Even though President Andrew Jackson’s announcement that he was the embodiment of the American people was populist, demagogic, authoritarian, and absolutely in violation of the spirit of the U.S. Constitution, his views on the Second Bank of the United States most certainly embodied the views of the average American.
By the end of 1819, so many banks, persons, and businesses had declared bankruptcy that each defaulted to ownership by the notorious Second Bank of the United States (SUSB), thus making the SUSB one of the largest and most important property owners in the early republic. Many elites benefitted from its seemingly endless largess, but most Americans despised it as a “monster.” Not only did it seem to own everything in sight (and beyond!), but it also had been responsible for the inflation and sudden deflation that had caused the Panic/Depression of 1819. Its first president, William Jones, had been corrupt, and its second, Langdon Cheves, more faithful and steady. Its third president, Nicholas Biddle, came from an elite Philadelphia family, and his elitism caused many Americans to shudder, who saw him, even if personally honest and virtuous, as somehow not quite American. Andrew Jackson referred to Biddle, for example and not without popular support, as a “humbugging aristocratic intellectual.”
When it was created under President James Madison in 1816, the SUSB had been given a twenty-year life span. Knowing that a political fight over the rechartering of the Bank might be a nightmare in 1836, Biddle and his allies proposed rechartering four years early, in 1832. Even though each house of Congress passed the rechartering, Andrew Jackson vetoed the bill. Most members of Congress had benefited so greatly from the SUSB that they had failed to understand they were directly opposing the sentiments and the will of the average American.
And, to be certain, the average American of 1832 was no longer the average American of 1816. In 1816, most Americans had still resided in the original land, hugging the coast of the Atlantic. Andrew Jackson’s victories over the British and the Indians, the immense procreative growth of healthy, average Americans, and the creation of the Erie Canal had decidedly moved American population to the West—that is, to the Great Lakes. Far more confident in their own understandings of the country, the average American had grown toward community self-reliance and against government-business alliances. Even though President Jackson’s announcement that he was the embodiment of the American people was populist, demagogic, authoritarian, and absolutely in violation of the spirit of the U.S. Constitution, his views on the SUSB most certainly embodied the views of the average American.
As such, Andrew Jackson’s veto message is well worth repeating at length. Even in Jackson’s unconstitutional impropriety and madness, there’s an element of honest genius.
There are necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only as abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing. . . . Experience should teach us wisdom. Most of the difficulties our Government now encounters and most of the dangers which impend over our Union have sprung from an abandonment of the legitimate objects of Government. . . . 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.
Then, Jackson explains why the SUSB should never have been given such powers.
The present corporate body, denominated the president, directors, and company of the Bank of the United States, will have existed at the time this act is intended to take effect twenty years. It enjoys an exclusive privilege of banking under the authority of the General Government, a monopoly of its favor and support, and, as a necessary consequence, almost a monopoly of the a foreign and domestic exchange. The powers, privileges, and favors bestowed upon it in the original charter, by increasing the value of the stock far above its par value, operated as a gratuity of many millions to the stockholders.
From the beginning, it was an elite institution established not for the common good, but for the benefit of the elites.
It is not conceivable how the present stockholders can have any claim to the special favor of the Government. The present corporation has enjoyed its monopoly during the period stipulated in the original contract. If we must have such a corporation, why should not the Government sell out the whole stock and thus secure to the people the full market value of the privileges granted? Why should not Congress create and sell twenty-eight millions of stock, incorporating the purchasers with all the powers and privileges secured in this act and putting the premium upon sales into the Treasury?
The SUSB, Jackson well understood, was not only in violation of the republican spirit of America, it was threatening to all liberties in America.
Is there no danger to our liberty and independence in a bank that in its nature has so little to bind it to our country? The president of the bank has told us that most of the State banks exist by its forbearance. Should its influence become concentered, as it may under the operation of such an act as this, in the hands of a self-elected directory whose interests are identified with those of the foreign stockholders, will there not be cause to tremble for the purity of our elections in peace and for the independence of our country in war? Their power would be great whenever they might choose to exert it; but if this monopoly were regularly renewed every fifteen or twenty years on terms proposed by themselves, they might seldom in peace put forth their strength to influence elections or control the affairs of the nation. But if any private citizen or public functionary should interpose to curtail its powers or prevent a renewal of its privileges, it cannot be doubted that he would be made to feel its influence.
When pushed, Jackson also admitted that his views (he was a devout Presbyterian) were, to no small degree, theological. “Were all the worshipers of the Golden Calf to memorialise me and Request a Restoration of the Deposits, I would cut off my right hand from my body before I would do such an Act,” he said to Martin Van Buren. “The golden calf may be worshiped by others but, as for myself, I serve the Lord!”
Fearing his political views as well as his unconstitutional pronouncement that he himself embodied the American people as president, the first real political opposition in party form arose in America, the Whig Party. But this is the subject of a much different essay. For now, let’s leave it that Jackson—however unfortunate his wording—did, indeed, represent the views of the majority of Americans in 1832. Much like in 2020, the average American is sick and tired of being told how to live.
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The featured image of the Second Bank of the United States is courtesy of Picryl.