Life of Henry Clay/13 The Campaign of 1832
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Chapter XIII. The Campaign of 1832.
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THE CAMPAIGN OF 1832.
Henry Clay appeared in Washington at the opening of Congress in December, 1831, in the double character of Senator and candidate for the presidency. It was at that period that the method of putting presidential candidates in the field by national conventions of party delegates found general adoption. The Anti-Masons had held their national convention in September. The National Republicans were to follow on December 12. That Henry Clay would be their candidate for the presidency was a foregone conclusion. Nobody appeared as a competitor for the honor. But it remained still to be determined what issues should be put prominently forward in the canvass. On this point the opinion of the recognized leader was naturally decisive. As a matter of course, a protective tariff and internal improvements, and an emphatic condemnation of the "spoils system," would form important parts of his programme. But a grave question turned up, on the treatment of which his friends seriously differed in opinion. It was that of the National Bank. The existing Bank of the United States had been created, with Clay's help, in 1816. Its charter was to run for twenty years, and would therefore expire in 1836. In order to understand how the rechartering of that bank became a burning question in 1831, a short retrospect is necessary.
When President Jackson came into office the country was in a prosperous condition. There was little speculation, but business in all directions showed a healthy activity, and yielded good returns. The currency troubles, which had long been disturbing the country, especially the South and West, were over. The "circulating medium" was more uniform and trustworthy, and, on the whole, in a more satisfactory condition than it ever had been before. The agency of the Bank of the United States in bringing about these results was generally recognized. In the first two years after its establishment the bank had been badly managed. But Langdon Cheves, appointed its president in 1819, put the conduct of its business upon a solid footing, and thereafter it continued steadily to grow in the confidence of the business community. No serious difficulty was therefore anticipated as to the rechartering; and as there would be no necessity for final action on that matter until 1836, three years after the expiration of General Jackson's first presidential term, the public generally expected that any question about it would be permitted to rest at least until after the election of 1832.
Great was therefore the surprise when, in his very first message to Congress, in December, 1829, President Jackson said that, although the charter of the Bank of the United States would not expire until 1836, it was time to take up that subject for grave consideration; that "both the constitutionality and the expediency of the law creating the bank were well questioned by a large number of our fellow-citizens; and that it must be admitted by all to have failed in the great end of establishing a uniform and sound currency." Then he submitted to the wisdom of the legislature whether a "national bank, founded upon the credit of the government and its revenue, might not be devised." What did all this mean? People asked themselves whether the President knew something about the condition of the bank that the public did not know, and the bank shares suffered at once a serious decline at the Exchange.
The true reasons for this hostile demonstration became known afterwards. Benton's assertion to the contrary notwithstanding, Jackson had no intention to overthrow the United States Bank when he came to Washington. His Secretary of the Treasury, Ingham, complimented the bank on the valuable services it rendered, several months after the beginning of the administration. The origin of the trouble was characteristic. Complaint came from New Hampshire, through Levi Woodbury, a Senator from that state and a zealous Jackson Democrat, and through Isaac Hill, a member of the "Kitchen Cabinet," that Jeremiah Mason, a Federalist and a friend of Daniel Webster, had been made president of the branch of the United States Bank at Portsmouth, and that he was an unaccommodating person very objectionable to the people. A correspondence concerning this case sprang up between Secretary Ingham and Nicholas Biddle, the President of the Bank of the United States, a man of much literary ability, who was rather fond of an argument, and liked to say clever things. No impartial man can read the letters which passed to and fro without coming to the conclusion that influential men in the Jackson party desired to use the bank and its branches for political purposes; that Biddle wished to maintain the political independence of the institution, and that his refusal to do the bidding of politicians with regard to Jeremiah Mason was bitterly resented. It appears, also, from an abundance of testimony, of which Ingham's confession, published after he had ceased to be Secretary of the Treasury, forms part, that the members of the "Kitchen Cabinet" told Jackson all sorts of stories about efforts of the bank to use its power in controlling elections in a manner hostile to him; that he trustingly listened to all the allegations against it which reached his ears, and that he at last honestly believed the bank to be a power of evil, corrupt and corrupting, dangerous to the liberties of the people and to the existence of the Republic.
The first message did not produce on Congress the desired effect. The President's own party failed to stand by him. In the House of Representatives the Committee of Ways and Means made a report, affirming, what was well known, that the constitutionality of the bank had been recognized by the Supreme Court, that it was a useful institution, and that the establishment of a bank such as that suggested in the message would be a dangerous experiment. A similar report was made in the Senate. In the House, resolutions against rechartering the bank, and calling for a comprehensive report upon its doings, were defeated by considerable majorities. Bank stock went up again.
