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Dr. Von Holst, the most philosophic of historians, when he passes from the period of John Quincy Adams to that of his successor, is reluctantly compelled to leave the realm of pure history for that of biography, and to entitle a chapter "The Reign of Andrew Jackson." This change of treatment could, indeed, hardly be helped. Under Adams all was impersonal, methodical, a government of laws and not of men. With an individuality quite as strong as that of Jackson--as the whole nation learned ere his life ended--it had yet been the training of his earlier career to suppress himself, and be simply a perfect official. His policy aided the vast progress of the nation, but won no credit by the process. Men saw with wonder the westward march of an expanding people, but forgot to notice the sedate, passionless, orderly administration that held the door open and kept the peace for all. In studying the time of Adams, we think of the nation; in observing that of Jackson, we think of Jackson himself. In him we see the first popular favorite of a nation now well out of leading-strings, and particularly bent on going alone. By so much as he differed from Adams, by so much the people liked him better. His conquests had been those of war, always more dazzling than those of peace; his temperament was of fire, always more attractive than one of marble. He was helped by what he had done, and by what he had not done. Even his absence of diplomatic training was almost counted for a virtue, because all this training was necessarily European, and the demand had ripened for a purely American product.
It had been quite essential to the self-respect of the new republic, at the outset, that it should have at its head men who had coped with European statesmen on their own soil and not been discomfited. This was the case with each of the early successors of Washington, and in view of his manifest superiority this advantage was not needed. Perhaps it was in a different way a sign of self-respect that the new republic should at last turn from this tradition, and take boldly from the ranks a strong and ill-trained leader, to whom all European precedent--and, indeed, all other precedent, counted for nothing. In Jackson, moreover, there first appeared upon our national stage the since familiar figure of the self-made man. Other presidents had sprung from a modest origin, but nobody had made an especial point of it. Nobody had urged Washington for office because he had been a surveyor's lad; nobody had voted for Adams because stately old ladies designated him as "that cobbler's son." But when Jackson came into office the people had just had almost a surfeit of regular training in their chief magistrates. There was a certain zest in the thought of a change, and the nation certainly had it.
It must be remembered that Jackson was in many ways far above the successive modern imitators who have posed in his image. He was narrow, ignorant, violent, unreasonable; he punished his enemies and rewarded his friends. But he was, on the other hand--and his worst opponents hardly denied it--chaste, honest, truthful, and sincere. It was not commonly charged upon him that he enriched himself at the public expense, or that he deliberately invented falsehoods. And as he was for a time more bitterly hated than anyone who ever occupied his high office, we may be very sure that these things would have been charged had it been possible. In this respect the contrast was enormous between Jackson and his imitators, and it explains his prolonged influence. He never was found out or exposed before the world, because there was nothing to detect or unveil; his merits and demerits were as visible as his long, narrow, firmly set features, or as the old military stock that encircled his neck. There he was, always fully revealed; everybody could see him; the people might take him or leave him--and they never left him.
Moreover, there was, after the eight years of Monroe and the four years of Adams, an immense popular demand for something piquant and even amusing, and this quality they always had from Jackson. There was nothing in the least melodramatic about him; he never posed or attitudinized--it would have required too much patience; but he was always piquant. There was formerly a good deal of discussion as to who wrote the once famous "Jack Downing's" letters, but we might almost say that they wrote themselves. Nobody was ever less of a humorist than Andrew Jackson, and it was therefore the more essential that he should be the cause of humor in others. It was simply inevitable that during his progresses through the country there should be some amusing shadow evoked, some Yankee parody of the man, such as came from two or three quarters under the name of Jack Downing. The various records of Monroe's famous tours are as tame as the speeches which these expeditions brought forth, and John Quincy Adams never made any popular demonstrations to chronicle; but wherever Jackson went there went the other Jack, the crude first-fruits of what is now known through the world as "American humor." Jack Downing was Mark Twain and Hosea Biglow and Artemus Ward in one. The impetuous President enraged many and delighted many, but it is something to know that under him a serious people first found that it knew how to laugh.
The very extreme, the perfectly needless extreme, of political foreboding that marked the advent of Jackson furnished a background of lurid solemnity for all this light comedy. Samuel Breck records in his diary that he conversed with Daniel Webster in Philadelphia, March 24, 1827, upon the prospects of the government. "Sir," said Mr. Webster, "if General Jackson is elected, the government of our country will be overthrown; the judiciary will be destroyed; Mr. Justice Johnson will be made Chief-Justice in the room of Mr. Marshall, who must soon retire, and then in half an hour Mr. Joseph Washington and Mr. Justice Story will resign. A majority will be left with Mr. Johnson, and every constitutional decision hitherto made will be reversed." As a matter of fact, none of these results followed. Mr. Justice Johnson never became Chief-Justice; Mr. Marshall retained that office till his death in 1835; Story and Washington also died in office; the judiciary was not overthrown, nor the government destroyed. But the very ecstasy of these fears stimulated the excitement of the public mind. No matter how extravagant the supporters of Jackson might be, they could hardly go farther in that direction than did the Websters in the other.
