Mr. Madison’s War

Henry Clay, the Nationalist-Republican candidate

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Henry Clay, the Nationalist-Republican candidate, wanted to embarrass Jackson, the Democratic Party’s candidate, by forcing Jackson to take a stand on the bank issue during the 1832 presidential campaign. Clay reasoned that Jackson would be forced into a “no-win situation” with the re-charter bill. Jackson could veto the bill but this would anger Easterners. Jackson could sign the bill but the would anger Westerners. Jackson, aware of the situation, commented, “The bank is trying to kill me but I will kill it!”

  • Jackson vetoed more Congressional bills (12 actually) than all presidents before him combined. Clay’s politically loaded bill authorizing the early re-charter of the 2nd BUS was Jackson’s most famous veto. Jackson’s message explaining the veto showed that he had very little real understanding for how the bank operated or how the bank actually did benefit the national economy. Clay was so amused with Jackson’s “ignorance” that he ordered copies of the Jackson’s Bank Veto Message to be reprinted and distributed as pro-Clay campaign propaganda. Clay’s Nationalist-Republican supporters and the Bank’s director, Nicholas Biddle, also explained, during the 1832 campaign, the positive aspects of the 2nd BUS: the bank controlled local banks and prevented ill prepared local banks from going into business; the 2nd BUS could prevent “wildcat banking” and over-speculation by restricting the currency supply during “boom times” to prevent the economy from “overheating;” the 2nd BUS also provided a relatively abundant and reliable national currency needed to facilitate economic growth.

  • Clay’s plan to distribute copies of the veto message backfired. Jackson’s reasons for vetoing the re-charter of the 2nd BUS proved wildly popular with the voting public. Jackson used easy-to- understand rhetoric by declaring that the bank was aristocratic, monopolistic, undemocratic, unconstitutional, the “hydra of corruption,” “favored the few against the many” and “made the rich richer and the potent more powerful.” The charge that the bank was powerful was undeniable; it influenced the national business cycle. The charge that the bank was a tower of special privilege was also easy to prove. The bank made favorable loans to congressmen, newspaper publishers, and others who controlled public opinion and public policy (Clay, for example, received a $50,000 “life insurance” gift from the 2nd BUS in 1832). The 2nd BUS was also controlled by wealthy stockholders. Jackson also pointed out, in his veto message, that a significant minority of these shareholders were British (this was popular with Irish and ultra-nationalist, anti-British voters).

  • Jackson won the election of 1832 by winning easily in the popular and electoral vote. Jackson won 219 votes while Clay earned 49. The anti-masons, the first real third party in US History, won only the state of Vermont.

  • Clay’s Nationalist-Republican party reorganized and founded the Whig Party during Jackson’s second term of office. Below are some of the specific issues that brought the anti-Jackson Whigs together:

          • Anti-Jackson Whigs later called Jackson “King Veto” and “King Andrew I” because he seemed to be such a powerful and irresponsible demagogue. Jackson used, as mentioned earlier, the veto frequently. His argument that the 2nd BUS was totally evil and needed to be destroyed was also not entirely accurate. The American business cycle was wildly unpredictable after the 2nd BUS was destroyed (consider the panics of 1837, 57, 73, 93, 1907). Jackson’s effort to “kill” the 2nd BUS also contributed directly to the Panic of 1837. Still voters, irresponsibly perhaps, joined Jackson to attack the bank because of the institution’s aristocratic leanings. Whigs would have argued, in other words, that Jackson’s rhetoric had influenced the public inappropriately because while aristocratic, the 2nd BUS did more “good” than “bad.”

          • Jackson’s charge that the 2nd BUS was “unconstitutional” also seemed like irresponsible demagoguery to Whig supporters. John Marshall and the Supreme Court had already ruled that the 2nd BUS was in fact constitutional in the 1819 McCulloch v. Maryland case. Additionally, Jackson did not limit his “disrespect” for the Supreme Court to the McCulloch case. He directly disregarded the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia ruling regarding (Chreokee land rights) and stated, “John Marshall has made his decision, let him enforce it.”

