Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson Organize a Tea Party Part Two
Advisor Perspectives welcomes guest contributions. The views presented here do not necessarily represent those of Advisor Perspectives.
This is part two of a three-part series. To read part one, go here.
In 1832 Martin Van Buren helped Andrew Jackson decide precisely when he would end the charter for the Second Bank of the United States – the only American central bank of issue before the establishment of the Federal Reserve. Over the next five years, by legislation, executive order and political precedent, the two men would carry out the rest of their plan for the application and enforcement of uniquely American rules for government finance: All net borrowings, payments and tax collections by the national Treasury would be made in gold and silver coin.
By the end of their lives, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had become affectionate pen pals. They had given up past personal quarrels and were enjoying the shared celebrity of being the most famous “founders” of the American Republic – the ex-presidents who were also members of Washington’s first cabinet. They had also lived long enough to see the policy differences between their two parties largely disappear. The merchants of Boston and the planters of the Tidewater continued to find federal taxation of imports as obnoxious as ever, even as the textile manufacturers and ironmongers had come to see the value of protection; but no one could offer another answer to the question of how the Treasury could collect enough money to pay its bills. The hated excise taxes had been repealed, and both Federalists and Democrat-Republicans agreed that the Constitution did not allow and the people did not want direct taxes.
Two decades after Hamilton’s death, Jefferson was still complaining that Washington’s first treasurer had won the debate over national finance; but, as he and John Adams both knew, Washington had the advice of his secretary of state, treasurer and vice president. The United States had chartered a national bank, contrary to Jefferson’s objections; but the first Bank of the United States had not been established on the terms that both Adams and Hamilton had proposed. Washington and the first Congress had rejected an American version of the exchequer and the Bank of England. What Jefferson called “the Hamiltonian system” had only been adopted when his own Democrat-Republican party gained political control. Revenue collection by tariff and monetary management through a central bank of issue had been established and fully embraced by Madison and Monroe. Both the Democrat-Republican majority and the lingering Federalist minority in Congress were now firmly in support of the further growth of the Second Bank of the United States. As far as Jefferson and Adams’ parties were concerned, the “money question” had been fully resolved.
The bitter arguments between Jefferson and Adams over who was the greater friend or foe – France or Great Britain – had ended with Napoleon’s final defeat by the armies of the Seventh Coalition and the Battle of New Orleans. Henry Clay and John Calhoun continued to warn about the British “threat,” but their alarms seem to have come almost entirely from their hopes for their own political careers. Clay, as speaker of the House, worried that the British would form new alliances with Native American tribes to contest further western settlement. Secretary of War Calhoun persisted in lecturing the Cabinet about British encroachment in the Caribbean and South America, but he was not prepared to increase appropriations for the Navy.
For the public, the implicit terms of the Monroe Doctrine – neither the United States nor the United Kingdom would try to capture any of Spain’s present or former colonies – were generally popular because they made sense. The British, with its Navy, could capture any island in the Caribbean that it chose while the Americans, with its Navy, could only watch. For Andrew Jackson, a personal hatred of the British would last until the day he died; but even he agreed with Monroe that there was no profit in continuing to see Britain as “the enemy.” It was more than half a decade after the signing of the Treaty of 1818 and the Adams-Otis Treaty, and the only further trouble with a European nation had been with Spain over Andrew Jackson’s unlawful but effective annexation of Florida. Andrew Jackson had become a public hero because of the Tennessee militia’s seemingly miraculous success in defeating the regular British Army in 1814; but his continuing national fame – and his hopes of becoming president – rested on his recent successes in defeating the Seminoles and capturing Florida. When President Monroe had General Jackson accompanied him on a southern tour (and Monroe’s tacit re-election campaign), people had welcomed the two men as heroes because of their victory, not because they were promising more war. As for Clay’s warnings about the Indians, there were now more than two million Americans living west of the Appalachians, near one-quarter of the free population of the entire country. They – and their militias – could take care of themselves without any help from the regular Army.