In his second message, in December, 1830, President Jackson said that nothing had occurred "to lessen in any degree the dangers" which many citizens apprehended from the United States Bank as actually organized. He then suggested the organization of "a bank, with the necessary officers, as a branch of the Treasury Department." Congress did not take action on the matter, but Benton made his first attack in the Senate on the United States Bank, not to produce any immediate effect in Congress, but to stir up the people.
In his third message, in December, 1831, President Jackson simply said that on previous occasions he had performed his duty of bringing the bank question to the attention of the people, and that there he would "for the present" leave it. At the same time the Secretary of the Treasury, McLane, submitted in his report to Congress an elaborate argument in favor of the United States Bank. There is much reason for believing that Jackson at that period was inclined to accept some accommodation or compromise concerning the bank question, or at least not to force a fight just then. Thurlow Weed, in his "Autobiography," gives an account of a conference between the Secretary of the Treasury and the president of the bank, in which the assent of the administration to the recharter was offered on condition of certain modifications of the charter. It is further reported that the officers of the bank were strongly in favor of accepting the proposition, but that, when they consulted Clay and Webster on the matter, they found determined resistance, to which they yielded.
The officers and the most discreet friends of the United States Bank felt keenly that a great financial institution, whose operations and interests were closely interwoven with the general business of the country, should not become identified with a political party in all the vicissitudes of fortune, and should never permit itself to be made the football of political ambitions. They were strongly inclined not to press the rechartering of the bank until it should be necessary, and thus to keep the question out of the presidential campaign.
Clay thought otherwise. As to the time when the renewal of the charter should be asked for, he maintained that the present time was the best. There were undoubted majorities favorable to the bank in both houses. If the President should defeat the renewal with his veto, he would only ruin himself. He had already greatly weakened his popularity by attacking the bank. It had many friends in the Jackson party who would stand by it rather than by the President. Being located in Philadelphia, the bank wielded great power and enjoyed great popularity in Pennsylvania, the hotbed of Jacksonism. Losing that state, Jackson would lose the election. Moreover, the bank had a strong hold upon the business interests of the country everywhere, and everywhere those interests would support the bank in a decisive struggle. The bank issue was therefore the strongest which the National Republicans could put forward. That issue should be made as sharp as possible, and to give it a practical shape, the renewal of the charter should be applied for at the present session of Congress. Such was Clay's reasoning and advice, or rather his command; and both the bank and the party obeyed.
On December 12, 1831, the convention of the National Republicans was held at Baltimore. Clay was nominated unanimously, and with the greatest enthusiasm, for the presidency. The nomination for the vice-presidency fell to John Sergeant of Pennsylvania, a man of excellent character, whom we remember to have met, at the time of the struggle about the admission of Missouri, as one of the strongest advocates of the exclusion of slavery. The convention also issued an address to the people, which eulogized the Bank of the United States, denounced the attack made upon it by President Jackson in his messages, and declared that, "if the President be reëlected, it may be considered certain that the bank will be abolished." Thus the issue was made up: Jackson must be defeated if the Bank of the United States was to be saved. The memorial of the bank, praying for a renewal of its charter, was presented in the Senate early in January, 1832, to the end of forcing Congress and the President to act without delay. If it was Clay's object to make the bank question the most prominent one in the canvass, he succeeded beyond expectation; and if he had cast about for the greatest blunder possible under the circumstances, he could not have found a more brilliant one. This we shall appreciate when, at a later period of the session, we hear both sides speak.
The first subject which Clay took up for discussion in the Senate was the tariff. Two circumstances of unusual moment had brought this topic into the foreground: one was the excitement produced by the tariff of 1828, "the tariff of abominations," in the planting states, and especially in South Carolina, where it had assumed the threatening form of the nullification movement; and the other was the fact that the revenue furnished by the existing tariff largely exceeded the current expenditures, and would, after the extinguishment of the national debt, which was rapidly going forward, bring on that bane of good government in a free country, a heavy surplus in the treasury, without legitimate employment. A reduction of the revenue was therefore necessary, and lively discussions were going on among the people as to how it should be effected. In September and October large popular conventions of free traders had been held. One of their principal spokesmen was the venerable Albert Gallatin, who insisted on lower rates of duties throughout. The protectionists, fearing lest the reduction of the revenue should injure the protective system, were equally vigorous in their demonstrations.
