could not otherwise participate in the political process: women and free blacks from states where they could not vote. Southern members expressed contempt for women signatories, but the son of Abigail Adams defended them. Why should women be “fitted for nothing but the cares of domestic life?” he demanded. “Women are not only justified, but exhibit the most exalted virtue when they do depart from the domestic circle, and enter on the

78. George Rable, “Slavery, Politics, and the South,” Capitol Studies 3 (1975): 69–87.

79. Quoted in Miller, Arguing Against Slavery, 356.

concerns of their country, of humanity, and of their God.” He cited biblical heroines like Esther and Deborah. Adams contrived to present petitions from white women and—though it caused consternation—from free black women. Then, on February 6, 1837, he came into the House with “a petition from twenty-two persons, declaring themselves to be slaves,” provoking a huge uproar, even though the document purported to endorse slavery. (It was probably a hoax perpetrated by racists to embarrass Adams, but he turned it to good account.) The House promptly passed a new rule: “Resolved, that slaves do not possess the right of petition secured to the people of the United States by the constitution.”80

The attempt to gag abolition petitions proved massively counterproductive. The debates over the gag rule and Adams’s tactics to get around it made much more news than abolitionist petitions left to themselves ever would. The press covered it all in greatest detail, newspapers often printing in full the speeches in Congress. Frustrated in his attempt to shape government policies, Adams now bid to influence public opinion and scored a success.81 The constitutional right of white people to petition aroused more widespread interest and sympathy among the northern public than did the hope of black slaves for emancipation. Aided by all this publicity, the number of petitions coming to the House ballooned. Historians have tried to count the antislavery petitions remaining in the congressional archives from this period, though their efforts are still fragmentary. The House of Representatives, for the four-month session during the winter of 1838–39, had 1,496 petitions relating to antislavery on file, bearing 163,845 signatures from 101,850 different people. As the abolitionists became more adept at circulating them, the number of signatories per petition increased; between 1836 and 1840 the average rose from 32 per petition to 107. An all-female petition from Massachusetts against slavery in the District of Columbia set a record in 1836–37 with the signatures of 21,000 women.82 The petition drive represented a remarkable achievement for the abolition movement and, thanks to Adams, an embarrassment to the slave power.

80. Ibid., 321, 230, 271; Speech of John Quincy Adams upon the Right of the People, Men and Women, to Petition (Washington, 1838), 64–81. See further Susan Zaeske, Signatures of Citizenship (Chapel Hill, 2003).

81. On Adams and public opinion, see Richard R. John, “John Quincy Adams” in Reader’s Companion to the American Presidency, ed. Alan Brinkley and Davis Dyer (Boston, 2000), 83–90.

82. Dwight Dumond, Antislavery (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1961), 245–46; Edward Magdol, The Antislavery Rank and File (Westport, Conn., 1986), 55–56.


Van Buren sealed his white supremacist policy by carrying out Jackson’s Indian Removal. The notorious forced march of the Cherokees along the Trail of Tears occurred on Van Buren’s watch. In trying to implement Removal, Van Buren also renewed Jackson’s conflict with the Seminoles and wound up fighting the Second Florida War, the longest and most costly of all the army’s Indian Wars. The issues Jackson had faced, the Seminoles’ independence and the refuge they offered to fugitive black slaves, persisted. Whites said the Seminoles kept the runaways as slaves of their own; this would facilitate reenslaving the blacks while sending the Native Americans off to Oklahoma. In reality, however, the African Americans lived in separate villages with their own farms and animals as tenants, paying a portion of their crop to the local Seminole chief. Only a minority of them were slaves of the Indians in any sense, and even they were permitted to live largely autonomously. Sometimes the African Americans intermarried with the Seminoles, and some of them achieved positions of high influence, particularly linguists who could interpret among English, Spanish, and Muskogee.83

