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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

March 15, 2017: Andrew Jackson’s America: The Bank Battle

[March 15th marks the 250th anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s birth. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five sides to this controversial, influential figure and president, leading up to a special weekend post on Jackson and Trump!]
1)      James Madison and James Monroe: That the Second Bank existed at all was due to the efforts of the fourth president and his Secretary of State. Alexander Hamilton’s founding Bank of the United States had failed a recharter vote (by a single vote) in Congress in 1811, but the War of 1812 and concurrent high inflation rates made clear the benefits of having a stable national banking system. Yet the same opposition that had derailed the 1811 recharter remained, and an 1815 push to establish a Second Bank failed. Madison and (especially) Monroe remained committed to the idea, though—Monroe argued to his boss that “this is the great desideratum of our system”—and succeeded at gaining Congressional support for the Second Bank in 1816. It’s easy, and as I wrote in Monday’s post not inaccurate, to see the Jacksonian era as a radical shift from the founding period, but these Early Republic origins for the Second Bank remind us of how close together—not only chronologically, but in terms of many of the key figures and factors—the founding and Jackson’s era really were.
2)      The Veto and Louis McLane: Jackson’s opposition to the bank is most closely associated with his July 1832 veto of a Congressional reauthorization vote, a veto he accompanied with an extended message aimed to convince not only Congress but also the public of the reasons for his opposition. After that veto the bank become a central topic of the 1832 presidential election, with Jackson and his anti-bank message soundly defeating Congressman Henry Clay (an ardent bank supporter). But only a year earlier, during his 1831 reorganization of his administration and cabinet, Jackson appointed as Treasury Secretary Louis McLane, a friend of Nicholas Biddle’s and an advocate for restructuring rather than eliminating the bank. As late as December 1831, in his annual address to Congress, McLane was still arguing for the bank’s necessity and continued existence, making clear that Jackson’s administration was not yet fully determined to eliminate the bank. As is often the case, the arc of history makes it difficult to remember the contingencies of it, and how many different paths any particular moment might have taken—so it’s vital to remember McLane, and recognize that the bank battle could have played out very differently if he had kept the upper hand in Jacksonian finance policy.
3)      Henry Clay and Daniel Webster: There were many factors that contributed to the change in Jackson’s position from early December 1831 to July 1832, but high on the list would be the National Republican party’s December 16th nomination (at the first national political convention!) of Clay to be their presidential candidate. The Kentucky Senator was, along with his fellow National Republican Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, one of the bank’s chief national advocates, and the pair worked to make the bank the central issue of the 1832 campaign, introducing the recharter bill among many other steps. Which is to say, it’s easy to see Jackson as a towering influence over this period and all of its issues, but in this moment it seems more accurate that these two long-serving Senators—and the opposition party they were leading—were the driving forces behind pushing Jackson away from McLane’s compromise position and toward a more definitive stance against the bank. It would be four more years before the bank became a private corporation (in February 1836), but it was the 1832 election which truly decided its fate—and Clay and Webster were at least as central to that turning point as was the bank’s presidential adversary.
Next JacksonStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Jackson histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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