In which John Green teaches you about the presidency of Andrew Jackson So how did a president with astoundingly bad fiscal policies end up on the $20 bill? That’s a question we can’t answer, but we can tell you how Jackson got to be president, and how he changed the country when he got the job. Jackson’s election was more democratic than any previous presidential election. More people were able to vote, and they picked a doozie. Jackson was a well-known war hero, and he was elected over his longtime political enemy, John Quincy Adams. Once Jackson was in office, he did more to expand executive power than any of the previous occupants of the White House. He used armed troops to collect taxes, refused to enforce legislation and supreme court legislation, and hired and fired his staff based on support in elections.
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Hi I’m John Green. This is Crash Course U.S. history and today, after last week’s
bummer on slavery, we turn to a happier topic: the rise of democratization in the U.S.
This was also known as the Age of Jackson, no Stan, not that Jackson. No, no, Stan, come’on
seriously. No not, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. YES. That Jackson. Andrew
…Sorry, I just had to check my collar. Right, so you’ll recall that the initial
democracy of the United States wasn’t terribly democratic—almost all voters were white
male land owners. Mr. Green, Mr. Green. That’s just radically
unfair. Exactly, Me from the Past. But, between 1820
and 1850, this started to change. State legislatures lowered, or else eliminated, the property
qualifications for voting, which allowed many more people to vote, so long as they were,
you know, both white and male. Mr. Green, Mr. Green. So, I’d be in, right?
Yeah, that seems reasonable. Yeah, Me from the Past, quick privilege check.
One of the reasons we study history is so that you can learn that people like you are
not actually at the center of history, even though, you know, you’ve been taught that.
But, anyway, the whole idea of owning land as a prerequisite for voting is sort of Jeffersonian—
an individual who works his own land can be truly independent, because he doesn’t need
to rely upon markets to acquire stuff or, God forbid, wages to give him money with which
to buy stuff. No, he makes his own stuff and he doesn’t need anybody…except for slaves
and also women to make shoes and clothes and to cook food and also make children.
But, in light of the Market Revolution, the idea of excluding wage workers seemed very
outdated. The idea of excluding women and non-white
people, though, still quite popular. But, this defining characteristic of the Age
of Jackson really had very little to do with Andrew Jackson himself because, by the time
he became President in 1829, every state except for North Carolina, Virginia, and Rhode Island
had already gotten rid of their property requirements. In fact, that’s probably why he got elected.
Right so you’ll recall that America’s mostly fake victory in the War of 1812 and
the subsequent collapse of the Federalist party ushered in the “Era of Good Feelings”
which was another way of saying that there was basic agreement on most domestic policies.
The American System was a program of economic nationalism built on
(1) federally financed internal improvements, like roads and canals, what we would now call
“infrastructure” (2) tariffs, to protect new factories and
industries, and (3) a national bank that would replace the First Bank of the United States
whose charter expired in 1811. You’ll never guess what we called this second
bank, unless you guessed that we called it “The Second Bank of the United States.”
The main supporters of this American System were our old friend John C. Calhoun and our
new friend Henry Clay. Both were Jeffersonian Republicans, which
isn’t surprising because that was the only political party, but it’s kind of surprising
because the American System had nothing to do with the Agrarian Republic that Jefferson
had championed. But whatever, this was the Era of Good Feelings,
so we’re gonna go with it. By the way, this nationalism also extended to foreign affairs.
And if they did, we would, like, do stuff. This so called “Monroe Doctrine” also
said that the U.S. would stay out of European wars. Hahahaha that is hilarious!
But, we did live up to the other end of it, you’ll remember that when the British came
for the Falkland Islands, we were like, “This shall not stand.” Just kidding. We were
like, “Go ahead.” The last Good Feelings era president was John
Quincy Adams, who was quite the diplomat and expansionist. He actually wrote the Monroe
Doctrine, for instance. But in fact, it turns out that all feelings
were not good. There was significant disagreement over three main issues.
First, many people felt that the federal government shouldn’t invest in infrastructure. Like,
James Madison, who’d initially supported those bills, ended up vetoing one of them
that included a big spending increase to finance roads and canals.
Now, the roads and canals did get built, but, in the end, most of the financing fell to
the states. There were also big problems with the Second
Bank of the United States, which you know is why you can’t visit a branch of it these
days. But we’ll get to that in a minute! And, lastly, there was the perennial issue
of slavery. In this case the problem started, as so many problems do, in Missouri.
So, in 1819 Missouri had enough people in it to become a state, but despite the fact
that there were already more than 10,000 slaves there, a New York congressman, named James
Tallmadge, made a motion to prohibit the introduction of further slaves into the proposed state.
It took almost two years to work out the John C. Calhounstorm that blew up after this. Actually,
it took more than that. It took until the end of the Civil War basically.
But in the short run, Missouri was allowed to enter the union as a slave state, while
Maine was carved out of Massachusetts to keep the balance of things.
