As a general, official, candidate, and especially as seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) was and is one of the most polarizing figures on the American scene.
Because of the Jacksonians’ occasionally lurid rhetoric and Manichean approach to certain policy issues, historians have long been in the habit of including Jackson and his followers in the ranks of “paranoid” or conspiracy theory–prone political movements.
This interpretation comes most powerfully from the post–World War II “consensus” historians, led by Richard Hofstadter, with their downplaying of class, economic, and ideological conflict as forces in U.S. history.
The Jacksonians constantly described American society in these terms, and practiced a politics of angry confrontation, so the consensus historians set them down as demagogues using class rhetoric to mask a capitalist agenda, or as conspiracy theorists who, as David Brion Davis puts it, saw “the growing inequality of wealth as the product of an aristocratic conspiracy against the rights of the laboring classes”.
This view is inadequate. Coming to prominence in a time of sweeping change—what more recent scholars have labeled the “Market Revolution”— the Jacksonians were expressing serious concerns when they attacked their Monster Banks and hydras of corruption.
This revolution saw millions of Americans become wage laborers for the first time, subject to the will of employers and forced to meet their daily needs by buying goods and services in the marketplace.
Inequalities of wealth deepened as many traditional trades were decimated by industrialization. The legal and institutional order was remade in ways that maximized the power and protected the earnings of capitalist entrepreneurs over and against the rest of society.
Finally, two major economic depressions punctuated the Jacksonian era, the panics of 1819 and 1837, and in those crashes millions of Americans found themselves suddenly susceptible to the fortunes and policies of unfamiliar institutions like banks and corporations, run by and for the benefit of a new class of economic power brokers.
In sum, while we may find the Jacksonians’ analysis of the Market Revolution extreme and their policy responses to it crude and simplistic, the problems they perceived were no paranoid delusions.
Jackson himself was probably a bit paranoid. Much of his political career was spent crusading against various enemies and evildoers, some open, some hidden, but most not especially evil by any objective analysis.
Jackson tended to turn any issue into a quest for personal vindication, and while this tendency was an important flaw in Jackson’s character as a leader, it should not lead us to conclude that he was always merely paranoid.
In many cases, they really were out to get him. The following is just a sampling of the occasions when Jackson detected conspirators at work against him, and vice versa.
The Election of 1824 and the “Corrupt Bargain”
Though Andrew Jackson’s candidacy began as a merely local, tactical maneuver, the hero of New Orleans emerged rapidly as a popular favorite, disrupting the presidential plans of House Speaker Henry Clay and Monroe administration cabinet members John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and John C. Calhoun.
Jackson’s sudden rise was one of the seminal events in U.S. political history, potentially placing the power of presidential selection into the hands of popular majorities for the first time.
Unfortunately, the U.S. political system was unprepared for this development. The established means of nominating presidential candidates, the congressional caucus, fell apart when only one quarter of the members attended.
Crawford was nominated but the supporters of Jackson, Adams, and Clay ignored the caucus decision, setting up a four-way presidential race that was guaranteed to be difficult to resolve.
Jackson finished first in the popular and Electoral College voting, but fell short of the required majority in the College. This meant the final decision would have to be made in the House of Representatives.
The Jacksonians expected the House to simply ratify the people’s choice, but that was not a constitutional requirement. Though some feared riots if Jackson was not elected, the House voting on 9 February 1825 had the look of a deal between the Adams and Clay forces. The states that had given their Electoral College votes to Clay went to Adams, along with several Jackson states, making Adams president.
Rumors of a conspiracy to thwart the people’s will circulated heavily, and one week later they seemed to come true, when Adams announced Clay as his choice for secretary of state. Adams and Clay both denied that there had been any arrangement, but the circumstantial evidence for a perhaps unstated understanding between them is strong.
The Jacksonians exploded in anger, denouncing the election as a “corrupt bargain” against the people and Adams as a morally and democratically illegitimate president. Jackson’s own reaction was typically violent: “So you see, the Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver. [H]is end will be the same”.
