The Middling Men of Power: Levi Woodbury, Part One
The Review’s life of Woodbury smacks of romance, but the reality is much more interesting and important to the history of libertarianism.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Levi Woodbury (1789–1851) was one of a relative few in American history to have held positions in all three branches of the national government and the governorship of their respective states. Throughout his life in Jacksonian politics, he was a New Hampshire state Supreme Court justice, governor of his home state, Speaker for the state House of Representatives, a United States Senator from 1825 to 1831, Jackson’s Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of the Treasury, continued at Treasury with Van Buren, returned to the Senate in 1841, and was elevated by President Polk to the United States Supreme Court where he remained until his death six years later. Jacksonian politics was not exactly “from above”–this was, after all, a hugely important era of reformist politics and culture. American life decided democratized from roughly 1815 to 1848. But neither should we mistake Jacksonian politics as a roiling, boiling process “from below”–the lives of decidedly middling men like Levi Woodbury show that this was no Age of the Common Man. It was an era in which working white men gained a greater share of political power than ever before, but suffrages are not liberties. The lives, ideas, and actions of middling men of power and influence like Levi Woodbury suggest that in this critical era of libertarian potential, the politicians and compromisers who seem most accomplished are often the most responsible for their movement’s failures.
In the following short series, we present a survey of the life and deeds of Levi Woodbury. Our selection comes from the “Loco‐Romantic,” Young American John L. O’Sullivan’s Democratic Review and was published in 1838, just after the Panic of 1837, during the depths of depression, shortly before the 1838 midterm elections, and two years before Americans would decide another presidential contest. Conscious of the need for electoral energy, momentum, and pride, O’Sullivan paints a romantic portrait of Woodbury’s early life. From the hardy New England forest, Woodbury emerged a talented young lawyer (it’s not mentioned that he was also a Freemason). His family stretched back to some of Salem’s original settlers, and by 1823 Woodbury was learning to master statehouse politicking. After a most unusual, but utterly New England‐like election (in which the majority of a Democratic‐Republican caucus nominated Samuel Dinsmoor but an irregular, popular convention selected Woodbury), New Hampshire Federalists joined Woodbury’s standard, hoping to coopt him. In an effort to stay exactly this sort of factionalism, Woodbury accepted the position and governed as a firm proto‐Jacksonian. The people managed to successfully elect their governor in 1823 New Hampshire, and a decade later the same man was helping them and their great Patriarch slay the Philadelphia Hydra. O’Sullivan concludes our first piece with a survey of Jackson’s Bank War and introduces Woodbury’s great challenge as Treasury Secretary–Is there a fair, democratic, laissez‐faire way to distribute the government’s takings?
The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 2, No. 8 (July 1838): 385–409.
POLITICAL PORTRAITS WITH PEN AND PENCIL, (No. VIII): LEVI WOODBURY
Mr. Woodbury is descended from that intrepid and strong‐minded race of men who left their homes in England early in the seventeenth century, to enjoy their rights as freemen, and settled upon the rocky shores of the North. The American nation is indebted to their foresight and sagacity for many of these institutions which have given character and efficiency to our system of self‐government. However obscure as individuals, each of those practical democrats held that station in society, and possessed the weight and influence in its government, to which his talents, industry, and usefulness, entitled him.
In Farmer’s account of the early emigrants to New England, it is stated that the ancestors of Mr. Woodbury were among the original settlers of Salem, one of the first plantations in the colony of Massachusetts…
Mr. Woodbury, from his childhood, was trained to those habits of industry which are so general among the population of New England. His principal elementary education was obtained in the free schools kept in his native village, during the winter months, when farming labor is suspended, as is the usual practice under the system of laws which were originally established by the Pilgrims. On reaching a suitable age he was sent to permanent seminaries away from home, for short periods, during the summer season, in order to acquire a sufficient knowledge of the rudiments of the Latin and Greek languages, to enable him to enter college. He was early distinguished for his application to study; and manifested, even in his boyhood, that ardor in the pursuit of knowledge, and that readiness of apprehension and decision of character, which he has since shewn in the discharge of the most important duties.
He took his first degree at Dartmouth College in 1809, with high reputation for talents and acquirements, and immediately devoted himself to the profession he had chosen. After passing a year at the celebrated law school at Litchfield, Connecticut, he studied the residue of his preparatory term at Boston, Exeter, and his native place. In 1812 he was admitted to the bar.
…Few lawyers have obtained at the outset of their professional life a more extensive and respectable practice. By an exemplary performance of the high promise of his youth, he rapidly acquired a rank at a bar at which lawyers, who are among the most distinguished in the Union, practiced.
[Woodbury defended the administration from New Hampshire Federalists during the War of 1812.]
In 1816 the political character of the State became changed. The democratic party having obtained the ascendency, on the meeting of the Legislature Mr. Woodbury was invited to the seat of Government to discharge the duties of Secretary of the Senate; and at the commencement of the next year, he was appointed judge of the Superior Court.
