Study Guide

The Jackson Era Analysis

  • Law

    Worcester v. Georgia: A Hollow Victory

    In 1832, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the state of Georgia had no authority over the Cherokees living on territory held by the Cherokee Nation. 

    In the case of Worcester v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that despite the fact that the Cherokee lands lay within the geographical boundaries of Georgia, only the federal government possessed the jurisdictional authority to make treaties with a sovereign nation such as the Cherokee.

    It was a huge victory for the Cherokees, the culmination of more than a decade of institutional and legal development. But by 1838, just six years later, the Cherokees had been removed from their lands and force-marched to Oklahoma along a path later remembered as the Trail of Tears. Despite their monumental legal triumph, the Cherokees suffered one of the greatest tragedies in Native American history.

    What went wrong?

    Scapegoating Jackson

    Many point the finger at President Andrew Jackson. After Marshall read the Court's ruling, Jackson is reputed to have said, "Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."

    Most tribes accepted the fate that now seemed unavoidable—but some resisted. After the federal government negotiated a treaty with a faction of the Cherokees led by Major Ridge in 1835, the vast majority of the nation rejected the deal and refused to leave. Only a few hundred Cherokees joined Ridge when he led a party west in 1836. The other 16,000 Cherokees remaining in the East dug in, citing a long list of treaties and their recent victory before the Supreme Court. 

    But few of their former white supporters rallied to their cause. So, in the spring of 1838, federal troops began to arrest the remaining Cherokees and to place them in stockades throughout the Southeast. Between April and December, they were organized into parties and force-marched toward present-day Oklahoma. 

    Those departing in the fall were unable to reach their destination before winter took its deadly toll. Private contractors, awarded responsibility for transporting some of the parties, badly underestimated the amount of provisions needed to transport their human cargo safely. By the time they reached their new lands, almost 4,000 Cherokees had died.

    The Messy Truths of History

    Many people contributed to the making of this "trail of tears." 

    Jackson and his new approach to national Native American policy played a large part. So, too, did white expansionists and the southeastern state governments that supported them. But the Native Americans' friends also bore a portion of the blame. As the crisis unfolded, their support proved soft—ironically, just as the Cherokees acquired the economic and political coherence needed to defend their claims, their white supporters shrank from the fight that the Cherokees were finally able to wage.

    All of this may clutter the traditional story, undercutting our interest in blaming this tragedy on a Native American-hating president and his contempt for the law. But the truth is more messy. The Cherokees were forced down the Trail of Tears by their friends as well as their enemies—and the law prevailed, even if justice did not.

  • Gender

    Crisis in the Capital

    On September 10th, 1829, President Andrew Jackson called a Cabinet meeting to discuss a matter of grave national importance. 

    The nation's capital was paralyzed by a controversy that reached to the heart of his administration. His most trusted advisors were bitterly divided; the whole government stood at a standstill. But after reviewing all of the evidence, exploring all of the charges, and hearing the testimony of witnesses, the president announced the conclusion that he hoped would place the ship of state back on course: Peggy Eaton, the wife of Secretary of War John Eaton, was "as chaste as a virgin."blank">Thomas Jefferson, believed that women exercised a harmful influence on men's pubic behavior. Jefferson's years in Europe had convinced him that women corrupted the political arena—that they seduced men away from the common good. And subsequently, he warned Americans about the danger of allowing women access to the political arena. 

    Moreover, during his years as president, he eliminated most of the social events that might bring women dangerously close to the decision-making processes of the government.

    The belief that women corrupted the ordinarily more virtuous instincts of men was an old theme among political theorists. And during the first decades of the 19th century, this old theme converged with a new reality—the ascendance of women as a powerful force within the nation's capital.

    The Women of Washington

    The women who came to Washington, D.C. during the first decades of the 19th century—wives of politicians and government officials—were quite possibly the most powerful in America. 

    They were only part-time residents—the vast majority only lived in the city while Congress was in session, about six months out of the year—but during those months, they enjoyed more freedom of movement and political influence than other women in America. While in Washington, they often lived in boarding houses and usually left their children back home. Freed from their domestic responsibilities, they attended meetings of Congress, listened to speeches on the floors of the House and Senate, and sat in on oral arguments before the Supreme Court. 

    They also enjoyed the extensive round of social engagements that filled the Washington calendar. At these events, they mingled with the nation's decision-makers, participating in the conversations that surrounded the work of lawmaking.