But the Missouri Compromise also said that no state admitted above the 36 30 line of
latitude would be allowed to have slaves, except, of course, for Missouri itself, which
as you can see, is well above the line. Anyway, this solution to westward expansion
worked out magnificently provided that you enjoy Civil Wars.
So, Thomas Jefferson, who was by the way was still alive, which gives you some context
for how young the nation truly was, wrote that the Missouri Compromise was “like a
fire bell in the night that awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once the
death knell of the union.” Eventually, almost. But in the short term,
it did mean the rise of political parties. So, America was becoming more democratic,
but if there was only one political party, that democratic spirit had nowhere to go.
Fortunately, there was a tiny little magician named Martin Van Buren.
They really did call him the “Little Magician,” by the way. Also “The red fox of Kinderhook,”
but we remember him as the worst-haired president. So, despite having been President of the United
States, Van Buren is arguably more important for having invented the Democratic Party.
He was first to realize that national political parties could be a good thing.
So, I mentioned that Martin Van Buren was known as the “Little Magician, and I know
this sounds a little bit silly, but I think it’s telling.
You see, Van Buren was only the second American president with a well-used nickname. And the
first was his immediate predecessor, Andrew Jackson, or Old Hickory.
Why does this matter? Well when you’re actually having to campaign for office, as all presidential
candidates did after the election of 1828, and you’re trying to appeal to the newly
enfranchised “common man” what better way to seem like a regular guy than to have
a nickname? I mean, if you think this is crazy, just think
of the nicknames of some some of our most popular presidents. “Honest Abe,” “The
Bull Moose,” “The Gipper.” Even our lesser known presidents had nicknames.
“Young Hickory,” “Handsome Frank;” “Old Rough and Ready,” “Big Steve.”
James Buchanan, and I am not making this up, was “Old Public Functionary.”
Who’re you gonna vote for? Oh, I think the “Old Public Functionary.” He seems competent.
As it happens, he wasn’t. So, by now you’re probably wondering, where
does Andrew Jackson fit into all of this? When we last caught up with Jackson, he was
winning the battle of New Orleans shortly after the end of the War of 1812.
He continued his bellicose ways, fighting Indians in Florida, although he was not actually
authorized to do so, and became so popular from all of his Indian killing that he decided
to run for president in 1824. The election of 1824 was very close. And it
went to the House, where John Quincy Adams was eventually declared the winner. And Jackson
denounced this as “a corrupt bargain.” So, in 1828, Jackson ran a much more negative
campaign—one of campaign slogans was “Vote for Andrew Jackson who can fight, not John
Quincy Adams who can write.” Adams’ supporters responded by arguing that
having a literate president wasn’t such a bad thing and also by accusing Jackson of
being a murderer, which given his frequent habit of dueling and massacring, he sort of
was. So as you can see, the quality of discourse
in American political campaigns has come a long way. Anyway, Jackson won.
Jackson ran as the champion of the common man and in a way he was. I mean, he had little
formal schooling and in some ways he was the archetypal self made man.
Jackson’s policies defined the new Democratic party, which had formerly been known as the
Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans. It’s very complicated, so here, I made you this
chart. So who were these new Democrats? Well generally,
they tended to be lower to middle class men, usually farmers, who were suspicious of the
widening gap between the rich and the poor that was one of the results of the Market
Revolution. And they were particularly worried about bankers,
merchants and speculators, who seemed to be getting rich without actually producing anything.
Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. This vision probably would have carried the
day except a new party arose in response to Jackson’s election: the Whigs.
No, Stan, the Whigs. Yes. The American Whigs took their name from the
English Whigs, who were opposed to absolute monarchy.
And the American Whigs felt that Andrew Jackson was grabbing so much power for the executive
branch that he was turning himself into “King Andrew.”
So, the Whigs were big supporters of the American System and its active federal government.
You know, tariffs, infrastructure, etc. Their greatest support was in the Northeast,
especially from businessmen and bankers who benefitted from those tariffs and the stability
provided by a national bank. And they also thought the government should
promote moral character because that was necessary for a person to act as a truly independent
citizen. So Jackson’s policies must have been pretty
egregious for them to spawn an entire new political party. What did he actually do as
president? Well, let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
Let’s start with Nullification. So, in 1828, Congress passed the Tariff of 1828 because
they were not yet in the habit of marketing their bills via naming them with funny acronyms.
Jackson supported this in spite of the fact that it benefitted manufacturers. The tariff
raised prices on imported manufactured goods made of wool and iron, which enraged South
Carolina because they’d put all their money into slavery and none into industry.
Unlike northerners, who could avoid the higher prices by manufacturing sweaters and pants
and such at home, South Carolinians would have to pay more. They were so angry at this
“Tariff of Abominations” that the South Carolina legislature threatened to nullify
it. Jackson didn’t take kindly to this affront to federal power, but South Carolina persisted,
and when Congress passed a new tariff in 1832 – one that actually lowered the duties — the
Palmetto State’s government nullified it. Jackson responded by getting Congress to pass
the Force Act, which authorized him to use the army and navy to collect taxes. A full
blown crisis was averted when Congress passed a new tariff in 1833 and South Carolina relented.