          • Jackson, “deep down” a Democrat states’ rights supporter, did ironically increase the power of the federal government by dramatically increasing the power of the Presidency through the liberal use of the veto and his undeniable personal appeal to the masses. Jackson was willing to use the veto to over ride Congress and his popularity to ignore the Supreme Court because he viewed the presidency differently than previous leaders. To Jackson, the President was the direct representative of the people. He was, in other words, the “common man’s” leader and felt that he was elected to use Executive power to help the common man even if it meant circumventing tradition “now and again.” Whig traditionalists, however, feared that such willingness to rule so strongly, even in the interest of the public will, was as dangerous as Jackson argued it may have been democratic. Whigs feared demagoguery and also were cautious of public rule or what Federalists in the 1790s would have called “mobocracy.”

          • John C. Calhoun and other leading Southern planters also briefly became Whigs because of their anger over Jackson’s policy against South Carolina during the Nullification crisis. Such anger, however, was directed more against Jackson than the Democratic Party in general and many Southern Whigs (like Calhoun) quickly re-entered the Democratic Party in time to elect James K. Polk in 1844.

          • Northern Protestant reformers also gravitated toward the Whigs. Protestant reformers joined the Whigs because they shared the philosophy of creating an “active government.” Whigs wanted an active government, not laissez-faire policy, to encourage economic growth. Protestant reformers (abolitionist members are later called “Conscience Whigs”) wanted an active government to wipe out the “social evils” of drunkenness, illiteracy, and slavery. The heavily protestant, nearly evangelical nature of the northern Whigs, however, was a real “turn-off” to recent immigrant voters who were successfully recruited into the Democratic party in northern urban areas.

      1. Biddle’s Panic (1833): Bank director Nicolas Biddle acted to protect the bank after his candidate, Henry Clay, was defeated during the election of 1832. Biddle was calculating, correctly, that once reelected, Jackson would move to destroy the 2nd BUS rather than wait for the bank to expire when the charter expired in 1836. Biddle’s specific course of action, however, was miscalculated. Biddle began to tighten the currency supply during the winter of 1832 and 1833. The sudden moves of the national bank created much uneasiness in the business community. Biddle had hoped that business leaders and the public would blame President Jackson. Jacksonian supporters, however, rallied and deflected criticism of the President by arguing that their charges about the Bank’s “excessive power” were true. Biddle’s ability to single-handedly scare the daylights out of the business community seemed to confirm the Democratic Party’s claim that the Bank was aristocratic and too powerful.

      2. Pet Bank Policy (1833-36): Biddle’s Panic provided Jackson with enough energy to embark on the controversial “Pet Bank” policy where federal deposits were removed from the Bank of the United States and dispersed in several state banks. Critics called the states banks receiving federal deposits “pet banks” because they were usually selected for their loyalty to the Democratic Party. While popular because it fueled a wild economic expansion in the West, the “pet bank” policy was, ironically, not something Jackson really liked. Jackson was willing to continue the policy because he believed the goal of “killing” the aristocratic national bank was right. He worried, however, as the number of state depositories of federal funds expanded and began issuing more and more paper currency. Jackson had, as mentioned earlier, been harmed by the over-expansion of the economy before the Panic of 1819 and distrusted the inflationary and speculative tendencies of paper money increasingly issued by the “pet” banks.

      3. Locofocos: Eastern “locofoco” democrats shared Jackson distaste for paper money. Eastern democrats were city dwellers. They did not like to see food and rent prices rise and were, consequently, unhappy with the pro-inflation “pet bank” policy.

      4. The Speculative “Bubble”: Jackson’s “Pet Bank” policy allowed the economy to expand without regulation by the National Bank and resulted in a wild economic expansion fueled by “cheap” money and wildcat banking. 329 banks operated in the US with a total capital of $110 million in 1830. By 1835 the number of banks increased to 704 with a total capital of $231 million. The value of bank notes circulating grew from $61 million in 1830 to $149 million in 1837. Farm prices and land values increased dramatically.

      5. The “Specie Circular” (1836): The increase in bank notes was unquestionably excessive. President Jackson reacted by issuing an Executive memo ordering federal land agents to accept nothing but “hard” currency or “specie” (gold & silver coins) for payment of federal lands. The supply of “specie” to purchase western lands, however, was extremely limited. The “Specie Circular” memo, consequently abruptly ended the period of wild speculation in western lands. The sudden ending of the western land boom produced results similar to that of 1819: economic panic. The economy, however, did not unravel until 1837 because the federal government was running a surplus and distributing excessive tariff collections to states (This had an effect of keeping the economy going for a few extra months after the western land “speculation bubble” was “pricked” by the specie circular memo).


