Jackson's attack upon the Bank was a move undertaken mainly on his own responsibility, and one which, at first, most of his prominent friends were alarmed to see him undertake. Benton alone supported him from the beginning. Captain and lieutenant alike intensely appreciated the joy of battle; they cared for a fight because it was a fight, and the certainty of a struggle, such as would have daunted weaker or more timid men, simply offered to them an additional inducement to follow out the course they had planned. Benton's thorough-going support was invaluable to Jackson. The President sorely needed a friend in the Senate who would uphold him through thick and thin, and who yet commanded the respect of all his opponents by his strength, ability, and courage. To be sure, Benton's knowledge of financial economics was not always profound; but, on the other hand, a thorough mastery of the laws of finance would have been, in this fight, a very serious disadvantage to any champion of Jackson. . . .
The struggle first became important when the question of the recharter of the Bank was raised, toward the end of Jackson's first term, the present charter still having three years to run. This charter had in it many grave faults; and there might well be a question as to whether it should be renewed. The Bank itself, beyond doubt, possest enormous power; too much power for its own or outsiders' good. Its president, Biddle,2 was a man of some ability, but conceited to the last degree, untruthful, and to a certain extent unscrupulous in the use he made of the political influence of the great moneyed institution over which he presided. Some of the financial theories on which he managed the Bank were wrong; yet, on the whole, it was well conducted, and under its care the monetary condition of the country was quiet and good, infinitely better than it had been before, or than, under the auspices of the Jacksonian Democracy, it afterward became. . . .
Jackson, in his first annual message, in 1829, had hinted that he was opposed to the recharter of the Bank, then a question of the future and not to arise for four or five years. At the same time he had called in question the constitutionality and expediency of the Bank's existence, and had criticized as vicious its currency system. The matter of constitutionality had been already decided by the Supreme Court, the proper tribunal, and was, and had been for years, an accepted fact; it was an absurdity to call it in question. As regards the matter of expediency, certainly the Jacksonians failed signally to put anything better in its place. Yet it was undeniable that there were grave defects in the currency system.
The President's message roused but little interest, and what little it did rouse was among the Bank's friends. At once these began to prepare the way for the recharter by an active and extensive agitation in its favor. The main bank was at Philadelphia, but it had branches everywhere, and naturally each branch bank was a center of opposition to the President's proposed policy. As the friends of the Bank were greatly interested, and as the matter did not immediately concern those who afterward became its foes, the former, for the time, had it all their own way, and the drift of public opinion seemed to be strongly in its favor.
Early in 1831 Benton asked leave to introduce a resolution against the recharter of the Bank; his purpose being merely to give formal notice of war against it, and to attempt to stir up a current of feeling counter to that which then seemed to be generally prevailing in its favor. In his speech he carefully avoided laying stress upon any such abstract point as that of constitutionality, and dwelt instead upon the questions that would affect the popular mind; assailing the Bank "as having too much power over the people and the government, over business and politics, and as too much disposed to exercise that power to the prejudice of the freedom and equality which should prevail in a republic, to be allowed to exist in our country." The force of such an argument in a popular election will be acknowledged by all practical politicians. . . .
The advocates of the Bank were still in the majority in both houses of Congress, and soon began preparations for pushing through a bill for the recharter. The issue began to become political. Webster, Clay, and most of the other anti-administration men were for the Bank; and so when the convention of the National Republicans, who soon afterward definitely assumed the name of Whigs, took place, they declared heartily in its favor, and nominated for the Presidency its most enthusiastic supporter, Henry Clay. The Bank itself unquestionably preferred not to be dragged into politics; but Clay, thinking he saw a chance for a successful stroke, fastened upon it, and the convention that nominated him made the fight against Jackson on the ground that he was hostile to the Bank. Even had this not already been the case no more certain method of insuring his hostility could have been adopted.
