What’s a republican to do when opponents have the unity of “a vast host…leaders…the press…the wealth…the attack?” John L. O’Sullivan exulted in it.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In the closing article of the June 1838 Democratic Review, editor John L. O’Sullivan declared that his country stood at the peak of a revolution. While it may not have seemed as notable as the Revolution of 1776, O’Sullivan’s contemplated “Revolution of 1837” rivaled Jefferson’s 1800 election as among the great political rebellions in American history. In 1837, the radical (or “locofoco”) wing of the Democratic Party seized control over the New York party, gaining them power and influence in the national Administration. Van Buren’s Democratic Party gained both houses of Congress and the White House, while Jacksonians steered the Supreme Court. Yet, as O’Sullivan diligently and ominously noted, republican government remained threatened from every angle by ideas and interest blocs capable of destroying liberty entirely. Such were “times that tried men’s souls,” and for his part, O’Sullivan rejoiced in the animating contest for liberty. He urged his fellows to embrace the battle, lean into the conflict, and resist (national) debt slavery with all due energy. Liberty‐loving Democrats’ failure to successfully resolve “The Revolution of 1837” and permanently disentangle the government from the economy could mean the end of truly republican government in the United States.
The present crisis will long hereafter, if the country pass well and safely through it, be referred to as one of the great epochs in the history of our government. It will constitute a dividing line between two distinct eras. It will be designated as the Revolution of 1837, as we speak of the Revolution of 1800, when the Republican party succeeded, after a fearful struggle, in overthrowing that old Federal ascendency which had already sufficiently developed the evil principles involved in it, to threaten the speedy termination of the American Experiment in failure and disgrace. The divorce of the ill‐omened union between the political and banking powers…is one of those events which appear comparatively insignificant in themselves, while they are in truth pregnant with the most valuable consequences. Such is the character of most of those leading events in history…They are great only as causes–like the acorn, containing within its little shell the germ which shall develope itself to the oak that is to struggle with all the might of the elements, and to subserve a thousand purposes of the most important usefulness to human life.
In this point of view is seen the leading difference of characteristic between the contest which convulsed the country during the last Administration, and the still deeper one by which it is now agitated. The former was, on the part of the Government, to destroy a gigantic existing institution, whose power–perfectly organized and combined, while universally diffused over the country, and in close alliance, offensive and defensive, with a great political party–seemed at one period all but omnipotent. It was an enormous, substantive thing–with a local habitation and a name–distinct and definite… the greatness and power of which all men could behold and understand. There was a specific issue joined–a simple alternative presented. Its fall was a signal event, thundering, over the whole land…The present contest…is to overthrow nothing,–and its triumph will be accompanied by no thundering sound of the downfall…It will, perhaps, scarcely strike the minds of those who do not look beyond the hour and the surface, as a great event at all.
The difference, in this respect, is precisely that between the felling the oak and the planting the acorn…In the present contest there is little or nothing calculated to arouse and keep alive that species of popular enthusiasm…which, it is well known, proved of such valuable service to the Democratic party in its late struggle with the Bank of the United States, by quickening the interest felt by every man in the issue between the two parties, and bringing out the votes of thousands whose daily avocations of toil would otherwise keep them from the discharge of that high civic right and duty…The acknowledged difference, both of kind and degree between the personal popularity of the gallant old veteran who directed the late administration, and that of the present differently circumstanced incumbent of the same office, will also not fail to be taken duly into consideration by the intelligent reader, in estimating the force of this consideration. A popular sentiment of this character is irresistible, when supported and justified…by a sound basis of reason and truth…through the medium of the press, the primary meeting, and the legislative hall.
