Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Was Andrew Jackson Consistent on Internal Improvements?


Having read several books with a Whig orientation recently, I thought that I needed to balance the scales by reading something with a Jacksonian emphasis. Looking over my library, I decided I should re-read Richard Ellis’s The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights and the Nullification Crisis. I read the book about three years ago and remember liking it a lot; at the same time, I was pretty sure that I had read it too early and without adequate background, and that a lot of it had gone over my head.

Although I am now only 35 or so pages in, I already know that I was right. In the opening pages alone, Professor Ellis briefly delivers insightful analyses of a number of issues including: the different “flavors” (my term) of states’ rights, and why traditional states’ righters could be adamantly opposed to nullification and secession, in theory as well as in practice; procedural details concerning the Cherokee Indian cases (Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia) that explain why Andrew Jackson was not put in a position in which he had to choose between enforcing or not enforcing the Supreme Court’s order; and the pre-history, as it were, of Andrew Jackson’s mixed feelings and mixed signals concerning the Second Bank of the United States before Henry Clay and Nicholas Biddle openly allied and pushed re-charter in 1832.

For purposes of this post, however, let me highlight one other topic that Professor Ellis raises: Jackson’s approach to internal improvements. The opening chapter contains the best analysis of the issue that I have seen.

Jackson famously vetoed the Maysville Road bill in 1830, denouncing federal funding of projects deemed to be local as unconstitutional. Critics have asserted that Jackson’s veto was arbitrary and based on spite (against Henry Clay), citing the fact that “the federal government spent more money on internal improvements during Jackson’s two administrations than during all the previous administrations combined.”

In just a couple of pages, Professor Ellis convincingly rebuts the charge and argues that Jackson’s “internal improvements policy appears to have been both effective and fairly consistent.” Among other things, Ellis dissects Jackson’s veto messages, which drew careful distinctions among different kinds of improvements. Funding for roads and canals, to which Jackson applied a more stringent test, was (with two exceptions I won’t go into here) largely confined to projects in the territories and the District of Columbia.

Jackson’s veto messages, in contrast, indicate that he believed that maritime projects were more likely to warrant federal involvement. Consistent with this stated understanding, “[t]he largest and most frequent [federal] expenditure . . . was on lighthouses and river and harbor improvements.” In addition, Professor Ellis points out that prices rose over 50% during the period 1834-1837, so comparing raw dollar expenditures with those in prior years is misleading.

Based on his analysis, Professor Ellis concludes:
The overall effect of Jackson’s policy is to be seen in the fact that most of the expenses for the internal improvements mania of the 1830s were picked up by state and local governments and by private investors, and not by the federal government. It would be too much to argue that Jackson’s policy on internal improvements was absolutely consistent. The issue was simply too vague and complex and too political for that to be possible. But it was a carefully thought out and reasonable response to a very complicated issue that reveals fully his deep belief in states’ rights.

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