Skip to main content
Humanities Libertexts

12.3: The Age of the Common Man

  • Page ID
    7942
  • The power of Andrew Jackson’s personality stamped his name indelibly on American history during the 1830s. Then and later, Jackson received credit for many of the trends that emerged during this period; however, it is more accurate to say that he was a manifestation of the social and cultural currents of the time. He was a war hero, an Indian fighter, and in the minds of many, a representative of the common man—particularly since he was the first American president not born to an elite family. When Jackson took office, he sought to assert the power of the executive branch. As such, he used presidential powers such as patronage and the veto to promote his vision for the nation, a trend that would help define the modern presidency in the early twentieth century. On the major issues of the day—Indian removal, nullification, and the bank—Jackson vowed not only to win the battles but destroy his political enemies. Opposition to Jackson’s vision would eventually lead to the emergence of the second party system.

    The extension of democracy to nearly all white men characterized the Age of the Common Man, sometimes called the Age of Jackson. By the late 1820s, almost all adult white men had gained the right to vote, and more government positions became elective rather than appointive. The very image of the “common man” came to be glorified. The ideal of equality among white males became a pervasive theme, even if it did not reflect social and economic realities, since the disparity of wealth increased from 1815 to 1840. Furthermore, the era saw the mass removal of Indians from their homelands and increasing sectional tensions over slavery. These developments called into question the meaning of democracy for minorities. Nevertheless, for most white Americans, life seemed relatively good; therefore, few people questioned the political, social, and economic inequality that emerged in the 1830s.

    12.3.1: The Emergence of Jacksonian Democracy

    With the help of a growing number of political supporters, Andrew Jackson used the four years after his defeat in 1824 to build up his reputation with the people as a common man and to outline his vision for the nation. Since voters thought it unseemly for candidates to campaign for themselves, Jackson spent most of his time in Tennessee at his home, the Hermitage, carefully watching how his followers worked to develop broad support for his nomination. After William Crawford failed to win national support in 1824, Martin Van Buren switched his allegiance to Jackson. The New Yorker increasingly saw his own view on the importance of political parties match up with Jackson’s view on a more limited government. Van Buren enlisted the support of John C. Calhoun (Adams’s vice president) to woo southern voters. Calhoun, who was extremely politically ambitious, thought switching parties would improve the likelihood that someday he would become president. Next, Jackson targeted other voters alienated by the Adams’s policies. Local Hickory Clubs—a reference to Jackson’s nickname, Old Hickory—appeared all over the country to raise funds for the campaign and encourage people to vote. Meanwhile, partisan newspapers began praising Jackson’s vision for the country. Politicians involved in the Jackson campaign hoped to reap the rewards of their loyalty; they fully expected to be the beneficiaries of the federal patronage system, sometimes called the spoils system by its opponents.

    Jackson’s democratic vision was firmly rooted in his own triumph over humble beginnings, but it also reflected the ongoing changes in American life since the days of the fight for independence. In a series of private letters, which he fully expected to be published, Jackson outlined the problems facing the nation in the 1820s. His musings promoted a states’ rights philosophy based on the will of the majority. In other words, Jackson believed that certain powers fell outside the scope of the federal government. Furthermore, national leaders should serve as stewards of what the majority of Americans indicated they wanted in state and national elections. Jackson saw conflict, not consensus, in American society—a conflict between the producers and the non-producers. He sought ways to refocus the federal government’s actions to benefit farmers and laborers at the expense of the business community. For Jackson, the government’s main purpose was to address problems of artificial inequality because it could do little about natural inequality. The former resulted when certain segments of the population sought to use the government for their own benefit at the expense of the majority; the latter stemmed from a person’s innate abilities.

    As the Jackson camp busied itself preparing for the contest in 1828, Adams did very little to develop popular support. As president, he could have used federal patronage to develop loyalty; moreover, he could have pushed Congress to consider at least some of the measures he proposed in 1825. Meanwhile, politicians who shared his views on using the federal government to promote economic growth, including Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, tried to reach out to supporters through partisan newspapers and organizations. But overall, Adams’s supporters seemed ineffective in presenting their candidate’s vision to potential voters.

    Although the two candidates presented different visions for the United States, those issues did not dominate the campaign. Questions about the candidates’ fitness for office and rumors of scandal seemed more important to voters, but those concerns did take their cues from broader concerns about the nation’s moral decline. Jackson’s team focused on the allegedly-corrupt way in which Adams achieved the presidency. Furthermore, they painted the president as a monarchist bent on undermining the wave of democratic sentiment spreading across the country. They frequently indicated that because his father served as president, Adams clearly sought to establish an unelected dynasty. Finally, they called his morality into question. They implied he was a gambler who installed gaming tables in the White House at the public’s expense. Moreover, they charged that while Adams served as the American minister to Russia he found a young American girl to satisfy the czar of Russia’s sexual desires. However, what Jackson’s supporters accused Adams of was nothing compared to the charges leveled by Adams’s team against Jackson.