But it was not the fault of the Jackson party if anybody went beyond them in exaggeration. An English traveller, William E. Alexander, going in a stage-coach from Baltimore to Washington in 1831, records the exuberant conversation of six editors, with whom he was shut up for hours. "The gentlemen of the press," he says, "talked of 'going the whole hog' for one another, of being 'up to the hub' (nave) for General Jackson, 'who was all brimstone but the head, and that was aqua-fortis,' and swore if anyone abused him he ought to be 'set straddle on an iceberg, and shot through with a streak of lightning.'" Somewhere between the dignified despair of Daniel Webster, and the adulatory slang of these gentry we must look for the actual truth about Jackson's administration. The fears of the statesman were not wholly groundless, for it is always hard to count in advance upon the tendency of high office to make men more reasonable. The enthusiasm of the editors had a certain foundation; at any rate it was a part of their profession to like stirring times, and they had now the promise of them. After four years of Adams, preceded by eight years of Monroe, any party of editors in America, assembled in a stage-coach, would have showered epithets of endearment on the man who gave such promise in the way of lively items. No acute journalist could help seeing that a man had a career before him who was called "Old Hickory" by three-quarters of the nation, and who made "Hurrah for Jackson!" a cry so potent that it had the force of a popular decree.
There was, indeed, unbounded room for popular enthusiasm in the review of Jackson's early career. Born in such obscurity that it is doubtful to this day whether he was born in South Carolina, as he himself claimed, or on the North Carolina side of the line, as Mr. Parton thinks, he had a childhood of poverty and ignorance. He was taken prisoner as a mere boy during the Revolution, and could never forget that he had been wounded by a British officer whose boots he had refused to brush. Afterward, in a frontier community, he was successively farmer, shopkeeper, law-student, lawyer, district attorney, judge, and Congressman, being first Representative from Tennessee, and then Senator, and all before the age of thirty-one. In Congress Albert Gallatin describes him "as a tall, lank, uncouth-looking personage, with long locks of hair hanging over his brows and face, and a queue down his back tied in an eel-skin; his dress singular, his manners and deportment those of a backwoodsman." He remained, however, but a year or two in all at Philadelphia--then the seat of national government--and afterward became a planter in Tennessee, fought duels, subdued Tecumseh and the Creek Indians, winning finally the great opportunity of his life by being made a Major-General in the United States army on May 31, 1814. He now had his old captors, the British, with whom to deal, and entered into the work with a relish. By way of preliminary he took Pensacola, without any definite authority, from the Spaniards, to whom it belonged, and the English whom they harbored; and then turned, without orders, without support, and without supplies, to undertake the defence of New Orleans.
Important as was this city, and plain as it was that the British threatened it, the national authorities had done nothing to defend it. The impression prevailed at Washington that it must already have been taken, but that the President would not let it be known. The Washington Republican of January 17, 1815, said, "That Mr. Madison will find it convenient and will finally determine to abandon the State of Louisiana we have not a doubt." A New York newspaper of January 30th, quoted in Mr. Andrew Stevenson's eulogy on Jackson, said, "It is a general opinion here that the city of New Orleans must fall." Apparently but one thing averted its fall--the energy and will of Andrew Jackson. On his own responsibility he declared martial law, impressed soldiers, seized powder and supplies, built fortifications of cotton bales, if nothing else came to hand. When the news of the battle of New Orleans came to the seat of government it was almost too bewildering for belief. The British veterans of the Peninsular War, whose march wherever they had landed had heretofore seemed a holiday parade, were repulsed in a manner so astounding that their loss was more than two thousand, while that of the Americans was but thirteen. By a single stroke the national self-respect was restored; and Henry Clay, at Paris, said "Now I can go to England without mortification."
All these things must be taken into account in estimating what Dr. Von Holst calls "the reign of Andrew Jackson." After this climax of military success he was for a time employed on frontier service, again went to Florida to fight Englishmen and Spaniards, practically conquering that region in a few months, but this time with an overwhelming force. Already his impetuosity had proved to have a troublesome side to it; he had violated neutral territory, had hung two Indians without justification, and had put to death, with no authority, two Englishmen, Ambrister and Arbuthnot. These irregularities did not harm him in the judgment of his admirers; they seemed in the line of his character and helped more than they hurt him. In the winter of 1823-24 he was again chosen a Senator from Tennessee. Thenceforth he was in the field as a candidate for the Presidency, with two things to aid him--his own immense popularity and a friend. This friend was one William B. Lewis, a man in whom all the skilful arts of the modern wire-puller seemed to be born full-grown.