His supporters used the battle cry of “bargain and sale” to undermine the Adams administration’s every move, finding sinister motives behind even the most high-minded initiatives and the least significant decisions. Adams and Clay were dubbed “the coalition,” a pejorative term in those days, used to denote an alliance based purely on self-interest and lust for power.
Missouri senator and ardent Jacksonian Thomas Hart Benton led a congressional investigation of corruption in the administration. The committee issued a report comparing Adams and Clay to the kings and prime ministers of England before the American Revolution.
The coalition was supposedly out to seize absolute power by using the government’s revenue to buy up supporters, specifically by appointing partisans to office and subsidizing friendly newspapers. Later a Committee on Retrenchment was formed during the campaign year of 1828 to look further into Adams’s alleged excesses.
Of course, this so-called spoils system of partisan appointments expanded dramatically once the Jacksonians were in power, despite their cries for “reform” while Adams was president.
Ironically, all these attacks were directed at what was probably one of the least partisan administrations in U.S. history.
Most of the charges were exaggerated or fictitious, but all were made plausible by the circumstances of Adams’s election. Whether corrupt, a bargain, or not, the Adams-Clay coalition was based on assumptions about the role of democracy in the constitutional system that suddenly became outmoded in the 1820s.
The founders may have placed the election of the president in the hands of the Electoral College and Congress, but in practice it had become the province of the people themselves.
Slaying the Monster Bank
Probably the best-known examples of Jacksonian “paranoia” can be found in the so-called Bank War, in which Jackson destroyed the Second Bank of the United States first by vetoing a bill renewing its charter and then by removing the government’s deposits from the bank.
Couched in some of the most radical rhetoric ever to come out of the White House, Jackson’s crusade against the bank struck the institution’s defenders and most later commentators as extreme and hyperbolic if not downright pathological.
Like the attacks on the “coalition,” Jacksonian fears about the institution they sometimes called the Monster were rooted in serious concerns. Giant national institutions of any kind were virtually nonexistent in this period.
The Bank of the United States (BUS) was perhaps the first national business corporation, and the only other real national institution of any kind, the federal government, had no presence in most communities besides the local post office. The BUS was not the Federal Reserve or a government treasury.
Instead, it was a privately owned, profit-making commercial bank, with branches across the country, that happened to enjoy the very great privilege of holding the government’s money on deposit.
From the inception of its first incarnation back under Hamilton and Washington, the BUS had been highly controversial, as much for its potential for political abuse as for its economic power.
Especially under the direction of Nicholas Biddle, who assumed the presidency of the Second BUS in 1823, the national bank set the example followed by most major U.S. corporations since, working to maximize its influence by forging close ties with politicians.
Loans to lawmakers and political journalists were made freely, and several of the most prominent congressional leaders, including Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, were hired by the bank in their private capacity as lawyers.
The influential New York Courier and Enquirer switched from opposition to support of the BUS after a loan came through. This sort of influence-buying is what the Jacksonians were thinking of when they denounced the BUS as a “hydra of corruption”.
Banks themselves were unfamiliar, suspicious institutions to most Americans of the early nineteenth century. Bank-loaned paper money was felt to be, in essence, fake money (in contrast to gold and silver) that encouraged reckless, groundless speculative investments.
Jackson told Biddle he had been “afraid” of banks ever since reading about the South Sea Bubble, a disastrous British investment mania of the early eigthteenth century.
Jackson had also personally experienced a bank-driven financial boom and bust. The BUS was widely blamed for a banking and land speculation bubble that had burst and plunged the country into a depression beginning in 1819.
Newly reestablished at the end of the War of 1812, the national bank had first failed to restrain a rapid overexpansion of credit by new state and local banks and then suddenly cracked down a few years later to save itself.
An epidemic of bankruptcy, unemployment, and homelessness ensued, followed swiftly by tens of thousands of debt collection lawsuits that sent many debtors to jail.
Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were only two among many major figures who barely escaped total ruin in the panic of 1819, and many other similar and lesser Americans were not so lucky.
Jackson’s home region and electoral base, the West, was especially hard hit. The new western cities like St. Louis and Cincinnati had been the center of the land boom, and in aggressively collecting debts after the crash, the BUS stripped hundreds of western farmers and businessmen of their property.
By some reports, most of Cincinnati ended up owned by the BUS. Westerners responded with political outrage that would fuel Jacksonianism later on. New senator and future Jacksonian Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri reported that his trip to Washington was “one long ride amidst the crashings and explosions of banks”.
In Washington, Benton helped launch the antibank crusade that Jackson would finish a decade later, giving voice to many westerners’ sense of sudden enslavement to an evil foreign entity.
“All the flourishing cities of the west are mortgaged to this money power,” Benton thundered. “They are in the jaws of the monster! A lump of butter in the mouth of a dog! One gulp, one swallow, and all is gone!”.
The ideas of Jacksonians like “Old Bullion” Benton, so named for his advocacy of a “hard money” currency of gold and silver coins only, can be seen as typical conspiracy theories to the extent that they blame large, disturbing changes on one villainous institution.
As with many other conspiracy theories, this act of scapegoating allowed Jacksonians to avoid both acknowledging the global, systemic forces at work and admitting that any fundamental or irreversible damage had been done to U.S. society. A villain or monster could be defeated more readily than the Market Revolution or industrial capitalism.
The depth of Andrew Jackson’s own antipathy to the BUS was not widely known during his first two presidential campaigns and for most of his first term as president. It came out only when his long- time political enemy Henry Clay, now a senator, decided to press for early recharter of the BUS. (The existing charter did not expire until 1836.)
Clay expected a veto and hoped to use the issue against Jackson in the 1832 presidential race. Though Thomas Hart Benton led a stiff resistance and the Jacksonians had a majority in Congress, enough of them defected to allow the recharter bill to pass on 3 July 1832.
The whole thing smelled of corruption to Jackson, who was sick and suffering intense pain at the time from an old bullet wound in his arm. He took the recharter drive as a personal challenge that had to beaten back: “The Bank ... is trying to kill me, but I will kill it”.
The message that Jackson and his aides concocted to explain the veto remains a shocking presidential document, crackling with anger and critical of dominant elements of U.S. society in a way that would be impossible to imagine today.
Hardest for his opponents to take was Jackson’s harsh class rhetoric, condemning the wealthy for conspiring against democracy and the welfare of the nation: “The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes,” the veto message argued.
The document set the terms for the “Bank War” that followed, boiling down a host of fears about the social and political impact of the rise of corporate capitalism into this one battle against a monstrously large and dangerous bank.
While also attacking the bank as unconstitutional and overly beholden to foreign investors, Jackson focused his greatest ire on the way government involvement with business inevitably led to the subversion of democratic institutions and values:
Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress. By attempting to gratify their desires we have in the results of our legislation arrayed section against section, interest against interest, and man against man, in a fearful commotion which threatens to shake the foundations of our Union. (Jackson, 1832 )Bank president Nicholas Biddle and his allies thought this was crazy talk, that the veto message would ruin Jackson: “It has all the fury of chained panther biting the bars of his cage. It is really a manifesto of anarchy”. So convinced was Biddle that the message would contribute to Jackson’s downfall that he had thousands of copies printed up and mailed at bank expense.
Obviously, this was far from the case. Jackson was resoundingly reelected in 1832, an election that his opponents tried to turn into a referendum on the Bank War, with the aid of the BUS itself.
As his second term opened, Jackson was determined to finish what he had started. Fearful that Biddle’s political loans and lobbying might secure another, perhaps veto-proof recharter bill sometime in the Monster’s remaining four years of life, Jackson and his advisors planned a preemptive strike.
They would withdraw the government’s money from the BUS and deposit it in a number of different state banks, thereby crippling Biddle’s institution both financially and politically.