In the second place, the support which General Jackson received from a considerable portion of the State bank interest is now not only withdrawn, but it…acts now in conjunction with, instead of in opposition to, the [Second Bank of the United States…]
Another leading feature of difference between the positions of the two Administrations is, that after a short time maintaining its ground the late Administration was met by the swelling support of the universal apparent prosperity attendant upon an expanding currency, while the harder fate of the present is to struggle under the burthen of its collapse. This is one broad fact of which no explanations can, during the time of its actual pressure and distress, do away with the general popular effect. It is in vain at such seasons that we would expatiate on theories of political economy, and trace out this effect, no matter how distinctly and unanswerably, back to its real causes in the vicious principles on which our general banking system is founded, for which the Administration is in no degree responsible. At such periods calm argument is comparatively impotent, before the passionate declamation…from exulting political opponents, and from the panic‐stricken moneyed interests…The questions at issue are so complicated, and become so profoundly mystified by the clamors of prejudiced interests and the sophistries of conflicting theories, that it is easy to delude a considerable proportion of the public mind…At such periods the party in power must let the storm howl round it as it may list; and trusting to time, to its own conscious truth and right, ride it out fearlessly and firmly by its sheet‐anchor of confidence in the ultimate judgment of our sound and true‐hearted democracy.
The efforts put forth by the Opposition in the contest are gigantic and worthy of a better cause; and we frankly confess that they ought to put our own leading friends to shame. As a question, moreover, of the conflict of forces, they fight with great advantage at such a period as the present.
They have the unity of opposition, and that thorough discipline consequent on their long and unintermitted campaigns of party warfare as an attacking minority, invigorated moreover by a strong stimulus of hope, and confidence of success, to crown their long desperate toils; while on the other side the paralysis of dissension and alarm has for a time been seen to exert a fatally disorganizing influence.
They have a vast host…of ambitious and clamorous aspirants, both in Congress and over the whole face of the country, who already imagine that they behold afar off…that promised‐land of Office for which they have through so many a weary year hungered and thirsted in the wilderness; while on the other side it is a notorious fact, that at least one‐half of the offices at the Executive disposal are in the hands either of open enemies, or still more injurious false friends; who…rejoice in Whig successes, and strive as openly as practicable to entitle themselves to exemption from that general proscription to be anticipated on the accession of the Whigs to power.
They have leaders–and their name is legionable, eloquent, ardent, active, indefatigable, practised in all the arts of partisanship, and unscrupulous in the use of them; whereas the tendency of the long possession of power on the part of a majority is rather to degeneration in the personal calibre of its leaders and prominent partisans, in those qualities and habits that make them effective in the collision of parties.
They have the press,–their newspapers, sustained by commercial patronage and bank favors, and by the support of the more wealthy classes of whom four‐fifths are ranged in hostility to the democratic cause, numbering, as is well known, full three to one, to those which the great bulk of the Democratic party is able to support.
They have the wealth,–and it is easy for them to send the plausible panic‐making harangues of their best orators, under Congressional franks, to the door of every voter in every district…–they can find a subscriber to some hundreds of thousands of copies at a time. While on the other hand the friends of the Administration are able to circulate but very limited numbers of their documents and speeches–printing their thousands where their opponents lavish their tens of thousands; and with difficulty defraying the trifling necessary expenses attendant upon the elections.