There was at that time (1824) no real division in parties. The Federalists had been effectually put down, and every man who aspired to office claimed to be Democratic-Republican. Nominations were irregularly made, sometimes by a Congressional caucus, sometimes by State legislatures. Tennessee, and afterward Pennsylvania, nominated Jackson. When it came to the vote, he proved to be by all odds the popular candidate. Professor W. G. Sumner, counting up the votes of the people, finds 155,800 votes for Jackson, 105,300 for Adams, 44,200 for Crawford, 46,000 for Clay. Even with this strong popular vote before it, the House of Representatives, balloting by States, elected on the first trial John Quincy Adams. Seldom in our history has the cup of power come so near to the lips of a candidate and been dashed away again. Yet nothing is surer in a republic than a certain swing of the pendulum afterward, in favor of any candidate to whom a special injustice has been done, and in the case of a popular favorite like Jackson, this might have been foreseen to be irresistible. His election four years later was almost a foregone conclusion, but, as if to make it wholly sure, there came up the rumor of a "corrupt bargain" between the successful candidate and Mr. Clay, whose forces had indeed joined with those of Mr. Adams to make a majority. For General Jackson there could be nothing more fortunate. The mere ghost of a corrupt bargain is worth many thousand votes to the lucky man who conjures up the ghost.
When it came the turn of the Adams party to be defeated, in 1828, they attributed this result partly to the depravity of the human heart, partly to the tricks of Jackson, and partly to the unfortunate temperament of Mr. Adams. The day after a candidate is beaten everybody knows why it was, and says it was just what anyone might have foreseen. Ezekiel Webster, writing from New Hampshire, laid the result chiefly on the candidate, whom everybody disliked, and who would persist in leaving his bitter opponents in office. The people, he said, "always supported his cause from a cold sense of duty, and not from any liking of the man. We soon satisfy ourselves," he added, "that we have discharged our duty to the cause of any man when we do not entertain for him one personal kind feeling, nor cannot, unless we disembowel ourselves, like a trussed turkey, of all that is human within us." There is, indeed, no doubt that Mr. Adams helped on his own defeat, both by his defects and by what would now be considered his virtues. The trouble, however, lay further back. Ezekiel Webster thought that "if there had been at the head of affairs a man of popular character like Mr. Clay, or any man whom we were not compelled by our natures, instinct, and fixed fate to dislike, the result would have been different." But we can now see that all this would really have made no difference at all. Had Mr. Adams been personally the most attractive of men, instead of being a conscientious iceberg, the same result would have followed, the people would have felt that Jackson's turn had come, and the demand for the "old ticket" would have been irresistible.
Accordingly, the next election, that of 1828, was easily settled. Jackson had 178 electoral votes; Adams but 83--more than two to one. Adams had not an electoral vote south of the Potomac or west of the Alleghanies, though Daniel Webster, writing to Jeremiah Mason, had predicted that he would carry six Western and Southern States. In Georgia no Adams ticket was even nominated, he being there unpopular for one of his best acts--the protection of the Cherokees. On the other hand, but one Jackson elector was chosen from New England, and he by less than two hundred majority.
On the day of his inauguration the president was received in Washington with an ardor that might have turned a more modest head. On the day when the new administration began (March 4, 1829), Daniel Webster wrote to his sister-in-law, with whom he had left his children that winter: "To-day we have had the inauguration. A monstrous crowd of people is in the city. I never saw anything like it before. Persons have come five hundred miles to see General Jackson, and they really seem to think that the country is rescued from some frightful danger." It is difficult now to see what this peril was supposed to be; but we know that the charges of monarchical tendency made against John Adams had been renewed against his son--a renewal that seems absurd in case of a man so scrupulously republican that he would not use a seal ring, and so unambitious that he always sighed after the quieter walks of literature. Equally absurd was the charge of extravagance against a man who kept the White House in better order than his predecessors on less than half the appropriation--an economy wholly counterbalanced in some minds by the fact that he had put in a billiard-table. But however all this may have been, the fact is certain that no president had yet entered the White House amid such choruses of delight; nor did it happen again until Jackson's pupil, Van Buren, yielded, amid equal popular enthusiasm, to another military hero, Harrison.