    Moreover, as women, they presided over these social events that played such a critical role in the day-to-day operations of the government. In charge of scheduling and invitations, they held the keys to the political kingdom. Newcomers to the city quickly learned that accessing political power began by gaining access to the social world controlled by women. 

    Women didn't vote and they didn't hold office, but they governed the social arena that complemented and completed the machinery of government in the nation's capital.

    By the time Andrew Jackson was elected president, Washington's women had dramatically overcome the barriers set up by men like Thomas Jefferson to block their participation in the business of government. One historian, Catherine Allgor, has suggested that they were at the peak of their extra-official power. The great irony is that in 1829, they used this power to crush the influence of a woman they deemed harmful to the body politic. They used their political power to perpetuate, rather than to deny, the old belief that women tended to seduce men away from the virtuous performance of their duties.

    Even more ironically, in successfully driving Peggy Eaton from the circle of government wives, Washington's women tore apart the social order that had been the very basis of their power. For the rest of Jackson's presidency, Washington's social life was subdued. The large parties and dinners were replaced by more intimate gatherings, and many public officials went a step further—they decided to leave their wives, and the social complications they threatened, at home.

    The Eaton Affair claimed, therefore, more than one casualty. Most dramatically, it brought to an end a brief period in which women exercised a distinctive form of unofficial political power. But in doing so, the affair may have pushed Washington's women toward the recognition that the sort of social-political power they enjoyed before the Eaton episode was a poor excuse for the real thing. 

    The next generation of Washington women wouldn't be content with overseeing the city's social calendar. By 1850, a growing number would argue that the vote, not the guest list, was the real key to the political kingdom.

  • Economy

    The Death of the Monster

    In 1834, President Andrew Jackson celebrated a "glorious triumph." 

    The old warrior, the man who battled the Creeks, the Seminoles, and the British, now cheered his victory over that "mammoth of corruption and power." 

    Who or what was the "monster" that he'd sworn to kill two years earlier? It was the Bank of the United States (BUS)—and Jackson's defeat of the Bank and its president, Nicholas Biddle, was among the most important legacies of his presidency.

    The Bank of the United States

    The Bank of the United States had been created in 1791. Chartered by the federal government, its stock was jointly owned by the government and private investors. It served as the government's bank—federal tax revenues were deposited in it and the government's bills were paid by it. It also served as a convenient source of short-term loans for the government when tax collections did not meet spending needs. 

    But the Bank also had other clients. It received deposits and extended loans to private citizens as well as the federal government.

    The Bank had been controversial since its founding. Some questioned its constitutionality. But this issue had been answered by the Supreme Court in 1819. In McCulloch v. Maryland, the Court ruled that the Congress did possess the authority under the Constitution to charter the Bank. But even after that decision, the Bank remained controversial—and Andrew Jackson was among its harshest critics.

    Jackson's Economic Nostalgia

    In order to understand Jackson's opposition to the Bank, one needs to appreciate the nostalgia that underlay his economic vision. 

    Much like Thomas Jefferson 50 years earlier, Jackson idealized an economy of small farmers and artisans as he believed these sorts of economic pursuits encouraged virtue and independence. 

    He consequently opposed many of the dominant tendencies within America's emerging market economy during his own time. He worried about the new large manufacturing centers and the growing numbers of corporations in America—but most of all he worried about the concentrations of capital and economic power that created them.

    The Maysville Road Veto

    Jackson's economic nostalgia explains more than his opposition to the Bank—it also explains his veto of the Maysville Road bill in 1830. 

    The Maysville, Washington, Paris, and Lexington Turnpike Road Company was a corporation chartered by Kentucky to build a 60-mile road across a portion of the state. Ultimately, the company planned to connect their road with the National Road stretching westward from Cumberland, Maryland. To support the project, Congress approved the purchase of $50,000 worth of stock in the company. 

    But the decision was controversial, as many questioned whether this was an appropriate use of federal funds and an appropriate exercise of congressional authority.

    Jackson vetoed the bill. He doubted the constitutionality of all attempts on the part of the federal government to fund roads and bridges—these sorts of "internal improvements" weren't explicitly authorized by the Constitution. The Maysville Road was, moreover, particularly problematic. Confined as it was entirely to the territory of one state, it couldn't be defended as an interstate (and therefore) national project. 

    And since the entity building the road was a private corporation, the federal government, Jackson believed, shouldn't be involved. Government entanglement with private business created all sorts of opportunities for corruption, as private entrepreneurs grew attached to government support and government officials lost sight of their public responsibilities.

