Saturday, April 28, 2018

Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom by Robert V. Remini

This is Volume 2 of a three volume biography of Andrew Jackson. I blogged about the first volume back in August 2012 -- more than five years ago. That shows you how long books sometimes linger on my “to-read” shelf, as all three volumes were sent to me as part of my now lapsed subscription to the History Book Club.

Going back and reading my post on Volume 1, it seems like my investigative interest in that volume was trying to determine if the author was biased in favor of his biographical subject. This will happen to me frequently when reading. Some question will present itself to me (i.e., is this author a trustworthy source of information?), and that question will preoccupy my mind as I journey through the rest of the book. Many dogears and marginal comments will follow, some in support, some against the question, until I’m ready to either decide the case, or give up the quest as fruitless.

A similar thing happened to me with Volume 2, but the question had nothing to do with Remini’s trustworthiness. (To be fair, I eventually absolved Remini of that accusation as I journeyed through Volume 1.) Here, the investigative interest was something much more likely to be supported by the author.

In fact, I’ll let Remini introduce the subject:

Andrew Jackson was the product of the Revolutionary generation and he absorbed many of its prevailing ideas and beliefs. From colonial days through the Revolution and well into the nineteenth century, Americans believed that those who exercised power were naturally inclined to suppress liberty and that they regularly devised means to limit if not abrogate the rights of the people. They viewed corruption as power’s greatest weapon and virtue as freedom’s greatest defense. The struggle between liberty and power during the colonial era produced the Revolution and ultimately achieved independence from the British empire for the American people. But the dangers to freedom persisted. They persisted as long as power could be concentrated and the operation of government corrupted. The only defense rested upon the virtue of the American people.

The history of the United States following the adoption of the Constitution was a continuation of this struggle, and the rise of political parties and expression of it. The Federalist and Republican parties quarreled over the limits of power to be exercised by the central administration. They disagreed about the objects of government. They entertained different views about the governed. Whereas Federalists distrusted the people, Republicans maintained that the people would protect and defend their government when its actions were just. Federalists required patronage and large expenditures of money by the central authority to perpetuate their power and position. Republicans claimed that patronage corrupted honest government and that expenditures should be appropriated to carry out the practical and natural services of government; they could not abide artificially contrived projects whose principal aim was to attract votes. Federalists needed a large standing army and navy; Republicans declared that free men had no need for peacetime armies.

These two paragraphs come early in the volume and they, with the next and following two that I’ll transcribe, constitute an excellent historical primer for those (including myself) who are less than familiar with this period of American history. But it is their general theme that I am trying to highlight here. The idea that much of that American history can be, perhaps best, understood as a struggle between man’s twin desires for liberty and power.

After the War of 1812 the Federalist party, which flirted with secession at the Hartford Convention, became moribund and slowly disappeared from the national scene. But its principles did not disappear. They resurfaced in the political thinking of many Republicans who believed that the War of 1812 demonstrated the need for a strong central government capable of advancing the material and intellectual well-being of the American public. As a consequence, demands flooded into Congress following the war urging the passage of a protective tariff, a national bank, and internal improvements such as roads and canals and bridges and many other forms of transportation. The country took off on a nationalistic spending splurge that slowed only with the economic breakdown of 1819.

The events that transpired during the administration of James Monroe -- especially after the Panic of 1819 -- revealed anew that the old tensions between liberty and power had not evaporated. The exercise of increased authority by the central government, the large expenditures of money on internal improvements, the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, the rising demand for greater tariff protection, the revelations of corruption within the government, the abuse of the federal patronage, the demand for a congressional caucus -- all these sounded alarm bells in the minds of those familiar with the ideology of “republicanism,” the ideology of the Revolutionary generation.

And it is how those twin desires -- one, and perhaps, if we’re lucky, the first, for liberty, and the second for power -- how those twin desires manifest themselves in the rise and fall of political parties; this is the question that would come to form my investigative interest in Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom. Put concisely: (1) Can the history of political parties in the United States be accurately seen as an ongoing struggle between these desires? (2) If so, has that struggle resulted in a kind of ratchet effect towards ever-increasing federal power? and (3) If so, is such a trend inevitable?

