I think Pat’s choice of the times of Andrew Jackson as mirroring our own age of discontent was brilliant. I would like to add a few comments.
The rise of Andrew Jackson marked a new development in American political institutions. From 1812 to 1828, historians tell us that the two-party system had disappeared, replaced by personal, local, sectional conflicts that had come to predominate over broad policy discussions at the national level. The power of the presidency had declined, and the propertyless masses had begun to infiltrate politics.
The world of Thomas Jefferson had begun to expire even before he retired as U.S. President. The Federalist Party was destroyed by the 1812 War. The 1820’s were a time of huge discontent, financial panics, threats of rebellion, and outbursts of violence. Much of the mood was due to the fact that thriving and vigorous classes felt that the central government was either hostile or indifferent to their needs and interests. Jefferson’s promise of equal rights for all had been betrayed, replaced a single class who kept most of the benefits to itself. The class responsible for their bondage was indifferent to its effects on the wider populace.
For example, the new Western states felt their development was being thwarted or sidelined by the economic policies of the East. The impact of the new industrialism of the Northern and Middle states, especially the capitalist reorganization of what had been journeymen industries, spurred discontent to a fever pitch fed by several financial panics. The broadening of suffrage resulted in even more discontent, because the masses believed they were being denied the same advantages enjoyed by the East. Western famers or Eastern workingmen felt themselves suffocated by the existing order and were eager for change. They threw their effort at passing reforms that would vindicate their social status. They wanted security, but even more, they wanted respect. The depression of 1828-9 proved a tipping point.
Jackson Enters the scene.
Americans have a tradition of electing war heroes to the U.S. Presidency, and Jackson was an authentic war hero. From the beginning of his career in Tennessee, Jackson was accepted as an aristocrat, and his manners, standards, and his style were shaped by this. Critics complained that he lacked education and culture and that he couldn’t spell, but he had an acute, extremely forceful mind. He was also well known for his integrity. He was sharp, arbitrary, and ruthless. He normally acted with the landowning aristocracy versus the financial aristocracy. When Jackson ran for President Jefferson said he was “the most unfit man for such a place” and called him a dangerous man. He was also a bit lawless. As a general, he framed plans and designs and carried them out and only after did he consider whether they are legal or not. He had a reputation for rude violence and uncontrolled irascibility. Like General Eisenhower or Gen. Patton, he dramatized his unbridled temper in order to intimate any opposition, but over time Jackson would emerge as a man of great urbanitywith great distinction of manner.
Jackson was no uncouth, underbred blusterer. Rather, Jackson always exercised an uncanny charm over the old and the young. He was not particularly dogmatic. No man, Benton said, “better knew the difference between firmness and obstinacy.” He was ready to admit errors. He was decisive. Once he made up his mined, his mind expressed itself in judgment rather than analysis, said Schlesinger. Said Benton, Jackson manifested rigorous thought but “lacked the faulty of arranging them in regular composition.” The character of his mind was that of judgment, with a rapid and almost intuitive perception, followed by instant and decisive action. Louse McLane said, “Jackson is the rapid reasoner I have ever met with…He jumps to a conclusion before I start on my premises.” He had an intuitive grasp of necessary and imperative change.
Technically, Jackson was a sick man, his head splitting with pains produced by incessant Tobago crewing, He had a harsh, hacking cough, but even as his face grew more and more sallow, his mind was always grim and decided. He went through life with a bullet from a duel lodged in his body.
Seeds of Rebellion and Reform
In times of widespread discontent, a key fact that is usually ignored, is that the greedy, dubious behavior of some groups are always responsible for the mass of people losing faith in the system. The panic of 1819 was the first to set class against class. The panic was the result of speculation, wild cat banking, and rapid expansion, and the ensuing depression fell most heavily in the West and the South where men had recklessly thrown their resources into buying up land. The banks were pressing debtors to the wall and began to foreclose on anyone within reach, and people in the West felt “mortgaged to the banking power.” State legislatures, under pressure from local banks, waged tax wars against the National Bank, and there was a movement to pass laws against imprisonment for debt.
John C. Calhoun said, the depression had produced “an immense reversal of fortunes in every part of the Union, an enormous multitudes in deep distress, a mass disaffection to the government (sic) not concentrated in any particular direction ready to seize on any event, and looking out everywhere for a leader.”
The election of Monroe to the Presidency in 1820 was hardly the answer.
Jackson was raised in North Carolina which was a stronghold of Jefferson principles. These included opposition to banks, paper money, federal internal improvements and high tariffs. Jackson grew disillusioned with Jefferson and became part of the Randolph-Macon school of “intransigent republicans.” Jackson was a member of the debtor class and endured financial misfortunes with bravery, moving to a different state and building a much smaller home, also pressing his debtors to repay.]However, it should be noted that Jackson’s idea of financial reform was not the centerpiece of his presidency. If it had been, he might never have been elected. In Jackson’s second presidential campaign, the national bank was hardly mentioned. The election was not a rebellion of the West against the forces of the East; The themes that got him elected were “militant nationalism and access to office.” But he was elected without a platform. He was a simple, emotional, unreflective man whose first loyalties rested with his closest friends and supporters.
I am stopping here. I hope to continue, showing how Jackson’s disliked of big banks and corporations, and the measures he took to counter them, actually, in the end, promoted their growth. Jackson’s election gave rise to liberal capitalism.