The Era of Nasty Dealings

Historians call 1816-1824 the “Era of Good Feelings” because there were no real party organizations.

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We have to remember that American democracy was not something won courageously over time so much as it was a long, drawn out process of corrupt bargaining between politicians and the voting public, Conspiracy- and coalition-building between current voters and potential voters, and Nasty, Nasty Deals.

George Kremer to Andrew Jackson, 8 March 1825

Andrew Jackson to Henry Lee, 7 October 1825

Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, 20 April 1820

Hammond, Bray. Banks and Politics in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1957.

Hummel, Jeffrey Rogers. Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War. Chicago: Open Court. 1996.

Anthony Comegna: In 1816, Federalist candidate for President, Rufus King, put up one of the worst, most notoriously bad showings in American politics. He won only Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware, heartlands of conservatism and outdated elitism. The Federalist lingered on, haunting state and local politics, discredited in most places.
Napoleon was gone. The French Revolution was now over, but the British remained [00:00:30] the most powerful threat to American security. While General Jackson was busy winning the late war, the Federalists were harboring treason at Hartford. In their overwhelming might then, the people rose up in 1816 to place James Monroe in the Executive Mansion and guide the newly reborn nation into a bold future. Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
[00:01:00] Well, if only politics were such a grand and noble enterprise. Historians call this period, 1816 to 1824, the Era of Good Feelings, because there were no real party organizations, but the lack of partisanship hardly meant real representation was going on here. Monroe only got about 76,000 votes in 1816. Rufus King got less than half that, still plenty miserable, to be sure, but even put [00:01:30] together, these men barely cracked 1% of the total population.
Most states still required payment of a poll tax or a landholding. Meanwhile, industrialism was spreading fast. Rhode Island was its epicenter. The Slater Mills opened in 1793, and there the Blackstone River powered cotton spinning machines to make cloth. Factory owners built towns to house their workers, hopefully single young women without responsibilities outside the mill, but families who could all work were fine, too.
[00:02:00] This Rhode Island system spread to neighboring states and became entrenched during the war, when home manufacturers became so important. These people were not Federalists, but neither were they Democratic Republicans. Certainly, they had political opinions, but nevertheless, they did not take direct part in the process. Rather than imposing good feelings on the past, we should ask, whose republic was it? There were many citizens, but many others were excluded or held as property. There were many voters, [00:02:30] too, but overall it was an extremely tiny number of people electing an even smaller number of people supposedly ruling in the interests of all citizens.
We have to remember that American democracy was not something won courageously over time so much as it was a long, drawn out process of corrupt bargaining between politicians and the voting public. It was conspiracy and coalition building between current voters and potential voters, and one nasty, nasty [00:03:00] deal after another. The new Monroe super coalition included planters, great and small, many of whom were eager for a government that propped up credit markets for speculation in cotton and slaves; manufacturers, who supplied the country with wares during the war and expected tariffs in return; yeoman freeholders, fancying themselves the revolution’s natural heirs; and artisans, eager to become upstart capitalists themselves.
The first major nasty deal made between these [00:03:30] disparate groups was the Tariff of 1816. Southern War Hawks and young Nationalists, like Calhoun, joined their more united northern counterparts to pass the tariff as a war measure. During the Panic of 1819, government revenues dropped, and protection had shifted from a war footing to a fiscal argument. Protection became a revenue measure, but as agricultural prices fell and tensions cooled with Britain, the Southern Hawks abandoned the tariff, but the damage was already done.
Then, there’s [00:04:00] the Bank of the United States. The First Bank was established under Washington, at Hamilton’s instigation, as part of his plan to bolster capital investment and the government’s credit with a stable currency. Anti-Federalists and Jeffersonians opposed the bank as an engine of corruption and speculation, but that was for the very same reasons that Hamilton loved it. It would help concentrate capital in the hands of those who already have it and give the elite few even greater power.
The Federalist-packed First Congress passed the Bank [00:04:30] Bill for a period of 20 years. A generation later, though, and the Republicans were on top. The more radical Jeffersonians rejoiced as the bank’s charter expired in 1811. The renewal vote almost passed in the Senate, but Vice President George Clinton broke the tie and killed the first bank.
Then came the war, and the dynamic of national politics totally changed. Out poured a Nationalist surge for war readiness, naval expansion, harbors and rivers projects, army expansion, fort building, lighthouse [00:05:00] construction, coastal defenses, multiple and deep sources for credit, and whatever else they deemed necessary in the event of another war. Nationalists called for a Second Bank of the United States. Calhoun led the movement from the South, and Speaker Clay in the West. The so-called Old Republicans, or tertium quids, of Virginia opposed the bank on economic grounds, but a far greater concern was constitutional and legal.
John Taylor of Caroline declared that if Congress could [00:05:30] incorporate a bank, it might emancipate a slave. This is what we might call the castle rampart strategy. Southerners increasingly realized that this “more perfect Union” was growing much faster in the North than in the South. Northerners might, if allowed, overpower the South’s representatives and enforce an abolitionist agenda. Southerners increasingly argued that all breaches of Congress’s legitimate authority must be fought, because if at once the castle ramparts fell, the inner [00:06:00] walls protecting slavery would soon follow.
Regardless, this particular nasty deal passed in early 1816, with another 20-year charter in place. The Government owned a fifth share, and a few hundred wealthy Americans and Europeans now controlled the most powerful moneyed institution in the world. Calhoun and Clay immediately set about constructing a bonus bill to distribute bank moneys to improvements projects. This obvious doling out of public funds to special interests [00:06:30] was too much for Madison, but Monroe accepted the principle of internal improvement spending if genuinely in the general interest. The general interest, of course, can be whatever the talented politician wants it to be.
Postwar Nationalists focused even more intently on organizing the territories and bringing them into a productive and protected American whole. Moving West and settling the territories became a sort of life’s mission for planters’ younger sons [00:07:00] and craftsmen or farmers down on their luck in the East. Jeffersonians had to twist their constitutional thought in knots to take Louisiana, but now that they had it, they meant to really make it their own, half a continent’s worth of prime cotton country and an endless field for Plain Republicanism just sitting out there.
The model for organizing many territories into states was Jefferson’s 1784 draft of a Northwest Ordinance, revised and passed in 1787 and again in [00:07:30] 1789. Those with special interest in occupying or investing in the territories clamored for new state organization in Missouri in 1819, but everyone who feared that expansion meant destabilization recognized the dangers here, Jefferson foremost among them. After all, the State was a monopoly en force, but what if the cartel mechanism broke down? What if one faction determined to have their way with the other? Missouri was a fire bell in the night, [00:08:00] ringing out to all who would listen, “Do not disturb this delicate beast by expanding so quickly!”