In 1820, James Monroe was not only wildly popular for making peace; he had somehow escaped all political blame for the Panic of 1819. The result was something that had happened twice for George Washington, would happen for Monroe and would never happen again. In the election, President Monroe would be the candidate for every political party and would win the popular vote in every state. In their party caucus that spring, the Federalists would issue a party platform statement that is and forever will be unique in American political history: "It is inexpedient, at this time, to proceed to the nomination of persons for the offices of president and vice president of the United States." But for the vote of William Plumer of New Hampshire, the first faithless elector, President Monroe would even have matched Washington’s unique achievement in 1792 of winning the vote of every living elector. (He could not have matched Washington’s perfect record of winning the vote of every elector; three men pledged to vote for Monroe died before the College could receive their ballots.)
With his faithless votes, Plumer did forecast the future. For vice president, Plumer chose Richard Rush; Rush would be Adams’ own vice presidential candidate in his 1828 bid for re-election as president. For president, Plumer selected John Quincy Adams, whom Monroe had already chosen as his preferred successor. During most of the 19th century, the secretary of state and not the vice president was an administration’s designated presidential successor. Thomas Jefferson had appointed James Madison as his secretary of state, and James Madison had appointed James Monroe. For both his terms in office, Monroe had appointed John Quincy Adams. That Monroe himself would not be a candidate for a third term as president was certain. Washington had served two terms and declined to serve a third. That would be the accepted rule for anyone of either party until 1940.
Precisely because Monroe’s second term in office had become such an unprecedented “era of good feelings,” John Quincy Adams could happily run on the promise to continue the Monroe administration’s record. Monroe had succeeded in unifying Jefferson’s and John Adams’ factions into a single consensus party; even Adams’ opponents in the general election would come from within the Democrat-Republican caucus. Besides Adams, there was William Crawford, Monroe’s secretary of the treasury, Andrew Jackson, senator from Tennessee; Henry Clay, speaker of the House from Kentucky; Daniel Macon, senator from North Carolina (Crawford’s Vice-Presidential running mate) and John C. Calhoun, Monroe’s secretary of war (who would be on both Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams’ tickets as the nominee for vice president). The only nominal outsider was Nathan Sanford, who would be Clay’s running mate; he was a former Democrat-Republican senator from New York.
Opposing the British was not going to work as an issue no matter how hard Clay and Calhoun tried to make it one. During Monroe’s reelection campaign, Henry Clay had tried to make slavery a burning question so that he could remind the public of his importance as “the Great Compromiser.” The effort succeeded in the history books; with the voters at the time, it was a complete bust. Not a single challenger or incumbent running for office in the 1820 and 1822 congressional elections won or lost because of his public position on whether Missouri could be a “slave” state. Neither race nor slavery had been an issue that decided particular lections. Jefferson’s “fire bell in the night” had been unheard by the actual voters. William Crawford, the secretary of the treasury, had received the formal approval from the leaders of Democrat-Republican congressional caucus who were not themselves candidates. If the 1824 election had been between insiders and outsiders, Crawford could have been considered the consensus choice; but everyone in the race was already a member of the James Monroe administration club. Andrew Jackson was already solidly established as a famous person and an immensely popular figure. What he had not shown was any particular reason, other than his celebrity, for people and state legislatures to vote for his designated electors.
The 1824 presidential general election would end up being a one-party nominating convention. Each region promoted its own favorite-son candidate; and the final choice was not going to be made on the first ballot. Populism had taken hold; direct choice of electors by the public was now the rule in two thirds of the states; but what seems to have mattered most to the public was the pleasure of voting at all. (In the remaining eight states, presidential electors continued to be chosen by the votes of the branch of the state legislature that had the largest number of members.) Four years earlier, when Monroe ran without an opponent, the total vote was 108,359, with the president winning 87,343. In 1824, 252,780 votes would be cast for Adams, Jackson, Crawford and Clay. Turnout would be 233% of the 1820 number. In losing, Andrew Jackson would receive 151,271 votes, twice as many as Monroe had received in 1816. John Quincy Adams would win 113,122 votes, more than the total number of votes cast in each of the two previous presidential elections. Only six states had all four candidates named on the actual ballot: Alabama, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Virginia. John Quincy Adams was the only person listed on the ballot for his home state of Massachusetts. In Clay’s home state of Kentucky, he and Andrew Jackson were the only names listed. In Jackson’s home state of Tennessee, Henry Clay was omitted.
