Small Change and The Depression of 1837-1843 – Part Four

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Part four – Prices become the news

To see the previous parts of this series, click here.

When he won the 1828 national election, Andrew Jackson became one of only two men to be elected president of the United States without having gone to college. The other was George Washington. Washington had the further distinction of being the only American president at that time who had not been a lawyer. If, like Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and the other Adams, Andrew Jackson was guilty of being a lawyer, he did his best to live it down. Jackson never once offered his memberships in the North Carolina and then the Tennessee bar as evidence of his legal expertise.

Instead, he offered his moral righteousness as his greatest qualification for political office. He had, as attorney general of the Mero district and judge advocate of the Davidson county militia, always thought first about doing what was right. He would bring the same commitment to his responsibilities as president and show a reverence to the Constitution equal of the one held by the country’s first president.

In his speeches and writings, Jackson would repeatedly promise the voters that he would honor the “invaluable legacy of Washington.” He would obey Washington’s particular understanding of the Constitution and, in following Washington’s words, listen the “voice of prophesy, telling us of the evils to come.” In his interpretations of his obligation to, “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Jackson would be both an originalist and a literalist. He would take words of the Constitution as civic scripture; as the only part of American law directly ratified by the American people, its words would have a standing beyond the reach of judges and legislators.

The day after his chosen successor, Martin Van Buren, was inaugurated as president, Jackson was asked if he had any regrets from his eight years in office. He is widely reported to have remarked, “Yes. That I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t have John Calhoun hanged.” Jackson considered both men guilty of Constitutional heresy. Calhoun had claimed Congress and the president had no more power to tax imports to the United States than the predecessor Congress had held under the Articles of Confederation. Clay’s sin was even greater, one that Jackson thought he should have dealt with directly by himself. Clay had claimed that the second Bank of the United States had the power to print money because money could be “whatever Congress said it was.” As a politician in Tennessee, Jackson had found no difficulty in supporting the state’s banks. They had been his solid supporters and principal campaign contributors. When Jackson had campaigned for re-election in 1832, he had argued that the second Bank of the United States was inherently evil, not because it was a bank, but because it was the tool that Congress wanted to continue to use to print money.