So few were the Seminoles in number (some five thousand men, women, and children, plus perhaps a thousand blacks), and so remote and inhospitable their lands, that the government could well have ignored their refusal to remove to Oklahoma. That it did not do so was mostly owing to pressure from slaveholders who resented the refuge available to runaways. As General Thomas Jesup accurately declared, “This, you may be assured is a negro and not an Indian war.”84 Once begun, the war dragged on through seven years (1835–42) and six army commanders; repeated promises of victory in sight proved premature. Early in the conflict the Seminoles raided plantations, where they recruited slaves to join their cause; later, however, they waged a defensive guerrilla war. The army—with help from the navy along Florida’s coasts, rivers, and swamps—ended up waging economic warfare against the Natives’ villages, farms, and herds. The soldiers’ morale became a major problem, not only because of disease, insects, and the dangerous sawgrass, but also because many of them agreed with Major Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who wrote in his diary that the treaty the government was trying to impose constituted “a fraud on the Indians: They never approved of it or signed

83. George Klos, “Blacks and the Seminole Removal Debate,” Florida Historical Quarterly 68 (1989): 55–78.

84. Thomas Jesup to Roger Jones, March 6, 1837, quoted in Kevin Mulroy, Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons (Lubbock, Tex., 1993), 29.

it. They are right in defending their homes and we ought to let them alone.”85

A significant turning point in the war came with the capture of Osceola, leader of a combined Indian and black band and an irreconcilable opponent of Removal, along with ninety-four other Seminoles on October 22, 1837. When the American public learned that the capture had been effected by treachery under a flag of truce, there was an outcry leading to a debate on the floor of Congress. Far from letting this reaction deter him, General Jesup violated a flag of truce again the following spring to seize over five hundred more Seminoles, 151 of them warriors. Osceola did not survive long in the dungeon at Fort Moultrie, Charleston; he died there of malaria in January 1838. Admired by friend and foe alike, Osceola is honored today in the names of twenty towns, three counties, two townships, one borough, two lakes, two mountains, a state park, and a national forest.86

In August 1842, the federal government granted the army’s request to announce that the war had been won and leave Florida, although about 600 irreconcilable Seminoles remained at large with no peace treaty.87 The black Seminoles succeeded in getting the government to promise that they would not be reenslaved by the whites but would remove to freedom in Oklahoma. In the event some five hundred did so, though others—perhaps as many as four hundred—found themselves enslaved.88 The war had cost between $30 million and $40 million (half to three-quarters of a billion in our terms) as well as the lives of 1,466 servicemen, three quarters of whom died of disease. Other war deaths included fifty-five militiamen, more than one hundred white civilians, and at least several hundred Seminoles.89

Van Buren encountered difficulties not only along the southern but also along the northern frontier, although the problems there were quite different in origin. Chastened by the experience of the Seminole War and

85. Journal entry for Nov. 4, 1840, in Ethan Allen Hitchcock, Fifty Years in Camp and Field, ed. W. A. Croffut (New York, 1909), 122.

86. John K. Mahon, History of the Second Seminole War (Gainesville, Fla., 1991), 214–18, 237.

87. James Covington, The Seminoles of Florida (Gainesville, Fla., 1993), 108–9.

88. Jill Watts says that records show nine hundred blacks registered for removal, and since only five hundred reached Oklahoma, most likely the others were sold. “Seminole Black Perceptions and the Second Seminole War,” UCLA Historical Journal 7 (1986): 23. Certainly some were returned to white or Creek Indian masters.

