For the United States, Andrew Jackson’s time as President marked a turning point in its history. He strengthened the power of the presidency, defended the Union, gained new respect for the United States in foreign affairs, and pushed the country toward democracy. Unfortunately, the first two years of his term were marred by a social scandal turned political. Just months before Jackson took office, John Eaton, Jackson’s Secretary of War, married Margaret “Peggy” Timberlake. Washington socialites disapproved of Mrs. Eaton because of her upbringing and rumors about her past. Other cabinet members’ wives refused to associate with Mrs. Eaton forcing Jackson to defend the Eatons. Since John Eaton had defended Rachel Jackson so vigorously during the 1828 campaign, Jackson felt that he must demand that Mrs. Eaton be accepted into Washington’s social circles.
At the same time, several of Jackson’s cabinet members believed Jackson would serve only one term and were positioning themselves to succeed him as President. The result was that those who socialized with the Eatons and proved their loyalty to Jackson in other areas as well won his favor. However, to rid himself of the immediate controversy Jackson dismissed his entire cabinet in 1831 except for the Postmaster General. In time, this controversy caused Jackson to turn to a group of unofficial advisors that his opponents labeled his “Kitchen Cabinet” because of their “back door” access to the President.
Despite the Eaton Affair, Jackson still managed to accomplish much of his reform, retrenchment, and economy program. Jackson took office with great expectations that he would cleanse government of corruption and restore the nation’s finances. Washington’s elite feared that Jackson would fire everyone that held government positions, even the competent, and replace them with his own people. Jackson eventually replaced about ten percent of the government officers he held power over, but that was a high percentage as compared to his predecessors. The officers he replaced were largely inept, corrupt, or were politically opposed to Jackson. For this, Jackson is credited with what he called “the principle of rotation in office,” but others would label it the “spoils system.” Jackson kept a watchful eye over government expenditures and congressional appropriations. In one instance, Jackson vetoed a road bill approved by Congress that benefited only one area of the country, did not improve the nation’s defenses, and was too costly. Prior to Jackson, presidents had only vetoed legislation because they believed it unconstitutional, but Jackson established a new principle of vetoing legislation as a matter of policy. Jackson’s spending controls along with increased revenue enabled him to pay off the national debt in 1835 and keep the nation debt free for the remainder of his term.
Jackson also espoused removing Indian tribes in the United States to the west of the Mississippi River as one of his reforms. Jackson argued that the United States policy of attempting to assimilate Indian tribes into white society had failed and it would destroy the Indians’ way of life. Furthermore, Jackson recognized that whites desired Indian lands and he feared that if they remained in those areas that they would eventually be exterminated. Opposition groups fought Jackson’s removal policy in Congress, but their efforts failed by just a handful of votes. Congress’s authorization of removal empowered Jackson to make treaties with the Indian tribes to arrange for their removal.
Jackson, who railed against government corruption, largely ignored the shady treaties forced on the various tribes and the actions of government officials. The Indian Removal process was completed two years after Jackson left office with great loss of Indian life due to corruption, inadequate supplies, and the removal of many Indians by force. Today, Jackson’s Indian Removal policy and its tragic consequences that produced the Trail of Tears is the most conspicuous blight on his presidential legacy.
With the Eaton Affair behind him and his programs in full swing, Jackson turned his attention to the issue that would define his presidency and forever reshape the office he held. In 1816, the United States Congress chartered the Second United States Bank for twenty years to hold the country’s money, make loans, and regulate currency. Bank profits benefited private stockholders and the U.S government. In its early years, the Bank’s was riddled with corruption and poor financial management that resulted in economic hardship in the U.S. However, the Bank under the direction of Nicholas Biddle had turned itself around and astutely managed the nation’s money producing a good business climate.
Jackson distrusted banks in general, but he realized that they played an important role in the U.S. economy. However, Jackson believed the Bank of the United States held too much power and could wield it at any moment to ruin the U.S. economy. Furthermore, the Bank’s stockholders were mainly foreign investors with allegiances to other governments, so Jackson also viewed the Bank’s power as a threat to national security. The crux of the issue for Jackson was the never-ending battle between liberty and power in government. In Jackson’s belief system, people sacrificed some individual liberty for the beneficial aspects of government, but if any government institution became too powerful it stood as a direct threat to individual liberty.
Jackson signaled early on in his administration that he would consider re-chartering the Bank, but only if its powers were limited. Jackson’s opponents quickly seized this issue to attack Jackson. Led by Henry Clay, Jackson’s chief rival in the 1832 presidential contest, supporters of the Bank argued that it played a vital role in the economy and that the true threat to individual liberty came from Jackson and his broadening of presidential powers. Clay decided that he would force Jackson to make the Bank a campaign issue in 1832 by re-chartering the Bank early. Clay secured Congressional approval of the re-charter and Jackson promptly vetoed it on constitutional and policy grounds. Clay and Jackson then put the issue of who was the greater danger to individual liberty, the Bank or Jackson, to the people. The people overwhelmingly re-elected Jackson.
Vindicated by the people, Jackson prepared to finish his fight with the Bank in his second term, but first he had to put down a threat to the Union. South Carolinians led by Jackson’s former vice- president, John Calhoun, felt the Tariff of 1832 unduly harmed their state, while it directly benefited northern manufacturing states. The government levied tariffs to protect northern manufacturers from foreign competitors who offered cheaper goods. Calhoun had advanced theories that the states had the constitutional right to nullify (or invalidate) any federal law and that states could secede from the Union. In late 1832, South Carolina nullified the Tariff of 1832 and threatened secession. Jackson rejected these ideas and promised the use of force if South Carolina disobeyed the law. After much brinksmanship, Congress passed a compromise tariff that placated South Carolina and a bill that authorized the use of force against nullification. Jackson’s actions prevented disunion and set the precedents that Abraham Lincoln would later use to oppose secession.