    1. Election of 1836: Democratic candidate Martin Van Buren was elected President. The Whig Party, still in its formative stage, ran several candidates who split votes regionally. Van Buren won 170 electoral votes while the Whig Candidates William H. Harrison, Hugh L. White, Daniel Webster, W.P. Mangum each won 73, 26, 14, 11 electoral votes respectively.

    2. Van Buren would not, however, enjoy his presidency. The economy fell apart in 1837 and the sitting president was, as is usually the case, blamed for the problem. Crtics began referring to Martin Van Buren as “Martin Van Ruin.”

    3. Election of 1840: Whigs copied many of the Democratic Party’s ideas to elect their first President in 1840. They nominated their own War of 1812 war hero: William Henry Harrison (the “hero of Tippecanoe”). They invented their own catchy slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!.” They also presented their candidate, Harrison, as being a “common man” backwoodsman who lived in a log cabin (Harrison was really from a wealthy planter family). The Whig “log cabin” campaign strategy worked. Defeating, Martin Van “Ruin” was defeated.

    4. William Henry Harrison, unfortunately for his family and the Whig Party, suffered from the same “problem” the only other elected Whig president experienced: he died in office (Zachary Taylor, the other Whig President was also a war hero who died in office). Harrison was an elderly man who delivered a long inaugural speech in a March rain event. He became ill and died shortly after becoming president. He was the first to die in office and succeeded by Virginian John Tyler.

    5. John Tyler, however, disappointed Whigs like Henry Clay. Tyler was one of those Southern “angry at Jackson” but still basically a democrat Whigs. He was placed on Harrison’s ticket because he was a Virginian who could help Harrison win votes in the South and a large state. Whigs never really anticipated Tyler as President and were outraged when Tyler used his Executive power to veto their bills to establish a Third National Bank. Tyler’s quasi-Jacksonian vetoes of Whig bills to federally fund internal improvements also angered Whigs. Whigs eventually became so angry that they took the radical step to formally kick Tyler out of the Whig Party. Tyler, the first “unexpected President” lived out the remainder of his presidency as a “lame duck” politician without a party. He realized his political career was over and did not run for re-election.

    6. The Whigs did elect another president. Like Harrison, the second Whig president was a war hero. Zachary Taylor had earned the reputation for being a great military commander during the Battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican War. He was elected in 1848 but, like Harrison, died in office in 1850 (in the middle of the extremely heated California statehood debate resolved by the famous Compromise of 1850).

    7. Taylor’s Vice President and replacement was Millard Fillmore. Fillmore was not a remarkable President. He was later nominated for President by the strongly anti-Catholic and nativist “Know Nothing” party in 1856.

    8. The Whigs were probably never successful because they were really only galvanized by one thing: hatred of Jackson. They never really developed the broad coalition and political platform a political party needs to expand and truly develop nationally. They were also the victim of rising sectionalism. Southern Whigs returned to the Democratic Party’s “states’ rights” roots as the debate over slavery intensified while economic “American System” and abolitionist “Conscience” Whigs united to form the Republican Party in the North.


    1. The Character of the Old South: Sectional conflict was a minor theme in US politics before the 1819 Tallmadge Amendment. The South’s dissatisfaction with its place in the Union, however, increased dramatically after the 1832 Nullification Crisis. It is consequently, worthwhile to examine the characteristics that made the South a distinctive region of the nation during the Antebellum period.

    2. The South of Myth & Legend

      1. The colonial South was settled exclusively by Cavaliers and West Indie aristocrats.

      2. It was a land of “high culture” that far surpassed the North in literary and artistic production. Southern society had a polish and grace that the North lacked.

      3. The typical Southerner was a planter who owned gangs of slaves and lived elegantly in a stately mansion.

    1. The South of Reality

      1. Most of the colonial settlers were not bluebloods but from the lower and common classes of England. Many colonists were also indentured servants- the poorest of the poor in England.