Liberty and Power

Let me try to explain by way of example. In the beginning there were two political parties -- the Federalists (who wanted the federal government to have more power over the states) and the Republicans (who wanted the states to have more power over the federal government). These positions don’t map directly onto the monikers of “power” and “liberty,” but for the sake of the example, let’s assume that they do. Eventually, the Republicans (called Democratic-Republicans by historians to distinguish them from our modern-day Republicans) win this ideological battle, and the Federalists disappear from the scene. In the absence of their political foil, the Republicans become the entrenched party, and their policies take on significant elements of the “power” they used to fight against. As a result, a new party, the Democratic, is formed, dedicated to fighting the abusive power of the Republicans, and returning the nation to a position of “liberty.” It works. Significantly for the purposes of this write up, under Andrew Jackson the Democrats become the dominant party, and they, like the Republicans before them, begin to embrace power over liberty. As a result, another new party is started -- first called the National Republicans and then the Whigs -- dedicated, guess what, to fighting the abusive power of the Democrats, and returning the nation to a position of liberty.

It worked less well for the Whigs than it did for the Democrats, but the pattern is the same. A party first fights for liberty against the entrenched power, then becomes the power and works to entrench itself, then is challenged by another new party pledged to liberty.

That much seems clear to me. Indeed, I’m clearly not the first person to recognize this dynamic. Many a political scientist and animal throughout history has seen this on-going leapfrogging of two parties as not just natural, but as essential to the smooth functioning of the republic.

But Van Buren’s move to join the Jacksonian party represented a deliberate attempt to revive the two-party system in American politics. Unlike the Founding Fathers, who cursed parties as divisive and destructive, [Van Buren] regarded the party system as an essential ingredient for representative government. Modern, efficient government, he preached, demanded well-functioning political parties openly arrayed against each other. Without parties, a democracy cannot function. A well-defined two-party system provides a balance of power between opposing forces and this in turn safeguards liberty and the institutions of republicanism. The era of a one-party system under James Monroe produced a concentration of power in Washington that necessarily generated corruption and led inexorably to the fraudulent election of John Quincy Adams. Only a revival of the two-party system could restore the healthy interplay between opposing interests and insure order and stability.

And more than this. Apparently, not only did Van Buren think competing political parties were necessary, he saw the specific party that was forming (eventually, it would come be to called the Democratic Party), as I describe in my thesis above, as liberty’s check against power.

Van Buren envisaged a party system consisting of Adams and Clay and their friends on one side, advocating Hamiltonian principles…

That is, a strong, centralized federal government.

...and Jackson, Calhoun, and the Radicals, on the other side, committed to Jeffersonian principles. ...

That is, with power distributed among the states and their people.

… Thus, when Van Buren set out to join the Jackson camp he did so not simply to defeat Adams -- important as that was -- but rather to connect Jackson’s enormous popularity around the country with republican principles by which the nation could once more function under a constitutional form of government with the liberties of the people adequately protected. If Jackson were elected President in 1828 that election must mean something, something more than personal triumph. Something more than patronage. It must be made to represent the restoration of the two-party system and the rededication of Republicans to the old Jeffersonian doctrines of ‘98.

But my bigger investigative interest has to do with the “ratchet” I alluded to earlier. I’m clearly borrowing the term from Robert Higgs’s classic Crisis and Leviathan, where he used it to describe what he saw as a steady (and inevitable?) increase in the government’s authority as a result of responding to national crises (real or manufactured). In the time of crisis, the government takes on more authoritative powers, and when the crisis is over, it relinquishes few or none of them. With the next crisis, more authoritative powers are taken (or given), and again, when the crisis is over, few or none of them are relinquished. In this manner, the government becomes larger and larger, more and more powerful.