Still, however, many of Jackson's supporters were also advocates of recharter; and the bill for that purpose commanded the majority in Congress. Benton took the lead in organizing the opposition, not with the hope of preventing its passage, but "to attack incessantly, assail at all points, display the evil of the institution, rouse the people, and prepare them to sustain the veto." In other words, he was preparing for an appeal to the people, and working to secure an anti-Bank majority in the next Congress. . . .
Webster made the great argument in favor of the recharter bill. Benton took the lead in opposition, stating, what was probably truethat the bill was brought up so long before the charter expired for political reasons, and criticizing it as premature; a criticism unfortunately applicable with even greater force to Jackson's message. His speech was largely mere talking against time, and he wandered widely from the subject. Among other things he invoked the aid of the principle of States' rights, because the Bank then had power to establish branches in any State, whether the latter liked it or not, and free from State taxation. But in spite of all that Benton could do the bill passed both Houses, the Senate voting in its favor by twenty-eight ayes against twenty nays.
Jackson, who never feared anything, and was more than ready to accept the fight which was in some measure forced on him, yet which in some degree he had courted, promptly vetoed the bill3 in a message which stated some truths forcibly and fearlessly, which developed some very queer constitutional and financial theories, and which contained a number of absurdities, evidently put in, not for the benefit of the Senate, but to influence voters at the coming Presidential election. The leaders of the opposition felt obliged to make a show of trying to pass the bill over the veto in order to get a chance to answer Jackson. Webster again opened the argument. Clay made the fiercest onslaught, assailing the President personally, besides attacking the veto power, and trying to discredit its use. But the Presidential power of veto is among the best features of our government, and Benton had no difficulty in making a good defence of it.
The debate concluded with a sharp and undignified interchange of personalities between the Missouri and Kentucky Senators, Clay giving Benton the lie direct, and the latter retorting in kind. Each side, of course, predicted the utter rain of the country, if the other prevailed. Benton said that, if the Bank conquered, the result would be the establishment of an oligarchy, and then of a monarchy, and finally the death of the republic by corruption. Webster stated as his belief that, if the sentiments of the veto message received general approbation, the Constitution could not possibly survive its fiftieth year. Webster, however, in that debate, showed to good advantage. Benton was no match for him, either as a thinker or as a speaker; but with the real leader of the Whig party, Henry Clay, he never had much cause to fear comparison.
All the State banks were of course rabidly in favor of Jackson; and the Presidential election of 1832 was largely fought on the bank issue. In Pennsylvania, however, the feeling for the Bank was only less strong than that for Jackson; and accordingly that Bœotian community sapiently cast its electoral votes for the latter, while instructing its senators and representatives to support the former. But the complete and hopeless defeat of Clay by Jackson sealed the fate of the Bank. Jackson was not even content to let it die naturally by the lapse of its charter. His attitude toward it so far had been one for which much could be said; indeed, very good grounds can be shown for thinking his veto proper. But of the impropriety of his next step there could be no possible question. Congress had passed a resolution declaring its belief in the safety of the United States deposits in the Bank; but the President, in the summer of 1833, removed these deposits and placed them in certain State banks. He experienced some difficulty in getting a secretary of the treasury who would take such a step; finally he found one in Taney.4
The Bank memorialized Congress at once; and the anti-administration majority in the Senate forthwith took up the quarrel. They first rejected Jackson's nominations for Bank directors, and then refused to confirm Taney himself. Two years later Jackson made the latter Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, in which position he lived to do even more mischief than he had time or opportunity to accomplish as secretary of the treasury. . . .
Clay introduced a resolution directing the return of the deposits; Benton opposed it; it passed by a vote of twenty-eight to eighteen, but was lost in the House. Clay then introduced a resolution demanding to know from the President whether the paper alleged to have been published by his authority as having been read to the Cabinet, in relation to the removal of the deposits, was genuine or not; and, if it was, asking for a copy. Benton opposed the motion, which nevertheless passed. But the President refused to accede to the demand. Meanwhile the new departure in banking, inaugurated by the President, was working badly. One of the main grounds for removing the deposits was the allegation that they were used to debauch politics. This was never proved against the old United States Bank; but under Jackson's administration, which corrupted the public service in every way, the deposits became fruitful sources of political reward and bribery.
