Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Domestic Affairs

Rotation in Office and The Spoils System

Jackson entered the White House with an uncertain policy agenda beyond a vague craving for "reform" (or revenge) and a determination to settle relationships between the states and the Indian tribes within their borders. On these two matters he moved quickly and decisively.

During the campaign, Jackson had charged the Adams bureaucracy with fraud and with working against his election. As President, he initiated sweeping removals among highranking government officials—Washington bureau chiefs, land and customs officers, and federal marshals and attorneys. Jackson claimed to be purging the corruption, laxity, and arrogance that came with long tenure, and restoring the opportunity for government service to the citizenry at large through "rotation in office." But haste and gullibility did much to confuse his purpose. Under the guise of reform, many offices were doled out as rewards for political services. Newspaper editors who had championed Jackson's cause, some of them very unsavory characters, came in for special favor. His most appalling appointee was an old army comrade and political sycophant named Samuel Swartwout. Against all advice, Jackson made him collector of the New York City customhouse, where the government collected nearly half its annual revenue. In 1838, Swartwout absconded with more than $1 million, a staggering sum for that day.

Jackson denied that political criteria motivated his appointments, claiming honesty and efficiency as his only goals. Yet he accepted an officeholder's support for Adams as evidence of unfitness, and in choosing replacements he relied exclusively on recommendations from his own partisans. A Jackson senator from New York, William L. Marcy, defended Jackson's removals by proclaiming frankly in 1832 that in politics as in war, "to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy." Jackson was never so candid—or so cynical. Creating the "spoils system" of partisan manipulation of the patronage was not his conscious intention. Still, it was his doing.

Indian Removal

Indian nations had been largely erased or removed from the northeastern United States by the time Jackson became President. But in the southwest, the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks still occupied large portions of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. For many years, Jackson had protested the practice of treating with Indian tribes as if they were foreign nations. Jackson did not hate Indians as a race. He was friendly with many individual Indians and had taken home an Indian orphan from the Creek campaign to raise in his household as a companion to his adopted son. But Jackson did believe that Indian civilization was lower than that of whites, and that for their own survival, tribes who were pressed by white settlement must assimilate as individuals or remove to the west out of harm's way. Confident that he could judge the Indians' true welfare better than they, Jackson, when employed as an Indian negotiator in his army years, had often used threats and bribery to procure cessions of land. Formalities notwithstanding, he regarded tribes resident within the states not as independent sovereign entities but as wards of the government and tenants-at-will.

The inherent conflict between tribal and state authority came to a head just as Jackson assumed office. The Cherokee nation had acquired many of the attributes of white civilization, including a written language, a newspaper, and a constitution of government. Under its treaties with the federal government, the tribe claimed sovereign authority over its territory in Georgia and adjoining states. Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi countered by asserting state jurisdiction over their Indian domains.

Jackson backed the states. He maintained that the federal government had no right to defend the Cherokees against Georgia's encroachments. If the Indians wished to maintain their tribal government and landownership, they must remove beyond the existing states. To facilitate the removal, Jackson induced Congress in 1830 to pass a bill empowering him to lay off new Indian homelands west of the Mississippi, exchange them for current tribal holdings, purchase the Indians' capital improvements, and pay the costs of their westward transportation. This Indian Removal Act was the only major piece of legislation passed at Jackson's behest in his eight years as President.

Indian removal was so important to Jackson that he returned to Tennessee to conduct the first negotiations in person. He gave the Indians a simple alternative: submit to state authority or emigrate beyond the Mississippi. Offered generous aid on one hand and the threat of subjugation on the other, the Chickasaws and Choctaws submitted readily, the Creeks under duress. Only the Cherokees resisted to the bitter end. Tentatively in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia in 1831 and more forcefully in Worcester v. Georgia the next year, the Supreme Court upheld the tribes' independence from state authority. But these legal victories pointed out no practical course of resistance for the tribe to take. Tacitly encouraged by Jackson, Georgia ignored the rulings. Jackson cultivated a minority faction within the tribe, and signed a removal treaty with them in 1835. Though the vast majority of Cherokees rejected the treaty, those who refused to remove under its terms were finally rounded up and transplanted westward by military force in 1838, under Jackson's successor Martin Van Buren. The Cherokees' sufferings in this forced exodus became notorious as the "Trail of Tears."