    Using his military exploits and past duels, Adams’s followers suggested that Jackson would become a tyrant once in office. In turn, his actions would destroy the American democratic experiment. The papers also repeated rumors that Jackson was the mulatto son of a prostitute. The most flagrant accusations about Jackson centered on his marriage to Rachel Donelson in 1794. Rachel believed her estranged husband, Lewis Robards, filed for divorce. She and Jackson only found out after their wedding that he had not, and they had to re-exchange their vows two years later. In the hands of the partisan papers, Jackson became an adulterer who kidnapped Rachel from her husband and forced her to live in a licentious state.

    Throughout the campaign, Jackson’s supporters found it easier to paint their candidate as a hero of the common man, as accusations about his lawlessness increased his standing with many voters. However, Adams’s supporters could not overcome concerns that their candidate was an elitist. Jackson won a sweeping victory in the popular (56 percent) and the Electoral College (68 percent) votes. His commanding majority clearly came from widespread support among urban workers, small northern farmers, southern yeomen, and southern planters. The election also showed the concerns the nation’s founders had about political factions for the most part had disappeared. Candidates for local, state, and national office increasingly depended on parties to build support and deliver votes.

    Screenshot (249).png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Presidential Election Map, 1828 | Andrew Jackson triumphed in the popular and Electoral College votes in 1828 because his supporters successfully portrayed him as a champion of the common man and a defender of states’ rights. Author: National Atlas of the United States Source: Wikimedia Commons

    12.3.2: Jackson in Office

    Although Andrew Jackson expressed satisfaction with his victory, he arrived in Washington for his inauguration in deep mourning. In December, Rachel Jackson had travelled to Nashville to do some Christmas shopping where, for the first time, she read about the opposition’s criticisms of her marriage. She fainted on the spot and died not long after. Mrs. Jackson had not been in good health before her trip, but none of Jackson’s friends could convince him that his political opponents were not responsible for his beloved wife’s death. In his younger years, the president-elect might have challenged those responsible to a duel. But in his advancing age, he vowed to demolish his enemies through the political system by destroying the American System.

    In honor of their hero’s ascension to the presidency, Jackson’s supporters followed him to Washington. After taking the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol, Jackson gave a vague inaugural address promoting states’ rights, pledging respect for the Constitution, and promising to correct the abuses of power by the privileged. Most people remembered the day not for what Jackson said about his plans for reform, but for the boisterous celebration of his well-wishers. Thousands of people (perhaps as many as 20,000) lined Pennsylvania Avenue. Jackson insisted on opening the presidential mansion, recently christened the White House, to the public for a reception. The numbers quickly overwhelmed the staff as they attempted to stop people from breaking the china and standing on the furniture. Jackson escaped the mayhem, and the staff finally restored order by moving the refreshments to the lawn. After the festivities, partisan papers commented on the events. Jackson’s supporters saw it as a sign the new president truly represented the American people. His opponents saw it as an omen of the mayhem to come under Jackson’s leadership.

    Andrew Jackson chose Martin Van Buren to become his secretary of state because the New Yorker had been so instrumental in building a coalition to support him. Van Buren then encouraged Jackson to make use of the federal patronage system not only to reward his loyal followers but to build support for his democratic agenda. At all levels of the civil service, the new administration began to fill posts with Jacksonians. Numerically speaking, Jackson’s overall replacement rate was similar to Thomas Jefferson who had also used patronage to develop political support. Politics partly dictated Jackson’s move to bring in loyal supporters. But to the new president, a regularly rotating civil service would ward against the abuses of power seen in the Federalist and National Republican years and prevent a permanent government.

    In time, Van Buren also became Jackson’s most influential political adviser and likely successor, although during the early years of the administration he competed with Vice President John C. Calhoun for the president’s ear. Philosophically, Calhoun began to move away from his support for a nationalist agenda by the late 1820s; he committed himself to promoting states’ rights, something that Jackson and Van Buren also supported. However, each man understood the concept of states’ rights slightly differently. Calhoun supported an extreme version of states’ rights philosophy where states had the right to check power of the federal government. Van Buren, as a strict constructionist, believed the Constitution delegated some powers to the federal government and some powers to the states. In time, Jackson found his views matched those of Van Buren more than those of Calhoun. Politics aside, the Jackson administration would find itself mired in personal controversy, driving Jackson and Calhoun farther apart.

