Friday, September 04, 2009

"Vindicating Andrew Jackson"

I’m about half way through Ronald B. Cole’s Vindicating Andrew Jackson: The 1828 Election and the Rise of the Two-Party System. By no means is this a formal – or even informal – review, but I thought I’d provide an impression or two.

Although the book would serve perfectly well as an introduction to the political landscape of the period 1824-1828, what are most interesting to me are some of the details. On the national level, it’s fascinating to watch Henry Clay, then John Quincy Adams’s Secretary of State, struggle as he tries to take on a previously-unknown and undefined role: national chairman, or at least coordinator, of a party that did not yet exist. As Prof. Cole explains,
Clay’s reputation as the Great Compromiser and the model Speaker of the House and his long career as congressman, senator, secretary of state, and three-time candidate for president have forced historians to give him his due; yet his efforts to create a second political party to match the Jacksonians deserve far more attention than they have received.

Prof. Cole nicely portrays Clay’s frantic efforts to establish pro-Adams organizations in the various states, where the 1828 election would ultimately be fought and decided.

The other figure who stands out on the national level is “Postmaster General John McLean, a holdover from the [James] Monroe administration, who controlled more patronage than anyone else.” Thirty years later, McLean, on the Supreme Court, would dissent from the Dred Scott decision. But in 1825-1828 McLean was a serpent in the heart of the Adams administration whom the president suicidally failed to fire, because he was competent and not corrupt. But in state after state we see McLean alienating Adams supporters and strengthening the Jacksonians through the use of his patronage power.

But even more illuminating than his examination of national political figures is Prof. Cole’s exploration of party formation and battles on the state level. Far more than now, the proto-parties of the 1820s were built and fought on the state level, and in the context of earlier state factions and state-based disputes. Prof. Cole takes a close look at the pre-history and history the development and fortunes of the emerging parties in six states – New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Virginia. Looking at the swelling contest from “the bottom” provides a fascinating glimpse of how the Jacksonians ultimately prevailed.

As is often the case, an example is worth a thousand generalities. In his review of Clay’s home state of Kentucky, Prof. Cole takes us through that state’s bizarre political pre-history. In the wake of Panic of 1819, politician who favored relief for strapped debtors (largely based in the non-Bluegrass region) gained ascendency, passing debt moratorium laws. When the state supreme court ruled the legislative centerpiece of the pro-relief agenda unconstitutional, the pro-reliefers overplayed their hand by appointing a new, pro-Relief supreme court. (Prof. Cole does not draw the analogy, but one immediately thinks of the way FDR overplayed his hand when he tried to “pack” the Supreme Court.) In the resulting fallout, the anti-Relief party, centered in the wealthy Bluegrass region and now dubbed the “Old Court” party, defeated the “New Court” (formerly pro-relief) party in state elections in 1825 and 1826.

These developments and alliances were the result of state-based disagreements and reactions arising out of the Panic of 1819 and local political feuds. And yet as 1828 approached the state-based factions tended to gravitate toward the rival national contestants. Although Henry Clay “steadfastly refused to take sides in the [Old Court-New Court] controversy,” he was a native of the wealthy Bluegrass region and consistently represented creditors (including the Second Bank of the United States) in his legal career. Members of the Old Court group seemed naturally to lean towards Clay and the president he served, Quinzy. Conversely, most leaders of the New Court (pro-relief) party tended to favor the president’s opponent, Old Hickory.

But chance and personal circumstance also played key roles. In Kentucky, they took the form of Amos Kendall, the fiery and slashing pro-Relief editor of the Frankfort, KY Argus of Western America, who railed against evil and corrupt banks. Although he ultimately became a key member of the Jacksonian brain trust (he helped write Jackson’s Bank veto), Kendall was at first no fan of the General. Bound to Henry Clay by ties that were both personal (he had tutored the Clay children) and financial (he owed Clay money), Kendall had backed Clay for years and in 1824 had attacked Jackson for his “propensity to war.”

Only in late 1826 did Kendall swing into the Jacksonian camp, announcing his conclusion that “the Old Hero was more Jeffersonian and less ‘consolidating’ than John Quincy Adams.” Prof. Cole intimates that the move was motivated in part by the fortunes of the state parties – Kendall became convinced that the faltering New Court party “needed to shift public attention away from the court struggle by converting . . . into a Jackson party.” But growing distance from Clay and personal circumstance also played key roles:
Kendall was sincere about his Jeffersonian beliefs, but he had made the move primarily to save his state party and his own career. He really had no other choice. If he had refused to shift, the Jacksonians would have set up their own newspaper in Frankfort, and the Argus would have been in deep trouble.

During the course of 1827, Kendall helped to transform the identity and fortunes of the New Court party. As the August 1827 state elections approached, Kendall transformed them into “a national event,” defending Jackson against charges of adultery and murder and flaying Adams with claims that he played billiards (billiards!) in the White House and “had provided a woman for the pleasure of the czar of Russia.” The stunned and more staid opposition seemed to be at a loss as to how to fight back, and in August the former New Court – now Jacksonian – party made substantial gains in the state legislature. The day the returns came in, the Jackson men, headed by Kendall and Francis Preston Blair, began to organize for 1828.

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