Meanwhile, dozens of removal treaties closed out pockets of Indian settlement in other states and territories east of the Mississippi. A short military campaign on the upper Mississippi quelled resistance by Black Hawk's band of Sacs and Foxes in 1832, and in 1835 a long and bloody war to subdue the Seminoles in Florida began. Most of the tribes went without force.

Given the coercion that produced them, most of the removal treaties were fair and even generous. Their execution was miserable. Generally the treaties promised fair payment for the Indians' land and goods, safe transportation to the West and sustenance upon arrival, and protection for the property of those who chose to remain behind under state jurisdiction. These safeguards collapsed under pressure from corrupt contractors, unscrupulous traders, and white trespassers backed by state authority. Jackson's desire to economize and avoid trouble with the state governments further undercut federal efforts to protect the tribes. For this record he bore ultimate responsibility. Jackson did not countenance the abuses, but he did ignore them. Though usually a stickler for the precise letter of formal obligations, he made promises to the Indians that the government did not and perhaps could not fulfill.

The American System and the Maysville Road Veto

When Jackson took office, the leading controversies in Congress concerned the "American System" of economic development policies propounded by Henry Clay and furthered by the previous Adams administration. As a senator in 1824, Jackson had backed the System's twin pillars of a protective tariff to foster domestic industry and federal subsidies for transportation projects (known as "internal improvements"). These policies were especially popular in the country's mid-section, from Pennsylvania west through Ohio to Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. They were widely hated in much of the South, where they were regarded as devices to siphon wealth from cotton planters to northern manufacturers.

Many Americans judged the American System by its impact on their local interests. Jackson had supported it on national grounds, as a means to build the country's strength and secure its economic independence. Poor transportation in particular had hamstrung the American military effort in the War of 1812. But the unseemly scramble in Congress for favors and subsidies and the rising sectional acrimony over the tariff during the Adams presidency turned Jackson against the System. As a nationalist, he deplored sectional wrangling that threatened disunion, and he came to see protective tariffs and transportation subsidies as vehicles for corruption and for the advancement of special privilege.

Jackson announced his new policy by vetoing a bill to aid the Maysville Road in Kentucky in 1830. A string of similar vetoes followed, essentially halting federal internal improvement spending. Reversing himself on the tariff, Jackson renounced protection in 1831 and endorsed a reduction in rates. Invoking Jeffersonian precedent, he urged a return to simple, frugal, minimal government.

At the same time, Jackson reproved the increasingly strident Southern sectional opposition to the tariff headed by his own vice president, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Radical South Carolinians blamed the tariff for all their economic woes and misfortunes. They denounced it as an unconstitutional exercise of congressional power, a measure to illegitimately channel wealth from South to North under the guise of an import tax. Drawing on the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions against the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, Calhoun fashioned an argument that an individual state, acting through a formal convention, could interpose its authority to declare null and void any federal law that it deemed to violate the Constitution. Jackson thought this nullification doctrine treasonous and absurd. At a political dinner in 1830 he stamped his disapproval on it by staring at Calhoun and toasting, "Our federal Union: It must be preserved."

The Eaton Affair

Jackson was already becoming estranged from Calhoun over a simmering Washington scandal. Jackson's secretary of war, John Henry Eaton, was an old army comrade, Jackson's his campaign biographer, and a Tennessee neighbor. He was the President's one personal confidante in a cabinet made up of near-strangers. Just before the inauguration, Eaton had married Margaret O'Neale Timberlake, the vivacious daughter of a Washington hotelier. Scandalous stories circulated about "Peggy" O'Neale, whose first husband, a purser in the Navy, had died abroad under mysterious circumstances not long before her marriage to Eaton. Rumor said that he committed suicide over her dalliance with Eaton. Cabinet wives, including Calhoun's wife Floride, regarded Peggy with abhorrence and conspicuously shunned her.