    In 1828, Jackson’s close friend Senator John Eaton married Margaret (“Peggy”) O’Neale Timberlake, the daughter of a Washington innkeeper, not long after her first husband, a naval officer, died. Rumors abounded that Peggy’s dalliances with Eaton led John Timberlake to commit suicide. After the wedding, Jackson named Eaton as his choice for secretary of war because he wanted one close associate in the cabinet. Polite Washington society, including the vice president’s wife, Floride Calhoun, recoiled at the idea they would have to invite the lowly Mrs. Eaton to their functions. Jackson saw the attacks on his friend as similar to the attacks on his own marriage. Moreover, Jackson firmly believed the Calhouns were responsible for the snubbing. Jackson, along with the help of Van Buren, did everything in his power to support the Eatons.

    The issues surrounding the Eaton affair festered until 1831. At that point, the president decided to remove the members of his cabinet he perceived as loyal to Calhoun. To keep up appearances, Jackson also asked Eaton and Van Buren to resign, with the intention of shifting them to other positions in the government. In the coming years, Jackson relied less on the cabinet for advice and more on his political friends who did not serve in any official capacity, in what his opponents labeled the “Kitchen Cabinet.” Only after the cabinet shakeup did Andrew Jackson fully devote his attention to promoting his democratic agenda and addressing the major public policy issues of the day: Indian removal, the tariff, and the bank.

    12.3.3: Indian Removal

    The roots of Jackson’s Indian removal policy stretched back to the Jeffersonian era. Jefferson had reasoned that too much land was a bad thing for Indians, as the abundance of land gave them no reason to become “civilized.” Instead, they would continue to utilize the land in a way which white society considered inefficient, wasteful, and “uncivilized.” To this end, his administration stressed a policy of assimilating native peoples into American ways of life. In particular, he sought to transform Indians into sedentary, intensive agriculturalists like the American yeoman farmer. Jefferson saw this policy as beneficial in two ways: first, it would “speed up” what he saw as a natural and inevitable process as Indian ways and beliefs gave way to American ones. Secondly, converting Indians to intensive agriculture would mean that thousands of acres across the east coast would be freed for white settlement.

    Jackson came to the presidency as a renowned Indian fighter with knowledge of nations like the Cherokee and Creek. He quickly set the tone for his administration’s Indian policy, calling for all Indian groups living east of the Mississippi River to be moved west of the river. Civilization and progress, he argued, demanded that Indians be removed. At Jackson’s urging, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 by a narrow margin, an indication of developing tensions between Whigs and Democrats in Congress. Theoretically, removal was supposed to be voluntary for native peoples, but in reality, tremendous pressure was applied to groups all over the east coast to remove. This was especially true in the South, where white Americans cast a keen eye to lands held by the Five Civilized Tribes: the Cherokee, Creek (Muskogee), Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole.

    Removal in the South

    The Five Civilized Tribes were thus called because, in response to Jefferson’s policies, they had in many ways acculturated to American society. The Cherokee provide an excellent example of the ways in which the nations acculturated in the interests of survival. In 1827, the Cherokee adopted a government modeled on the American system. They adopted a written constitution which outlined a three-branch system of government including a principal chief, a two-house legislature, and an independent judiciary with a Supreme Court. Most Cherokee lived and dressed like the average American, and some converted to Christianity. Most Cherokee, moreover, became literate after the development of a written Cherokee syllabary; the nation published their own newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix (ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎯ). The wealthiest Cherokee owned plantations and slaves and grew cotton. Like their American counterparts, the group developed and improved the land, building grist mills, saw mills, blacksmith shops, and tanning yards. By most standards and measures, the Cherokee had acculturated in all significant ways to an American way of life; instead of ensuring the survival of the group, however, it intensified the desire of white settlers for this improved Indian land. Georgians and the state of Georgia were among the biggest proponents of removal, and the pressure that the state exerted on the Cherokee to relocate was tremendous. Moreover, Indian removal would further the economic development of the region, as Tennessee and Georgia sought to implement internal improvements, such as easier river navigation, which would more closely connect the region and stimulate the economy.

