The Imperial Presidency: Andrew Jackson
Departure from the mold marked Andrew Jackson’s presidency. A non-aristocratic westerner, Jackson rose from obscurity, attaining fame through controversial yet triumphant military missions, notably the tide-shifting battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. Jackson ran a remarkable presidential campaign in 1828 as a “people’s candidate” appealing to the common man. Unorthodox in his origins and path to office, Jackson continued to defy norms as President, pursuing policies driven by core beliefs borne of his own biases.
While a fierce determination had fueled his march to power, it led to calamity during his term. The Bank crisis and Native American removal highlight Jackson’s unbridled use of power to advance an agenda informed by personal prejudices and populist views, spawning an imperial presidency that incited economic instability and unleashed an historic tragedy that permanently stained the nation’s character. In the Bank crisis, celebrated as a political highpoint of his presidency, Jackson relentlessly pursued his own goal at the cost of economic stability. While expanding executive reach, Jackson loathed the concentration of economic power in the government or privileged elites, and focused his abhorrence on the Bank of the United States, the nation’s most robust economic institution (Brinkley 242). Having fallen into debt after the failure of his business in 1797, Jackson held an instinctive mistrust of banks, paper currency, and “soft money” (Brinkley 242). That belief led to a policy imperative of destroying the Bank at all cost.
Jackson contemptuously characterized the Bank as an “engine of privilege” benefitting “chiefly the richest class” (Packet 6-7). Taking a firm stance against renewal of the Bank’s charter, Jackson vetoed an 1832 re-charter bill, departing from a forty-year pattern of renewal (Brinkley 242). His justification stoked the populist view of the Bank as a boon to a few “opulent citizens,” but lacked analysis of the broader economic impact of his action (Packet 7). Moreover, not content to await the charter’s expiration in 1836, Jackson moved hastily to destroy the Bank by withdrawing federal deposits. When two successive Treasury Secretaries refused to give the necessary order, recognizing it would destabilize the financial system, Jackson fired them and named a third more compliant secretary, revealing his disregard for other views and elevation of personal agenda over national interest (Brinkley 243). The Bank acted predictably to protect itself by tightening credit, spurring a recession (Brinkley 243).
Jackson then permitted the crisis to devolve into a personal feud with Nicholas Biddle, the Bank’s head, despite his higher calling as U.S. President. Biddle’s tactics ultimately failed, giving Jackson a political victory (Brinkley 243). Yet, Jackson’s personal success spelled doom for the economy, which lost a strong financial institution that provided credit for business growth, a reliable national medium for exchange, and a restraining influence on free-wheeling state banks. The Bank’s demise left a fragmented and chronically unstable banking system that plagued the economy for a century and bred near term panic (Brinkley 243).
Jackson’s specie circular may have triggered the Panic of 1837 but its deeper roots lay in the Bank’s failure, as easy credit fueled speculation without the one institution that brought discipline to the entire financial sector. Likewise, Jackson’s antipathy towards Native Americans led to a policy that enabled their brutal relocation. While most Americans held similar views, Jackson’s animus bore an intensity stemming from his prior military campaigns against southern tribes (Brinkley 238). Once in office, Jackson initiated a policy of extinguishing Indian title to land and removal to areas beyond the Mississippi River (Packet 14). In his address to Congress, Jackson reduced the tribes to a “few savage hunters,” referring to them repeatedly as “savages” to condone their mistreatment, while yet evoking the pretense that removal was for their benefit (Packet 14-16). Jackson advanced his policy in multiple ways.
After supporting passage of the 1830 Removal Act, Jackson dispatched federal officials to negotiate treaties with the tribes aimed at relocation, procuring lands for token payments, often through fraud or coercion (Brinkley 239, Packet 19). He actively encouraged encroachment on tribal lands and, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee, Jackson reportedly quipped, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it,” explicitly elevating his policy aims over his constitutional duty to enforce the law (Packet 14). After the vast majority of Cherokee rejected a treaty hastily extracted from a minority non-representative faction, Jackson ordered troops to drive the tribe west beyond the Mississippi at gunpoint (Brinkley 240). The long, vicious “Trail of Tears” left thousands dead and the survivors to fend as unwelcome refugees in undesired new land (Packet 19). Like the Cherokee, most of the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the South were expelled, typically to land unfit for habitation (Brinkley 241).
When the Seminoles resisted, Jackson launched a largely futile yet bloody war that turned into a campaign of extermination, to purge any remaining Indian presence (Brinkley 241). Like the Bank crisis, Jackson’s removal policy pleased populist sentiment and the insatiable white appetite for land, prevailing over more virtuous voices that spoke for the country’s conscience — including that of Senator Frelinghuysen who based his appeal on the prior claim of the tribes, and on justice, humanity and founding principles (Packet 18). Unmoved, Jackson failed to consider alternatives to removal such as cohabitation, despite many examples – from the Pacific Northwest, Canada and elsewhere – of whites and Indians thriving peacefully alongside each other, and despite the sophisticated culture developed by the southern tribes who he maligned as savages (Brinkley 242). Jackson persistently elevated personal prejudice over sound policy, and populist views over principal. His destruction of the Bank lacked broader economic rationale, spurred a financial crisis and ironically proved contrary to his own aim, as the Bank’s demise made soft money more readily available.
The cruel relocation of Native Americans not only proved tragic and a betrayal of fundamental American principles, but failed to provide permanency, as Western expansion continued to displace tribal lands. Driven by his own bias and an unyielding faith in his own beliefs, Jackson discounted other voices, prioritized personal prerogatives over Constitutionality, and failed to take into account the long-term interests of the nation.