History—including the recent variety— has recast the way we perceive the nation's founders.
Now that President Andrew Jackson is getting thrown off the $20 bill, civic leaders in Jackson County have to be wondering whether they will be forced to rename their county. If so, they will be in good company. The name “Jackson” graces counties in nearly 20 additional states and cities too numerous to mention, many more than are named after, say, his contemporary as secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton.
Jackson was a much-loved president with a populist appeal to the common people. For this reason, he is generally considered the founding father of the Democratic Party. Hamilton, by contrast, was the first and ultimate 1-percenter, a Rockefeller Republican before there was a Rockefeller—or a Republican Party, for that matter. An affluent New York lawyer, he almost single-handedly created the economic infrastructure that guides the country to this day.
So it is more than a little curious that many of the same people who voted for Bernie Sanders cheer the inspired musical Hamilton on Broadway. Many of these same people jeer the Andrew Jackson presented in the off-Broadway musical, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, despite Jackson’s obvious appeal to the 99 percent. In their minds, I suspect, Andrew Jackson reminds them too much of Donald Trump.
Andrew Jackson was undeniably a man of many talents, but it is hard to imagine which of them the modern Democratic Party remembers at its annual “Jackson Day” celebrations. Born fighting in 1767 to Scotch Irish parents, he served as a teenage courier in the Revolution-ary War, almost died in captivity, lost both parents as a result of the war, taught himself law, was elected
to Congress and appointed colonel in the Tennessee militia, fought lots of Indians, cut the ribbon on the Trail of Tears, won the Battle of New Orleans, married a married woman, engaged in some 13 duels, many of them defending her honor, killed at least one dueler, was himself wounded, and, oh yes, owned some 150 slaves.
Contemporary Democrats would find little more to celebrate in Jackson’s economic program than they have in his slave-owning. Jacksonians favored lean, tight governments, the smaller and closer to home, the better. The primary role of government they saw as the upholding of property rights. As translated to banking, this philosophy argued for the separation of bank and state, a move from inflationary paper money to pure specie, and 100 percent reserve banking in the place of the fractional reserve alternative. God cannot possibly allow the dead to spy on their living descendants because if, by some miracle, Jackson got to heaven, watching the TARP rollout in 2008 would have been pure hell.
Beyond ideology, Jackson had pol-itical gripes with the Second National Bank of the United States. He suspected that its autocratic president, Philadelphia blue blood Nicholas Biddle, was using the bank’s power and money to defeat his 1828 presidential bid.
Biddle was the master of his own universe. In the summer of 1832, towards the end of Jackson’s first term, Biddle’s mastery was confirmed when both houses of Congress voted to recharter the bank.
Shortly before a close vote in the
House, Samuel Carson of North Caro-lina changed his mind and voted for the recharter bill. When he inquired, Attorney General Roger Taney learned that Carson had just received a $20,000 loan from the bank. “Now I do not mean to say that he was directly bribed,” wrote Taney. He blamed instead the proximity of this “mammoth money power” to so many needy public functionaries. The ever-judicious Taney would later be appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court.
In July of that year, Jackson vetoed the recharter bill and did so in words that an Occupy type might have uttered: “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes,” Jackson began, and he kept hammering from there.
It is more than a little curious that many who voted for Bernie Sanders now cheer the inspired musical Hamilton on Broadway.
He then delegated to himself and Congress the power to rule on the constitutionality of an issue. Biddle actually welcomed the speech. He considered it so over the top that in November, the voters would surely reject Jackson and his “manifesto of anarchy” and “relieve the country from the dominion of these miserable people.” Not for the last time would an establishment politician misread the mood of the country. Jackson easily beat Henry Clay in the November election and promptly turned his attention to Biddle.
The bank still had four years left on its charter and the resources to overcome a Jackson veto. Not shy about taking matters into his own hands—during the Seminole wars, he’d taken Florida without anyone’s permission—Jackson decided to pull the federal deposits from the Bank of the United States and put them in reliable state banks.
“My object, sir, is to save the country, and it will be lost if we permit the bank to exist,” Jackson told his dissenting Secretary of Treasury. He gave the order to withdraw beginning Oct. 1, 1833. When questioned by his own supporters as to motive, especially given that he could veto any future effort to recharter, Jackson contended that the bank would “buy up all Congress” if its survival were threatened. Not wanting to risk that, Jackson intended to take “the means of corruption” out of Biddle’s hands.
The battle came to a head in the spring of 1834. The old general knew
a thing about strategy. He turned to
The Globe, a newspaper that preached “the true faith,” meaning whatever Jackson wanted it to print. Using the paper as megaphone, Jackson shared his concerns with the citizens of the then-24 states that Biddle had turned the bank into a “permanent electioneering engine.” For this and sundry other good reasons, he told the people, he had decided to withdraw the government’s deposits.
A century before FDR’s fireside chats, Jackson was the first president to make such a direct appeal to the people, and so thoroughly outmaneuvered his opponents that they cried “foul.” John Calhoun, Jackson’s first-term vice president, placed that appeal “among the alarming signs of the times which portend the overthrow of the Constitution and the approach of despotic power.” Not to be out-demagogued, Henry Clay echoed Calhoun’s charge of “despotism” and insisted that if Congress did not act boldly, “The fatal collapse will soon come on, and we shall die—ignobly die—base, mean, and abject slaves.”
Calhoun and Clay made these accusations on the floor of the Senate. In this rough-and-tumble era, no one would have accused them of Jackson-bashing. “Bashing” back then meant walking onto to the Senate floor, as South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks did in 1856, and beating Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner nearly to death with the fat end of a cane.
On April 4, 1834, an election year, the House voted that the deposits should remain in the state banks, and that no new charter come for the Bank of the United States. “I have obtained a glorious triumph,” Jackson crowed. “That mam-
moth of corruption and power” had finally been “put to death.”
Not much has changed in Washington these last 200 years. One thing that may have changed this year, however, are the uniforms. And it is not quite certain who is wearing which.