    The Choctaw, however, were the first of the Five Civilized Tribes to agree to move. For decades, the Choctaw had been pressured to give up lands to white settlers; in the period between 1801 and 1825, the nation signed seven treaties with the U.S. government, ceding some 15,000,000 acres. On September 15, 1830, the nation met with Secretary of War John Eaton and General John Coffee to negotiate the terms for removal west of the Mississippi. The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was the result. It guaranteed that in exchange for Choctaw lands east of the Mississippi (about 11 million acres), the nation would receive 15 million acres in what is now the state of Oklahoma, then known as Indian Territory. It also established the boundaries of the relationship between the U.S. government and the government of the Choctaw nation. It also agreed to continue to pay annuities established in previous treaties the Choctaw had made with the United States; for instance, Choctaw who had fought in the American Revolution would continue to receive annuities. After the signing of the treaty, many reluctantly prepared to leave the Choctaw homeland. In his “Farewell Letter to the American People,” George Harkins voiced this frustration, saying, “We as Choctaws choose to suffer and be free, than live under the degrading influence of laws, where our voice could not be heard in the formation…Much as the state of Mississippi has wronged us, I cannot find in my heart any other sentiment than an ardent wish for her prosperity and happiness.” Removal began in the fall of 1831 and was scheduled to end in 1833. Since this was the first, Jackson was anxious to make this the model for Indian removal. Nearly 15,000 Choctaw made the trip; some 2,500 died on the journey. The Choctaw removal came to be called “the trail of tears and death,” a phrase which was used to describe the removal of other nations as well.

    Other nations did not remove as willingly. After initial negotiations with the U.S. government, many of the leaders of the Seminoles of Florida renounced their agreements, saying that they had been forced to sign the documents. A few groups and villages did remove to Indian Territory, but most chose to remain in Florida. In late December 1835, a group of Seminole ambushed a U.S. Army company, killing 107 of 110 men; the event became known as the Dade Massacre and began the Second Seminole War, with the Third Seminole War following a few years later. Over the next ten years, the Seminole attempted to resist removal with mixed success. Under the leadership of Osceola, the war was largely fought using guerilla tactics against the army, which vastly outnumbered the Seminole forces. Ultimately, some 4,000 people were forcibly removed to Indian Territory, but between 100 and 400 Seminoles remained in the Everglades, having resisted and eluded the American military. The wars were tremendously expensive for the United States, costing approximately $40,000,000.

    The Cherokee chose very different means of resisting removal. They had been under increasing pressure from the state of Georgia since the 1790s, which intensified in the wake of the discovery of gold in 1827, resulting in the nation’s first gold rush as prospectors and settlers began pouring into Cherokee land. The state responded by passing a resolution that declared its sovereignty over Cherokee lands within the state and asserted that state laws were to be extended to Cherokee land. Georgia passed a series of laws specifically targeting the Cherokee and created a special police force called the Georgia Guard to patrol Cherokee lands and harass and intimidate the population. The Guard arrested principal chief John Ross and closed down and seized the press for the Cherokee Phoenix. The state simultaneously attempted to undermine and weaken the Cherokee governing structure, closing down the tribal courts and preventing the council from meeting. Finally, in 1832, after the Indian Removal Act but before the Cherokee had signed any treaties ceding land, Georgia created a state land lottery to distribute Cherokee lands to white settlers.

    The Cherokee decided to contest removal legally, asserting that it was illegal for Georgia to enforce state laws on Cherokee lands. But the Marshall court found that Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) was out of their jurisdiction, as the Cherokees were not U.S. citizens and were a “domestic dependent nation” to the United States. The nation tried again the next year when a missionary from Vermont was arrested by the Georgia Guard. Since the plaintiff was a U.S. citizen, the Court could rule in the case of Worcester v. Georgia (1832). The Court decided in favor of the Cherokee, ruling that only the national government, not the states, had authority in Indian affairs.

    Despite this ruling, both Jackson and the Georgia state government were determined to enforce removal for the Cherokee and continued to pressure the Cherokee to migrate. After the landslide reelection of Jackson in 1832, a minority of Cherokee leaders began to question how long the nation could hold out against Jackson and Georgia. A small group, mostly elite Cherokee, decided that they now had no choice but to remove. This group, known as the Treaty Party, led by Major Ridge, his son John, and family members Elias Boudinot, editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, and Stand Watie, began unauthorized talks with Washington. Principal Chief John Ross, the majority of Cherokees, and the Cherokee government remained staunchly against removal. The Ridges and their followers responded by forming a breakaway council government, and in December 1835 they signed the Treaty of New Echota. The treaty gave up all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi in return for lands in Indian Territory, five million dollars, and compensation for property left in the east. It also provided for a two-year period to voluntarily leave. Soon after the signing, members of the Treaty Party, along with a few hundred Cherokee, migrated to the new lands. John Ross and the majority of the Cherokee population remained, protesting that the Treaty Party had no authority and the document was a fraud. Of 17,000 members of the nation, only about 500 had joined the Treaty Party. Ross and his followers refused to migrate. Many Americans were deeply uneasy about the nature of the treaty. This was reflected in the Senate’s vote to approve the treaty, which passed by only one vote. In the spring of 1838, Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s successor, sent General Winfield Scott and 7,000 troops to Georgia. Over a period of almost a month, troops forcibly removed thousands of Cherokee from their homes at gunpoint. Most were held in internment camps for much of the summer, awaiting removal. Hundreds died of dysentery and other diseases. Several hundred Cherokee managed to escape to the mountains of North Carolina, evading removal. Some 17,000 people were removed over what became known as the Trail of Tears. An estimated 2,000-6,000 people died along the Trail. Although we cannot know with absolute certainty how many died, 4,000 deaths, nearly one-fourth of the tribe in total, is the most cited and well-supported figure.

