Among Jackson's first responsibilities as president was the administration of government, including his selection of cabinet and other personnel. Some Jackson men, like the Virginia editor Thomas Ritchie, wanted Jackson to share power with an "old fashioned . . . consultative" cabinet, reflective of the cabinet's increased status in the period following the War of 1812. But Jackson refused; he intended, instead, to control his cabinet. More than that, he was prepared to alter fundamentally the whole basis of presidential power by resting his authority directly upon the people. The president, Jackson claimed, was "the direct representative of the American people."
The idea that the chief executive was the people's special representative became an established part of the presidential office, though not all occupants were as skilled as Jackson in making political capital of it. At the time, it was controversial. One prominent editor complained that whereas formerly the president's essential duty was to execute the law made by other government branches, it had come to be claimed as "the true democracy, that the president is THE 'GOVERNMENT.' " But Jackson's supporters parried such protests. "That the practice is not usual is no objection to it," responded Jackson's official newspaper, the Washington Globe .
As befit a president who intended to lead, Jackson wanted a cabinet composed of "plain, business men" who would sustain a moderate states' rights program, rather than prominent politicians who might undercut his authority and use their office as a stepping-stone to higher position. He also had to navigate carefully between the rival camps of Van Buren and Calhoun, both of whom were considered competitors for the succession. In the end, Jackson selected Van Buren as secretary of state, his friend Eaton as secretary of war, Samuel Ingham of Pennsylvania as secretary of the treasury, John Branch of North Carolina as head of the Navy Department, John McPherson Berrien of Georgia as attorney general, and Kentucky's William T. Barry as postmaster general.
The selections generally fit Jackson's criteria. There were no radical antitariff or protariff zealots who might stir trouble, and none, with the exception of Van Buren, was a major political figure. Both the Calhoun and Van Buren men felt disappointed, a sign of Jackson's ability to maintain his independence of both groups. Almost unnoticed in the din of protest by dissatisfied office seekers was that Jackson had drawn the line against the followers of Adams and Clay. His would be, applauded one Jackson man, "a party administration."
Jackson's first cabinet proved a keen disappointment. Its members soon divided into hostile factions, and Jackson called it into session only rarely before it dissolved in the spring of 1831. But, contrary to most historical accounts, this was the exception, not the rule. Later cabinet appointments were generally more felicitous, and Jackson ordinarily met his cabinet on a regular basis, usually once a week, except when crises called for more frequent, even daily, sessions. Yet Jackson never granted his cabinet great formal power. Individual members like Van Buren might accumulate considerable influence, but Jackson looked to his cabinet primarily to inform and discuss, not to decide. The more important the issue to him, the more he used his cabinet only to gain political support for a predetermined policy.
From the outset, Jackson looked for advice from friends and associates not necessarily in the cabinet. He asked William B. Lewis, who held a job in the Treasury Department, to live in the White House, and he retained his nephew Andrew Jackson Donelson as his private secretary, while Donelson's wife, Emily, served as White House hostess. More significantly, he gave special attention to a Kentucky editor and former relief leader named Amos Kendall, who landed an appointment as an auditor in the Treasury Department. In December 1830, Kendall was joined among Jackson's close advisers by another Kentucky relief man, Francis Preston Blair, who arrived to edit the Globe . Along with Van Buren, the two Kentuckians constituted Jackson's inner circle of advisers, though others would from time to time join them.
The opposition soon dubbed Jackson's advisers the "kitchen cabinet," by which they meant a close-knit group of "favorites who controlled and directed" him. The charge was unfounded. In reality, Jackson established a flexible advisory system composed of many people with overlapping responsibilities. The system was well suited to an active president who disliked official councils and preferred to consult informally with whomever he thought able to give useful advice.
The arrangement also left Jackson entirely free to make the final judgment and assume full responsibility for a decision. Jackson vigorously denied that others made policy for him, and his own closest aides agreed. Kendall summed it up best when he explained that influence depended on agreement with Jackson's objectives and style: "There are a few of us who have always agreed with the President in relation to the Bank and other essential points of policy, and therefore they charge us with having an influence over him! Fools!! They can not beat the President out of his long-cherished opinions, and his firmness they charge to our influence."
Jackson's handling of administrative matters also refutes opposition charges that he was incompetent and irresponsible. In Jackson's day, presidents were expected to oversee the day-to-day conduct of public business, such as appointments and removals, department reports, budgetary appropriations, and other administrative chores. Jackson showed the attention to detail, consistency, and tact required of good administrators. One observer reported that the president "looks personally into every thing.. . . He frequently visits the executive offices, supervises the proceedings of the subordinate functionaries, and directs and stimulates them by his presence." Little wonder that Jackson could report that his labors employed him "day and night" and that his situation was one of "dignified slavery."
