For those working through a survey of American history and reaching the Jacksonian era, we reprint here a document introduction by Professor Dan Monroe (Millikin University), one of the Honored Visiting Faculty in the Master of Arts in American History and Government program at Ashland University. Monroe captures the personality of our seventh president and the impact he made on the expanding American republic. Jackson’s comments on the Bank raise issues still disputed in our politics.
An Early Dispute over Federal Involvement in American Finance: Andrew Jackson Vetoes Re-Chartering the Bank of the United States
Andrew Jackson despised debt, banks, and the paper notes that banks issued with all the passion and fury for which he was justifiably renowned and feared. He had nearly been financially ruined early in his career in land speculation ventures that were a tangled web of dubious deeds, bad paper notes, and shady partners. Now, in July 1832, the Congress had passed a re-charter of the Bank of the United States, four years before its expiration, clearly at the behest of the Bank’s president, Nicholas Biddle, and his political confidant and supporter, Henry Clay, both of whom hoped to use the Bank as an issue against Jackson in the 1832 presidential campaign. Jackson could veto the popular Bank and risk his re-election, or he could accept an institution he loathed as only he could hate.
Jackson chose to veto the bill, and presidential historians consider his action crucial to the growth of executive power. Jackson vetoed more than all his predecessors combined, not solely because of constitutional objections, but for other reasons, including sheer spite. “The bank…is trying to kill me,” he told Martin Van Buren, “but I will kill it.” In his veto message, Jackson sounded the class warfare tocsin in an effort to excite the resentment and envy of the American people against those whom he alleged received exclusive privileges from the Bank. “When the laws…make the rich richer and the potent more powerful,” the president wrote, “the humble members of society” had every right to protest. He complained that foreigners owned Bank stock and consequently had a potentially menacing power over the national economy. He also argued that presidents, no less than the Supreme Court and the Congress, had a duty to determine the constitutionality of legislation and act accordingly. With a stroke of his pen and an eruption of his legendary temper, Jackson immeasurably strengthened the power of the executive branch and condemned the developing American economy to almost a century without a stable banking system.
–Dan Monroe, Professor of History, Millikin University
Read Jackson’s Veto Message of the Bill on the Bank of the United States, July 10, 1832. The following excerpt shows Jackson charging the backers of the bill with devising legislation to benefit a favored minority:
It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society–the farmers, mechanics, and laborers–who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its 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. In the act before me there seems to be a wide and unnecessary departure from these just principles.
Nor is our Government to be maintained or our Union preserved by invasions of the rights and powers of the several States. In thus attempting to make our General Government strong we make it weak. Its true strength consists in leaving individuals and States as much as possible to themselves–in making itself felt, not in its power, but in its beneficence; not in its control, but in its protection; not in binding the States more closely to the center, but leaving each to move unobstructed in its proper orbit.
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 by our national legislation, and the adoption of such principles as are embodied in this act. 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. By attempting to gratify their desires we have in the results of our legislation arrayed section against section, interest against interest, and man against man, in a fearful commotion which threatens to shake the foundations of our Union. It is time to pause in our career to review our principles, and if possible revive that devoted patriotism and spirit of compromise which distinguished the sages of the Revolution and the fathers of our Union. If we can not at once, in justice to interests vested under improvident legislation, make our Government what it ought to be, we can at least take a stand against all new grants of monopolies and exclusive privileges, against any prostitution of our Government to the advancement of the few at the expense of the many, and in favor of compromise and gradual reform in our code of laws and system of political economy.
Also consider: Henry Clay, Speech on President Jackson’s Veto of the Bank Bill in Senate, July 10, 1832.