Ascending the bench of the highest judicial tribunal of the State, at an age more youthful than had before occurred in its history, the appointment excited much remark where Mr. Woodbury was personally unknown. The result surpassed the utmost expectations of his friends. In the discharge of the arduous and responsible duties of this station, he evinced the most estimable qualifications of a judge — diligence, patience, firmness, and good temper. His familiarity with legal principles and reach of mind, combined with his suavity of manners and moral courage, enabled him to conduct jury trials with great satisfaction to the public while his judicial opinions showed great research and accurate discrimination. Ample testimony of the qualifications of Mr. Woodbury for the performance of the duties of his office, may be found in the two first volumes of the New Hampshire Reports.
In 1819 Mr. Woodbury removed to Portsmouth, the commercial capital of New Hampshire, where he continued to reside until he became a member of President Jackson’s cabinet.
Mr. Woodbury was chosen Governor of New Hampshire in 1823, under circumstances which placed him in a novel position in relation to the two political parties into which that State has been long divided. An estimable citizen belonging to the western section of the State, was put in nomination for that office by a portion of the democratic party; while those in the eastern part of the State nominated and supported Mr. Woodbury. No candidate was brought out by the federal party, who had witnessed the rigid abstinence from every expression of political bias, which he had maintained in the discharge of his judicial duties, and who generally voted for him throughout the State. Elected by an overwhelming majority, the federal leaders undoubtedly flattered themselves that he would be induced, from having received their support, to regulate his official measures agreeably to their wishes. When the policy of his administration was developed, his adherence to his early democratic principles became too obvious to be mistaken; and the only solace remaining to them under the disappointment of such hopes, was to denounce him in strong terms. Equally unmoved by the abuse, as unseduced by the blandishments of partisans, whose approbation of public measures appears too often to depend upon the extent to which they may be made to promote their personal interests, Mr. Woodbury inflexibly pursued the path of duty. The united opposition of the federal party, together with that of many influential democrats, who had originally opposed his election, prevented his being chosen for a second term, and he resumed the practice of his profession after his period of service as Governor expired.
His knowledge of the law and his forensic talents immediately surrounded him with clients from every part of the State. He was soon called on by his fellow citizens to discharge political duties. In 1825, the year following, he was chosen by the town of Portsmouth, a representative in the Legislature of the State; and, at the commencement of the session having never been before a member of any legislative assembly he was elected Speaker of the House. Among the last acts of the session was the choice of Mr. Woodbury to fill a vacancy which had occurred in the Senate of the United States.
His talents, information, and habits of unwearied application, gave Mr. Woodbury much influence upon the deliberations of the Senate. Regarded as the principal organ of the democracy of New England in that body, during the administration of President Adams, his clear and forcible expositions of its views were received with great deference on several important occasions…
His term of service expired on the third of March, 1831. At the annual election in New Hampshire, which occurred five days afterwards, he was chosen State Senator for the district in which he resided. On the reorganization of the cabinet, in the month of April following, he was invited by President Jackson to take the office of Secretary of the Navy. This appointment he was induced to accept. He accordingly declined the office of State Senator; and, repairing to the seat of the General Government, soon entered upon the functions of his new appointment.
Those who held official intercourse with Mr. Woodbury as Secretary of the Navy generally concur that he manifested great method, firmness, and promptitude in the discharge of the important duties which devolved upon him in that station. By introducing general and impartial rules for the guidance of the decisions of the Department on the subject of allowances, and in the distribution of the privileges and burdens arising from the relative advantages to the officers employed at the various stations, he succeeded in avoiding many of the imputations and inconveniences to which the course before pursued had sometimes subjected the Head of the Department…
While Mr. Woodbury was Secretary of the Navy several important questions came before the cabinet relative to the financial policy of the Government. When he afterwards became connected with the immediate management of the public finances as Secretary of the Treasury, measures which produced the most important and exciting consequences upon the commercial and financial prosperity of the country were brought into operation, the origin and object of which we feel bound to point out, as well as to explain his course in relation to them at some length. It therefore seems to be proper to give, as far as our information of the transactions of that period will enable us, his views upon these questions.
The charter of the Bank of the United States was to expire, by its own limitation, on the fourth of March, 1836. The president and directors of that corporation, with a design which could not be mistaken, applied to Congress early in the session of 1831, ‘2 for a renewal of their charter on the eve of the presidential election of the autumn of the latter year. This question was obviously and indeed, on the part of some of the advocates of the recharter, avowedly brought before Congress four years before any decision upon it could take effect, with a view of controlling that election through the power of the bank over the mercantile and speculating classes, should the President determine to refuse his sanction to the recharter as was generally supposed would be the case. The bill rechartering the bank passed, extending the bank charter twenty years, and was placed before the President for his approval. What advice was given by the several members of the cabinet upon the question of approving this bill, we have no means of knowing, excepting from the general opinions upon that and similar subjects which have been on other occasions avowed by the individuals composing it. Mr. Woodbury, from the commencement of his political career, had been a firm, and devoted disciple of the school of Jefferson, and on all occasions had steadfastly opposed the doctrines and practices which had grown out of what had been usually termed a liberal construction of the Constitution. We hazard little of conjecture, therefore, in stating that he advised the President to return the bill with objections to its constitutionality. It was returned to the Senate, where it originated, with a message, assigning reasons both constitutional and prudential, against its provisions.