Jackson's views with regard to the tariff had undergone progressive changes. When first a candidate for the presidency, in 1824, he had pronounced himself substantially a protectionist. In his first message to Congress, in 1829, he recommended duties which would place our own manufactures "in fair competition with those of foreign countries, while, with regard to those of prime necessity in time of war," we might even "advance a step beyond that point." He also advocated the distribution of the surplus revenue among the states "according to the ratio of representation" in Congress, and a reduction of duties on articles "which cannot come into competition with our own production." This meant a protective tariff. In his second message, December, 1830, he expressed the opinion that "objects of national importance alone ought to be protected; of these the productions of our soil, our mines, and our workshops, essential to national defense, occupy the first rank." In his third message, December, 1831, he invited attention to the fact that the public debt would be extinguished before the expiration of his term, and that, therefore, "a modification of the tariff, which shall produce a reduction of the revenue to the wants of the government," was very advisable. He added that, in justice to the interests of the merchant as well as the manufacturer, the reduction should be prospective, and that the duties should be adjusted with a view "to the counteraction of foreign policy, so far as it may be injurious to our national interests." This meant a revenue tariff with incidental retaliation. He had thus arrived at a sensible plan to avoid the accumulation of a surplus.
Clay took the matter in hand in the Senate, or rather in Congress, for he held a meeting of friends of protection among Senators and Representatives to bring about harmony of action in the two houses. At that meeting he laid down the law for his party in a manner, as John Quincy Adams records, courteous, but "exceedingly peremptory and dogmatical." He recognized the necessity of reducing the revenue, but he would reduce the revenue without reducing protective duties. The "American system" should not suffer. It must, therefore, not be done in the manner proposed by Jackson. He insisted upon confining the reduction to duties on articles not coming into competition with American products. He would not make the reductions prospective, to begin after the public debt was extinguished, but immediate, as he was not in favor of a rapid extinguishment of the debt. Instead of abolishing protective duties he would rather reduce the revenue by making some of them prohibitory. He also insisted upon "home valuation" — i. e., valuation at the port of entry — of goods subject to ad valorem duties, and upon reducing the credits allowed for their payment. When objection was made that this would be a defiance of the South, of the President, and of the whole administration party, he replied, as Adams reports, that "to preserve, maintain, and strengthen the American system, he would defy the South, the President, and the devil."
He introduced a resolution in the Senate "that the existing duties upon articles imported from foreign countries, and not coming into competition with similar articles made or produced within the United States, ought to be forthwith abolished, except the duties upon wines and silks, and that those ought to be reduced; and that the Committee on Finance be instructed to report a bill accordingly." On this resolution, which led to a general debate upon the tariff, he made two speeches, one of which took rank among his greatest efforts. Its eloquent presentation of the well known arguments in favor of protection excited great admiration at the time, and served the protectionists as a text book for many years. He declared himself strongly against the preservation of existing duties "in order to accumulate a surplus in the treasury, for the purpose of subsequent distribution among the several states." To collect revenue "from one portion of the people and give it to another" he pronounced unjust. If the revenue were to be distributed for use by the states in their public expenditure, he knew of no principle in the Constitution "that authorized the federal government to become such a collector for the states, nor of any principle of safety or propriety which admitted of the states becoming such recipients of gratuity from the general government." He thought, however, that the proceeds of the sales of public lands should be devoted to internal improvements. He called free trade the "British colonial system" in contradistinction to the protective "American system," two names which themselves did the duty of arguments. He contrasted the effects of the two systems, using as an illustration the seven years of distress preceding, and the seven years of prosperity following, the enactment of the tariff of 1824, — which drew from Southern Senators the answer that the picture of prosperity fitted the North, but by no means the South. He discussed the effect of the tariff on the South in a kindlier tone than that in which he had spoken in the meeting of his friends, but he denounced in strong terms the threats of nullification and disunion. He said:
"The great principle, which lies at the foundation of all free government, is that the majority must govern, from which there can be no appeal but the sword. That majority ought to govern wisely, equitably, moderately, and constitutionally; but govern it must, subject only to that terrible appeal. If ever one or several states, being a minority, can, by menacing a dissolution of the Union, succeed in forcing an abandonment of great measures deemed essential to the interests and prosperity of the whole, the Union from that moment is practically gone. It may linger on in form and name, but its vital spirit has fled forever."
This seemed to exclude every thought of compromise.