Woman’s Voice: “I thank you, Dear Sir, for the copy you have been so kind as to send me of the letter to your constituents on the Missouri question. It is a perfect justification to them. I had, for a long time, ceased to read the newspapers or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore, from which [00:08:30] I am not distant, but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it, at once, as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence.
“A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated, and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say, with conscious [00:09:00] truth, that there is not a man on earth, who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach in any practicable way. The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle, which would not cost me in a second thought if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected and gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be, but, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. [00:09:30] Justice is on one scale and self-preservation in the other.
“Of one thing, I am certain, that as the passage of slaves from one state to another would not make a slave of a single human being, who would not be so without it, so their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier and proportionally facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation by dividing the burthen on a greater number of coadjutors. An abstinence, too, from this act of power would remove the jealousy excited by the undertaking of Congress to regulate the condition [00:10:00] of the different descriptions of men composing a state. This certainly is the exclusive right of every state, which nothing in the Constitution has taken from them and given to the general government.
“Could Congress, for example, say that the non-freemen of Connecticut shall be freemen or that they shall not emigrate to any other state? I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of ‘76 to acquire self-government and happiness to their country is to be thrown away by the unwise [00:10:30] and unworthy passions of their sons and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings that they will throw away against an abstract principle, more likely to be effected by Union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetuate this act of suicide on themselves and of treason against the hopes of the world. To yourself, as the faithful advocate of Union, I tender the offering of my high esteem and respect.” —Thomas Jefferson.

