Democrats used to celebrate annually the March 15, 1767, birthday of their party's founder, Andrew Jackson. That custom largely has disappeared, perhaps because (as the great song goes) we don't know much about history-or maybe because some leaders of the current Democratic party know too much about the Jackson presidency.
President Jackson, after all, did not believe in expanding federal power. His goal was to "leave individuals and States as much as possible to themselves." He did not believe in forced redistribution of income. His plan was for government to "confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rain, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor." He did not believe in expanding the Constitution. His pledge was to veto bills "unauthorized by the Constitution, subversive of the rights of the States, and dangerous to the liberties of the people."
Such talk is discomforting to today's Democrats-and what is even more upsetting is the dramatic action President Jackson took against the Second Bank of the United States, the most powerful government-created institution of the pre-Civil War era. The Second Bank was the repository for all deposits of U.S. government revenues, deposits that did not draw interest. That windfall left the Bank with lots of cash to use for buying influence through bribes and through favoritism in making loans.
In 1832 President Jackson, labeling the Bank a "hydra of corruption," vetoed a bill to recharter the Bank. Its backers, including Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, were furious. Bank president Nicholas Biddle struck back by pioneering in what federally funded bureaucrats under pressure have done ever since: Make sure that ordinary folks hurt. Mr. Biddle did not call in loans to his friends or to those who could readily afford to pay back the money. Instead, he demanded funds from those who desperately needed them, as part of a plan to produce and publicize "evidence of suffering." He said he would destroy the economy to make his point: "All the merchants may break, but the Bank of the United States shall not break."
As loans to small businesses were called in, some businesses failed. Unemployment increased. Congressmen pleaded that the deposits be returned to Mr. Biddle. Partisans of the Bank gave orations about "helpless widows ... unclad and unfed orphans." The U.S. Senate voted 26-20 to censure the beleaguered president, and even President Jackson's Secretary of the Treasury turned on him and resigned.
What Jackson opponents did not realize, and what today's history books ignore, was the depth of the president's Bible-based firmness. He read three chapters of Scripture every night, discussed passages regularly with ministers, and in response to all protests said he would ignore the clamor and do what is "just and right." President Jackson determined what that is by reading the Bible: "In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruit of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law."
Anyone without a strong biblical base would have caved; Republican leaders did so under much less pressure during the budget impasse at the end of 1995. Andrew Jackson, however, told one and all, "Go to the monster. Go to Nicholas Biddle. I will not bow down to the golden calf." He condemned what Amos and other Old Testament prophets condemned: a system in which officials granted "titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful." Once, writing a letter to a friend on a Sunday morning, he almost seemed to be wavering, but then he noted, "I must stop. The church bells are ringing and I must attend."
So intense was President Jackson on this issue that he once started speaking in the third person: "Andrew Jackson will never restore the deposits! Andrew Jackson will never recharter that monster of corruption!" Eventually the tide turned in the states, and congressional leaders gained new courage. House Ways and Means Committee chairman James K. Polk pushed through his chamber resolutions against restoring deposits and rechartering the bank.
In July, 1834, Nicholas Biddle gave up, restored normal credit, and began to plan for the Bank's closing. The financial crisis disappeared. Business picked up rapidly. Andrew Jackson's willingness to say no-his Bible-based commitment to duty-had saved the day. Had he given in, the United States would have moved toward centralized economic control much earlier than it did. With the current Democratic party committed to such economic control, it's no wonder that Jackson Day goes mostly unnoticed.