The efforts of the free traders to discredit the "American system," by resolutions, addresses, and pamphlets against the tariff, annoyed him greatly; and nothing seems to have stung him more than a calmly argumentative memorial from the pen of Albert Gallatin. Only the deepest irritation can explain the most ungenerous attack he made upon that venerable statesman in his great speech. This is the language he applied to him: —
"The gentleman to whom I am about to allude, although long a resident in this country, has no feelings, no attachments, no sympathies, no principles, in common with our people. Nearly fifty years ago Pennsylvania took him to her bosom, and warmed, and cherished, and honored him; and how does he manifest his gratitude? By aiming a vital blow at a system endeared to her by a thorough conviction that it is indispensable to her prosperity. He has filled, at home and abroad, some of the highest offices under this government, during thirty years, and he is still at heart an alien. The authority of his name has been invoked, and the labors of his pen, in the form of a memorial to Congress, have been engaged, to overthrow the American system, and to substitute the foreign. Go home to your native Europe, and there inculcate upon her sovereigns your Utopian doctrines of free trade; and when you have prevailed upon them to unseal their ports, and freely to admit the produce of Pennsylvania and other states, come back, and we shall be prepared to become converts and to adopt your faith."
This assault was an astonishing performance. Gallatin had come to America a very young man. Under the presidency of the first Adams he had been intellectually the leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives. He had been a member of that famous triumvirate, Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin. Jefferson had made him Secretary of the Treasury; and Madison, equally sensible of his merits, had kept him in that most important position. His services had put his name in the first line of the great American finance ministers. Clay had met him as one of his colleagues at Ghent, and he would hardly have denied that the conclusion of the treaty of peace was owing more to Gallatin's prudence, skill, and good temper, than to his own efforts. As Minister to France under Monroe, Gallatin had added to his distinguished services by his patriotism and rare diplomatic ability. When Clay, as Secretary of State, needed a man of peculiar wisdom and trust worthiness to whom to confide the interests of this Republic, he had thought first of Gallatin. It was Gallatin whom he had selected first for the most American of American missions, that to the Panama Congress. It was Gallatin whom he had sent to England after the retirement of Rufus King, to protect American interests amid uncommonly tangled circumstances. But now, suddenly, the same American statesman, not present and unable to answer, was denounced by him in the Senate as one who had "no feelings, no sympathies, no principles, in common with our people," as "an alien at heart," who should "go home to Europe;" and all this because Clay found it troublesome to answer Gallatin's arguments on the tariff.
Gallatin, during his long career, had much to suffer on account of his foreign birth. The same persons who had praised him as a great statesman and a profound thinker, when he happened to agree with their views and to serve their purposes, had not unfrequently, so soon as he expressed opinions they disliked, denounced him as an impertinent foreigner who should "go home." He was accustomed to such treatment from small politicians. But to see one of the great men of the Republic, and an old friend too, descend so far, could not fail to pain the septuagenarian deeply.
But the irony of fate furnished a biting commentary on Clay's conduct. Scarcely a year after he had so fiercely denounced Gallatin as "an alien at heart" for having recommended a gradual reduction of tariff duties to a level of about twenty-five per cent, Clay himself, as we shall see, proposed and carried a gradual reduction of duties to a maximum of twenty per cent, all the while feeling himself to be a thorough American "at heart."
After a long debate Clay's tariff resolution was adopted, and in June, 1832, a bill substantially in accord with it passed both houses, known as the tariff act of 1832. It reduced or abolished the duties on many of the unprotected articles, but left the protective system without material change. As a reduction of the revenue it effected very little. The income of the government for the year was about thirty millions; its expenditures, exclusive of the public debt, somewhat over thirteen millions; the prospective surplus, after the payment of the debt, more than sixteen millions. The reduction proposed by Clay, according to his own estimate, was not over seven millions; the reduction really effected by the new tariff law scarcely exceeded three millions. Clay had saved the American system at the expense of the very object contemplated by the measure. It was extremely short-sighted statesmanship. The surplus was as threatening as ever, and the dissatisfaction in the South grew from day to day.
One of the important incidents of the session was the rejection by the Senate of the nomination of Martin Van Buren as Minister to England. Van Buren was one of Jackson's favorites. He had stood by Jackson when other members of the cabinet refused to take the presidential view of Mrs. Eaton's virtue. He had greatly facilitated that dissolution of the Cabinet which Jackson had much at heart. When he ceased to be Secretary of State, Jackson gave him the mission to England, holding in reserve higher honors for him. In the Senate, however, the nomination encountered strong opposition. With many Senators it was a matter of party politics. The strongest reason avowed was that, as Secretary of State, Van Buren had instructed the American Minister to England to abandon the claim, urged by the late administration, of a right to the colonial trade, on the express ground that those who had asserted that right had been condemned at the last presidential election by the popular judgment. The opponents of Van Buren denounced his conduct as a wanton humiliation of this Republic, and a violation of the principle that, in its foreign relations, the vicissitudes of party contests should not be paraded as reasons for a change of policy.