89. Covington, Seminoles of Florida, 72.

the embarrassment it brought his administration, the president decided against pressuring the Iroquois to leave New York.90 Even so, his home state gave him plenty of trouble. This arose in 1837 from abortive rebellions against British rule in Canada. In Quebec (then called Lower Canada), the rebellion fed upon long-standing French–Canadian grievances, but in Ontario (Upper Canada), the rebels were often migrants from the United States who wanted the Canadian government to be more like the American; some even nursed hopes of American annexation. Their Scottish-born leader, William Mackenzie, admired Andrew Jackson and blamed the Panic of 1837 (from which Canada suffered too) on the bankers. Invoking memories of the American Revolution, the rebels called themselves “Patriots.” When pro-British Canadians quickly put down their uprising, some of the Upper Canada rebels found refuge and sympathy across the border in the United States. In Buffalo, Mackenzie won over followers for his cause, many of them laborers thrown out of work by the panic, promising them homesteads in Ontario after his victory. Led by an upper-class demagogue named Rensselaer Van Rensselaer, hundreds of would-be liberators of Canada occupied an island on the Canadian side of the Niagara River about a mile above the Falls, from which they threatened to renew the rebellion. On December 29, 1837, an American steamboat, the Caroline, carried reinforcements and supplies to the island; that night fifty Canadian militiamen came over to the U.S. side, drove off the Caroline’s crew, killed a bystander, set fire to the ship, and sank her in the middle of the river. This constituted a major international incident, and passions ran high on both sides of the border.91

Six days later, news of the Caroline reached the White House, intruding on a dinner party the hospitable president was giving for his Whig congressional opponents. Van Buren resolved to continue Jackson’s policy of good relations with Britain rather than go to the aid of Canada’s rebellious Jacksonians. He conferred then and there with Henry Clay to ensure bipartisan support for a conciliatory policy. Statesmanlike, he declined to exploit the strain of Anglophobia in American public opinion, particularly strong among Democratic voters; instead he drew upon the British goodwill he had cultivated while minister in London. The president sent the commander of the army, General Winfield Scott, to Buffalo to enforce “peace with honor” (Van Buren’s term). Scott had no military force at his disposal, since the small U.S. Army was tied down in Florida, and it

90. Niven, Martin Van Buren, 465–66, 674 n. 42.

91. Gerald Craig, Upper Canada: The Formative Years (1963; Toronto, 1984), 241–51; Colin Read, The Rising in Western Upper Canada (Toronto, 1982).

did not appear that New York state militia would be reliable. By sheer energy and willpower Scott calmed the public and persuaded Van Rensselaer to evacuate his island bastion, though at one point the general had to face down an angry American crowd by drawing a line and telling them that they would cross it only over his dead body. It was one of the era’s few triumphs of law and order over mob action. But the militant Patriot sympathizers on the U.S. side of the border went underground into secret societies (called “Hunting Lodges”) to pursue the overthrow of British authority in Canada. “Filibustering”—private armed interventions in other nations—was common in the antebellum United States, usually directed against Latin American countries, but in this case aimed to the north.92

In May 1838, a party of American “Hunters” got revenge for the Caroline by burning a Canadian vessel, the Sir Robert Peel, while it was in U.S. waters. In November and December of that year, two filibustering expeditions invaded Ontario with about fourteen hundred armed Patriots. Canadian militia and a few British regulars overpowered the attackers, leaving at least twenty-five of them dead and virtually all the rest captured. Of the prisoners, seventeen were executed and seventy-eight transported to the British penal colony in Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania); the rest were released back into the United States.93 It became clear that Canada had a stable government able to defend itself, and the Hunter movement began to lose its appeal. American authorities jailed Mackenzie for violations of U.S. neutrality laws; Van Buren released him after he had served ten months of an eighteen-month sentence. Eventually popular passions subsided somewhat, with full diplomatic resolution of outstanding issues (notably theCaroline) wisely left for high-level discussions after the presidential election of 1840. In surmounting the Canadian crisis, Van Buren gave a more creditable performance than he generally managed in domestic affairs, though at some political cost to the New York Democratic Party. The Americans forgot about Canada (as they usually do), but north of the border the episode reinforced memories of U.S. invasions in 1776 and 1812 and nurtured the fear of American imperialism. In 1849, William Mackenzie was allowed to return home to Upper Canada and reenter political life there.94

92. For Van Buren’s perspective, see Wilson, Presidency of Van Buren, 157–62; Cole, Martin Van Buren, 321–25.

93. Albert Corey, The Crisis of 1830–1842 in Canadian–American Relations (New Haven, 1941), 121.

94. The fullest account of all these events is Kenneth Stevens, Border Diplomacy (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1989). See also Reginald Stuart, United States Expansionism and British North America (Chapel Hill, 1988), 126–47.


