Saturday, June 14, 2008

Where Have I Heard This Before?

In the 1828 Presidential election, the "National" Republican incumbent, John Quincy Adams, was pitted against the "Democratic" Republican candidate Andrew Jackson in a rematch of the contested 1824 election. In 1824, Jackson had won the popular vote, but didn't receive enough electoral votes to take home the prize, and the election was eventually decided by the House of Representatives. House Speaker Henry Clay helped engineer a decision in favor of Adams. As President, John Quincy Adams had an ambitious agenda of modern improvements, including the construction of interstate roads, the establishment of institutions of higher learning, enhanced international diplomacy, free trade agreements, and the adoption of the metric system. Few of his visionary projects got off the ground. Meanwhile, the Jacksonian opposition remained in permanent campaign mode.

In 1828, Adams was portrayed by his opponents as an elitist intellectual who lacked the common touch. The fact that he was a Unitarian raised suspicions among Christian voters. His opponent, Andrew Jackson, was portrayed as a true man of the people. But Jackson also had an interesting military record; as a military commander, he had suspended civil law, tried and executed prisoners without due process, and launched an invasion of a foreign territory (Spanish Florida) on false pretenses and without proper authorization. All this seemed to make him more popular. He took charge and stood by his guns.

Jackson won the 1828 election handily and swiftly proceeded to remove long-serving and often highly effective civil servants from their positions and replace them with political appointees. Jackson unabashedly instituted what came to be called "the spoils system" in government. Many of Jackson's appointees were incompetent and corrupt, and saw their offices as opportunities for personal gain rather than public service. But an effective federal government was not high on Jackson's list of priorities. He believed in a small federal government and a strong chief executive. Loyalty to Andrew Jackson himself was more important than competence in office; political patronage was more important than performance.

As part of his scheme to dismantle the increasingly well-oiled machine of federal government, Jackson launched an all-out war on the Bank of the United States, which had been one of the nation's chief sources of credit and financial stability. The BUS had been the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton, but in his campaign against it Jackson told Hamilton's own son that Hamilton "was not in favor of the Bank of the United States." As Daniel Walker Howe says in his magnificent history of the United States in the years 1815-1848: "For Jackson, such matters were issues not of fact, but of his authority." In pursuing his political agenda, he substituted his own will for reality.

To be continued...

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