Clay, leading the opposition to Van Buren, found it not difficult to show that the policy followed by the administration of John Quincy Adams in this respect was substantially identical with that of Madison and Monroe, and that, by officially representing that policy as condemned by the people, Van Buren had cast discredit upon the conduct of this Republic in its intercourse with a foreign power. But he had still another, objection to Van Buren's appointment. He said: —
"I believe, upon circumstances which satisfy my mind, that to this gentleman is principally to be ascribed the introduction of the odious system of proscription for the exercise of the elective franchise in the government of the United States. I understand that it is the system upon which the party in his own state, of which he is the reputed head, constantly acts. It is a detestable system, drawn from the worst periods of the Roman Republic; and if it were to be perpetuated, — if the offices, honors, and dignities of the people were to be put up to a scramble, and to be decided by the result of every presidential election, — our government and institutions would finally end in a despotism as inexorable as that at Constantinople."
That Van Buren was a "spoils politician" is undoubtedly true. But that to him "the introduction of the odious system" in the general government was "principally to be ascribed," is not correct. Jackson was already vigorously at work "rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies," when, a few weeks after the beginning of the administration, Van Buren arrived at Washington. Jackson would doubtless have introduced the "spoils system," with all its characteristic features, had Van Buren never been a member of his Cabinet. In the Senate, however, Van Buren's friends did not defend him on that ground. It was in reply to Clay's speech that Marcy, speaking for the politicians of New York, proclaimed that they saw "nothing wrong in the rule that to the victors belong the spoils of the enemy."
The rejection of Van Buren's nomination was accomplished by the casting vote of the Vice-President, Calhoun, who thought that after such a defeat Van Buren would "never kick again." Clay wrote to his friend Brooke: "The attempt to excite public sympathy in behalf of the 'little magician' has totally failed; and I sincerely wish that he may be nominated as Vice-President. That is exactly the point to which I wish to see matters brought." Clay's wish was to be gratified. The rejection of Van Buren made it one of the darling objects of Jackson's heart to revenge him upon his enemies. He employed his whole power to secure Van Buren's election to the vice-presidency first, and to the presidency four years later. Both Clay and Calhoun had yet to learn what that power was. The dangers to which a candidate for the presidency is exposed when a member of the Senate, were strikingly exemplified by a curious trick resorted to by Clay's opponents. They managed to refer the question of reducing the price of the public lands to the Committee on Manufactures, of which Clay was the leading member, an arrangement on its very face unnatural. Clay understood at once the object of this unusual proceeding. "Whatever emanated from the committee," he said, in a speech on the subject, "was likely to be ascribed to me. If the committee should propose a measure of great liberality toward the new states, the old states might complain. If the measure should lean toward the old states, the new might be dissatisfied. And if it inclined to neither class, but recommended a plan according to which there would be distributed impartial justice among all the states, it was far from certain that any would be pleased." However, he undertook the task, and the result was his report on the public lands, the principles of which became for many years a part of the Whig platform.
In 1820 the price of public lands, which had been $2.00 an acre on credit and $1.64 for cash, was fixed at $1.25 in cash. The settlement of the new states and territories had indeed been rapid, but various plans were devised to accelerate it still more. One was, that the public lands should be given to the states; another, that they should be sold to the states at a price merely nominal; another, that they should be sold to settlers at graduated prices, — those which had been in the market a certain time without finding a purchaser to be considered "refuse" lands, and to be sold at greatly reduced rates. These propositions were advanced by some in good faith for the benefit of the settlers, but by others for speculative ends. Benton was the principal advocate of cheap lands, for reasons no doubt honest. Jackson had never put forth any definite scheme of land policy; but McLane, his Secretary of the Treasury, recommended in his report of December, 1831, that the public lands should be turned over at fair rates to the several states in which they were situated, the proceeds to be distributed among all the states.
Under such circumstances, the subject was referred to Clay's Committee on Manufactures. He reported that the general government should not give up its control of the public lands; that it would be unjust to the old states if the public lands were disposed of exclusively for the benefit of the new states; that the price should not be reduced; and that the proceeds of the sales, excepting ten per cent set apart for the new states, should be distributed among all the states according to their federal representative population, to be applied to the promotion of education, to internal improvements, or to the redemption of any debt contracted for internal improvements, or to the colonization of free negroes, as each state might see fit, — such distribution to take place only in time of peace, while in time of war the public land should again become a source of revenue to the general government. While condemning the principle of the distribution of surplus revenue arising from taxation, he defended the distribution of the proceeds of public land sales, on the ground that Congress had authority to stop revenue from taxation, but not, without the exercise of arbitrary power, the revenue from the public lands.
