Into the White House
Andrew Jackson's inauguration was perhaps one of the purest moments of American democracy. As Jackson had run for president as a candidate for the ordinary man, ordinary men from across the country traveled to Washington to see their candidate elected president. They crowded the capital unlike any inauguration before. Fifteen thousand watched as Jackson received the oath of office, and then most observers crammed into the White House to observe their house of government. Jackson, with the help of Revolutionary War veterans, had to fight his way through the crowd to get to his carriage after the ceremony. While he had originally planned to greet the well-wishers informally, the throngs grew too large and Jackson fled from the White House to Gadsby's Hotel, where he spent the night. The celebration lasted well into the night at the White House, where Presidential servants had to carry ice cream and tubs of wine onto the lawn to attract people out of the mansion.
When Jackson arrived at the trashed White House the next morning, he set about furthering his agenda. He selected Martin Van Buren as Secretary of State, Samuel D. Ingham as Treasury Secretary, John Eaton as head of the War Department, and John Branch as head of the Navy Department. With the exception of Van Buren, Jackson's cabinet officers were not, to put it mildly, first- rate–likely an intentional move designed to ensure Jackson's dominance over his advisors. Jackson also kept an unofficial group of advisors, nicknamed the "Kitchen Cabinet," composed of friends from Tennessee, newspaper editors, and other supporters.
Jackson set about dismantling the patronage system, a system aptly summarized by one of its supporters as "to the victor goes the spoils." Many government positions were appointed by the President or other public officials as a way to reward loyal party supporters. Jackson believed that such a system opened up the government to "incompetent hands." The alternate system he supported, though, did not go so far as to grant tenure to civil service employees–as future Presidents would–but instead advocated rotation of the jobs so that no one person would hold a position forever. Unfortunately, despite the high promises Jackson made early on, he only replaced nine percent of federal employees during his eight years as President–a figure that included retirements, deaths, and transfers.
In his first message to Congress, Jackson laid out an ambitious set of goals: eliminating the national debt, rotating government jobs, evening out tariffs, removing Indians west of the Mississippi, and reforming the Second Bank of the United States. All seemed simple tasks on the surface but contained issues fraught with pitfalls. Jackson felt that eliminating the debt would allow the government to distribute the budget surplus to the States and bolster businesses across the country. As for the tariff, Jackson had to walk delicately. The Tariff of 1828, passed by Jackson supporters, had divided the nation: Northerners felt tariffs were necessary to protect their manufacturing, but Southerners saw them as an unfair subsidy to the North at the South's expense. Jackson, at this point, was unwilling to weigh in one way or the other, and merely referred the issue to Congress for further study.
Perhaps the strangest element of Jackson's platform was his stance on Indian removal. Considering that his national fame came largely from his own Indian fighting, Jackson's desire to save what remained of the Indian culture and move them west to a permanent area beyond the Mississippi struck many as strange. He claimed such a move would be voluntary he said, but would allow the Indians to reestablish their nations out on the frontier.
The prime issue for Jackson remained the Second Bank of the United States, although he tried to bury it in his message, referring to it only for seventeen lines. Given Jackson's previous financial problems with credit, he distrusted banks and especially disliked the Second Bank's vast influence on financial policy ever since it helped start the Panic of 1819. The Bank's charter would have to be renewed by Congress in 1836, and Jackson had serious concerns about the constitutionality of some of the provisions in the charter.
Jackson's first major dispute revolved around the tariff issue. South Carolina, the home state of Jackson's vice president, John C. Calhoun, had adopted Calhoun's opinion that a state had the right under the Constitution to nullify a treaty or tariff made by the federal government if the federal policy caused damage to that state. South Carolina had only resisted nullifying the tariff because state officials believed Jackson would remedy it. Other great minds of the period, however, disagreed with the interpretation: Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Robert Hayne of South Carolina had a heated debate about the subject on the Senate floor. Jackson believed in states' rights up to a point, but did not believe that states should jeopardize the Union. At a party to honor Thomas Jefferson's birthday, both sides stood ready. Looking straight at Calhoun, Jackson raised a toast to "Our Federal Union, It Must be Preserved." Calhoun shot back a rambling toast to states' rights. The dispute proved to be the beginning of the end for the President and Vice President.
Jackson had long suspected that Calhoun had supported the drive in James Monroe's cabinet to censure Jackson for his actions in Florida. However, he had never acted on his suspicion because he had needed Calhoun's support to win the White House. After his election, Jackson sent Calhoun a copy of a letter the Vice President had earlier written supporting the censure along with a note asking for an explanation. Calhoun responded with a fifty-two-page letter that left no doubt in Jackson's mind that Calhoun was a "villain."
As Vice President Calhoun had a habit of saying too much and running his mouth, President Jackson figured Calhoun would eventually do something self-destructive himself. Indeed, it did not take long. On February 17, 1831, Calhoun published a pamphlet of the correspondence between the two men over Jackson's censure–enraging Democrats across the capital. Calhoun had publicly embarrassed the President, the leader of the party, and in doing so, Calhoun signed his own political execution order. Jackson wanted to respond to the attack, but his advisors stopped him: let Calhoun hang out to dry.
Van Buren offered Jackson a way out: the Secretary would tender his resignation and Jackson would appoint Van Buren minister to England, making it seem like a promotion. Eaton would also resign and Jackson would ask everyone else to resign as well. Calhoun's supporters could thus be removed from the Cabinet in one fell swoop. Eaton submitted his resignation first, Van Buren second, and then Jackson demanded the same from the rest of his Cabinet. Calhoun and his friends were gone from the Democratic Party, and Jackson could turn his attention to more important matters.
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