What I’m questioning here is if something similar isn’t happening, not through responses to crises, but through the struggle of political parties for dominance. Imagine a scale where absolute individual liberty equals one and absolute government power equals ten. At the beginning of our republic, the Republicans wanted government at two and the Federalists wanted three. Eventually the Republicans win the argument, the Federalists go by the wayside, and the Republicans, initially committed to two grow in their use of power and become in actuality a four.

Enter the Democrats. They rebel against the Republicans, but advocate not for the two originally sought by the Republicans, but because the position and apparatus of a centralized government have become normalized under the Republican rhetoric of liberty, the Democrats are now looking for a three. Eventually, the Democrats win the argument, the Republicans go by the wayside, and the Democrats, initially committed to three grow in their use of power and become in actuality a five.

Enter the Whigs. They rebel against the Democrats, but advocate not for the three originally sought by the Democrats, but because the position and apparatus of a centralized government have become even more normalized under the Democrat rhetoric of liberty, the Whigs are now looking for a four.

My example may break down there because, of course, the Whigs don’t win that argument (but eventually a new party, also called the Republicans, will). But hopefully you get my point. Through this interplay, the centralized power actually grows, albeit through a series of staggered steps and checks back towards liberty.

And what makes this all the more interesting is the case that Remini persuasively makes that it is the person of Andrew Jackson who, at this critical moment in American history, comes to both embody and transcend this struggle, to transform it from something none of us moderns would understand or recognize into something that seems as familiar as our last presidential campaign.

Because, seen through this lens of liberty and power, Andrew Jackson is a figure of staggering contradictions.

A states’-rights advocate of the Jeffersonian school, [Jackson] regarded the Constitution as a limiting rather than an enabling document. He suspected any concentration of power at a central point and he preached the necessity of preserving the “natural” associations of the people in their respective states. Yet, as President, he contributed his share to widening the scope of the Constitution, enlarging the powers of the central government, and weakening the authority of the states. Like many other Presidents’, his thinking and political faith were fundamentally conservative, but his actions frequently pursued the reverse direction.

In other words, Jackson was someone who would use power, ostensibly to preserve liberty, but ultimately, I think, to limit it. Limit, at least, the kind of liberty that was commonly understood to exist in the early to mid 1800s.

The Liberty to Own Slaves

Remini does an admirable job separating, as I think I’ve called it in previous blog posts, “the cause of liberty from the effect of slavery.”

Thus, the Jacksonian movement as it began had nothing to do with the desire of southerners to protect slavery, as sometimes suggested. Despite the Missouri Compromise, that “alarm bell” in the night, it had nothing to do with the “peculiar institution.” Slavery was not the coalescing force drawing Republicans together behind Jackson. Nor did slavery represent any great fear among them. The coalescing force was the desire to protect liberty. The great fear was the loss of the government to men who lusted after money and power and would sacrifice liberty to attain them. The “honorable men in this great republic,” said Henry Lee to Jackson at the end of the 1828 campaign, “hope by electing you to preserve our liberty.”

Remini’s text seems to admit that he is swimming upstream on this one -- with not only lay people but professional historians unable to thread a needle between the two positions he’s trying to discriminate, one in favor of liberty as an abstract concept and the other in favor of the liberty to own other people. He has a somewhat easier time separating the two concepts when he replaces slavery with some other issue that southerners saw as odious because it threatened their conception of liberty.

Just as Jackson’s contest with Adams was a question of freedom, southerners saw the tariff problem in the same light. It was freedom, not tariff protection per se, nor slavery, that lay at the heart of southern fears. Some of them threatened secession, and eventually in 1860-1861 they departed the Union because they believed absolutely that liberty had succumbed to power.

It is, I think, one of the most difficult and complicated aspects of American history -- this idea that an objection on the grounds of an honorable principle should justify the practical application of that principle in a way that can only be viewed as immoral. The moral ambiguity of tariffs may allow us to better see the distinction, but the moral absolutes of slavery (at least in today’s perspective) perhaps appropriately blur the distinction into non-existence. I can’t, after all, object to a law that prevents me from beating my neighbor by claiming that it is an infringement upon by liberty to do so.