No sooner had Clay submitted his report than it was referred to the Committee on Public Lands, where the whole subject should have gone originally. That committee, under the inspiration of Benton, made a counter-report, setting forth that the net proceeds of the land sales could be arrived at only by deducting from the gross proceeds the whole cost of the administration of the land department, inclusive of surveying; that such a deduction would leave little to be distributed; and that, if distribution were made of the gross proceeds, it would be equivalent to taking so much from the customs revenue to divide among the states under the name of proceeds of land sales, — a scheme against which Clay himself had loudly protested as utterly unwarranted by the Constitution. This criticism was undoubtedly correct, and Clay could not controvert it. The Land Committee further recommended a reduction of the price of land from $1.25 to $1.00 per acre; the offering of lands remaining unsold for five years after having been offered once, at fifty cents per acre; fifteen per cent of the proceeds of land sales to be set apart for the benefit of the new states.
A debate followed, in the course of which Clay made some predictions proving how little a mind even so large as his, and so intent upon grasping the proportions of the rapid growth of this Republic, was able to form a just estimate of future developments. He said: "Long after we shall cease to be agitated by the tariff, ages after our manufactures shall have acquired a stability and perfection which will enable them successfully to cope with the manufactures of any other country, the public lands will remain a subject of deep and enduring interest. We may safely anticipate that long, if not centuries, after the present day, the representatives of our children's children may be deliberating in the halls of Congress on laws relating to the public lands." He did not foresee — as probably nobody did at that period — that, fifty-five years after he spoke thus, the protected industries, having for twenty-five consecutive years enjoyed an "American system" far more protective than his, would still be demanding more, and bidding fair to continue doing so for an indefinite time; while, on the other hand, the public lands still under the control of the government would have shrunk to a comparatively poor remnant in quantity and quality, likely to be in private hands in another generation, except perhaps some deserts, and some forest reserves in mountainous regions.
His bill passed the Senate, but failed to be acted upon in the House of Representatives. It did, however, not fail, as some of those who forced the subject upon him had foreseen, seriously to injure the candidate for the presidency in the Western States, as being an opponent of "cheap lands."
But the principal, and the most ominous, struggle of the session was still to come — the struggle concerning the Bank of the United States. As we have seen, the memorial of the bank praying for a renewal of its charter was presented to Congress in January. The committees in the two houses, to which the memorial was referred, reported favorably, recommending the renewal of the charter with some modifications. It was well known that good majorities in both houses were ready to vote for the renewal.
The enemies of the bank, or rather President Jackson's nearest friends, under Benton's leadership, then rushed to the attack. Several serious charges against the Bank of the United States, drawn up by Benton, were made in the House, with a demand for an investigation by committee. The majority of the committee was composed of known opponents of the bank; among the minority, probably the most conscientiously impartial man of all, was John Quincy Adams, then in the first year of his distinguished career as a member of the House of Representatives. An exposition of the charges and specifications, and of the findings of the committee in detail, will not be undertaken here. The reader will find an eminently clear and complete presentation of the case in Professor W. G. Simmer's "Andrew Jackson." John Quincy Adams made a separate report, which was of especial value. The majority of the committee declared that the bank was unsound, and recommended that it should not be rechartered; the minority said that it was safe and useful, and ought to be rechartered; in this latter view John Quincy Adams substantially concurred. One member of the majority declared that he had seen nothing in the conduct of the president and directors "inconsistent with the purest honor and integrity;" but, being a warm friend of General Jackson, he consented to sign the majority report. Jackson himself honestly believed all the charges, whether proved or disproved. On the whole, the result of the investigation was regarded as favorable to the bank. The bill to renew the charter passed the Senate June 11, 1832, by 28 to 20, and the House July 3, by 109 to 76. It looked like a great victory; it was only the prelude to a crushing defeat.
If Jackson had ever been inclined to drop his attack on the bank, that inclination vanished the moment the National Republican Convention made the bank question an issue in the presidential canvass. From that hour he saw in the bank his personal enemy — that is to say, an enemy of the country, whose destruction was one of the duties he had to perform. His combativeness became aroused to its highest energy. But there was his Cabinet divided, the Secretary of the Treasury having in his official report made an elaborate argument in favor of the bank; there was his party divided, some of its leading men in and out of Congress being warm friends of the bank; there was his faithful Pennsylvania, the seat of the bank, and more than any other state under its influence, likely to be turned away from him by that influence; there was Congress, with Democratic majorities in both houses, yet both houses having emphatically declared for rechartering the bank. Could he, in the face of these facts, continue the fight? He did not hesitate a moment. The bill to renew the bank charter, as passed by both houses, was presented to him on July 4, 1832, and on July 10 came his veto.