In the snubbing of Mrs. Eaton, Jackson saw the kind of vicious persecution that he believed had hounded his own Rachel to her death. He also believed he spied a plot to drive out Eaton from his cabinet, isolate him among strangers, and control his administration. The master of the plot, Jackson came to decide, was Calhoun. He was also shown evidence that during the controversy over his Florida incursion back in 1818, Calhoun had criticized him in Monroe's cabinet while publicly posturing as his defender. Jackson now accused Calhoun of treachery, initiating an angry correspondence that ended with the severing of social relations between the two.

The Eaton scandal cleaved Jackson's own household. His niece, White House hostess Emily Tennessee Donelson, refused to associate with Mrs. Eaton, and Emily's husband, Jackson's nephew and private secretary Andrew Jackson Donelson, backed her up. The one cabinet officer who stood apart from the snubbing was a man with no wife to contend with—Secretary of State Martin Van Buren of New York, a widower. Jackson was drawn to Van Buren both by his courtliness to Peggy Eaton and his policy views. Van Buren wished to return to the minimalist, strict constructionist governing philosophy of the old Jeffersonian party. In practical political terms, he sought to rebuild the coalition of "planters and plain republicans"—put concretely, an alliance of the South with New York and Pennsylvania—that had sustained Jefferson. Van Buren opposed the American System, but on broad philosophical rather than narrow sectional grounds.

As Jackson separated from Calhoun, he became more intimate with Van Buren. By 1831, the Eaton imbroglio threatened to paralyze the administration. Eaton and Van Buren created a way out: they resigned, giving Jackson an occasion to demand the resignations of the other secretaries and appoint a whole new cabinet. To reward Van Buren, Jackson named him as minister to Great Britain, the highest post in the American diplomatic service. The nomination came before the Senate, where Vice-President Calhoun, on an arranged tie vote, cast the deciding vote against it. Van Buren, who had already assumed his station abroad, came home as a political martyr, Jackson's choice for vice-president in 1832, and his heir apparent to the presidency.

The Nullification Crisis and the Compromise of 1833

As Van Buren rose and Calhoun fell, the tariff controversy mounted to a crisis. Congress passed a new tariff in 1832 that reduced some rates but continued the protectionist principle. Some Southerners claimed this as a sign of progress, but South Carolinians saw it as reason to abandon hope in Washington. In November, a state convention declared the tariff unconstitutional and hence null and void. South Carolina's legislature followed up with measures to block the collection of federal custom revenues at the state's ports and to defend the state with arms against federal incursion.

Jackson responded on two fronts. He urged Congress to reduce the tariff further, but he also asked for strengthened authority to enforce the revenue laws. Privately, and perhaps for calculated political effect, he talked about marching an army into South Carolina and hanging Calhoun. In December, he issued a ringing official proclamation against nullification. Drafted largely by Secretary of State Edward Livingston, the document questioned Carolinians' obsession with the tariff, reminded them of their patriotic heritage, eviscerated the constitutional theory behind nullification, and warned against taking this fatal step: "Be not deceived by names. Disunion by armed force is treason. Are you really ready to incur its guilt?"

While Jackson thundered, Congress scrambled for a solution that would avoid civil war. Henry Clay, leader of the congressional opposition to Jackson and stalwart of the American System, joined in odd alliance with John C. Calhoun, who had resigned his lame-duck vice-presidency for a seat in the Senate. They fashioned a bill to reduce the tariff in a series of stages over nine years. Early in 1833, Congress passed this Compromise Tariff and also a "force bill" to enforce the revenue laws. Though the Clay-Calhoun forces sought to deny Jackson credit for the settlement, he was fully satisfied with the result. South Carolina, claiming victory, rescinded its nullification of the tariff but nullified the force bill in a final gesture of principled defiance. The Compromise of 1833 brought an end to tariff agitation until the 1840s. First with internal improvements, then with the tariff, the American System had been essentially stymied.

The Bank Veto

The congressional Clay-Calhoun alliance foreshadowed a convergence of all Jackson's enemies into a new opposition party. The issue that sealed this coalition, solidified Jackson's own following, and dominated his second term as President was the Second Bank of the United States.

