Andrew Jackson, Class Warrior

          I am currently reading What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe, for a Graduate Seminar in American History. It is a fascinating and very well-written account of the development of the nation between the ends of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Howe contends that two intertwined and interdependent revolutions were responsible for the transformation of the United States during this period, revolutions in transportation and in communication. The era began with the building of the Erie Canal, and ended with Samuel Morse’s telegraph, and Howe argues that the expansion of America during that time was a direct result of these revolutions.

          Of course, Andrew Jackson looms large during this period, and Howe does a good job of fleshing out Old Hickory, warts and all. Jackson was many things–the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Indian fighter, backwoods lawyer, and of course, President of the United States. But he was also in many ways a bully, perhaps even a bit of a thug. His attitude toward the Indians, particularly the Five Civilized Tribes of the southeastern United States, was particularly disturbing. While it is true that his racist attitudes were certainly in keeping with the prevailing opinions of most white Americans of the day, Jackson possessed the power and resources to actually do something about it on a very large scale. He almost single-handedly forced the relocation of nearly all Native Americans east of the Mississippi to areas west of that river, most notably into modern-day Oklahoma. While still an Army general, Jackson procured enormous areas of Indian land in the southeast through military conquest and grotesquely lopsided treaties. Later, as president, he finished the job with the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

          This aspect of Andrew Jackson is fascinating to me, and I intend to explore it more fully. However, something unrelated to Indian Removal jumped out at me the other day, and this is what I want to talk about. The charter of the Second Bank of the United States was due to expire in 1836, but Nicholas Biddle, the president of the Bank, decided to try to get the charter renewed in 1832. Biddle knew that Jackson hated him and the BUS (Jackson professed to hate all banks, and he apparently hated a lot of people, as well), but Biddle felt that the BUS was popular enough that Jackson would not dare veto a new charter, especially during an election year. As Biddle expected, the new charter was passed by the Congress, but he had underestimated Jackson’s personal loathing of Biddle and his Bank. Jackson vetoed the new charter, and he did so in words that could have been penned by a member of Occupy Wall Street:

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

Old Hickory was very cynical in his attempt to foment class warfare, but he was successful. He handily won re-election, and a public that was largely supportive of the BUS gave Jackson a pass.

Source: David Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 373-80.

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