As a legal, financial, and historical argument, that veto presented many vulnerable points; but as a campaign document it was a masterpiece. No more powerful stump speech was ever delivered. In ingenious variations of light and color, it exhibited the bank before the eyes of the people as an odious monopoly; a monopoly granted to favored individuals without any fair equivalent; a monopoly that exercised a despotic sway over the business of the country; a monopoly itself controlled by a few persons; a monopoly giving dangerous advantages to foreigners as stockholders; a monopoly the renewal of which would put millions into the pockets of a few men; a monopoly in its very nature unconstitutional, the decision of the Supreme Court notwithstanding; a monopoly mismanaging its business to the detriment of the people, and using its power for corrupt purposes; a monopoly tending to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
This was in substance Jackson's veto message. There was one bitter pill in it intended for Clay's special enjoyment. As to the constitutionality of the bank, Jackson simply repeated the argument which Clay had used in 1811, when opposing the rechartering of the first Bank of the United States. The Supreme Court, Jackson argued, had decided the charter to be constitutional on the ground that the Constitution gave Congress power "to pass all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying these powers [the granted powers] into execution." Chartering a bank might have been necessary and proper then, but the President was sure that it was not at all necessary and proper now. Just so Clay had reasoned in 1811. It was in overruling the Supreme Court that Jackson in the veto uttered the famous sentence: "Each public officer who takes an oath to support the Constitution swears that he will support it as he understands it, and not as it is understood by others."
The arrival of the veto in the Senate was the signal for a grand explosion of oratory. Webster opened the debate with his heaviest artillery of argument; Clay, Ewing, and Clayton spoke, thundering magnificently against the veto and its author. With great force it was argued that the bank denounced by Jackson as an unconstitutional and tyrannical monopoly was, in all essential features, the bank established under Washington and sanctioned by him; that the privileges it enjoyed were far outweighed by the services it rendered to the country; that the holding of bank stock by foreigners, who were excluded from taking part in its management, was as little dangerous to the country as the holding by foreigners of United States bonds; that, according to the doctrine of President Jackson, a law held to be constitutional by the Supreme Court was not binding upon him if he saw fit to deny its constitutionality; that, if such a doctrine prevailed, there was an end of all law and judicial authority, and the President was an autocrat like Louis XIV.; and finally, that the overthrow of the bank would plunge all business interests into confusion, and the whole country into disaster and distress. Clay urged with especial warmth a proposition, which thenceforward formed part of his political programme, — that the veto power, "though tolerated by the Constitution, was not expected by the convention to be used in ordinary cases;" that it was designed for "instances of precipitate legislation in unguarded moments;" that the principle upon which it rested was "hardly reconcilable with the genius of representative government," and, indeed, "totally irreconcilable with it, if it was to be frequently employed in respect to the expediency of measures as well as their constitutionality."
Nothing could have been more characteristic and significant than the manner in which Jackson's spokesman, Benton, defended the veto and raised the war-cry against the opposition. "The bank is in the field as a combatant," he said, "and a fearful and tremendous one, in the presidential election. If she succeeds, there is an end of American liberty, — an end of the republic." He described how the bank, by increasing and by withdrawing its loans and accommodations, sought alternately to bribe and to coerce the people to support it. Then he whipped the Democrats into line, exclaiming: —
"You may continue to be for a bank and for Jackson, but you cannot be for this bank and for Jackson. The bank is now the open, as it has long been the secret, enemy of Jackson. The war is now upon Jackson, and if he is defeated all the rest will fall an easy prey. What individual could stand in the States against the power of that bank, and that bank flushed with a victory over the conqueror of the conquerors of Bonaparte? The whole government would fall into the hands of the moneyed power. An oligarchy would be immediately established, and that oligarchy in a few generations would ripen into a monarchy."
He declared that this republic deserved a more glorious death, and he preferred that she should end in "a great immortal battle, where heroes and patriots could die with the liberty they scorned to survive."
After a wild wrangle between Benton and Clay about a street fight between the Benton brothers and Jackson, which had occurred years ago, — for the debate degenerated into bitter personalities, — the vote was taken, and the bill, the President's objections notwithstanding, received 22 against 19 votes, not the necessary two thirds. Thus the veto was sustained.
Clay and his friends were still in good spirits. The veto, they thought, would severely shock the sober sense of the people, and, in effect, be Jackson's death-warrant. Nicholas Biddle wrote to Clay that he was "delighted with it." Anti-Jackson newspapers found the veto message "beneath contempt," and advised that it be given the widest possible publicity. So it was, and with a startling result.
