The successes and failures of Andrew Jackson’s presidency
The successes and failures of Andrew Jackson’s presidency
When Jackson came to power in 1829 he promised much, advocating equality, democratic change, morality in government and true representation. However Jackson’s success or failure as a president is shown by what he actually did. The thesis of this essay is that despite the variety of issues faced by Jackson he didn’t actually bring about much change. This could be interpreted as failure but his legacy as a strong president, as a symbol of US democracy, and also the devotion of the people to him, does perhaps counter the failings. Failure might constitute not meeting one’s promises but Jackson’s ambiguity and inconsistency on many issues make it hard to judge his performance. I would not say he was completely successful or unsuccessful but rather advocate a mixture of both.
The first issue to be evaluated in Jackson’s presidency is the policy of “rotation in office” and also the cabinet reorganisation in 1831. Jackson began by rewarding his supporters with Cabinet positions and removing those against him. Rotation soon became the official policy and was used to “prevent the growth of an entrenched bureaucracy” . Although some historians like Robert Remini have argued that the aim of this was honest, to be rid of “the problem of corruption and concentration of power….in order to protect American freedom” , it is hard to believe that this was Jackson’s sole belief. The need to have a co-operative, and loyal bureaucracy was crucial to Jackson’s success. It also has to be noted that rewarding the party faithful, though unofficial, was common in all administrations.
And Jackson’s appointments on the whole (with the exception of Samuel Swartwout) were honest and well deserving. Some historians such as James Parton never forgave Jackson for “rotation” saying that “instead of reform he had introduced one of the worst political practises conceivable” . Indeed it gained a more sinister aspect in 1832 after Senator Marcy defended the rule that “to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy” . Henceforth rotation in office was called the spoils system. However the people generally supported Jackson as they too saw regular change in officials to be healthy for a democracy. Therefore although perhaps not a truly democratic system the fact that it was accepted and not completely overruled means it cannot be classed as a failure.
Jackson was criticised for sometimes ignoring his cabinet in forming policy. Instead he turned more to a close group of friends known as the “Kitchen Cabinet”. But at the same time Jackson also “greatly enlarged executive authority … making the presidency a more effective, dramatic and personal office” and independently ran his own Administration. This was particularly shown by his twelve uses of his veto (more than all his predecessors combined) and significant use of the pocket veto. Rather than allowing Congress and cabinet free reign, he insisted on complete loyalty and dismissed people for disagreement. One example is in his disagreement with his Vice President, John Calhoun on many issues, including tariffs and the Eaton scandal.
In 1831 Jackson asked the cabinet to resign for purposes of re-organisation but then elected a new cabinet composed of entirely his own supporters. Jackson justified his actions by claiming to be the people’s representative. Others saw him as “King Andrew”, a person bent on concentrating absolute power in his own hands. Therefore some might view his government as a failure for being so undemocratic but his election for a second term proved “no man of his time was at once so widely loved and so deeply hated” . His common bond with the people, and his symbolic imagery, won him great support and thus seemed to cover over any wrongs.
The main ideals that Jackson confronted during his term were those of state rights versus the federal government. Jackson wanted to limit federal government power and promised to guard against “all encroachments upon the legitimate sphere of state sovereignty” . He had several major issues to deal with, mainly those of internal improvements, Native Americans and Nullification. In 1830 Jackson vetoed the Maysville Road Bill, which authorised the use of federal funds to construct a road between two towns in Kentucky. He didn’t want federal funds to finance internal improvements, as he wanted expenditure to be decreased to fulfil his promise to reduce the national debt.
His official reason to Congress was that the Bill was unconstitutional because it concerned only the state of Kentucky. However as Jones points out his reasons were political, particularly wanting to strike a blow at his opponent, Henry Clay’s own state. Jackson had no qualms about signing other internal improvement Bills showing his inconsistency. If he had consistently kept to his policy of no federal help this then could be heralded a success rather than possible failure.
The second incident where Jackson stood by his solicitude for state rights was in the removal of the Indian tribes. Jackson has been associated mainly with his decision to support Georgia in its efforts to remove the Cherokee from their land, despite a Supreme Court ruling against the state. However his enthusiastic support for Indian removal was “undoubtedly one of the reasons he swept the southern states in the 1828 election” . Jackson had Native Indian policy on his mind from the beginning as he saw that Indians were subject to American sovereignty and that national security demanded they be removed. Removal to the West would increase the security of the US from outside attacks. Upon their refusal to emigrate he started to be swayed by those who said the Indians were arresting the progress of the US and were an “inferior race” . Although he pitied their plight he acknowledged they had to make way for the American Dream. This was seen in the passing of the Removal Act in April 1830. His support for Georgia meant the decision of the Supreme Court was ignored and within a few years most of the tribes were removed by a forced march in which thousands of them died.
Whereas some like Clay called Jackson’s policy a stain on the nation’s honour, others saw it as something that had to be done and even seemed logical and enlightened as it preserved this “much injured race” . Ronald Satz agreed that Jackson was not a “merciless Indian-hater” as other historians have portrayed him but actually had no negative attitudes toward the Indians. Satz rather argues that he was moved more by an overwhelming concern for the nation’s growth, unity and security and this view has some merit as if Jackson had supported the Supreme Court another case of nullification and secession from the Union might have occurred. Other presidents before Jackson had also considered the feasibility of transferring the Indians and the idea had the support of many people. Therefore although historians might consider Jackson as wrong, he was doing was what in accord with both popular will and his inaugural promises. Also some argue that their existence today is owed to their removal. However his Native American policy soon occupied a secondary position alongside such momentous issues as Nullification and then War on the national bank.