Sengbe Pieh, a twenty-five-year-old farmer, lived in the Upper Mende country of what is now Sierra Leone in West Africa. Married, the father of three children, he came from a prominent local family. One day in late January 1839, four assailants kidnapped Sengbe as he tended his fields. Turned over as a slave to the son of the Vai King Manna Siaka, he was marched to the coast and sold to a Spanish slave trader named Pedro Blanco. Sengbe’s plight illustrated the efficiency of the flourishing West African slave business. After captivity in one of the forbidding slave prisons (called “factories”) of Lomboko on the Gallinas coast, he and five hundred other men, women, and children found themselves loaded onto the Portuguese slave ship Tecora for shipment to the Spanish colony of Cuba in April. Their ensuing ordeal illustrated all too well the horrors of the notorious Middle Passage: In suffocatingly close confinement under unsanitary conditions, with a shortage of water and no protection against contagious diseases, over a third of the captives died on the two-month trip.95

Instead of sailing openly into Havana, the Tecora unloaded its human cargo quietly at night in a secret cove, from which the survivors marched across country in June to the barracoons (slave pens) of Havana for auction. This back door entry into Cuba reflected the fact that although slavery was legal in the Spanish Empire, the importation of slaves from Africa was not. Officially, the Spanish government had followed the example of Britain and the United States in outlawing the Atlantic slave trade. Royal Navy cruisers patrolled both the African and Cuban coasts and from time to time seized a ship engaged in the slave trade, confiscating the vessel and liberating its cargo. (The U.S. Navy did a little patrolling against slavers too, but less effectively.) Unfortunately, this evil commerce yielded profits so high that traders could afford to write off the loss of an occasional ship as a business expense. In Cuba, high slave mortality on the sugar plantations necessitated continued importation, so the colonial authorities ignored Madrid’s pronouncements and notoriously collaborated with the smugglers of slaves in return for unofficial payoffs. The local authorities issued fake documents indicating that the Tecora’s Africans were Cuban-born slaves and giving each one a Spanish name. Singbe Pieh became José Cinquez (later rendered Joseph Cinque in U.S. records). In the barracoon, a Cuban plantation owner named Pepe Ruíz

95. The following account is based largely on Howard Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad, rev. ed. (New York, 1988), with additional information from Arthur Abraham, The Amistad Revolt (Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1987).

bought Cinque and forty-eight other men (sugar planters preferred males) for $450 each; Pedro Montes bought four children (three girls and a boy). The two agreed to send their new chattels together along the Cuban coast to Puerto Principe, where their plantations were.

On the night of June 18, 1839, a coasting vessel called the Amistad (built in Baltimore, where she had been christened the Friendship) took on board the fifty-three Africans, their two owners, and a small crew. The captain expected the trip to take three days but storms slowed them down. On the third night, Cinque picked the lock on his collar-chain with a nail, then freed his companions. They found knives for cutting sugarcane in the hold. Bursting onto the deck, the mutineers quickly overpowered the crew, killing the captain and the cook. They left Ruíz, Montes, and the black cabin boy alive to navigate the ship, ordering them to set course for Africa. Cinque took charge, doling out the precious water and food (he allowed the children more, and took the smallest ration for himself). But Montes managed to trick the Africans by sailing slowly eastward during the day (when they could tell direction from the sun) and more rapidly northwest at night. By August 25, when the Amistad wound up in Long Island Sound desperately short of provisions, ten of the Africans had died. Cinque had no choice but to lead a party ashore to buy supplies with Spanish gold doubloons. There the Amistad was apprehended and seized by the USS Washington, commanded by Lieutenant Thomas Gedney, who took her into the port of New London, Connecticut. Her passengers were confined to the jail in New Haven until the courts could sort out what to do about them.