A Democratic Policy Towards Indian Removal

But an even greater contradiction that occurred during Jackson’s time as president was not protecting slavery in order to defend liberty, but perpetrating federal action to protect states’ rights. The issue at hand?

It is an awesome contradiction that at the moment the United States was entering a new age of economic and social betterment for its citizens -- the industrial revolution underway, democracy expanding, social and political reforms in process -- the Indians were driven from their homes and forced to seek refuge in remote areas west of the Mississippi River. Jackson, the supreme exponent of liberty in terms of preventing government intervention and intrusion, took it upon himself to expel the Indians from their ancient haunts and decree that they must reside outside the company of civilized white men. It was a depressing and terrible commentary of American life and institutions in the 1830s.

That’s the first paragraph of Remini’s chapter 15, and the following page and a half constitutes another one of those excellent historical primers for anyone unfamiliar with this time in American history. I feel compelled to quote it in its entirety.

The policy of white Americans towards Indians was a shambles, right from the beginning. Sometimes the policy was benign -- such as sharing educational advantages -- but more often than not it was malevolent. Colonists drove the Indians from their midst, stole their lands and, when necessary, murdered them. To the colonists, Indians were inferior and their culture a throwback to a darker age.

When independence was declared and a new government established committed to liberty and justice for all, the situation of the Indians within the continental limits of the United States contradicted the ennobling ideas of both the Declaration and the Constitution. Nevertheless, the Founding Fathers convinced themselves that men of reason, intelligence and good will could resolve the Indian problem. In their view the Indians were “noble savages,” arrested in cultural development, but they would one day take their rightful place beside white society. Once they were “civilized” they would be absorbed.

President George Washington formulated a policy to encourage the “civilizing” process, and Jefferson continued it. They presumed that once the Indians adopted the practice of private property, built homes, farmed, educated their children, and embraced Christianity these Native Americans would win acceptance from white Americans. Both Presidents wished the Indians to become cultural white men. If they did not, said Jefferson, then they must be driven to the Rocky Mountains.

The policy of removal was first suggested by Jefferson as the alternative to the “civilizing” process, and as far as many Americans were concerned removal made more sense than any other proposal. Henry Clay, for example, insisted that it was impossible to civilize these “savages.” They were, he argued, inferior to white men and “their disappearance from the human family would be no great loss to the world.”

Despite Clay’s racist notions -- shared by many Americans -- the government’s efforts to convert the Indians into cultural white men made considerable progress in the 1820s. The Cherokees, in particular, showed notable technological and material advances as a result of increased contact with traders, government agents, and missionaries, along with the growth of a considerable population of mixed-bloods.

As the Indians continued to resist the efforts to get rid of them -- the thought of abandoning the land on which their ancestors lived and died was especially painful for them -- the states insisted on exercising jurisdiction over Indian lands within their boundaries. It soon became apparent that unless the federal government instituted a policy of removal it would have to do something about protecting the Indians against the incursions of the states. But the federal government was feckless. It did neither. Men like President John Quincy Adams felt that removal was probably the only policy to follow but he could not bring himself to implement it. Nor could he face down a state like Georgia. So he did nothing. Many men of good will simply turned their faces away. They, too, did nothing.

Not Jackson. He had no hesitation about taking action. And he believed that removal was indeed the only policy available if the Indians were to be protected from certain annihilation. His ideas about the Indians developed from his life on the frontier, his expansionist dreams, his commitment to states’ rights, and his intense nationalism. He saw the nation as an indivisible unit whose strength and future were dependent on its ability to repel outside foes. He wanted all Americans from every state and territory to participate in his dream of empire, but they must acknowledge allegiance to a permanent and indissoluble bond under a federal system. Although devoted to states’ rights and limited government in Washington, Jackson rejected any notion that jeopardized the safety of the United States. That included nullification and secession. That also included the Indians.

Jackson’s nationalism, a partial product of his expansionist ideals, and his states’ rights philosophy, a product of his concern for individual liberty, merged to produce his Indian policy.