Having taken such a firm stand for state rights, it is surprising to see his views on the Nullification crisis over the tariffs in 1832. For years South Carolina and other southern states had seen the government’s protectionism as a great grievance, claiming it benefited the North whilst burdening the South. Thus it brought forward the doctrine of nullification where any state could declare federal legislation unconstitutional if it was oppressive to them. S.Carolina initially brought this up against the 1828 “Tariff of Abominations” which levied high import taxes on manufactured goods and raw materials. The threat of secession loomed as in 1830 Robert Hayne and Daniel Webster engaged in debate in the Senate over this matter with Jackson supporting the tariff claiming “Our Federal Union! It must be preserved” . In 1832 Congress passed another tariff that S.Carolina deemed to be even more oppressive. After the nullification forces gained control of S.Carolina in the 1832 election they called a convention and declared that the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were “null, void and no law” .
They then threatened to secede from the Union if the government tried to collect the tariffs. Here Jackson’s behaviour is interesting. He was a champion of state rights but in a struggle placing the interests of the state above those of the Union he stood firmly behind the supreme powers of the federal government. Jackson immediately asked Congress to authorise the use of force to collect the duties but at the same time worked on a compromise tariff to reduce rates over a ten year period to the 1816 level. Both Bills were passed together in 1833 and following this S.Carolina withdrew its Nullification Act but then defiantly nullified the Force Bill as a face-saving gesture. In many ways this event can be seen as a success for Jackson as he achieved a compromise between north and south.
Thus he had delayed the outbreak of civil war and stopped S.Carolina from seceding, preserving the Union. “The authority of the federal government had been vindicated and its dignity maintained” and obedience to Congress’ laws had been upheld. However others would see him as a hypocrite as he defended state rights only when it suited him and also his compromise did not heal the wounds between the two sides but simply deferred a confrontation. “Jackson had preserved the Union, but nullification remained a great question” and therefore although it was a success in the short term, in the long term it proved to have disastrous consequences.
As Fredrick Ogg claimed “to curb nullification was a worthy achievement” but Jackson had Congress, and an essentially united nation, firmly behind him at every stage. However in regard to the “great specific mission of the Jacksonian democracy …the war against the Monster Bank” it was a different thing. The Bank of the United States was a prosperous organisation that had the full support of one of the two main parties and also had great prestige and influence. However opposition to it was found in all parts of the country and when it applied for a new charter Jackson vetoed it claiming that it was unconstitutional. He complained it was not accountable to the people, but benefited the rich rather than the poor, an instrument of federal encroachment on the rights of the States. Jackson set out to destroy the Bank from the onset of his presidency due to his mistrust of banks. Thus he made the Election of 1832 a referendum on the Bank, taking his ensuing victory as a mandate to break the “hydra of corruption” and started withdrawing federal deposits from it.
However this was a costly policy as no sooner was the restrictive hand of the bank was removed than chaos started. The country was flooded with paper money as well as over-expansion of credit leading to a speculative boom. Borrowing increased dramatically with the Administration increasing inflation by putting millions of acres of land onto the market. Jackson soon realised the approaching disaster and issued a Specie Circular in July 1836 declaring that only gold and silver would be accepted in payment for lands. This change of policy resulted in a turnaround with prices tumbling and just two months after Jackson left office “the fiscal storm broke” . The New York bank panic of 1837 sent the country into a long and severe depression.
On face value this would seem a complete failure of the Jackson administration as their polices destabilised the nation’s currency and led to recession. However amidst the crisis, thanks to soaring receipts from land sales the US found itself “for the first and only time in its history able to pay off the entire national debt” . Additionally it has to be remembered that an era of economic growth, expansion of industry and internal improvements had preceded the panic. Although the “wreckage” was obvious we can also see positive judgements. For example of the 3,000 miles of canals built between 1816-1840 over two thirds were built in the boom of the 30’s and 40’s. So a lot of infrastructure was put in place and this can be seen as a success.
So in conclusion Jackson’s presidency was as a mixture of successes and failures depending on your viewpoint. However viewing him as the electorate did at that time then he was indeed successful with his appeals to the “conscience and patriotism of the electorate” . As Remini put it, “it was a small wonder that people regarded him with such devotion” . The ideals, if perhaps less the actions, “excited and focused the concerns of a political generation” and his strong stance on every issue from the nullification crisis to the Bank War to the Native Indian Removal brought him respect (and opposition) from the people. It should also bring respect from historians although also scepticism at his great ambiguity and inconsistency on many matters.
Frederic A.Ogg, “The Reign of Andrew Jackson”, Yale University Press, 1919
Robert Remini “Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom: 1822-1832” Vol. 2, Harper & Row, 1981
Ronald N. Satz, “American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era”, University of Nebraska Press, 1975
James R. Sharp, “The Jacksonians versus the Banks: Politics in the States after the Panic of 1837” Columbia University Press 1970
Marvin Meyers, “The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief”, Stanford University Press , 1957
Maldwyn A.Jones, “The Limits of Liberty – American History 1607-1992” 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 1995.
“Andrew Jackson” – from Encarta Encyclopaedia