    Screenshot (250).png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): John Ridge and John Ross | John Ridge (left), along with his father Major, believed the Cherokee had no choice but to accept removal and concluded the Treaty of New Echota with the United States in 1835. As principal chief, John Ross (right) led the fight against removal after 1835. Author: John Bowen (both images) Source: Library of Congress

    The aftermath of removal was dramatically played out on the new Cherokee lands near Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Soon after the majority of the Cherokee arrived in Tahlequah, John Ross was once again elected as principal chief. On the night of his election, many of the leading members of the Treaty Party were assassinated, including Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot.

    Screenshot (251).png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Indian removal | This map shows the paths the southern tribes took in the 1830s as they made their way to their new homes in Oklahoma. Author: Wikipedia User “Nikater” Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Aftermath of Indian Removal

    Native peoples all over the East Coast were relocated, voluntarily and forcibly. In the North, groups such as the Sauk, Shawnee, and Ottowa signed agreements to relocate to Indian Territory. Some, like the Potawatomi, experienced significant casualties along the route of removal. Others, like the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee), were able to escape when the land company that was supposed to purchase land in the west failed to do so. This allowed the Iroquois to renegotiate and keep most of their reservations. Others attempted to escape removal, such as Sauk leader Black Hawk, who attempted to lead a breakaway group of Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo back to Illinois homelands. Settlers claimed that they were being invaded, and the militia and federal troops were called in. Most of Black Hawk’s followers were defeated at the Battle of Bad Axe as they tried to cross back over the Mississippi River. Fragmentation of many groups was a lasting legacy of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. As groups resisted removal, they often broke apart geographically, resulting in two separate groups. These groups include the Oklahoma Cherokee Nation (those that removed, forcibly and voluntarily) and the Eastern Band of Cherokee (those that escaped and remained in North Carolina), and the Oklahoma Seminole (those who willingly removed and those who were captured by the Army) and the Florida Seminole (those who resisted, fled the Army, and remained in the Everglades).

    12.3.4: The Nullification Crisis

    In 1829, the members of the Jackson administration began to divide over the future of the Tariff of 1828. Martin Van Buren pushed Congress to adopt higher import taxes in 1828. The new tariff increased duties on raw wool, flax, molasses, hemp, and distilled spirits, which assisted farmers in the North. Van Buren reasoned that the South would vote for Jackson regardless of the tariff. However, without the tariff the North might vote for Adams. Grumbling could be heard throughout the South about the “tariff of abominations.” Many southerners thought tariffs harmed their interests because they sold their cotton on the unprotected world market, whereas most northerners sold goods on the protected national market. Southerners also believed tariff revenues funded government projects that benefitted only the North. John C. Calhoun quieted the protests in 1828 by suggesting he could push Jackson to reverse the tariff once he took office. Van Buren’s risk and Calhoun’s promises proved effective, and southerners turned out for Jackson in November.

    After the election, the South began to demand a reduction of the tariff. To southerners, import taxes only brought economic misery. Furthermore, they worried about the potential consequences for slavery if the North and the West banded together against the South. Frustrated southerners turned to Calhoun to help them make a reasoned argument against the measure. The vice president secretly drew up the South Carolina Exposition and Protest. He maintained the tariff was unconstitutional because it did not set uniform duties and it clearly benefited one region over another. Far more importantly, he suggested how states could fight objectionable federal laws. Calhoun argued that the Constitution was a compact between sovereign states, based on Article VII indicating that the states, not the people, would ratify the document. Therefore, the states had a right to determine the constitutionality of federal laws. When a state found a law objectionable, a special state convention could declare said law null and void within its borders. The other states then had the right to clarify the law’s validity through a constitutional amendment. If one or more states still objected, they had the right to secede from the union. Calhoun believed once the Exposition and Protest emerged, he could work with Jackson to reduce the tariff rates and avoid the need for nullification. The vice president, however, could not have known that the Eaton affair would drive a wedge between himself and the president. Moreover, he misread Jackson’s views on the relationship between the federal government and the states. For Jackson, any talk of nullification or secession undermined the principles of the American Revolution.