Meanwhile, economic growth, an increased and more widely dispersed population, and new government initiatives such as Indian removal strained old administrative arrangements. In the preceding forty years of constitutional government, there had been only two formal administrative reorganizations worthy of notice; but during Jackson's presidency, almost every federal department was overhauled at least once, and the Post Office and General Land Office, which accounted for more than three-quarters of the civilian manpower employed by the executive branch, underwent major reorganizations. The civil service was enlarged, and new formal and elaborate bureaucracies appeared. Administrative rules better defined jurisdictions and responsibilities, and official duties were carefully checked and separated from private activities. According to Matthew A. Crenson's prominent study, Jackson's administrative legacy was the beginning of real government bureaucracy.
No aspect of Jackson's administrative performance has been subjected to as much criticism as his policy of rotation in office. It has been viewed as a euphemism for the spoils system and as a major culprit in the decline of administrative standards during the Jacksonian period. During the campaign of 1828, there was an expectation among many Jackson supporters that his victory would be followed by the wholesale removal of Adams officeholders. To some extent, this reflected the wider participation by citizens in government and the practice of party politics in some states like Pennsylvania and New York, which had well-developed party organizations. No politician of Jackson's skill could ignore the need to inspire and reward efforts made in his behalf. As his presidency progressed, Jackson found further justification in having loyal friends in office. Faithful office-holders brought the government closer to the people and assured that the people's will, as expressed in his policies, was dutifully carried out. In short, partisanship was democratic.
But removals also resulted from Jackson's concern for republican virtue. Jackson sincerely believed that his election was a victory over "the corrupting influence of executive patronage" and that the "corrupt bargain" between Adams and Clay was symptomatic of the extensive decay imbedded in the government. Jackson affirmed the reforming impulse behind removals in his first annual message. "Corruption in some and in others a perversion of correct feelings and principles divert government from its legitimate ends and make it an engine for the support of the few at the expense of the many," he asserted. "Rotation" would prevent officeholders from assuming a permanent right to their positions, and public duties should be made simple enough so that all "men of intelligence" could perform them. Implicit in this message was Jackson's idea that "rotation in office . . . will perpetuate our liberty."
There was much outcry among officeholders and opposition spokesmen who feared a mass beheading of all who would not swear fealty to Old Hickory. Even some of Jackson's own supporters, particularly in the South, expressed disapproval of large-scale dismissals and the appointment of inappropriate personnel, especially low-status newspaper editors. Jackson's critics had a point. Partisanship explicitly entered more fully into the appointments process than ever before. In his first year in office, Jackson removed more officials than all his predecessors combined, and the purges and partisan appointments doubtless contributed to a decline in ethical standards. Certainly, no previous officer managed to bilk the government of as much money as Jackson's collector of the Port of New York, Samuel Swartwout, who absconded with over $1 million and fled to Europe. While Jackson did not intend to introduce a spoils system, his policy opened the way for his successors to institute a more systematic policy of party patronage.
Yet, there was no wholesale proscription during Jackson's presidency, and there were many positive aspects to his policy. Jackson made clear from the outset that reform would proceed " judiciously . . . and upon principle ." Only about one-tenth of federal officeholders were removed during his presidency, and not all of these were for political reasons. Especially in the upper echelons of the civil service, key figures remained in their positions, retaining their subordinates and giving stability to the system.
Although a few of Jackson's appointments proved to be disasters—Postmaster General Barry's tenure was marked by inefficient service and escalating debts—many of Jackson's appointments were excellent. From his position in the Treasury Department, for example, Amos Kendall zealously lopped off excess expenditures, unmasked corruption, and improved efficiency. He boasted of saving thousands of dollars and shocked many opposition leaders by exposing his predecessor, Tobias Watkins, a furious Adams partisan, for defalcation. Even Adams conceded that "some of the dismissions are deserved," and though he considered most of the new appointees "less respectable, he acknowledged that some were "good."
The wrongdoing that did occur should also be seen within the context of a general deterioration of ethical standards in American society. The legal profession, the business community, and organized religion all showed a similar decline in internal discipline, and it is likely that Jackson's administrative reforms were designed in part to counteract this slide. In the outcry over removals, it is often forgotten that Jackson's presidency marked an era of creative administration.