The question of the recharter of the bank was made, as had been doubtless intended by bringing it up in advance of the election, the main issue in the contest for the presidency in 1832. The course of the Executive having been sustained by a very great majority of the people of the Union, it became necessary, in the exercise of common prudence, to make seasonable arrangements for the management of the public finances after the expiration of the bank charter. The unscrupulous policy manifested by the bank immediately subsequent to the veto, both towards the commercial interests of the country, manifested in its wanton and severe curtailments, and towards the Government, in relation to the performance of its great public trusts, imperiously required the settling of such arrangements.
Congress had made provision for the immediate redemption of the Public Debt. The then Secretary of the Treasury, in pursuance of law, gave public notice to all holders of certificates to present them to the Bank of the United States for payment, public money having been placed there for the purpose of meeting the amount. A large proportion of the three percent stock being held in Europe, the bank dispatched an agent thither, and entered into a stipulation with the holders that they should decline the redemption provided by law, by withholding their certificates, while the bank paid the interest on the stock in order that it might appropriate to its own purposes the public money provided for the payment of the principal thus, in effect, negotiating an actual loan, on the security of the United States, of several millions of dollars, at three percent interest, contrary to the express will of Congress.
This transaction, and an official communication, made by the directors on the part of the United States, that the corporation had, by formal vote, placed the whole funds in its possession, both public and private, at the absolute disposal of the president of the bank for secret services, to be employed at his discretion, and without toucher or specification together with the evident determination, on the part of that corporation to employ the paramount control it had proved itself able to exercise upon all occasions over the amount of paper currency in circulation, for the purpose of extorting a recharter by means of the sufferings of the community induced President Jackson to call upon his cabinet for their opinions upon the question of the expediency of the immediate removal of the public money from the Bank of the United States. It was well understood at the time that a diversity of opinion existed among the several members; but the precise grounds of difference have never transpired. The opinion attributed to Mr. Woodbury was, that he advised the seasonable selection of suitable State banks, in order that these institutions might be fully prepared to transact the whole public business which would devolve upon them on the expiration of the charter of the Bank of the United States, as well as to convince the public beforehand of their ability to perform the duties, previously discharged, of that institution, in relation to the public finances. He was understood to have recommended that the change be made as gradual as might be consistent with the public service though beginning its execution in time for its full completion when the charter should expire and then drawing the public funds required for disbursement from the Bank of the United States, and depositing the new collections in such State banks as might be selected.
The President, after having expressed his opinion publicly that the conduct of the bank had been such as to destroy all his confidence in its management as the fiscal agent of the Government, directed that the public money in its custody be forthwith transferred to certain State banks at the most important points, and at more remote periods at other places. Mr. Duane, then Secretary of the Treasury, having opposed this decision, he was dismissed, and Mr. Taney, who is understood to have expressed an opinion, as Attorney General, favorable to the immediate removal of the whole public money from the bank, was appointed in his place. On his becoming Secretary of the Treasury, in August, 1533, he adopted the necessary measures for carrying the decision of the President into effect.
The measures before pursued, to a comparatively small extent, by the bank, for narrowing the circulating medium of the community, and by this means creating distress for money, were then vigorously brought to bear upon the State banks, and the commercial men throughout the United States. The rigid system of curtailments which the other banks were compelled to adopt, produced a sudden and violent crisis in most of the cities. Debtors became alarmed, and creditors inexorable. The politicians who supported the interests of the Bank of the United States were vociferous in charging the Government with having occasioned the general pressure which prevailed. The fall in the prices of commodities, and the numerous failures of mercantile men, created great popular excitement, which was much increased by the inflammatory course pursued by several members of Congress during the session of 1833, ‘4. The strong measures adopted by President Jackson for the purpose of repressing the threatened outbreak of the State of South Carolina against the protective system, having excited the displeasure of many Southern politicians, they joined the advocates of the bank in denouncing the removal of the deposites as an Executive usurpation, though it was expressly provided for by the charter of the bank. Some of the legislative manoeuvres displayed during the session which, by general consent, has been styled the Panic Session, were described in our May number, in the sketch of Mr. Speaker Polk, then Chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means of the House of Representatives.
The removal of the public money from the Bank of the United States to the selected State banks was condemned by a vote of the Senate, but sanctioned by a majority of the House of Representatives. When the nomination of Mr. Taney, as Secretary of the Treasury, came before the Senate, it was rejected; but no objection appears to have been made to that of Mr. Woodbury as his successor, whose appointment was confirmed at the end of June, 1834.