    In 1830, a congressional discussion on the sale of federal lands sharpened the debate between the supporters and opponents of nullification. In assessing the merits of a bill covering the sale of federal land, Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina and Daniel Webster raised the issue of states’ rights. Hayne suggested the southern opposition to the tariff reflected a desire “to preserve, not destroy the union” from “federal dominance.” Webster, on the other hand, thought that in affirming the Constitution, the states agreed the laws of the United States would be the “supreme law of the land.” After the Hayne-Webster debate, Jackson and Calhoun outlined their position on nullification and made public their growing feud at a Lincoln Day banquet in April. After a series of speeches on the importance of states’ rights, Jackson rose to give a toast. The president intoned, “Our federal union, it must be preserved.” The vice president, seemingly stunned by his assertion, responded, “The Union, next to our liberties most dear.” Jackson publically challenged Calhoun because he saw an important political issue at stake. The president shared Calhoun’s concern about reducing the tariff, but he could not acquiesce in labeling the tariff unconstitutional or in suggesting states could nullify federal laws.

    Once Andrew Jackson stated his preference for a strong union, he needed to work out a compromise before he ran for reelection in 1832. If he could secure a reduction in the tariff levels that still supported the principle of protectionism, then he could paint himself as a moderate should the nullifiers choose to act. In July, Congress passed the Tariff of 1832, cutting tariff levels in half. Jackson’s plan worked brilliantly up to a point; he placated enough people to win reelection, but he did not entirely silence the concern of some southerners. To them, the tariff was only one of many signs of their growing isolation in the union and their growing concern about the interference of outside authority.

    That same year, John C. Calhoun, realizing he no longer had the president’s support, resigned the vice presidency to seek a seat in the Senate, where he hoped to destabilize Jackson’s political agenda. Even after his break with the president, Calhoun remained reluctant to publicly support his own doctrine. He thought the South needed more time to build its case before taking drastic action. However, radical sentiment was rising in his home state, so Calhoun joined the radicals rather than lose his political influence. The South Carolinians moved one step closer to nullification when they elected their new state legislature in November; two-thirds of the members supported calling for a state convention to discuss nullifying the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832. Once in session, the convention approved an ordinance of nullification scheduled to take effect on February 1, 1833. They also suggested they would reaffirm the union, if Congress instated a nonprotective tariff. South Carolina hoped once they took action, other states would follow suit.

    Fully expecting South Carolina to move toward nullification, the president increased the naval presence in Charleston to collect tariff revenues before the ships docked. Then in his annual message, Jackson rejected nullification but also proposed to lower the tariff to only cover necessary federal expenses such as national defense. When the nullifiers opted not to back down, Jackson released a special proclamation on December 10, 1832 declaring South Carolina on the “brink of insurrection and treason.” While the president supported the principle of states’ rights, at heart his vision for the nation centered on majority rule. He had pledged himself to follow the will of the people not long after he took office. South Carolina’s nullification, if allowed to stand, would allow the minority to dictate public policy. Jackson also hoped his proclamation would isolate South Carolina. To that extent it succeeded, as no other southern states joined in the protest, though some states expressed sympathy for the doctrine of nullification.

    Andrew Jackson also called on Congress to give him direct power to collect the tariff revenues, which his critics labeled the Force Bill. Meanwhile, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, delighted for once with Jackson’s strong support for nationalism, began to lay the groundwork for a compromise with John C. Calhoun who publicly would not back down but privately wanted a compromise. By the end of December, Congress was debating a proposal to drastically lower the tariff over two years. When the members deadlocked over continuing protectionism, Clay introduced a compromise measure to gradually lower the tariff over ten years and give manufacturers some time to adjust to an unprotected market.

    Henry Clay’s proposal eventually won support from all sides of the debate. On March 2, 1833, the president signed both the Tariff of 1833 and the Force Act into law. Calhoun headed to South Carolina to present the measures to the state convention, which subsequently withdrew its nullification of the tariff. In a final move to support minority rights, it nullified the Force Act. The federal government simply ignored the latter move, and the crisis passed peacefully. Both sides, however, claimed victory. Jackson had defended the union, while South Carolina showed a single state could force Congress to revise objectionable laws. However, according to historian Harry Watson, neither side emerged clearly victorious given that the “underlying constitutional questions” remained unanswered, paving the way for another, perhaps larger crisis in the future.

    12.3.5: The Bank War

    While Andrew Jackson strongly supported the federal union during his first term, he made a bold statement on interpreting the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause when it came to the future of the Second Bank of the United States. The country’s business community, centered in the Northeast, liked the bank because it provided a stable currency system and provided easier access to credit. Yet many average Americans, especially in the South and West, despised the BUS; as a privately run institution, it concentrated too much power in the hand of too few and was not accountable to the people. Jackson, who had distrusted banks for years, sided with the common people and looked for ways to destroy the BUS. To Jackson, both the bank and the paper currency it issued were unconstitutional. He thought the only safe currencies were gold and silver (specie). Jackson’s war on the bank fit perfectly with his view that the government served to protect the majority, not the privileged few.