The Bank of the United States was a quasi-public corporation chartered by Congress to manage the federal government's finances and provide a sound national currency. Headquartered in Philadelphia with branches throughout the states, it was the country's only truly national financial institution. The federal government owned one-fifth of the stock and the President of the United States appointed one-fifth of the directors. Like other banks chartered by state legislatures, the Bank lent for profit and issued paper currency backed by specie reserves. Its notes were federal legal tender. By law, it was also the federal government's own banker, arranging its loans and storing, transferring, and disbursing its funds. The Bank's national reach and official status gave it enormous leverage over the state banks and over the country's supply of money and credit.

The original Bank of the United States was chartered in 1791 at the urging of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Opposition to it was one of the founding tenets of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican party. That party allowed the Bank to expire when its twenty-year charter ran out in 1811. But the government's financial misadventures in the War of 1812 forced a reconsideration. In 1816, Congress chartered the Second Bank, again for twenty years.

Imprudent lending and corrupt management brought the Second Bank into deep disrepute during the speculative boom-and-bust cycle that culminated in the Panic of 1819. Calls arose for revocation of the charter. But the astute stewardship of new Bank president Nicholas Biddle did much to repair its reputation in the 1820s. By 1828, when Jackson was first elected, the Bank had ceased to be controversial. Indeed, most informed observers deemed it indispensable.

Startling his own supporters, Jackson attacked the Bank in his very first message to Congress in 1829. Biddle attempted to conciliate him, but Jackson's opposition to renewing the charter seemed immovable. He was convinced that the Bank was not only unconstitutional—as Jefferson and his followers had long maintained—but that its concentrated financial power represented a dire threat to popular liberty.

Under the advice of Senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, Biddle sought a congressional recharter in 1832. They calculated that Jackson would not dare issue a veto on the eve of the election; if he did, they would make an issue of it in the campaign. The recharter bill duly passed Congress and on July 10, Jackson vetoed it.

The veto message was one of the defining documents of Jackson's presidency. Clearly intended for the public eye, parts of it read more like a political manifesto than a communication to Congress. Jackson recited his constitutional objections and introduced some dubious economic arguments, chiefly aimed at foreign ownership of Bank stock. But the crux of the message was its attack on the special privilege enjoyed by private stockholders in a government-chartered corporation. Jackson laid out an essentially laissez-faire vision of government as a neutral arbiter, phrased in a resonant populism:

"It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers--who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing."

Though some original Jackson men were flabbergasted and outraged at his turn against the Bank, the veto held up in Congress. It became the prime issue in the ensuing presidential campaign, with both sides distributing copies of Jackson's message. Jackson read his re-election as a mandate to pursue his attack on the Bank further.

Removal of the Deposits

As soon as the nullification crisis was resolved, Jackson took his next step. The Bank's open involvement in the presidential campaign convinced him more than ever of its inherent corruption. To draw its fangs until its charter ran out in 1836, he determined to withdraw the federal government's own deposits from the Bank and place them in selected state-chartered banks.

This was a maneuver requiring some delicacy. Under the charter, the secretary of the treasury, not the President, had authority to remove the deposits. He had also to explain his reasons to Congress, where the House of Representatives had just voted by a two-to-one margin that the deposits should stay where they were. Jackson canvassed his cabinet on removal. Most of them opposed it, but he got the support and arguments he needed from Attorney General Roger Taney. Jackson drew up a paper explaining his decision, read it to the cabinet, and ordered Treasury Secretary William John Duane to execute the removal. To Jackson's astonishment, Duane refused. He also refused to resign, so Jackson fired him and put Taney in his place. Taney ordered the removal, which was largely complete by the time Congress convened in December 1833.

Even many congressional foes of the Bank could not countenance Jackson's proceedings against it. He had defied Congress's intent, rode roughshod over the treasury secretary's statutory control over the public purse, and removed the public funds from the lawfully authorized, responsible hands of the Bank of the United States to an untried, unregulated, and perhaps wholly irresponsible collection of state banks. To many, Jackson seemed to regard himself as above the law.