And that policy, of course, was removal. Rather than let the states “annihilate” the Indians (either by taking their lands, assimilating them into their “white” culture, or both, I could never really be sure), the federal government would forcibly remove them to the yet-to-be-organized territory west of the Mississippi River. There was intense debate in Congress over the numerous bills that would give the president the authority for these actions and, perhaps as expected, only some of them were premised on a concern for the Indians and their culture. Most, it seems, were argued over the more abstract (and political) concepts of liberty and power.

Serious debate on the bill began on May 15 [, 1830], when Henry R. Storrs of New York took dead aim on the White House and fired a powerful salvo. He accused Jackson of attempting to overthrow the constitutional securities of the states and their authority as well as assume the power of Congress to abrogate existing treaties in cases of necessity or war. The friends of states’ rights who are such strong supporters of the administration ought to see this, he facetiously remarked. Already the President has given notice that his administration will be one of aggressive action by the central government to address problems and resolve them -- with or without the cooperation of Congress. The “military chieftain” is about to demonstrate what his brand of leadership is like. “If these encroachments of the Executive Department,” said Storrs, “are not met and repelled in these halls, they will be resisted nowhere. The only power which stands between the Executive and the States is Congress. The States may destroy the Union themselves by open force, but a concentration of power in the hands of the Executive leads to despotism, which is worse. Of the two evils, I should prefer the nullifying power of the States -- it is less dangerous.”

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that such a question -- the limits of Executive power -- should be argued in the context of “Indian removal.” Not many years later, after all, it would be argued in the context of an even greater moral wrong -- slavery. In both cases, the fact that it was an argument, meaning that men of intelligence and refinement had strong feelings (or at least political ones) on both sides of these issues. What is surprising, is that with regard to Indian removal, it was Jackson, the Democrat and champion of states’ rights, who was fairly charged with boxing out of the old Federalist corner. In Jackson’s view, the states clearly had the right to decide what to do with the African slaves within their borders, but not, evidently, with the Native Americans.

And this, I think, supports my theory of the steady and perhaps inevitable encroachment of executive power in even the most liberty-minded administrations -- however those two concepts are defined in each historical period. Jackson’s contemporaries saw it.

Jackson had been elected to the presidency to protect freedom by limiting federal power; instead he had been increasing it over the past two years, particularly executive power. “To my chagrine and mortification,” fumed [Virginia Governor John] Floyd, “every principle and every power claimed by [John Quincy] Adams and [Henry] Clay, as belonging to the Federal Government, has been acted on, or claimed by President Jackson.” We exchanged one princely power for another, he said. “To talk about the benefits this administration has brought or will bring to States Rights, is an insult to the plain understanding of all.”

As does Remini. And because he can’t avoid the same conclusion, as a professional historian, he does his best to place it within context and to explain it.

What indeed had happened to all the promises about preserving liberty? Quite obviously, Jackson was himself slowly and unconsciously subverting that concept, and he did it by imposing a different definition of the term. Heretofore freedom had meant the right of the individual to be left alone to enjoy the fruits of his labor without interference by government. To a certain extent that notion continued under Jackson. He would revert to it, for example, during the opening phase of the Bank War. But more and more during his presidency the term “freedom” became identified with majority rule. A free society was one that conformed to the will of the masses. Since Jackson represented the people it therefore followed that what he proposed by way of a program of “reform retrenchment and economy” constituted their sovereign command. To reject that program denied majority rule. To contest majority rule jeopardized freedom.

