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against the world
Tuesday, 17 August 2010
another old speech: andrew jackson and the hydra of corruption

I used a shorter version of this speech in Speech 101 and in intramural competition. I never got around to using this longer version in any competition, and this year I’ve got a much better informative speech to use, so this one has been abandoned.


 “Wall Street owns the Country”—that sounds like something you’d hear now, doesn’t it, with the recent $800 billion plus bailout of financial institutions by the government? But it was said by Mary Lease, in her Money Question speech at the Populist Party Convention in 1892. And, Big Money’s hold on the government had already come to the fore 6 decades earlier.

Andrew Jackson, our 7th President, was a laissez faire capitalist. He believed in the free market. And, he did not like the National Bank. He called it the “hydra of corruption.” In his State of the Union address, 1829, he said the Bank had “failed in the great end of establishing a uniform and sound currency.” And, as William Jennings Bryan in his 1896 Presidential Campaign Cross of Gold speech said, “Jackson stood against the encroachments of organized wealth” in standing against the National Bank.

And he wasn’t one to back down in a fight. In fact, he dueled many times. In American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Jon Meacham describes one of those duels like this: “Seven o’clock on the morning of Friday, May 30, 1806, on the Red River in Logan County, Kentucky, Jackson and [Charles] Dickinson faced each other at twenty-four feet. Jackson let Dickinson shoot first, and he hit Jackson in the chest with a bullet. Though wounded, Jackson coolly leveled his own pistol at his opponent and fired… killing Dickinson. Only later, as his boot filled with blood after he had left the dueling ground, did the extent of Jackson’s wound become clear. He carried Dickinson’s bullet in his body until he died.”

In 1832, his political rival Henry Clay set up an early recharter for the bank to use against Jackson in his campaign for reelection. Jackson’s dislike for the National Bank would put him against its strong-willed president, would win him reelection by the people and, while destabilizing the economy, would help our nation grow.

First, Jackson would be put against Nicholas Biddle, the president of the National Bank who historian Eric Foner, in his Give Me Liberty!, calls a “snobbish, aristocratic Philadelphian… as strong-willed as Jackson and as unwilling to back down in a fight.” Biddle, wielding great economic power, had bragged that his Bank had the power to “destroy” any State bank. But, Jackson would not “bow down to worship the golden calf.” In A Century and a Half of Pittsburg and Her People, John Newton Boucher has Jackson calling himself “incorruptible,” saying “the Spanish Inquisition could not compel me to worship the monster.” The monster… the Bank, Foner calls “an illegitimate union of political authority and entrenched economic privilege.”

Jackson vetoed the recharter, and in his Bank Veto Message, 10 July 1832, he said, “it is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” And “the powers and privileges possessed by the existing bank are unauthorized by the Constitution, subversive to the rights of the States, and dangerous to the liberties of the people… Will there not be cause to tremble for the purity of our elections,” he asked. Jackson believed “the country was being controlled by a kind of congressional-financial-bureaucratic complex in which the needs and concerns of the unconnected were secondary to those who were on the inside,” according to Meacham in American Lion.

Next, in making clear his stance that he stood for the good of the people, Jackson won reelection as President. According to Robert Remini in Andrew Jackson and the Bank War, Jackson wished “to buttress presidential power with mass support—something never done before.” Jackson showed that, as with his Indian Removal Policy, he believed in what Thomas Jefferson called in his First Inaugural Address, 1801, “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority.” A hero of the War of 1812, Jackson won his first term with 56% of the popular vote. He received 178 electoral votes to John Quincy Adams’ 83. Jackson took his second term, even in the midst of a fight with a piece of his own government, with 55% of the popular vote. 219 to Clay’s 49. And, with popular support, as Meacham puts it, Jackson could be “an instrument of the people against [the] combined interests of the rich and the incumbent.”

But, now, Jackson’s veto would start us down the path to destabilizing the economy. The National Bank would continue operating until 1841. But, the federal government would no longer deposit funds. And, by 1833, the funds would be removed to State banks. Biddle would raise interest rates and call in loans. The British Central Bank would increase its deposit rate to lure investors out of our National Bank and back to England. Deflation and economic collapse would follow: the “panic of 1837.” But, Jackson would not get the blame. His successor, Martin Van Buren would. The people would call him Martin Van Ruin. And in 1841, President Tyler would veto the reestablishment of the Bank. We would have no National Bank again until the 1913 Federal Reserve Act.

Lastly, it is worth noting that our nation would grow immensely in the meantime. Lawrence Kohl argues in The Politics of Individualism that only with Jacksonian Democracy, with the veto of the National Bank and the concurrent development of “Manifest Destiny” did “a sense of an imagined community of Americans begin to solidify.” Klaus Hansen, in Mormonism and the American Experience says Jackson “made possible the creation of the modern American capitalist empire with its fundamental belief in religious, political, and economic pluralism.”

But, “will there not be cause to tremble for the purity of our elections,” as Jackson asked, when the Bank or Corporations run the government… an issue that has been around since the beginning of our nation and is still around today. In his Anti-Federalist Centinel I, October 5, 1787, Samuel Bryan said, “if the administrators of… government are actuated by views of private interest and ambition, how is the welfare and happiness of the community to be the result of such jarring adverse interests?” And, in September 2008, Barack Obama was quoted in the LA Times as saying, “the power to spend $700 billion of taxpayers’ money cannot be left up to the discretion of one man.” He meant then Treasury Secretary Paulsen. But the same, with less money obviously, could have applied to Nicholas Biddle. Or, depending on your political bent, it could apply to Barack Obama, now that he is President.

An interesting aside: all this also helped lead to “the insanity defense” according to the Gilder Lehman Institute of American History, when, in 1835, a deranged Englishman named Richard Lawrence walked up to Jackson and fired 2 pistols at him from a distance of 6 feet. Both guns misfired and Jackson was not only unhurt, he proceeded to attack Lawrence with his cane. Lawrence believed that Jackson’s attack on the second Bank of the United States had prevented him from obtaining money that would have enabled him to claim the English throne, a defense that led to his time in a mental hospital instead of jail.

In conclusion, as Robert Remini points out in Andrew Jackson and the Bank War, “historians are sharply divided: some insist that Jackson’s arrogance wrecked a splendid organization and initiated a century of unsound finance that made possible… chaotic business conditions…; others applaud the destruction of the Bank as a needed action against an overprivileged corporation that had the ability and sometimes the will to hobble business and bully the government.” Either way, it goes without question that Andrew Jackson stuck to his guns in taking a swipe at the “hydra of corruption.” As I’ve just explained, he went up against the strong-willed president of the National Bank, won himself reelection, destabilized the economy and helped our nation grow. And, maybe now, if “Wall Street owns the country,” then, as William Jennings Bryan suggested in his Cross of Gold speech, “what we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand, as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of organized wealth.”

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 11:16 PM PDT
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