Fortunately for Jackson, Bank president Nicholas Biddle over-reacted and played into his hands. Regarding the removal of deposits as a declaration of open war, Biddle determined to force a recharter by creating a financial panic. Loss of the deposits required some curtailment of the Bank's loans, but Biddle carried the contraction further than was necessary in a deliberate effort to squeeze businessmen into demanding a recharter. This manipulation of credit for political ends served only to discredit the Bank and to vindicate Jackson's strictures against it.

Congress did not even consider recharter, but it did lash out at Jackson. Clay men and Southern anti-tariffites could not agree on the American System; they could not all agree on rechartering the Bank; but they could unite in their outrage at Jackson's high-handed proceedings against it. In the 1833-1834 session, Jackson's congressional foes converged to form a new party. They took the name of Whigs, borrowed from Revolutionary-era American and British opponents of royal prerogative.

Whigs held a majority in the Senate. They rejected Jackson's nominees for government directors of the Bank of the United States, rejected Taney as secretary of the treasury, and in March 1834, adopted a resolution of censure against Jackson himself for assuming "authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and laws, but in derogation of both." Jackson protested the censure, arguing that the Senate had adopted the moral equivalent of an impeachment conviction without formal charges, without a trial, and without the necessary two-thirds vote. Led by Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson's defenders mounted a crusade to expunge the censure from the Senate journal. They succeeded in 1837, at the end of Jackson's presidency, after Democrats finally won majority control of the Senate.

Hard Money

The Bank, defeated, retired from the fray after the 1834 session. When its charter expired it accepted a new one from Pennsylvania and continued to operate as a state institution. Meanwhile, the state banks, cut loose from central restraint and gorged with federal funds, went on a lending spree that helped fuel a speculative boom in western lands. Everything came crashing down in the Panic of 1837, which broke just as Jackson retired from office. The ensuing depression plagued Martin Van Buren's presidency and lingered on into the 1840s.

Jackson's unsatisfactory experiment with the state banks helped drive his economic thinking toward more radical extremes. He renounced all banknote currency and demanded a return to the "hard money" of gold and silver. To that end, and to curb rampant speculation, he ordered the issuance of a "Specie Circular" in 1836 requiring payment in coin for western public lands. By the end of his presidency he was attacking all chartered corporations, including manufacturing concerns, turnpike and canal companies, and especially banks, as instruments of aristocratic privilege and engines of oppression. His Farewell Address in 1837, drafted largely by Taney, warned of an insidious "money power" that threatened to subvert American liberty.

Slavery and Abolition

During Jackson's presidency, the momentous question of slavery intruded forcefully into politics. Northern evangelical opponents of slavery known as abolitionists organized and began to bombard the nation and Congress with pleas and petitions to rid the republic of this great wrong. Defenders of slavery responded with denunciations and with violence. They demanded in the interest of public safety that criticism of slavery be not only answered, but silenced. Some, especially the South Carolina nullifiers, linked abolitionism to the tariff as part of a systematic campaign of Northern sectional oppression against the South.

There is nothing to show that Jackson ever pondered slavery as a fundamental moral question. Such thinking was not in his character: he was a man of action, not of philosophy. He grew up with the institution of slavery and accepted it uncritically. Like his neighbors, he bought and sold slaves and used them to work his plantation and wait on his needs. Jackson reacted to the abolitionist controversy in purely political terms. He perceived it as a threat to sectional harmony and to his own national Democratic party, and on that ground he condemned the agitation of both sides.

During Jackson's administration, Congress began adopting annual "gag rules" to keep discussion of abolition petitions off the House and Senate floor. In 1835, abolitionists sent thousands of antislavery tracts through the mails directly to southern clergy, officials, and prominent citizens. Many of these were never delivered, intercepted by southern postmasters or by angry mobs. Jackson and Postmaster General Amos Kendall approved their action. Jackson recommended federal suppression of "incendiary publications" and damned the abolitionists' "wicked attempts" to incite a slave rebellion. His Farewell Address in 1837 warned of the dangers of sectional fanaticism, both northern and southern.