For the social life of Washington the President had one advantage which was altogether unexpected, and seemed difficult of explanation by anything in his earlier career. He had at his command the most courteous and agreeable manners. Even before the election of Adams, Daniel Webster had written to his brother: "General Jackson's manners are better than those of any of the candidates. He is grave, mild, and reserved. My wife is for him decidedly." And long after, when the president was to pass in review before those who were perhaps his most implacable opponents, the ladies of Boston, we have the testimony of the late Josiah Quincy, in his "Figures from the Past," that the personal bearing of this obnoxious official was most unwillingly approved. Mr. Quincy was detailed by Governor Lincoln, on whose military staff he was, to attend President Jackson everywhere when visiting Boston in 1833; and this narrator testifies that, with every prejudice against Jackson, he found him essentially "a knightly personage--prejudiced, narrow, mistaken on many points, it might be, but vigorously a gentleman in his high sense of honor, and in the natural, straightforward courtesies which are easily distinguished from the veneer of policy." Sitting erect on his horse, a thin, stiff type of military strength, he carried with him in the streets a bearing of such dignity that staid old Bostonians, who had refused even to look upon him from their windows, would finally be coaxed into taking one peep, and would then hurriedly bring forward their little daughters to wave their handkerchiefs. He wrought, Mr. Quincy declares, "a mysterious charm upon old and young;" showed, although in feeble health, a great consideration for others; and was in private a really agreeable companion. It appears from these reminiscences that the president was not merely the cause of wit in others, but now and then appreciated it himself, and that he used to listen with delight to the reading of the "Jack Downing" letters, laughing heartily sometimes, and declaring: "The Vice-President must have written that. Depend upon it Jack Downing is only Van Buren in masquerade." It is a curious fact that the satirist is already the better remembered of the two, although Van Buren was in his day so powerful as to preside over the official patronage of the nation and to be called the "Little Magician."
The two acts with which the administration of President Jackson will be longest identified are his dealings with South Carolina in respect to nullification, and his long warfare with the United States Bank. The first brought the New England States back to him, and the second took them away again. He perhaps won rather more applause than he merited by the one act, and more condemnation than was just for the other. Let us first consider the matter of nullification. When various Southern States--Georgia at first, not South Carolina, taking the lead--had quarrelled with the tariff of 1828, and openly threatened to set it aside, they evidently hoped for the co-operation of the President; or at least for that silent acquiescence he had shown when Georgia had been almost equally turbulent on the Indian question and he would not interfere, as his predecessor had done, to protect the treaty rights of the Indian tribes. The whole South was therefore startled when he gave, at a banquet on Jefferson's birthday (April 13, 1830), a toast that now seems commonplace--"The Federal Union; it must be preserved." But this was not all; when the time came he took vigorous, if not altogether consistent, steps to preserve it.
When, in November, 1832, South Carolina for the first time officially voted that certain tariff acts were null and void in that State, the gauntlet of defiance was fairly thrown down, and Jackson took it up. He sent General Scott to take command at Charleston, with troops near by, and two gunboats at hand; he issued a dignified proclamation, written by Livingston (December 10, 1832), which pronounced the act of South Carolina contradictory to the Constitution, unauthorized by it, and destructive of its aims. So far so good; but unfortunately the president had, the week before (December 4, 1832), sent a tariff message to Congress, of which John Quincy Adams wrote, "It goes far to dissolve the Union into its original elements, and is in substance a complete surrender into the hands of the nullifiers of South Carolina." Then came Mr. Clay's compromise tariff of 1833, following in part the line indicated by this message, and achieving, as Mr. Calhoun said, a victory for nullification, leaving the matter a drawn game at any rate.
The action of Jackson thus accompanied settled nothing; it was like valiantly ordering a burglar out of your house with a pistol, and adding a suggestion that he will find a portion of the family silver on the hall-table, ready packed for his use, as he goes out.
Nevertheless, the burglar was gone for the moment, and the president had the credit of it. He had already been re-elected by an overwhelming majority in November, 1832, receiving 219 electoral votes, and Clay 49, while Floyd had the 11 votes of South Carolina (which still chose electors by its Legislature--a practice now abandoned), and Wirt the 7 of Vermont. Van Buren was chosen vice-president, being nominated in place of Calhoun by the Democratic National Convention, which now for the first time came into operation. The president was now at his high-water mark of popularity--always a dangerous time for a public man. His vehement nature accepted his re-election as a proof that he was right in everything, and he grew more self-confident than ever. More imperiously than ever, he ordered about friends and opponents, and his friends repaid it by guiding his affairs, unconsciously to himself. Meantime he was encountering another enemy of greater power, because more silent, than Southern nullification, and he was drifting on to his final contest with the United States Bank.