The Democratic National Convention had been held in May, while the struggle in Congress was still going on. That Jackson would be a candidate for rejection had been taken for granted since the first year of his administration. He had no competitor. The formality of a nomination was therefore in his case deemed unnecessary. The convention was called merely to designate a candidate for the vice-presidency. That candidate, too, had been selected by Jackson, — Van Buren, endeared to him by the enmity of his own enemies. The national convention had only to ratify the decree. Eaton, Jackson's first Secretary of War, was inclined, as a member of the convention, to vote against Van Buren. But he received a warning not to do so, "unless he was prepared to quarrel with the general."
The National Republicans hoped that the veto would disgust the many supporters of the bank among the Democrats, and thus demoralize and scatter Jackson's following. It had the opposite effect. The bank Democrats found that there was a man at the bead of their party whose resolution no opposition could stagger, and who had a will much stronger than theirs; to that will they bowed. The Secretary of the Treasury, who had made a report in favor of the bank, did not resign. The Democratic politicians, who had been at the same time friends of the bank and friends of Jackson, soon discovered that the cry against the great monopoly was the popular cry and would win. Many of them had to "turn very sharp corners," but they turned them with alacrity. Members of Congress, who had voted for the renewal of the bank charter, took part in the anti-bank meetings, apologized for what they had done, and then lustily joined in the outcry against the "monster." Having once changed their position on a question they had considered highly important, simply because Jackson would have it so, they found no further difficulty in surrendering their will completely to him. The effect of the veto had therefore been, not to scatter Jackson's following, but actually to consolidate his party, giving it more cohesion and discipline than it had ever had before, and strengthening it numerically too, for, although there were a few defections, the war against the bank drew crowds of recruits to its ranks.
The cholera appeared that summer in the United States, but it checked only for a moment the animation of the campaign. The Clay party remained hopeful to the end. In May a convention of "young men" had met at Washington, representing almost every State, to ratify Clay's nomination for the presidency. William Pitt Fessenden of Maine was one of its vice-presidents, and there were not a few among its members who became distinguished men in later days. The Democrats dubbed the meeting "Clay's infant school," but it encouraged him in the belief that he had the youth of the country on his side. The National Republicans, having great strength among the merchants, manufacturers, and professional men, and commanding a large proportion of the talent of the country, sought to make a campaign of argument, and flooded the country with addresses, pamphlets, and printed campaign matter of all kinds. The United States Bank itself did its share of the work. But this kind of effort failed to reach the large class of voters, then much larger than now, who were not "reading people." The Jackson party trusted more to speeches, meetings, and processions. The figure of the "old hero," grown to greater proportions than ever since he was engaged in his struggle against the "monster monopoly," exercised a wonderful charm over the popular imagination, — a charm against which all the learned arguments about the usefulness of the Bank of the United States and its constitutionality, and the abuse of the veto power, availed nothing. Before the eyes of the masses Jackson appeared as a St. George killing the dragon, and as the invincible champion of "hard cash," of the "yellow boys," driving out "Old Nick's money" and "Clay's rags." Further, the country was made to ring with the old "bargain and corruption" charge, revived to do new service.
At a late period of the campaign the hopes of the Clay party were highly excited by the defection of the New York "Courier and Enquirer," under James Watson Webb, and of several other newspapers which turned from Jackson to Clay. The National Republicans became extremely sanguine of success. So much the more terrible was their disappointment when the returns of the election came in. Of the 288 electoral votes Jackson had won 219, Clay only 49, those of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, and Kentucky. Wirt, the candidate of the Anti-Masons, had carried Vermont; South Carolina gave her vote to John Floyd of Virginia. It was a stunning defeat. Clay and his friends stood wondering how it could have happened.
Clay had committed two grave blunders in statesmanship, and one equally grave in political tactics.
The South was in a dangerous ferment against the tariff. The impending extinguishment of the public debt made a large reduction of the revenue necessary. Clay might, therefore, in recognition of the necessity for reducing the revenue, have proposed a reduction of tariff duties sufficient to take off the edge of the Southern discontent, without the least appearance of yielding to Southern threats. The measure he did propose reduced the revenue very little, and, by maintaining the high protective duties, exasperated the South still more. This was the first blunder in statesmanship.
The other was that, instead of advising the United States Bank to keep clear of politics and to accede to any reasonable modification of its charter that might avert the opposition of Jackson, he forced the fight, and made the question of the bank a party question; thus involving in the changing fortunes of party warfare the most important financial institution of the country, whose solvency, credit, and political impartiality were of the highest concern to the business community.
The blunder in political tactics was that he believed he could excite the enthusiasm of the masses for a great moneyed corporation in its contest against a popular hero like Jackson, — a most amazing infatuation; and thus he made the bank question the leading issue in the presidential campaign.
Without these blunders he would, probably, not have been victorious; but with them his defeat became certain and overwhelming.