The “bipartisan consensus” remained intact. After losing his famous temper over the House choosing Adams, Jackson had not changed the general mood. In 1825, after Henry Clay resigned to become secretary of state and Adams’ designated successor, John Taylor of New York became speaker of the House. Taylor and Van Buren were opponents, but they were hardly enemies. Both had voted “yes” for the financing of DeWitt Clinton’s Erie Canal, which would fully open on October 26, 1825. After the 1826-7 elections Taylor would be replaced by Andrew Stevenson from Virginia. Taylor had supported John Quincy Adams, and Stevenson had supported William Crawford; neither had voted for Andrew Jackson. The Senate had seen the same continuity in its election. Out of 48 seats there had been a change in nominal party allegiances of one vote.
By 1826 Martin van Buren had decided that he wanted Andrew Jackson to be the next president. He did not want to see a further continuation of the Monroe administration’s status quo under John Quincy Adams. How, then, were he and his candidate going to succeed in overturning the status quo?
To do that, he and his preferred candidate for 1828 would have to explain what was wrong with more “good feelings.” “A sentiment of idolatry has grown up,” Martin Van Buren would tell the Senate, “which claims for (the Court’s) members an almost entire exemption from the fallibilities of our nature...So powerful has this sentiment become – such strong hold has it taken upon the press of this country, that it requires not a little share of firmness in a public man …to express sentiments that conflict with it…That his uncommon man who now presides over the Court …is the ablest Judge...I sincerely believe. But to the sentiment which claims ...for the Court the character of being the safest depository of political power I do not subscribe….I firmly believe, and my daily experience confirms that conviction that much, very much of the present prosperity of the country and its institutions depends upon the successful action of the State Governments and that the preservation of their rightful powers is the sine qua non of our future welfare.”
For very good reasons, the term “states’ rights” is now read as the political advocacy of slavery, segregation and racism. When Martin Van Buren spoke against John Marshall’s Supreme Court and in favor of the “states’ rightful powers,” he was opposing, not joining, those who, if the events were happening now, would now be chanting, “Slavery now, everywhere and always,” as they carried signs on First Street NE. For Van Buren and for Jackson, the assertions of John Randolph of Roanoke and others about states’ rights were as fundamentally flawed as John Marshall’s assertions of absolute national jurisdiction for the Supreme Court. Slavery was not an important issue for the people; but it was becoming one for the Congress. What was destroying the one-party consensus that Monroe had bequeathed to John Quincy Adams was the belief on all sides that the U.S. Constitution mandated absolute national authority on all questions.
Ever since Congressman James Madison presented the House with what would become the Tariff Act of 1789, Congress had wrangled over tax legislation and lobbied each other about what items should be taxed and what those tax rates should be. In all cases they had resolved the questions through debate, negotiation and majority agreement. Tax rates and rules were always a question of relative costs and benefits to the voters who elected the members to Congress. They had to be measured by the same monetary yardstick of relative gains and losses that people used in assessing the purchase and sale of property. Now, as Congress came to the question again, at the end of Monroe’s second term, John Calhoun was raising once again his objections to proposed tariffs. But, he and his opponents were not talking about revenues, they were talking about slavery. In attaching the territorial question of “free” or “slave” to tariff legislation, they were deliberately reducing all discussions of national taxation into a referendum on a binary moral question. Slavery was a binary moral question; one either believed it was morally right or one did not; and, because it was an absolute choice, it could not have a national referendum, not as long as there were such enormous differences in popular opinion.
In guiding the Constitution to adoption, George Washington had not ignored the issue of slavery. On the contrary, he had confronted it directly by acknowledging the impossibility of having a single federal rule on a moral question for which individuals had irrevocably different answers. It was for the same reason that Congress was prohibited from establishing any national religion. If the Constitution had allowed the United States to create a state church, Americans would be enduring the same terrible politics that had brought civil wars to Britain and Holland. In Van Buren and Jackson’s view, the present assertions of general rules over the moral and political questions of slavery could only end in equal folly. If slavery was to be abolished nationally, it would come from the same broad popular will that had ratified the United States Constitution and its amendments. Until then, in any individual state whose constitution allowed people to be owned as property, slaves could be bought and sold as freely as any other lawful property. However, contrary to Justice Marshall’s assertions, the United States Constitution did not give any other state or the United States the authority to compel a state to accept another state’s rules for property. South Carolina’s “states’ rights” did not give it or Congress and the president the authority to compel Rhode Island to recognize people as property. If a Charleston planter wanted to take his house slaves with him on his summer holiday to Newport, he could not take South Carolina’s property laws with him. Justice Marshall was asserting that federal rule of law extended to all cases involving “freedom of contract.” What would happen when that doctrine was applied to contract ownership of human beings? In offering to the country a new political party – the Democratic Party, Jackson and Van Buren were promising to restore George Washington’s triangle of popular sovereignty. Within the Union, rights would exist for the states, for the United States and for the citizens as individuals. Any future changes to those rights would come only from the general agreement of the people.
When Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren introduced their Democratic Party in the 1828 election, they presented it to the voters before they presented it to the politicians. The party would have its first convention only after Jackson was elected President. During the campaign itself neither candidate Jackson nor manager Van Buren would offer anything approaching specific policy promises. On the question of taxes, Jackson would say only that he was in favor of judicious tariffs. On the credit question, he promised that there would be greater opportunities for the common man and his family. What those promises meant was left to the people to decide. “The people” did not mean the population as a whole but only the almost entirely white adult males who were eligible to vote. The only other part of the electorate – free blacks and Native Americans who were Christians – had the right to vote in most states but only if they passed the property qualifications that had once applied to all adult males. It was generally assumed that, because of their races, free blacks and Christian Native Americans had, at best, divided loyalties; to allow them to vote required the additional surety that they were men of property. By the settled scientific consensus, no women were eligible to vote or even to own property in their own names. When asked about women’s rights to equality, President Jefferson refused to consider the question: Women lacked both the mental and physical capacity to take any place in a popular election, and they must be excluded as they had been by the democracies of ancient Greece and Rome.
The disqualification of all adult women and almost all blacks and Native Americans completely contradicted the promise of equality of the Declaration of Independence in an age when all humans were described as mankind. Despite its obvious illogic, it was the common rule for popular elections throughout the United States and the rest of the “civilized” world. What was not at all commonplace was the extension of the franchise to “ordinary” white males – i.e., those without property. Both the Federalists and the Democrat-Republicans had worried about extending the franchise to include the rabble. In Madison’s words, “(t)he right of suffrage is a fundamental article in Republican constitutions. The regulation of it is, at the same time, a task of peculiar delicacy. Allow the right exclusively to property, and the rights of persons may be oppressed. Extend it equally to all, and the rights of property...may be overruled by a majority without property.” The new Democratic Party’s position was a nearly revolutionary expansion of the right to vote.
So was Van Buren and Jackson’s acceptance of the idea that any free blacks and Christian Native Americans were entitled to the rights to citizenship. Van Buren’s Albany Regency had included within the gradual emancipation law for New York the right of slaves to accelerate their freedom from bondage by purchase. Jackson and his wife had adopted a Native American orphan; and Jackson allowed the slaves on his plantation to own and keep long guns for hunting. By the standards of their own time, Jackson and Van Buren were far more liberal-minded than the male voting majority in the home states. To the extent that it mattered, they both would have been considered much too soft as supporters of their own white privilege.
For the election of 1828, opinions about race did not matter at all to the actual voters; the hierarchy of racial superiority was settled science. Every Northern politician could be proudly against slavery even as their own state legislatures enacted laws prohibiting free blacks from moving to their jurisdictions. Thomas Jefferson could agonize over the language of Missouri’s State Constitution even as he sold his own slaves by consignment in order to delay his eventual bankruptcy. What did matter to voters in the choice between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams was the money question. “Money” meant anything that could be exchanged – private letters of credit, State-chartered bank notes, Second Bank of the United States notes and branch drafts (notes not signed by the president and head cashier), U.S. mint and foreign coin, certificates of deposit, the new innovation of bank checks. Whatever form money took, the people were eager to get more.
The money question raised the concern Madison had raised about the potential conflicts between the interests of the people at large and the interests of the people with property. It was far too late in the day for the movement towards universal male suffrage to be stopped. What could be done to maintain a proper balance was to keep certain national institutions beyond the reach of popular sovereignty. Neither the Supreme Court nor the Second Bank of the United States was subject to control by the ballot box. For the politicians and voters concerned about protecting and preserving property rights, maintaining the Court and the Bank’s independent authorities was vital. The unlimited populism of the new Democrat Party had to be opposed; to sustain the Democrat-Republican consensus of the Monroe Administration, John Quincy Adams would take the other side of the coin. He would run for re-election as a National Republican.
Stefan Jovanovich manages the portfolio for The NJT Company, Inc., a family office based in Nevada.