    Bu underlying these particular objections was Jackson's more basic suspicion of all activity that accelerated the economic changes that, he believed, were harming most people and the general character of the American economy. By vetoing the Maysville Road bill, Jackson hoped to ensure that America's market economy would grow more slowly—and that the small farmers and artisans who populated his economic ideal would not be soon displaced by the growing forces of concentrated economic power.

    Jackson's View of the Bank

    Jackson's opposition to the Bank of the United States was rooted in the same philosophy and concerns. In urging its elimination, Jackson joined a large group of bank critics. 

    But Jackson's specific objections to the Bank weren't shared by most people anxious to see it eliminated. Most of the Bank's critics were upset primarily by the power that it exercised over the nation's money supply. As the nation's largest bank, the BUS was able make demands upon smaller state-chartered banks. Most importantly, it could require that the state banks redeem their notes with gold specie when presented to them by the BUS. This forced state banks to practice conservative lending policies so that they had plenty of specie on hand to meet BUS demands.

    Financial conservatives appreciated the Bank's role in maintaining a fairly tight national money supply. But others interested in increasing the amount of money available—interested in making it easier to access credit and cash—resented the power of the Bank. To these critics, it appeared that the Bank was interested less in fiscal prudence than in freezing the status quo, in denying common people the financial support needed to work their way up the economic ladder.

    Jackson agreed with a portion of this argument. He thought the Bank exercised far too much influence over the nation's economy. But he objected less to its monetary conservatism than to the broader system of credit and speculation that the BUS, and all other banks, supported. 

    In other words, Jackson's criticism of the Bank was really a criticism of all banks, and the sort of economic behaviors they encouraged. He believed that an economy built on credit was inherently unstable and a person who made his money through speculation rather than the production of something real—like a crop or a manufactured good—was less independent and less virtuous. He believed that an economy that rested on the circulation of paper—inflated bank notes, stock certificates, and bonds —was unstable and morally suspicious. 

    Moreover, this sort of economy rewarded a narrow and, in Jackson's eyes, dubious slice of the public—the speculator, the risk-taker, the money-lender—rather than the hardworking artisan or virtuous small farmer.

    The Bank Bill of 1832

    Jackson's views on banking and the money economy were probably more conservative than those of the nation as a whole, making his ferocious opposition to the Bank politically controversial—and so his political opponents decided to build their 1832 campaign for the presidency around it. 

    Even though the congressional charter that had created the Bank wasn't due to expire until 1836, they introduced a bill into Congress that would re-charter the Bank for another 15 years. And just as they expected, Jackson had no choice by to take the bait by vetoing it.

    In his veto message, Jackson itemized his complaints with the bank. He claimed that it served only a small financial elite, primarily the Bank's stockholders. And playing to Americans' resentment of foreigners, he pointed out that a large number of these stockholders were British. He also appealed to the regional tensions within the country in noting that while the majority of the stockholders were from the Northeast, the majority of the loans were extended to people in the West and South. 

    The overall emphasis of Jackson's message was that the Bank favored a privileged few, and that it was entirely inappropriate for the federal government to support an institution that benefited the wealthy at the expense of all others. The world was full of natural inequalities, he argued, but the government should not conspire to "add to these natural and just advantages." And when a public entity like the Bank helped "to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful," common people, who had "neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves," had a right "to complain of the injustice of their government."blank">Civil War.

    The one thing that Jackson's war on the Bank emphatically did not do was restore America to a nation of small farms and self-employed artisans. That was one battle that Old Hickory could not win.

  • Ideology

    "Our Union. It must be preserved."

    One of the most dramatic and crucial moments in American history occurred during a birthday party held for a dead president. 

    On April 13th, 1831, Washington dignitaries gathered to celebrate the birthday of Thomas Jefferson. A dinner at the Indian Queen Hotel was followed by several speeches and more than 20 toasts. When it was Andrew Jackson's turn to speak, the president spoke just a few words, saying, "Our Union. It must be preserved." 

    Jackson had just phrased it more simply: "Our Union. It must be preserved."

  • Politics

    The Broken Election of 1824

    Andrew Jackson believed John Quincy Adams stole the presidential election in 1824. Jackson received far more popular votes than Adams (152,901 versus 114,023), and also more votes in the Electoral College (99 versus 84).

    So, while the new political methods and style of Andrew Jackson's Democrats left much to the modern era, they left at least one critical piece to be worked out in the future. It would be a while before we learned how to be civil in our political incivility.