With nullification put down, Jackson returned to the Bank War. Jackson’s relationship with “the people” over his first term convinced him that he was the only elected official in the United States that represented all “the people.” As such, Jackson believed he had to use his office to carry out the “will of the people.” Here again, Jackson detoured from his predecessors who viewed the president as a mere executive and expanded his power when a clear mandate was expressed to him from “the people.”
Jackson interpreted his victory over Clay and the Bank in 1832 as “the people’s” mandate to destroy the powerful Bank and replace it with a decentralized government banking system. Jackson pushed his banking plan in Congress and at the same time handicapped the Bank by ordering the removal of government deposits. In response, the Bank created an artificial economic panic by calling in loans, while the opposition controlled Senate censured Jackson for removing the deposits without Congressional authorization. Meanwhile, the old debate over liberty and power raged as Jackson, Congress and the Bank were all accused of abusing their powers. Finally in April 1834, the House approved Jackson’s actions against the Bank.
Jackson’s focus as president and his determination to carry out the “people’s will” were no doubt motivated in part by the price he had paid to become president. The loss of Rachel deeply affected him and he would spend the remainder of his life mourning her. Compounding his sorrows were constant struggles with his health, a result of wounds, harsh military camp life, and the natural aging process. To cushion her loss and assist him when his health turned, Jackson filled the White House with family and friends, most notably Andrew Jackson Donelson and his wife Emily who served as his private secretary and official hostess. Andrew Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sarah, replaced the Donelson’s in 1836. Jackson’s favorite portrait painter, friend, and fellow widower Ralph Earl also lived in the White House. Jackson left his mark on the White House by completing the north portico, redecorating several rooms with the most notable being the East Room, and making various improvements to the service buildings and grounds. Jackson entertained lavishly at the White House for both private affairs and public social events, always surprising his detractors who thought him an uncivilized military tyrant.
While Jackson struggled with sorrow, health, personal finances, and domestic policy issues he enjoyed almost complete success in foreign affairs. Jackson made it known at the outset of his administration that he intended to take no aggressive action against any foreign country. He approached foreign affairs with a simple principle, “to ask nothing that is not clearly right, and to submit to nothing that is wrong.” With his foreign policy principles in hand and Jackson’s military reputation preceding it, American ministers were able to win newfound respect for American rights and trade all over the globe. Jackson’s Administration opened new ports to American trade, won most-favored-nation trading status in other countries, and collected huge sums of money owed the United States by foreign governments.
Although, Jackson promised not to increase the size of the U.S. through force he did try repeatedly to buy Texas from Mexico, but failed. In 1836, Texans declared and won their independence from Mexico. Jackson badly wanted Texas to join the Union, but in this instance, he stuck to his foreign policy principles and refused to interfere in Mexico’s internal affairs. He cautioned Congress to wait until the situation stabilized before recognizing Texas’s independence. Just days before he left office, Congress recognized Texas and Jackson approved its action.
Jackson’s only true foreign affairs crisis came when France balked at paying indemnities to the U.S. that it had agreed to in 1831. As the French continued to delay payment, Jackson’s temper surfaced and he began hinting that war with France might be necessary to preserve American honor. With two of its largest trading partners at the brink of war, Great Britain stepped in and helped settle the dispute to preserve the peace. At last, France paid the indemnity and Jackson offered explanations for his threats, but he never apologized.
With the French crisis behind him and the nation free of debt, Jackson settled in for the last year of his presidency. Several issues dominated his final days in office including: approval of his decentralized banking system, distribution of the national surplus, currency reform, and the campaign to elect Vice-President Martin Van Buren, president. With 1836 an election year, Congressmen wanted a victory to take home to the voters and they zeroed in on distributing government surpluses to the states for internal improvements. Jackson opposed distribution because he felt it unconstitutional and he preferred that the surplus be reserved for national defense. Knowing Jackson would oppose their distribution plan, Congress tied it to the banking reforms Jackson long desired.
In June 1836, Congress approved the legislation and sent it to Jackson. Jackson was tempted to veto it because he despised distribution and he felt the regulations on the state banks that held U.S. deposits did not go far enough, but the bill offered a final victory in the Bank War, currency reform, and it would assist Van Buren in his presidential campaign. Jackson signed the bill, but also went one step further in reforming the nation’s currency. Jackson argued that the paper money system allowed speculators to buy huge quantities of land that drove prices so high that “the people” could not afford it. To combat the speculators, Jackson issued his Specie Circular that required government land be purchased with gold or silver, unless the land was bought directly by actual settlers. Though well intentioned, Jackson’s Specie Circular, the lack of regulations on the state banks, and other issues eventually produced a calamitous economic downturn that destroyed the presidency of Martin Van Buren, who was elected to Jackson’s great joy in November 1836.
When Jackson left office in March 1837, he had left his mark on the presidency and forever changed the course of American history. Jackson had firmly established that presidents could be more than just mere executives that enforced laws. He set the precedent that the president was the sole representative of all “the people” and as such, the president could wield his power broadly to carry out their will. Through his actions, Jackson squarely set the Executive Branch on an equal footing with Congress in terms of power and shaping law and government policies. Jackson preserved and defended the Union against threats from nullifiers and secessionists. Nations across the globe viewed the United States with newfound respect due to Jackson’s management of foreign affairs. Most importantly, however, Jackson’s presidency pushed the nation further toward democracy, but much work remained in granting equal rights and freedoms to those still oppressed in the United States.