Andrew Jackson 1767-1845 A brief biography

Henry Clay and the "Bank Wars"

Clay considered the bank issue, if it could be made an issue, to be in his favor.

In 1836, the bank would die, or cease to be national bank, if not rechartered by congress. Clay, Webster, and others convinced Nicholas Biddle, the bank's President that it could be rechartered in 1832 with the present congress, and Jackson's need (so they though) to avoid the issue in order to be re-elected. But Clay and Webster indicated they could not be so sure of the recharter (and they might lose interest in the matter) if it were put off until after 1832.

If Jackson did veto the bill, he might lose the critical votes of Pennsylvania, the home of the bank, and other states with a strong commercial interest. Or, as Biddle might see it, as least bring in a veto proof majority in Congress for the bank.

Roger B. Taney, Jackson's Attorney General said "Now as I understand the application at the present time, it means in plain English this - the Banks says to the President, your next election is at hand - if you charter us, well - if not, beware of your power".

Probably this move, understood just as Taney put it, convinced Jackson that no compromise could be made with the bank.

An odd anti-Jackson combination was taking shape in Congress. The proponents of Tariffs and of the U.S. as a nation with national transportation projects, joined their most extreme ideological opponents, headed by Calhoun. The most extreme of these, including Calhoun, claimed a state's right to declare federal laws (especially tariffs) Null, and secede from the Union if the Union sought to force them to comply.

The first major act of these "strange bedfellows" was, in January 1832, the rejection of Martin Van Buren for Ambassador to Great Britain. He had been appointed in the congressional recess and served since the summer. He been a fine secretary of state. No one could doubt he was well qualified for the job. The action seemed like little more than the National Republican's indulgence of Calhoun's personal feud with Van Buren. In fact a tie vote was artificially contrived so that Calhoun could exercise the Vice-president's right of breaking such ties. This only made it easy for Jackson to have Van Buren, rather than Calhoun, as Vice President in his next term.

In January too, a formal proposal was made to recharter the bank. Administration forces in Congress did all they could to obstruct its passage, or buy time, while the administration press worked on public opinion. They launched an investigation into the bank, turning up much pressure exerted on journalists and politicians. In June the recharter bill passed both houses, and soon after, Jackson vetoed the bill, and accepted it as an election issue. When Van Buren returned from Europe, after several weeks of visiting following the news of his Senate rejection, he found a haggard Jackson declaring "The bank, Mr. Van Buren is trying to kill me but I will kill it".

The veto message was a stirring campaign document, one of the most powerful ever, though some have said it smacked of demagogy, or class warfare. Part of it went "...when the laws undertake to add to ... make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society - the farmers, mechanics, and laborers ... have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government". That is about as demagogic as it gets, and very mild indeed by modern standards.

The constitutional justification of the veto, contained in the message, is generally considered poor. Jackson was still hedging a bit, not quite asserting that the Constitution unconstitutionally gives the president the right to veto a bill. He was still rationalizing his veto on the grounds that he considered the Bank unconstitutional, despite the Supreme Court's ruling to the contrary. A modern president would avoid the issue of constitutionality as beside the point.

Biddle compared Jackson's veto message to "the fury of a chained panther biting at the bars of his cage ... a manifesto of anarchy, such as Marat or Robespierre might have issued to the mobs". And he and his allies were well satisfied that it would prove Jackson's undoing. This only proved how little they understood the electorate.