This seems accurate to me based, at least, on the information that I’ve read in Remini’s own books. Jackson equated his will with the “will of the people” because “the people” had elected him. (A write-up on the third volume is coming, where this same theme takes on even greater importance.) But I would dispute Remini’s statement above that, prior to Jackson, freedom in the American experiment dealt with the right of the individual to be left alone by government. Or, if not dispute it, at least dispute its position as the counterpose to the definition that Jackson embraced. The original American experiment was premised on a collection of independent states, in which the will of the people was expressed through their state governments and their state-based representatives in the federal government. A republic, in other words. What Jackson helped do, was push into ascendancy the notion that the people had a national will, and that this will, expressed through its election of a national president, trumped the power of the states. It was the first sense that America was not a nation made of states, but made of people. As Remini himself says:

Thus Jackson subverted not only the meaning of freedom but the entire concept of “republicanism” as it had come down from the Founding Fathers. By responding naturally and unconsciously to the new impulses within American society -- a dynamic economy, an emerging industrial state, an expanding population, a more involved electorate enjoying greater suffrage rights -- he assisted in the conversion of a republic into a democracy.

Moreover, then, it is this perspective that lay at the foundation of Jackson’s Indian policy. The perspective is not twisted (although it seems erroneous, given what the Constitution and the Founding Fathers said and thought about the states), but its application to the American Indians definitely is.

This is a government of the people, Jackson argued, and the President is the agent of the people. The President and the Congress exercise their jurisdiction over “the people of the union. Who are the people of the union?” he asked. Then, answering his own question, he said: “all those subject to the jurisdiction of the sovereign states, none else.” Indians are also subject to the states, he went on. They are subject “to the sovereign power of the state within whose sovereign limits they reside.”

So, federal intervention in a dispute between a state at its people (when those people are Indians) is permitted because those people, by dint of being subject to the sovereign power of the state, are by extension, people of the union to which that state belongs. I wonder if the same principle would have held in Jackson’s mind if the people in question were not Indians but the wealthy landowners of the state?

To Serve When Called

Like many of politician of his era, Andrew Jackson can, I think, be flatly called a hypocrite when it came to expressing his own base desire for power.

To the increasing suggestions that he run for the presidency, Old Hickory did not say no. Rather he said he would not seek the office. It must come to him. To every application that he enter the race, he told Dr. James C. Bronaugh, “I give the same answer that I have never been a candidate for any office. I never will. But the people have a right to choose whom they will to perform their constitutional duties, and when the people call, the Citizen is bound to render the service required.”

After his military career ended, Jackson very obviously had his eye on the presidency, and he derived even more motivation for that goal after the “corrupt bargain” of 1824, when the House of Representatives, dealing with a situation in which no candidate won a majority of Electoral College votes, selected John Quincy Adams as president, despite Jackson receiving more Electoral College and popular votes than any other candidate. Through another convoluted process, Jackson was subsequently elected as a Senator from Tennessee, but that was an office he never truly desired. A few years later, he found it necessary to make a different decision.

At approximately the same time Jackson decided he would no longer continue as United States senator. In the first place his election to the post had come under very unusual circumstances. He never really wanted the office and then found himself in an awkward position when the presidential election landed in the House of Representatives. If he continued as senator, now that he was again a presidential contender, that awkwardness could become more acute. Besides, if he intended to give more attention to the campaign -- and he did -- he was probably better off staying at the Hermitage, where he could meet with politicians relatively free from observation. He might then direct the activities of his friends in their efforts to organize a political party in his behalf.

In a speech before the Tennessee legislature -- who, remember, at this point in history were the bodies that elected U.S. senators -- Jackson said:

To start, Jackson carefully reminded his audience that he had never sought the position to which they had selected him and, of course, he would continue to serve if his “feeble aid” might in some way advance the “security of our Republican system.” But he doubted that he was needed in Washington. Moreover, in view of the recent resolution of the legislature in “proposing again my name to the American people for the Office of chief magistrate of the Union,” he felt constrained “to ask your indulgence to be excused from any further service in the counsils of the Country.”

So much for serving if called. More like serving if called to do something he desired. Even Remini can’t fail to see through the subterfuge.

Jackson’s prudence in playing the role of reluctant candidate did not in any way change the fact that he alone headed the elaborate apparatus starting to emerge in 1826 to engineer his election to the presidency.

A Different Time

More than anything else, however, I think it must be remembered that Andrew Jackson served as U.S. president during a very different time in American history.

