THE BANK WAR AND AFTER

BIDDLE’S BANK

The central political struggle of the Age of Jackson was the president’s war on the Bank of the United States. The Bank symbolized the hopes and fears inspired by the market revolution. The expansion of banking helped to finance the nation’s economic development. But many Americans, including Jackson, distrusted bankers as “nonproducers” who contributed nothing to the nation’s wealth but profited from the labor of others. The tendency of banks to overissue paper money, whose deterioration in value reduced the real income of wage earners, reinforced this conviction. Jackson himself had long believed that “hard money”—gold and silver—was the only honest currency. Nonetheless, when he assumed office there was little reason to believe that the Bank War would become the major event of his presidency Heading the Bank was Nicholas Biddle of Pennsylvania, who during the 1820s had effectively used the institution’s power, discussed earlier in this chapter, to curb the overissuing of money by local banks and to create a stable currency throughout the nation. A snobbish, aristocratic Philadelphian, Biddle was as strong-willed as Jackson and as unwilling to back down in a fight. In 183 2, he told a congressional committee that his Bank had the ability to “destroy” any state bank. He hastened to add that he had never “injured” any of them. But Democrats wondered whether any institution, public or private, ought to possess such power. Many called it the Monster Bank, an illegitimate union of political authority and entrenched economic privilege. The issue of the Bank’s future came to a head in 1832. Although the institution’s charter would not expire until 1836, Biddle’s allies persuaded Congress to approve a bill extending it for another twenty years. Jackson saw the tactic as a form of blackmail—if he did not sign the bill, the Bank would use its considerable resources to oppose his reelection. ‘The Bank,” he told Van Buren, “is trying to destroy me, but I will kill it.”

The Downfall of Mother Bank, a Democratic cartoon celebrating the destruction of the Second Bank of the United States. President Andrew Jackson topples the building by brandishing his order removing federal funds from the Bank. Led by Nicholas Biddle, with the head of a demon, the Bank’s corrupt supporters flee, among them Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and newspaper editors allegedly paid by the institution.

Jackson’s veto message is perhaps the central document of his presidency. Its argument resonated with popular values. In a democratic government, Jackson insisted, it was unacceptable for Congress to create a source of concentrated power and economic privilege unaccountable to the people. “It is to be regretted,” he declared, “that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” Exclusive privileges like the Bank’s charter widened the gap between the wealthy and “the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers.” Jackson presented himself as the defender of these “humble” Americans.

The Bank War reflected how Jackson enhanced the power of the presidency during his eight years in office, proclaiming himself the symbolic representative of all the people. He was the first president to use the veto power as a major weapon and to appeal directly to the public for political support, over the head of Congress. Whigs denounced him for usurping the power of the legislature. They insisted that Congress, not the president, represented the will of the people and that the veto power, while created by the Constitution, should only be used in extraordinary circumstances. But Jackson’s effective appeal to democratic popular sentiments helped him win a sweeping reelection victory in 183 2 over the Whig candidate, Henry Clay. His victory ensured the death of the Bank of the United States. (Ironically, Jackson’s image today adorns the twenty-dollar bill issued by the Federal Reserve Bank, in some respects a successor of the Bank of the United States.)

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