The Spanish government demanded that the Africans be returned to Cuba, both as slaves who should be restored to their owners and as accused criminals who should be extradited. The Van Buren administration, wanting to demonstrate abhorrence of slave uprisings with a presidential election a year away, seemed only too eager to comply with Spain’s wishes. It looked like Cinque and his companions would end up on a hangman’s rope in Havana as an example to slaves considering rebellion. But a committee of abolitionists headed by Lewis Tappan arranged for a skilled legal team to aid them. To solve the problem of communicating with their clients, the lawyers turned to Yale’s professor of linguistics. Professor J. W. Gibbs correctly identified the language the Africans spoke (Mende) and after a search of New York and Connecticut wharves found an African-born sailor who could interpret. When the case went to trial in November, the defense could argue that Cinque and the others had never been rightfully enslaved; they were free people kidnapped and sold in violation of Spain’s own laws. To underscore this point, the lawyers brought charges in a New York state court against Ruíz and Montes for kidnapping. Arrested, the two Spaniards jumped their bail, fled to Cuba, and did not appear in the U.S. courts again.

The issue was tried (as an admiralty case, without a jury) before federal District Judge Andrew Judson. United States District Attorney William Holabird argued that Ruíz and Montes legally owned the prisoners, relying on their Cuban documents. Judge Judson, a lifelong Democrat appointed to the bench by Van Buren, had earlier led the movement to shut down Prudence Crandall’s high school for black girls in Connecticut. Everyone now expected him to rule against the prisoners. The administration went to the extraordinary lengths of having a navy schooner await the verdict in New London’s dangerously icy harbor, ready to spirit them away to Cuba before an appeal could be lodged. But the dramatic testimony of Cinque and other Africans, given through an interpreter and substantiated by an Englishman resident in Havana who knew how widely the laws against importing slaves were flouted, demolished the credibility of the false documents. On January 13, 1840, Judson ruled that the Africans were legally free and had therefore been justified in resisting their captivity. The judge ordered the government to send Cinque and his companions back to the Mende country. The district attorney, upon orders from the president, appealed.96

The federal circuit court affirmed the district court’s decision in May 1840. Again the administration appealed. The United States Supreme Court heard argument in January 1841; by then the presidential election was over. All this time Cinque and the other Africans awaited the outcome in New Haven jail, suffering unfamiliar diseases and cold temperatures, trying to keep up their spirits, studying English and Christianity. More of them died. To reinforce the abolitionist legal team, Tappan persuaded seventy-three-year-old former president John Quincy Adams to participate. A lawyer in his youth, Adams had last appeared before the High Court in 1809. Roger Baldwin, who had ably represented the Africans throughout, covered the legal issues in oral argument. Adams used his appearance to denounce the conduct of the administration, which had denied documents to the defense, misrepresented the case to congressional committees, and tried to take control of it away from the judiciary. A hearer interpreted Adams’s speech as one president putting another president on trial.97

96. On legal aspects of the case, see Don Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic (New York, 2001), 191–95; on Van Buren’s role in it, see Wilson, Presidency of Van Buren, 155–56.

97. Argument of John Quincy Adams, Before the Supreme Court of the United States, in the Case of the United States, Appellants, vs. Cinque, and Others, Africans (New York, 1841).

Joseph Story delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court on March 9, 1841. By a vote of 6 to 1, with one justice not participating and another having recently died, the Court declared the Mendeans free. Only Antonio the cabin boy had been legally a slave of the ship’s captain. (Rather than accept return to Cuba, Antonio escaped along the underground railway to Montreal.) The chief difference between Story’s decision and the original verdict in district court was that the Supreme Court did not order the government to take the Africans home.98 Instead, the abolitionists faced one more responsibility: raising money to hire transatlantic transportation. The four African children had become fond of their Connecticut foster-parents (the jailer and his wife) and did not wish to leave, but were forcibly separated from them. On November 27, 1841, the bark Gentleman set sail for Africa, bearing thirty-five of her lost people back, along with James Covey, the Mendean sailor who had acted as their interpreter, and five Christian missionaries, two of them African Americans. Shortly before their departure, Cinque and two other Mendeans wrote a letter to John Quincy Adams revealing, among other things, their progress in English.