      2. A small, exclusive aristocracy did develop in the Virginia Tidewater and around Charleston, South Carolina. Most southern planters, however, lacked the “culture” of these groups. The new cotton areas of the Deep South were not far from the frontier, socially as well as geographically. Illiteracy was by no means unknown among these planters (recall that Jackson, an intelligent man but was from this group).

      3. Census data gives a bit clearer picture of the reality of the South in 1860. 8 million Southerners lived in the region. 383,000 owned 4 million slaves. One in four families owned any slaves at all. 50% of slave owners owned four or fewer slaves. Only 2,000 Southerners owned 100 or more slaves. Only 14 owned more than 500 slaves.

      4. Southerners who owned no slaves at all were by no means all “poor whites.” Most of them were not wealthy but they were not “dirt poor.” Most of them owned their own land at least. Their lands, however, were not well-suited to the large-scale production of the great commercial crops of the South: cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar. Their lands were, however, suitable for producing the family’s own food and diversified self-subsistence farming (sometimes family plantings were developed to grow small cash crops of cotton or tobacco). These yeoman farmers were the “typical southerners.” They were really very much like their same kind in New England, Pennsylvania, and the Midwest: self-sufficient and independent on their own 80-160 acres, on the basis of their family’s labor.

      5. The true “poor whites” tended to live on submarginal lands. They often supplemented the meager crops harvested with hunting and fishing. They were disease ridden- malaria, dietary deficiencies, hookworm. They were at the bottom of the Southern social ladder.

      6. Why did Nonslaveholding Southern Whites Support The Institution Of Slavery?

          • It was accepted that energetic yeoman farmers could rise to membership in the planter class if they worked hard and were a bit lucky; hence it was of the interest of this group to defend rather than attack slavery

          • Abolition of slavery would place the white farmers in competition with 4 million freedmen; hence the economic interests of white farmers supported slavery

          • By virtue of their white skins, even the lowliest of the nonslaveholding Southerners were superior to the slaves and slavery served to “keep” the “inferior caste” in “its place.”

    1. Slavery As A “Positive Good”

      1. Slavery grew in the South because it was profitable, at least to slave owners. Prior to the invention of the cotton gin, in 1793, the general expectation was that slavery would soon disappear; the Northern states all abolished slavery in the generation following the Revolution, and leaders like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington hoped and expected that it would soon be gone in the South. But the cotton gin made profitable the cultivation of short-fiber cotton, and the western expansion of the South brought vast new areas into the slavery economy during the antebellum period of the early and mid-19th Century.

      2. With the rise of the cotton kingdom, Southerners stopped calling slavery a “necessary evil” and began praising the institution as a “positive good.” Calling slavery a “positive good” was in essence a reaction and defensive posture taken when most other civilized regions on Earth were moving toward abolition. Southerners, in other words, felt the need to justify or rationalize their going counter to the global trend (slavery was, for example, abolished in the British Empire in 1834).

      3. Labeling slavery as a “positive good” was also a response to the growing attack by the religious and moral abolitionist movement of the North in the early 1830s.

      4. Economics also intensified the abolitionist movement. Southerners also felt the need to justify their “peculiar institution” of slavery as northern farmers increasingly complained about competing against southern farms using slave labor.

      5. The Basic Pro-slavery Argument usually included the following arguments:

          • Historical: It was argued that every “superior” civilization (Greece & Rome for example) had been based upon slavery, which freed the upper classes for intellectual activity. The American South, in other words, would do no wrong by adopting a social institution used by the great Classical civilizations of Greece & Rome.

          • Scientific: Biological and anthropological arguments were put forward that “Negroes were inferior” and “naturally benefited” from the paternal nature of slavery.

          • Religious: The Bible was cited and quoted in justification of slavery, and it was further contended that the institution of slavery was a means of civilizing and Christianizing Africans brought to America. Slave owners basically argued that slavery was “natural”: or that it was, in other words, part of “God’s Plan” for Whites to own Blacks.

          • Economic: Southern apologists also pointed out the horrible labor conditions and exploitation of northern industrial workers. They argued that life as a slave on the plantation was no worse than being a “wage slave” to the factory.

      1. Still, some Southerners, even prominent leaders, favored gradual abolition until 1832

          • Virginia Governor John Floyd wrote in his personal diary in 1831 about his personal wish for a “law gradually abolishing slavery in this state.”