Anthony Comegna: [00:11:00] But the Missouri compromise passed, thanks to Clay’s management, extending slavery to the Pacific potentially and preserving the Northwest Ordinance style ban north of the river. This was the nastiest of the nasty.
Most well-known, though, is the election of 1824. This was the only time a presidential election went as intended. The framers imagined there would be more than two candidates in any given contest, [00:11:30] so the House would most likely choose between the top vote getters. They did not foresee two mass parties putting up only two candidates, so this one fluke of an election was really how things were supposed to happen, and it did not go well.
Four emerging factions put up four candidates for president: one, Henry Clay representing the West and Federalist economics with a hearty new regard for average people; two, William Crawford, elderly and sick champion of [00:12:00] Plain Republicanism and Martin Van Buren’s chosen horse; three, Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans and almost nothing else, because, really, nothing else mattered; and four, John Quincy Adams, a highly respected Secretary of State and natural American aristocrat, with many Federalist leanings. Jackson won the popular vote, but commanded only 99 electoral votes. Adams controlled 84, Crawford 41, and Clay 37.
In [00:12:30] the House vote, Crawford won four states, but the Clay men threw their support to Adams. Jackson took seven states, Adams 13. The opposition immediately cried foul. Jacksonian Pennsylvania Congressman George Kremer wrote to Jackson about the sorts of nasty dealings, which had denied the people their proper tribune.

Woman’s Voice: George Kremer to Andrew Jackson, March 8, 1825, from Correspondence of Andrew Jackson, [00:13:00] edited by John Spencer Bassett.
“Dear General,
“Agreeably to your request, I communicate to you the substance of a conversation which I had early in January last with the Honorable James Buchanan. He inquired of me when I had seen General Jackson. I replied, ‘Not for some time.’ He then said there was a great intrigue going on, and that he thought it right to let me know it, and that if he was known, as I was, to be the intimate friend of General Jackson, he would inform the general of it, and that he thought I ought to acquaint General Jackson [00:13:30] that the friends of Adams were making overtures to the friends of Clay, to this effect: that if they, the friends of Clay, aided to elect Adams, Clay should be Secretary of State, and that he thought we were in great danger unless we would consent to fight them with their own weapons, that the friends of Adams were urging as an argument to induce the friends of Clay to accede to the proposition that if General Jackson should be elected, Adams would be continued Secretary of State, and repeated that he thought I ought at least get myself authorized to say [00:14:00] that if General Jackson was elected President, Mr. Adams should not be continued Secretary of State.
“I told him that I could not do so, that we must carry General Jackson, on the ground of principle, and that his friends could not make any promise or give any pledges that I did not believe that General Jackson ever had disclosed his mind to any man, as to who he would appoint, should he be elected, nor did I believe he would until it became his duty, he then said I was unacquainted with the intrigues of these men. Then I told him I did not believe [00:14:30] it possible that such an intrigue could prevail. He said I might rest assured it was going on, that he knew the fact and repeated that it was necessary for the friends of Jackson to fight them with their own weapons, at least as far as to say whether Adams should remain Secretary of State or not.
“I will not be certain that I have used Mr. Buchanan’s own words. I am, however, certain that I have in substance stated our conversation correctly. With great respect, I remain your friend and fellow citizen.
“P.S. Mr. Buchanan stated [00:15:00] that him and Mr. Clay had become great friends this winter. This he said, as I thought to enforce on my mind the authority, from whence he had derived the information.”

Anthony Comegna: Yet Jackson rose above Clay and Adams’s supposed corruption and office trading. He urged supporters to accept the new government and use the next term to build an organized opposition. The corrupt bargain might stand for a time, but the people and political managers like Van Buren would have their due.