    Although the bank helped bring general prosperity to the nation after the Panic of 1819, political divisions in the 1820s increased hostility toward any form of national authority. To some extent, the anti-bank coalition was correct that the bank and its director, Nicolas Biddle, wielded an enormous amount of power. In 1830, the Second Bank of the United States issued just under 20 percent of the nation’s loans and 40 percent of the nation’s currency. Those percentages only increased in the 1830s. Additionally, the bank had the ability to determine the overall amount of money in circulation by demanding the state bank notes it accepted be redeemable in specie. When Biddle took over the bank in 1823, he worked to rebuild its reputation after the Panic of 1819 as well as to limit the federal government’s control over his institution. Although the bank’s charter allowed the government to appoint five of the twenty-five directors, Biddle minimized the involvement of the government’s directors in decisions about the bank’s operations.

    Jackson’s attack on the bank started slowly, as initially the Easton affair, Indian removal, and other issues required his attention; additionally, the bank’s charter did not expire until 1836, giving him time to develop a plan for the future of government deposits. In 1831, after replacing his Cabinet, Jackson began to focus on the bank issue. Louis McLane, his new secretary of treasury, proposed a compromise that would not eliminate the bank, but restructure it. McLane tied it to the president’s desire to reduce the national debt, and the president approved the scheme. Jackson asked only that McLane wait until after his reelection campaign to follow through. Inadvertently, McLane undermined his own proposal in December when he penned his annual report that called for re-chartering the bank and raising the tariff. The anti-bank members of the Kitchen Cabinet opposed McLane’s proposal because it included a tariff proposal. The window for compromise quickly passed, and Jackson recommitted himself to oppose the bank in any form.

    Screenshot (252).png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): The Bank War | This political cartoon (from the early 1830s) shows Andrew Jackson seeking to destroy the Second Bank of the United States, the “Many Headed Monster.” Author: H.R. Robinson Source: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library

    Around the same time, the National Republicans chose Henry Clay to oppose Andrew Jackson in the upcoming presidential election. In 1830, Biddle had approached Clay and Daniel Webster for help in working out an agreement with the Jackson administration that would preserve the Second Bank of the United States. With the hopes of compromise waning in early 1832, Clay and Webster convinced Biddle to apply for re-charter early, rather than waiting for the bank’s charter to expire in 1836. Biddle, knowing that Jackson wanted to keep the bank out of the campaign, hesitated at first. But Clay and Webster convinced him Congress would vote in favor of the bank, and asserted Jackson would not risk vetoing the measure because the bank was so popular with the American people. If he took that risk, Congress would override the veto, and Clay would win the presidency. Biddle acquiesced. On June 11, the Senate voted in favor of the measure. On July 3, the House did the same. From Clay’s perspective, all seemed to be going according to plan.

    When Andrew Jackson learned about the vote, he decided not just to veto the measure but to prematurely destroy the bank, reportedly telling Martin Van Buren “The bank…is trying to kill me, but I will kill it.” Over the next several days, Jackson’s advisers drafted the text of his veto message in such a way as to appeal to diverse political groups who only had hatred for the bank in common. The administration decided to speak directly to the people in order to prevent Congress from overriding Jackson’s veto. The message, says historian Sean Wilentz, “combined Jackson’s constitutional views with his larger democratic outlook” especially as it related to the president’s desire to eliminate artificial inequality in American life. On the bank question, Jackson better understood the desire of the American people. Congress decided not to override the veto, leaving Clay without an issue on which to campaign. Thus, the National Republicans opted to paint the president as a power-mad executive. Try as they might, they could not undermine the popularity of Andrew Jackson and his running mate, Martin Van Buren. Not even the presence of a third-party candidate, William Wirt representing the Anti-Masonic Party, could derail Jackson’s reelection. He easily won the popular (55 percent) and the Electoral College (77 percent) votes.

    Screenshot (253).png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Presidential Election map, 1832 | Henry Clay had hoped to use the issue of the bank to his advantage in 1832, but Andrew Jackson easily won the popular and Electoral College votes. After his reelection, he vowed to destroy the BUS and its director Nicolas Biddle. Author: National Atlas of the United States Source: Wikimedia Commons

    After his reelection, Andrew Jackson made it his personal mission to destroy not only the bank, but also Nicolas Biddle. To speed the bank’s demise, Jackson proposed withdrawing the government deposits (totaling about $10 million) from the BUS before its charter expired in 1836. Jackson planned to deposit the government’s money in carefully-selected state banks, later called the “pet banks” by their opponents. The plan, in Jackson’s opinion, would end the bank’s ability to control the nation’s currency and credit system, as well as prevent Biddle from mounting an effective challenge to the veto.