          • Floyd’s entry, quoted above, was written immediately after the 1831 Nat Turner slave uprising. Dozens of whites were killed and the event greatly alarmed many Southern leaders like Governor Floyd. One way to “protect the public” from future uprisings was, obviously, by ending slavery.

          • The notion of abolishing slavery “in the public’s interest” was seriously debated in Virginia in 1832. Both states, however, responded to Turner’s revolt by rejecting abolition and passing even stricter slave codes (to monitor slave populations and prevent future revolts).

          • The Virginia Legislature’s 1832 debate and vote to adopt or reject the concept of “gradual abolition” is usually regarded as the last realistic moment when Southerners would have begun to abolish slavery without the Civil War and 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The vote was closer than one would think. 58 Virginians (mostly from the Western part of the state and Thomas Jefferson’s grandson) voted in favor of “gradual abolition.” 73 representatives voted to retain slavery and reject plans for abolition. The rest is history.

    1. Economic Dependence Of The South

      1. A rural agricultural area. Only 10% of the nation’s manufacturing capability was located in the South.

      2. Southern investment capital (money that could be invested and used in other economic pursuits) was tied up in slaves. Southern capital investment in slaves equaled $2 billion in 1860 dollars (an astounding sum). Most planters were, consequently, dependent upon Northern funds to finance the production and marketing of crops. The South was a debtor section.

      3. Northerners also provided most of the shipping facilities, the insurance, and other services associated with the staple-crop economy of the South. Few Southerners engaged in commercial enterprises.

      4. In many respects, the relation between North & South in the Jacksonian period resembled that which existed between Great Britain and the American colonies a century earlier: the South was an economic colony of the North.

    2. Homogeneity of the Southern Population: Apart from the slave population, the South was more purely English than the North. The 19th Century immigrations of Germans, Irish, and Scandinavians avoided the South, objecting to the competition of slave labor and the lack of industrial employment. The North’s population, consequently, grew much more rapidly than the South.


    1. American society and particularly the North experienced a growth of a general humanitarian and liberal reform during the antebellum period before the Civil War.

    2. 19th Century Liberalism grew out of the doctrines of the 18th Century Enlightenment. The general tone of the Enlightment of the was optimistic. It taught that men were essentially “good” and that human society was capable of basic reform, and that human nature was perfectible.

    3. Politics during the Jacksonian period reflected a similar confidence in the innate ability of the “common man.” The masses could, in other words, be “trusted.”

    4. The Second Great Awakening. During the 1820s and 1830s, religious revival movements swept the United States, beginning in upstate New York with the revivalist preaching of Charles G. Finney. The revival movement did not limit itself to the preparation for the “next” world; it placed considerable emphasis on the desirability of social reform in the life of this world. The Second Great Awakening was, in other words, a major event in American History because it triggered the Antebellum Reform movement that evolved into the abolitionist debate which aroused sectional tensions and eventually erupted into the Civil War. Many of the people affected by the Second Great Awakening later evolved as leaders of the Antebellum Reform movement. Listed below are some specific ideas to consider when thinking about the Second Great Awakening.

      1. CHARLES G. FINNEY- A lawyer who became a Presbyterian minister.  Finney was said to have received a "retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his clause."  He traveled throughout the Northeast.  He was especially famous in the "Burned Over District" of upstate New York (that part of the state had experienced a major wave of intense revivals).  Finney was the "father of revivalism."  The Calvinist belief in predestination was transformed, softened by Finney.  Finney and other Second Great Awakening preachers communicated a common theme: God was a “forgiving spirit.”  All people, if they had faith and love for God, good be freed from sin.  Note that Finney's message is different from that of Jonathan Edwards during the First Great Awakening.  Edwards' famous sermon was "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."  One of Finney's converts wrote the following in a letter: I am three days old as I write this letter.  I have been born again.  The concept of being "born again" is in many ways a democratic approach to religion because all humans, believers argued, could experience the feeling of such a transformation.  Finney's beliefs were popularized in the Age of Jackson (a period when the door to democracy was also opened through things like universal white manhood suffrage).  The 18th century's emphasis on predestination could be considered almost aristocratic because it implied that classes of people were or were not "chosen."

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