This smelled a bit of dictatorship – armed tax collectors and all – and helped to cement
Jackson’s reputation as a tyrant, at least among the Whigs.
And then we have the Native Americans, much of Jackson’s reputation there was based
on killing them, so it’s no surprise that he supported southern states’ efforts to
appropriate Indian lands and make the Indians move. This support was formalized in the Indian
Removal Act of 1830, which Jackson supported. The law provided funds to re-locate the Cherokees,
Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creek and Seminole Indians from their homes in Georgia, North Carolina,
Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama. In response, these tribes adopted a novel approach, and
sued the government. And then, the Supreme Court ruled that Georgia’s actions in removing
the Cherokees violated their treaties with the federal government and that they had a
right to their land. To which Jackson supposedly responded by saying,
“John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.” So, Jackson set the
stage for the forced removal of the Cherokees from Georgia to Oklahoma, but it actually
took place in the winter of 1838-1839 under Jackson’s successor Van Buren. At least
¼ of the 18,000 Indians died during the forced march that came to be known as the Trail of
Tears. Boy, Thought Bubble, you do know how to end
on a downer. But, thank you. But Andrew Jackson also changed our banking
system. Just as today, banks were very important to the industrial and mercantile development
of the U.S. And at the beginning of Jackson’s Presidency,
American banking was dominated by the Second National Bank, which you’ll remember, had
been established by Congress as part of the American system.
Oh it’s time for the Mystery Document? The rules here are simple.
When I inevitably fail to guess the author of the Mystery Document, I get shocked with
the shock pen. “The powers, privileges, and favors bestowed
upon it in the original charter, by increasing the value of the stock far above its par value
operated as a gratuity of many millions to its stockholders … Every monopoly and all
exclusive privileges are granted at the expense of the public which ought to receive a fair
equivalent. The many millions which this act proposes to bestow on the stockholders of
the existing bank must come directly or indirectly out of the earnings of the American people
Stan, I know this one!
Is it not conceivable. It is not conceivable how the present stockholders can have any
claim to the special favor of Government. Should [the bank’s] influence become concentrated,
as it may under the operation of such an act as this, in the hands of a self-elected directory
… will there not be cause to tremble for the purity of our elections[?]”
It is Andrew Jackson’s veto of the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. YES.
So in 1832 bank leader Nicholas Biddle persuaded Congress to pass a bill extending the life
of the Second US Bank for 20 years. Jackson thought that the Bank would use its
money to oppose his reelection in 1836, so he vetoed that bill.
In fact, the reason I knew that was from the veto message is because it talks about the
bank as an instrument to subvert democracy. Jackson set himself up as a defender of the
lower classes by vetoing the bank’s charter. Now, Whigs took exception to the idea that
the president was somehow a more democratic representative of the people than the legislature,
but in the end Jackson’s view won out. He used the veto power more than any prior president,
turning it into a powerful tool of policy. Which it remains to this day, by the way.
So the Second Bank of the U.S. expired in 1836, which meant that suddenly we had no
central institution with which to control federal funds.
Jackson ordered that money should be disbursed into local banks, unsurprisingly preferencing
ones that were friendly to him. These so-called “pet banks” were another
version of rewarding political supporters that Jackson liked to call “rotation in
office.” Opponents called this tactic of awarding government offices to political favorites
the spoils system. Anyway, these smaller banks proceeded to print
more and more paper money because, you know, free money.
Like, between 1833 and 1837 the face value of banknotes in circulation rose from $10
million to $149 million, and that meant inflation. Initially, states loved all this new money
that they could use to finance internal improvements. But, inflation is really bad for wage workers.
And also, eventually, everyone. So all this out-of-control inflation, coupled
with rampant land-speculation eventually lead to an economic collapse, the Panic of 1837.
The subsequent depression lasted until 1843. And Jackson’s bank policy proved to be arguably
the most disastrous fiscal policy in American history, which is really saying something.
It also had a major effect on American politics because business-oriented Democrats became
Whigs, and the remaining Democrats further aligned with agrarian interests, which meant
slavery. So the Age of Jackson was more democratic
than anything that came before and it gave us the beginnings of modern American politics.
I mean, Jackson was the first president to really expand executive power and to argue
that the president is the most important democratically elected official in the country.
One of the things that makes Andrew Jackson’s presidency so interesting and also so problematic
is that he was elected via a more democratic process, but he concentrated more power in
the executive in a thoroughly undemocratic way.
In the end, Andrew Jackson probably was the worst American president to end up on currency,
particularly given his disastrous fiscal policies. But the Age of Jackson is still important.
And it’s worth remembering that all that stuff in American politics started out with
the expansion of democracy. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week.
Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan Muller. The script supervisor is Meredith
Danko. Our associate producer is Danica Johnson. The show is written by my high school history
teacher, Raoul Meyer, and myself. And our graphics team is Thought Cafe.
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also leave questions about today’s video that will be answered by our team of historians.
Thanks for watching Crash Course and as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome…WHAT.
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