Clay then introduced his famous resolution censuring the President for his action, and supported it in a long and fiery speech; a speech which, like most of Clay's, was received by his followers at the time, with rapture, but in which this generation fails to find the sign of that remarkable ability, with which his own contemporaries credited the great Kentuckian. He attacked Jackson with fierce invective, painting him as an unscrupulous tyrant, who was inaugurating a revolution in the government of the Union. But he was outdone by Calhoun, who, with continual interludes of complacent references to the good already done by the Nullifiers, assailed Jackson as one of a band of artful, corrupt, and cunning politicians, and drew a picture even more lurid than Clay's of the future of the country, and the danger of impending revolution. Webster's speeches were more self-contained in tone. Benton was the only Jacksonian senator who could contend with the great Nullifier and the two great Whigs; and he replied at length, and in much the same style as they had spoken.
The Senate was flooded with petitions in favor of the Bank, which were presented with suitable speeches by the leading Whigs. Benton ridiculed the exaggerated tone of alarm in which these petitions were drawn, and declared that the panic, excitement, and suffering existing in business circles throughout the country were due to the deliberate design of the Bank, and afforded a fresh proof that the latter was a dangerous power.
The resolution of censure was at last passed by a vote of twenty-six to twenty, and Jackson, in a fury, sent in a written protest against it, which the Senate refused to receive. The excitement all over the country was intense throughout the struggle. The suffering, which was really caused by the President's act, but which was attributed by his supporters to the machinations of the Bank, was very real; even Benton admitted this, altho contending that it was not a natural result of the policy pursued, but had been artificially excitedor, as he very clumsily phrased it, "tho fictitious and forged, yet the distress was real, and did an immensity of damage." Neither Jackson nor Benton yielded an inch to the outside pressure; the latter was the soul of the fight in Congress, making over thirty speeches during the struggle. . . .
Webster, in an effort to make the best of untoward circumstances, brought in a bill to recharter the Bank for a short period, at the same time doing away with some of the features that were objectionable in the old charter. This bill might have passed, had it not been opposed by the extreme Bank men, including Clay and Calhoun. In the course of the debate over it Benton delivered a very elaborate and carefully studied speech in favor of hard money and a currency of the precious metals; a speech which is to this day well worth careful reading. Some of his financial theories were crude and confused; but on the main question he was perfectly sound. Both he and Jackson deserve great credit for having done much to impress the popular mind with the benefit of hard, that is to say, honest money. Benton was the strongest hard-money man then in public life, being indeed, popularly nicknamed "Old Bullion." He thoroughly appreciated that a metallic currency was of more vital importance to the laboring men and to men of small capital generally than to any of the richer classes. . . .
Benton continued his speeches. The panic was now subsiding; there had not been time for Jackson's ruinous policy of making deposits in numerous State banks, and thereby encouraging wild inflation of credit, to bear fruit and, as it afterward did, involve the whole country in financial disaster.5 Therefore Benton was able to exult greatly over the favorable showing of affairs in the report of the secretary of the treasury. He also procured the passage of a gold currency law, which, however, fixt the ratio of value between gold and silver at sixteen to one; an improper proportion, but one which had prevailed for three centuries in the Spanish-American countries, from which he copied it. In consequence of this law gold, long banished, became once more a circulating medium of exchange.
The Bank of the United States afterward was turned into the State Bank of Pennsylvania; it was badly managed and finally became insolvent. The Jacksonians accepted its downfall as a vindication of their policy; but in reality it was due to causes not operative at the time of the great struggle between the President and the Senate over its continued existence. Certainly by no possible financial policy could it have produced such widespread ruin and distress as did the system introduced by Jackson.
Long after the Bank controversy had lost all practical bearing it continued to be agitated by the chief parties to it, who still felt sore from the various encounters. Jackson assailed it again in his message; a friendly committee of the Senate investigated it and reported in its favor, besides going out of their way to rake up charges against Jackson and Benton. The latter replied in a long speech, and became involved in personalities with the chairman, Tyler of Virginia. Neither side paid attention to any but the partizan aspect of the question, and the discussions were absolutely profitless.
