Monday, November 7, 2016

Jacksonian Democracy, the National Republicans, and the American System

This is my third in a sub-series detailing Southern Whiggery. See the sidebar for earlier posts. 
In his singular study Whig Party in the South (1913), historian Arthur Charles Cole outlined five stages of development of the Party in the South from its birth in the 1830s to its demise after its disappointing performance in the 1852 election. First and foremost, Cole stated unequivocally that the Whigs evolved from a disaffected group of Jacksonians turned anti-Jacksonians, the direct result of Andrew Jackson’s reaction to John C. Calhoon’s Nullification of the Tariff of 1832. Though not “nullifiers” per se—indeed, most of these men adamantly opposed the concept as well as Calhoun’s tactic—these state-rights leaders abandoned the Jackson camp in the wake of Jackson’s threatened military action against the state of South Carolina. Their numbers reflected a fair proportion of the South’s planting class. Briefly, for the sake of future reference, the other four stages were the Southern Whigs’ acceptance of Clay’s American System, realized by the year 1844; after 1844, a period of cautious interaction with their Northern counterparts, the result of the slavery issue; a growing rift between not only Southern and Northern Whigs, but increased distrust by the Party’s Southern constituents given the Northern faction’s reaction to abolitionism, making the Party an unfit champion for Southern interests; the demise of the National Party following the disastrous election of 1852; and an attempt to revive the Party on the part of the South until the War Between the States swept all pretense aside. I argue that there is yet another stage, that being during Reconstruction and Redemption.  

In my last post I referenced Henry Clay’s need for a cause strong enough to wrest the hearts and minds of the American people from the popular Andrew Jackson. Two highly charged issues, one the National Bank, the second the Nullification Crisis—the two intricately linked by the American System—partially filled Clay’s need. 

The American System, so named by its chief partisan, Clay, and the very essence of the National Republican platform, was a government-assisted economic program the roots of which go back to our first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Nationalistic in concept, it is characterized by:

(1) a high protective tariff, initially put into effect to protect burgeoning American industry...

Okay, belay that. Initially it was put into place, with Southern support, in 1816 to protect and strengthen this young nation’s security against Britain following the War of 1812. Lasting peace with mother England arrived in the short-term, then came the argument to protect America’s infant manufacturers. Try as those manufacturers could to deny it [okay, this is me talking], their infant could remain an infant only so long, so the pro-tariff argument again morphed, this time into the protection of “American labor” [yeah, right, more like those who employed the labor]. The Tariff of 1816 didn’t go away; in fact, tariffs kept getting more protective.

(2) A national bank supported by investments from the Federal government and private investors, its purpose to stabilize the currency and reign in risky state banks; and

(3) Federal subsidies for internal improvements, primarily roads and canals meant to link the nation and foster industry as well as security.  

They all sound great, don’t they? We have them today and much, much more. One problem, though: such programs can’t be managed (then as now) without centralization. Popular in New England and Pennsylvania and even the Midwest where industry/manufacturing blossomed, The American System was out of sync with the Founder’s federalism. Strict constructionists/state righters, residing mostly in the South, knew it. State righters, astute victims of the protective tariff, understood the reason the Founders went to the lengths they did in framing the Constitution to prevent such shenanigans, and were aware of the Anti-Federalists pre-ratification warnings as to why the Constitution wouldn’t. This brings us back full circle to the Old-Jeffersonian concerns about the nation’s direction in the wake of the War of 1812. The American System opened the door to Federal interference in the states as well as to political corruption. It was, as those old Jeffersonians of the day repeatedly warned, a looming threat to our [now] long-lost Federal Republic. 

The matter of the Second National Bank, key to the American System, can be divided into two events, one being Jackson’s veto of its re-charter in 1832 followed one year later by his removal of government deposits from the Bank. Event one, I will relate here. Though an obvious attack on the American System, Jackson’s veto was within his purview and constitutional; the removal of the deposits, far more egregious, I will detail in a future post.  

Riding high on the wave of good feeling that accompanied Jackson’s re-election in 1832 and very much aware that Andrew Jackson was no friend of the National Bank, Nicholas Biddle, the Bank’s president, decided the time was favorable to present the Bank’s re-charter to the president, despite the charter’s not expiring for another two years. Considering the popularity of the bank in the Northeast and among the rich planters in many Southern states, Biddle was certain Jackson would not dare veto the measure whereas two years down the road he might. Henry Clay, a bitter foe of Jackson, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts encouraged Biddle’s decision for early re-charter because they were certain Jackson would veto it, and they were desperate for any conflict that might decrease Jackson’s popularity with the people. Given Jackson’s antagonism to the banking elite, Clay considered the man and his administration a threat to the American System.  

As Clay and Webster anticipated, Jackson declared the Bank outside the scope of national authority and unconstitutional. He vetoed the bill, foiling Biddle. In North Carolina, W. R. Hinton, a Jackson elector, ceased to back Jackson after the veto, but despite protests such as that presented by Hinton and others belonging to the wealthy banking elite, Jackson had foiled Clay and Webster as well. The common folk, regarding the bank a corrupt engine of aristocratic privilege, did not protest the veto, and the National Republicans did not have the votes to override it. The National Republicans had lost the National Bank, a serious blow to the “American System,” and they had nothing to show for it.  

On the subject of the National Republicans’ economic agenda, the American System was about to receive yet another challenge.  

An introduction to the Nullification Crisis next time and thanks for reading,


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