Sydney Smith says that every Englishman feels himself able, without instruction, to drive a pony-chaise, conduct a small farm, and edit a newspaper. The average American assumes, in addition to all this, that he is competent to manage a bank. President Jackson claimed for himself in this respect no more than his fellows; the difference was in strength of will and in possession of power. A man so ignorant that a member of his own family, according to Mr. Trist, used to say that the general did not believe the world was round, might easily convince himself that he knew all about banking. As he had, besides all this, very keen observation and great intuitive judgment of character, he was probably right in his point of attack. There is little doubt that the Bank of the United States, under Nicholas Biddle, concentrated in itself an enormous power; and it spent in four years, by confession of its directors, $58,000 in what they called self-defence "against politicians." When on July 10, 1832, General Jackson, in a message supposed to have been inspired by Amos Kendall, vetoed the bill renewing the charter of the bank, he performed an act of courage, taking counsel with his instincts. But when in the year following he performed the act known as the "Removal of the Deposits," or, in other words, caused the public money to be no longer deposited in the National Bank and its twenty-five branches, but in a variety of State banks instead, then he took counsel of his ignorance.
The consequence, immediate or remote, was an immense galvanizing into existence of State banks, and ultimately a vast increase of paper money. The Sub-Treasury system had not then been thought of; there was no proper place of deposit for the public funds; their possession was a direct stimulus to speculation; and the president's cure was worse than the disease. All the vast inflation of 1835 and 1836 and the business collapse of 1837 were due to the fact not merely that Andrew Jackson brought all his violent and persistent will to bear against the United States Bank, but that when he got the power into his own hands he did not know what to do with it. Not one of his biographers--hardly even a bigoted admirer, so far as I know--now claims that his course in this respect was anything but a mistake. "No monster bank," says Professor W. G. Sumner, "under the most malicious management, could have produced as much havoc, either political or financial, as this system produced while it lasted." If the bank was, as is now generally admitted, a dangerous institution, Jackson was in the right to resist it; he was right even in disregarding the enormous flood of petitions that poured in to its support. But to oppose a dangerous bank does not necessarily make one an expert in banking. The utmost that can be said in favor of his action is that the calamitous results showed the great power of the institution he overthrew, and that if he had let it alone the final result might have been as bad.
Two new States were added to the Union in President Jackson's time--Arkansas (1836) and Michigan (1837). The population of the United States in 1830 had risen to nearly thirteen millions (12,866,020). There was no foreign war during his administration, although one with France was barely averted; and no domestic contest except with the Florida Indians--a contest in which these combatants held their ground so well, under the half-breed chief Osceola, that he himself was only captured by the violation of a flag of truce, and that even to this day, as the Indian Commissioners tell us, some three hundred of the tribe remain in Florida. The war being equally carried on against fugitive slaves called Maroons, who had intermarried with the Indians, did something to prepare the public mind for a new agitation which was to remould American political parties, and to modify the Constitution of the nation.
It must be remembered that the very air began to be filled in Jackson's time with rumors of insurrections and uprisings in different parts of the world. The French revolution of the Three Days had roused all the American people to sympathy, and called forth especial enthusiasm in such cities as Baltimore, Richmond, and Charleston. The Polish revolution had excited universal interest, and John Randolph had said "The Greeks are at your doors." All these things were being discussed at every dinner-table, and the debates in Virginia as to the necessity of restricting the growing intelligence of the slaves had added to the agitation. In the session of 1829-30 a bill had passed the Virginia Assembly by one majority, and had failed in the Senate, prohibiting slaves being taught to read or write; and the next year it had passed almost unanimously. There had been, about the same time, alarms of insurrection in North Carolina, so that a party of slaves were attacked and killed by the inhabitants of Newbern; alarms in Maryland, so that fifty blacks had been imprisoned on the Eastern Shore; alarms in Louisiana, so that reinforcements of troops had been ordered to Baton Rouge; and a traveller had written even from Richmond, Va., on February 12th, that there were constant fears of insurrections, and special patrols. Then came the insurrection of Nat Turner in Virginia--an uprising described minutely by myself elsewhere; the remarkable inflammatory pamphlet called "Walker's Appeal," by a Northern colored man--a piece of writing surpassed in lurid power by nothing in the literature of the French Revolution; and more potent than either or both of these, the appearance of the first number of the Liberator, in Boston. When Garrison wrote, "I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard," Andrew Jackson for once met a will firmer than his own, because more steadfast and moved by a loftier purpose. Thenceforth, for nearly half a century, the history of the nation was the history of the great anti-slavery contest.