    Most of Jackson’s cabinet worried about his decision, but the president was determined to follow through with his plan. When Louis McLane refused to withdraw the government’s funds from the Second Bank of the United States, Jackson shifted him to the vacant position of secretary of state and appointed William J. Duane to fill the vacancy in the treasury department. When Duane refused to remove the funds, Jackson fired him. Finally, Jackson appointed Roger B. Taney, his attorney general, to head the treasury department. Slowly, Taney began to remove the federal government’s deposits and shift them to the state banks. Biddle did not go down without a fight. As soon as the withdrawals began, he began to contract he bank’s credit, claiming he needed to put the bank’s books in order before the charter expired. His efforts caused a slight economic downturn but did not derail the effort to kill the bank.

    Although Jackson would feel the sting of the Senate’s censure and their rejection of Taney as the secretary of treasury in his second term, Congress did begin a shift toward a hard money policy, something Jackson supported, when it passed the Coinage Act in 1835. The measure substituted gold coins for paper currency in commercial transactions. For Jackson, shifting to hard money was a more equitable system because it helped avoid the boom and bust cycle caused by speculation and inflation, which had increased after the federal deposits moved to state banks. Jackson also encouraged Congress to pass legislation that would ban banks from issuing paper currency worth less than five dollars. When Congress declined to follow through, the treasury department told its deposit banks not to accept small bills; later they required on-demand convertibility of paper notes to specie.

    The end of the Second Bank of the United States and Jackson’s proposal to shift to hard money certainly did not please all of his supporters. Even so, several factions approved of his decisions, at least in part. Western farmers disliked the bank because it tended to limit the amount of paper currency in circulation and, in turn, the amount of credit available. They wanted a currency system based on cheap money, or paper currency, not backed by specie. Diehard states’ rights advocates sought an end to the bank because they viewed it as an unconstitutional exercise of power, and they distrusted paper currency. Working people in Northeastern cities also disliked all banks in general. They believed that paper currency brought economic misery to the working class; thus, they wanted to end the use of all paper currency.

    Conservative Democrats, who supported the maintenance of paper currency, increasingly found themselves at odds with the president. They seemed to have more in common with the economic nationalists. The president’s opponents tried to stop his move to hard money policies after 1835 by supporting a proposal Henry Clay made during Jackson’s first term. Clay had proposed to keep the price of land high so the government could disperse the revenue back to the states for internal improvements. Simultaneously, John C. Calhoun proposed a measure to regulate the pet banks. The Senate wove the two proposals together in the Deposit Bill, which Congress passed in mid-1836. After the act took effect, speculation began to rise, which worried Jackson’s hard money supporters. The president responded with the Specie Circular, which required payment in hard currency for all federal land transactions and made millions of dollars of currency almost worthless. The currency debate was far from over as Jackson’s presidency ended. One thing seemed clear by 1836: the bank war helped pave the way for the second party system.

    12.3.6: Before You Move On...

    Key Concepts

    In 1828, Andrew Jackson defeated John Quincy Adams in the presidential election. His victory ushered in the era of Jacksonian Democracy—a time that promoted the common man, states’ rights, and strict construction. During his presidency, personal and political issues meshed in Jackson’s mind as he strove to address questions about Indian removal, concerns over the tariff and nullification, and the future of the BUS. Fully living up to his southern supporters’ expectations, Jackson oversaw the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the Southeast. Given the controversial nature of the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832, Jackson helped reduce tariff rates. At the same time, he took a strong stand in favor of the preservation of the union when South Carolina claimed the states had the right to nullify federal laws. Finally, Jackson underscored his belief in a literal interpretation of the Constitution when he worked to destroy the Second Bank of the United States. In 1832, largely based on his stance regarding the bank, Jackson defeated Henry Clay in the presidential election. However, the bank issue also increased hostility to his vision, paving the way for the creation of the second party system.

    Test Yourself

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Andrew Jackson’s action in regard to the Indians was to

    a. oppose their removal to the West.

    b. refuse to enforce a Supreme Court decision in the Indians' favor.

    c. defend Indian rights to disputed lands in Georgia.

    d. send troops to slaughter the Indians.

    Answer

    b

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Who was the author of the South Carolina Exposition and Protest?

    a. John C. Calhoun

    b. Henry Clay

    c. Robert Hayne

    d. Daniel Webster

    Answer

    a

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Many critics of the Second Bank of the United States, including Andrew Jackson, charged that

    a. it failed completely to meet its financial obligations.

    b. it was a tool of the Democratic Party.

    c. it was mismanaged by Nicholas Biddle.

    d. it concentrated too much power in the hands of the privileged

    Answer

    d

    • Was this article helpful?