The whole matter was threshed over again and again, long after nothing but chaff was left, during the debates on Benton's expunging resolution. The original resolution of censure may have been of doubtful propriety; but it was passed, was entered on the record, and had become a part of the journal of the Senate. It would have been perfectly proper to pass another resolution condemning or reversing the original one, and approving the course of the President; but it was in the highest degree improper to set about what was in form falsifying the record. Still, Benton found plenty of precedents in the annals of other legislative bodies for what he proposed to do, and the country, as a whole, backed him up heartily. He was further stimulated by the knowledge that there was probably no other legislative act in which Jackson took such intense interest, or which could so gratify his pride; the mortification to Clay and Calhoun would be equally great. Benton's motion failed more than once, but the complexion of the Senate was rapidly changed by the various States substituting Democratic for Whig or anti-Jackson senators. Some of the changes were made, as in Virginia, by senators refusing to vote for the expunging resolution, as required by the State legislatures, and then resigning their seats, pursuant to a ridiculous theory of the ultra Democrats, which, if carried out, would completely nullify the provision for a six years' senatorial term.
Finally, at the very close of Jackson's administration, Benton found himself with a fair majority behind him, and made the final move. His speech was of course mainly filled with a highly colored account of the blessings wrought for the American people by Andrew Jackson, and equally of course the latter was compared at length to a variety of ancient Roman worthies. The final scene in the Senate had an element of the comic about it. The expungers held a caucus and agreed to sit the session out until the resolution was passed; and, with prudent forethought, Benton, well aware that when hungry and tired his followers might show less inflexibility of purpose, provided in an adjoining committee-room "an ample supply of cold hams, turkeys, rounds of beef, pickles, wines, and cups of hot coffee," wherewith to inspirit the faint-hearted.
Fortified by the refreshments, the expungers won a complete victory. If the language of Jackson's admirers was overdrawn and strained to the last degree in lauding him for every virtue that he had or had not, it must be remembered that his oppopents went quite as far wrong on the other side in their denunciations and extravagant prophecies of gloom. Webster made a very dignified and forcible speech in closing the argument against the resolution, but Calhoun and Clay were much less moderatethe latter drawing a vivid picture of a rapidly approaching reign of lawless military violence, and asserting that his opponents had "extinguished one of the brightest and purest lights that ever burned at the altar of civil liberty." As a proper finale Jackson, to show his appreciation, gave a great dinner to the expungers and their wives, Benton sitting at the head of the table. Jackson and Benton solemnly thought that they were taking part in a great act of justice, and were amusingly unable to see the comic side of their acts. They probably really believed most of their own denunciations of the Bank, and vary possibly thought that the wickedness of its followers might tempt them to do any desperate deed. At any rate they enjoyed posing alike to themselves and to the public as persons of antique virtue, who had risked both life and reputation in a hazardous but successful attempt to save the liberties of the people from the vast and hostile forces of the autocratic "money power."
The best verdict on the expunging resolution was given by Webster when he characterized the whole affair as one which, if it were not regarded as a ruthless violation of a sacred instrument, would appear to be little elevated above the character of a contemptible farce.
1 From Roosevelt's "Life of Thomas H. Benton." By permission of, and by arrangement with, the authorized publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Company. Copyright 1886.
2 Nicholas Biddle was a native of Philadelphia, born in 1786, and died there in 1844. He was president of the bank from 1823 to 1836.
4 Roger Brooks Taney, born in Maryland in 1777, died in Washington in 1864. He was United States Attorney-General at the time of his selection by Jackson for Secretary of the Treasury. Altho Congress was not then in session and he could not be confirmed, Taney removed the deposits from the Bank. His nomination was afterward rejected by the Senate. Taney became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1886, and rendered the famous decision in the Dred Scott case in 1857. In 1861 he administered the oath of office to Lincoln as President.
5 The panic of 1887 described by the late Edward M. Shepard on later pages of this volume.