Most Respected Sir,—the Mendi people give you thanks for all your kindness to them. They will never forget your defence of their rights before the great Court of Washington. They feel that they owe to you in a large measure, their delivery from the Spaniards, and from slavery or death. They will pray for you as long as you live, Mr. Adams. May God bless and reward you.

We are about to go home to Africa....We will take the Bible with us. It has been a precious book, in prison, and we love to read it now we are free.99

Tragically, Cinque returned to find his home village ruined by war and his family missing. It was all too typical of the turmoil in West Africa during the era of the slave trade. But with Cinque’s help, the American Missionary Association founded a Mendi Mission. The association exerted a lasting influence with its schools for Africans and (after the Civil War) for African Americans in the South.100

98. United States v. Claimants of the Amistad, 40 U.S. (15 Peters) 518 (1841).

99. Cinque, Kinna, and Kale to John Quincy Adams, Nov. 6, 1841, in John Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge, 1977), 42–43.

100. The assertion made by some historians that Cinque became a slave trader after his return home rests on no evidence. See Howard Jones, “Cinque of the Amistad a Slave Trader? Perpetuating a Myth,” JAH 87 (2000): 923–39.

Despite the Supreme Court’s decision, the Spanish government continued to press the American government, not to return the slaves themselves (now obviously impossible), but for financial compensation to their owners. The Spanish invoked precedent: When American ships engaged in the coastwise slave trade had blown off course from time to time into the British West Indies, the British had freed the slaves but, after strenuous representations by the Van Buren administration, paid compensation for them.101 The administrations of Tyler and Polk recommended appropriations to reimburse the Spanish owners of the Amistad and its human cargo, but faced with strong northern Whig opposition, Congress never acted.

To a large extent Van Buren’s term played out events that Jackson had set in motion. Andrew Jackson succeeded in stamping his character upon the Democratic Party, which remained loyal to the policies he had defined even after he left the White House. The party proclaimed itself the tribune of the common white man, as against all other groups in the society, whether of class, race, or gender. In particular, it defined itself, even in the North, as the protector of slavery. Jackson’s opposition to abolitionism turned out to be of more long-term significance to the Democratic Party than his opposition to nullification. Jackson’s loyal follower, the prominent Pennsylvania Democrat James Buchanan, future president, spoke for the whole next generation of his party. “All Christendom is leagued against the South upon this question of domestic slavery,” he acknowledged; slaveholders “have no other allies to sustain their constitutional rights, except the Democracy of the North.” Democrats from the North, Buchanan proudly proclaimed, “inscribe upon our banners hostility to abolition. It is there one of the cardinal principles of the Democratic Party.”102 Some of the shortcomings in the party’s policies became apparent during the term of Jackson’s chosen successor: in limitations on debate that exacerbated debate, in prolonged and unpopular war to enforce Indian Removal, in futile litigation to return kidnapped Africans into illegal slavery. Most important in turning public opinion against Jacksonianism in 1840 was the economic crisis that, arising to a considerable extent out of Jackson’s actions, cast a shadow over the term of his genial heir. The talent for manipulation that had served Van Buren so well in pursuit of his presidential ambition proved no help in the face of economic depression. Meanwhile, beyond the swings of the business cycle, long-term economic developments were transforming America in directions that Jacksonians did not always approve and certainly did not wish the federal government to foster.

101. Wilson, Presidency of Van Buren, 154.

102. Congressional Globe, 27th Cong., 3rd sess. (Aug. 19, 1842), appendix, 103.

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