Woman’s Voice: [00:15:30] Andrew Jackson to Henry Lee, October 7, 1825, from Correspondence of Andrew Jackson, edited by John Spencer Bassett.
“I am pleased to read your sentiments with regard to the support due to the administration, so far as its measures may redound to the prosperity of our common country. Mr. Adams is the Constitutional President, and, as such, I would, myself, be the last man in the commonwealth to oppose [00:16:00] him on any other ground than that of principle. How he reached the office is an enquiry for the succeeding canvass, when the principles of the Constitution, apart from his ministerial acts, or at least without necessary opposition to them will sanction the investigation.
“As to his character also, it is hardly necessary for me to observe that I had esteemed him as a virtuous, able and honest man, and when rumor was stamping the sudden union of his and the friends of Mr. Clay with intrigue, barter and bargain, I did not, nay, [00:16:30] I could not believe that Mr. Adams participated in a management deserving such epithets. Accordingly, when the election was terminated, I manifested publicly a continuation of the same high opinion of his virtue, and, of course, my disbelief of his having had knowledge of the pledges, which many men of high standing boldly asserted to be the price of his election, but when these strange rumors became facts, when the predicted stipulation was promptly fulfilled, and Mr. Clay was Secretary of State, the inference [00:17:00] was irresistible. I could not doubt the facts.
“It was well known that during the canvass, Mr. Clay had denounced him as an apostate, as one of the most dangerous men in the Union, and the last man in it that ought to be brought to the executive chair. This denunciation was made publicly, as I was informed by Governor Duval and had taken into view with the publication relative to the Treaty of Ghent, when the nomination was made to the Senate.
“I do not think the human mind can resist the conviction that the whole prediction was true, and that Mr. Adams, by the [00:17:30] redemption of the pledge stood at once before the American people as a participant in the disgraceful traffic of congressional votes for executive office. From that moment, I withdrew all intercourse with him, not, however, to oppose his administration, when I think it useful to the country.
“Here, feeble as my aid may be, it will always be freely given, but I withdrew in accordance with another principle not at all in conflict with such a course. It is that which regulating the morals of society to superior office would invite virtue unrespected and, [00:18:00] in the private relations of life, forbids an association with those whom we believe corrupt or capable of cherishing vice, when it ministers to selfish aggrandizement.
“Still, sir, I am too charitable to believe that the acceptance of an office under Mr. Adams is either evidence of a change of principle or of corruption, and I entertain the same opinion of you now and of your adherence to political honesty that I ever did. Every freeman has a right to his opinion of both men and things, and it is his bounden duty [00:18:30] to exercise it fearlessly and candidly. This liberty of opinion is the best boon of freemen, and he that makes it the agent of the greatest good establishes the most unquestionable claims upon the gratitude and love of his country. I am, very respectfully, your most obedient servant.”

Anthony Comegna: From 1825 to 1828, Van Buren and his growing clique of state and local party bosses, busily constructed a new and revolutionary sort of organization. [00:19:00] Van Buren recognized that conflict was a normal part of life, inevitable, but not always destructive. Politics could be a channel for productive change, without recourse to violence. Van Buren’s men doubled down on their Plain Republicanism and Jackson’s Populism both. Adding to it, Calhoun and the southern Republicans, the new coalition was specifically aimed at electing Andrew Jackson in 1828, with Calhoun as his V.P. This time, Jackson won, [00:19:30] and the new coalition took its place of power. Under the democracy’s sway, uncomfortable, destabilizing, dangerous subjects, like the extension or exclusion of slavery from new territories, became the ultimate taboos.
Union-fetishizing Nationalism set the rules of acceptable political conflict, and the new set of gentlemen in Washington made polite agreements to leave well enough, [00:20:00] for them, alone. The great and all-powerful, but always nameless, faceless “The People” sent them here to rule in the general interest, and, with the people’s blessing, no power on earth could interfere with the General’s strategy or the Little Magician’s tactics. It was an intoxicating brew, and perhaps Jackson even believed it, but Van Buren always knew better.
[00:20:30] Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.