Finally, they have the attack,–in Chess often worth a piece, and in politics a still greater advantage. We have remarked in a former number upon the disadvantage of the defensive position occupied by a party which has been long in the possession of the Executive power, in our politics. It is so extensive, so complicated, so ramified into thousands of details, eluding the most conscientious vigilance of supervision, –that it lays the party in possession open to perpetual assault, of the most harassing character. This truth acquires still stronger application after a long period of strong party excitement; of high‐strained executive action; and of redundant revenue, forcing upon it, through the Congressional appropriations, a vast expenditure of money, swelling with the growth of population, and the increasing extent and complexity of the administrative operations of the Government, in an insidious progress extremely difficult to be resisted. The Opposition has thus a wide range over the petty details of executive administration, throughout which those to whom the task is congenial may rove at pleasure; with no fear of deficiency of materials for their tirades of partisan denunciation…
It is an arduous contest. It is a crisis to try mens souls. We exult in it. Those who engage in the noble strife of political parties, with worthy motives of enthusiasm and devotion to principles, may rejoice in it with all the stern joy of the patriot in the last battle for all that is holiest and dearest to him. This is no time for neutrality, for inertness, for wavering…The present question applies to every one. This is one of those periods that return at long intervals, of reorganization to great parties long in the ascendant…A heavy responsibility rests upon that portion of the Republican party which has attempted at such a crisis to detach itself from the main body, and by occupying a middle position between the–two to hold the balance of power, and thus force the vast majority of their own friends to submission to them as a small fractional minority, by the danger of the entire betrayal of the whole cause to the common enemy. A heavy responsibility–and evil the hour when it was assumed by some from whom such a course was not to have been looked for! That ground cannot be maintained any longer. It is too hot to hold; and the honest democrats among them who were misled by misrepresentation and panic, and who desired only to act as a check to moderate the supposed ultra tendency of their party, are already returning to the side of the old and tried associates whom they never designed to abandon; while those whose democracy was but of the name and the lip have already passed over within the precincts of the adverse camp…This is, we repeat, a period of the breaking up and reorganization of parties on their true natural grounds,–one of those convulsions which sweep away all other landmarks of party habits but the fixed rocks of original principle. It is seen in the transfer of that portion of the democratic party whose Republicanism was but the name under which they have long enjoyed the advantages of political ascendency, to their natural position within the ranks of the old Federal and Bank party; while, on the other hand, a considerable number of the Whigs–a large portion of whom are but democrats thrown accidentally and unconsciously into a false position–are coming over to the support of those principles of which no party prejudices nor clamors can prevent their recognizing the wisdom, truth, and patriotism. It is a good exchange, and contains a double reason for rejoicing–equally for each such departure and such accession…
What is [the Bank’s language] to the Government? You shall not be independent of us. You shall not collect and disburse your revenue yourself. You shall not anchor the Treasury of the country by that objective and uncivilized standard of value, of which we have nothing to say but that it is a humbug. Constitution or no Constitution, we will regulate the currency for you as for the rest of the people, and yon shall have nothing to do with any other standard than our paper…We will not rest on our own capital, credit, and our commercial business alone,–you shall give us your credit and especial countenance also…
But we are wrong in ascribing this language to the banks. It is to a reckless body of ambitious politicians that it ought rather to be attributed,–who are moving heaven and hell to overthrow the Administration, to place themselves in the seat of power…For this they seek to convulse the country with panic, and to blind it with the grossest delusions. For this they take the whole system, with all its evils and abuses, to their arms, endorsing and defending every thing; and falsely charge the Administration with a design to destroy it, and with a general hostility to credit and commerce…They attempt to keep for the present in the back‐ground, a design of reestablishing a great National Bank if ever they can get the power intrusted to their hands,–an institution which shall constitute an absolute moneyed despotism over the…whole country…
But it will not succeed! It cannot succeed. The pyramid of the democratic cause may be shaken by temporary shocks, but it cannot be overturned. All these popular delusions and panics soon exhaust themselves, and obey the general law of reaction. Great is truth, and it will prevail. Our confidence in the people is unwavering,–and in this sign we shall conquer. Our party will come forth from the present crisis, redeemed, regenerated, and disenthralled. This is the last desperate effort of the Whigs. The independence of the public treasury being once established, their cause falls prostrate…The paralyzing incubus of a large anti‐popular minority upon the free action and developement of the democratic principle in our system, will thus become in a considerable degree lightened. A splendid career is opening upon our party, and its high and holy cause; a new era is induced, as remarked in the commencement of this article, dawning upon our country; and it requires but firmness, courage, and confidence in those great principles which can never deceive or fail, to carry it safely through the present crisis, to the realization of those noble and glorious hopes.