The possible action of the nullifiers in response to the new tariff was not Jackson’s only worry in the summer of 1832. Toward the close of the long debate on this issue the nation suddenly became aware of the frightful danger of the cholera plague that had swept Europe the year before and had now found its way to the United States. Henry Clay readied a resolution requiring the President to appoint a day of fast and introduced it into the Senate on June 27. Meanwhile the synod of the Reformed Church of North America recommended that the President designate a “day of fasting, humiliation and prayer.” Jackson responded promptly. He had strong feelings on the subject, for it touched directly on his understanding of the function of the central government. While he concurred in the efficacy of prayer and hoped that the nation would be spared the attack of pestilence, he told the synod, he flatly refused to comply with the request because it would transcend the limits of federal authority prescribed by the Constitution and “might in some degree disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government.” It was the province of the states and the pulpits “to recommend the mode by which the people may best attest their reliance on the protecting arm of the almighty in times of great public distress.” Not the President of the United States.

Sorry, can’t resist. What about the welfare of the “people of the union”? If a state isn’t going to see to the needs of the people subject to its sovereign power, why shouldn’t the federal government intervene and make sure that the people are appropriately instructed to take full advantage of the “efficacy of prayer” in a national crisis? I mean, if you’re willing to force people out of their homes and march them to their deaths, what additional indignity would a call to prayer constitute?

It was a different time. A time when the president wouldn’t dare mingle religion with politics, but still have the gumption to re-interpret what was seen as the basic tenets of the constitutional form.

Indeed, Jackson’s Bank veto is the most important veto ever issued by a President. Its novel doctrines advanced the process already in train by which the presidency was transformed and strengthened. To begin with, Jackson accomplished something quite unprecedented by writing this veto. Previous Presidents had employed the veto a total of nine times. In forty years under the Constitution only nine acts of Congress had been struck down by the chief executive, and only three of these dealt with important issues. In every instance the President claimed that the offending legislation violated the Constitution. It was therefore generally accepted that a questions of a bill’s constitutionality was the only reason to apply a veto. Jackson disagreed. He believed that a President could kill a bill for any reason -- political, social, economic, or whatever -- when he felt it injured the nation and the people. The implications of such an interpretation were enormous. In effect it claimed for the President the right to participate in the legislative process. Jackson invaded the exclusive province of Congress. According to his view, Congress must now consider the President’s wishes on all bills before enacting them, or risk a veto. It must defer to the will of the executive if it expects to legislate successfully. Jackson’s interpretation of presidential prerogatives, therefore, essentially altered the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of government. The President now had a distinct edge. He was becoming the head of the government, not simply an equal partner.

This doesn’t seem revolutionary to us, but Jackson lived in a very different time. Remember…

From the founding of the nation under the Constitution, the legislative branch was generally regarded as preeminent. In the minds of most, it was Congress, not the President, who embodied and secured representative government. The generation of Americans who fought the Revolution had been very suspicious of a strong chief executive. To them, executive power meant monarchical (and ultimately dictatorial) power. Thus, in dedicating themselves to the perpetuation of individual liberty they devised a system of government with a strong legislature elected by the people and in full control of the purse strings. Jackson changed that. Thenceforward the President could participate in the legislative process. Coupled with that was his total success in establishing the concept that he, as President, represented all the people. And he, as President, protected their liberty.

And so we have come full circle. Jackson effectively won the fight between liberty and power by cloaking executive power in the vestments of individual liberty. And in that, we may see things about Jackson’s time that are not so different than the times we live in today.

The American people loved Jackson and trusted him. “They believed him honest and patriotic; that he was the friend of the people, battling for them against corruption and extravagance, and opposed only by dishonest politicians.” They voted to place him at the head of their government with the expectation that he would, in Jackson’s own words, “purify the Departments” and “reform the Government.” In this “triumph of the great principle of self government,” wrote Edmund P. Gaines, who better to lead the people and “cleans the Augean stables” than the foremost Democrat of them all, Andrew Jackson?

Drain the swamp, anyone?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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