Andrew Jackson - Foreign affairs

The spring of 1836 brought one clear-cut triumph for the president: the successful conclusion of a settlement with France over spoliation claims dating from the Napoleonic era. When Jackson took office, negotiations with France had reached a "hopeless" condition, according to Secretary of State Van Buren. Jackson informed Congress in his first annual message that he intended to break the logjam.

Jackson's minister to France, William C. Rives, prodded and flattered the reluctant French government into signing a treaty in July 1831. By its terms, France agreed to pay the United States 25 million francs, and in return, the United States paid a small sum to extinguish French claims against the American government and reduced the duties on French wines. Jackson happily announced the settlement the following December and submitted the treaty for ratification; it was approved unanimously.

Celebration proved premature when France, embroiled in financial and political difficulties, refused to appropriate money to implement the treaty. At first, Jackson accepted the word of the king and his ministers that the fault lay in the French Chamber of Deputies. But by the summer of 1834, his confidence in the king diminished too, and in October he began talking about taking "strong measures."

Jackson labored with more than usual attention over the foreign affairs section of his December 1834 message to Congress. One evening, he was brought the page proofs as revised by Secretary of State John Forsyth. Donelson began to read them while Jackson paced the floor, pipe in hand. When Donelson seemed to slur over a key passage dealing with France, Jackson paused. "Read that again, sir," he said. Donelson repeated the words more distinctly. "That, sir, is not my language," Jackson exclaimed, striking out the unauthorized revisions and writing his own original phrasing.

The message was direct and to the point. It recapitulated the history of the negotiations and, while disclaiming any desire to intimidate or threaten France, recommended that Congress authorize reprisals against French property. The statement temporarily worsened relations with France, and there was talk of war when the French government recalled its minister. Yet neither side acted precipitately. In France, Minister Edward Livingston explained that Jackson's message was intended to heal the diplomatic breach, not insult the French. Somewhat mollified, the Chamber of Deputies soon appropriated money to pay the claims but attached a proviso that no money should be paid until France received a satisfactory explanation of the language in Jackson's message.

Jackson refused to concede any point of honor. In his message of December 1835 and in a special message the following January, he decried the right of any foreign power to dictate the language used by a president. He would issue, he said, no "servile" apology. Jackson also called for commercial retaliation if France continued to refuse payment. But Jackson, too, carefully avoided provocation by reaffirming his peaceful purposes and reiterating his good opinion of the French people.

Though matters remained in a precarious condition for some weeks, the issue was soon resolved. In February 1836, Great Britain offered to mediate the dispute, and France quickly accepted the accommodating portions of Jackson's December message as a satisfactory explanation. In May, Jackson announced to Congress the termination of the controversy, along with the information that the first four installments of the debt had been paid.

The resolution of the French crisis was only one of Jackson's diplomatic accomplishments. Contrary to popular notions, Jackson actually devoted considerable energy to foreign affairs. About one-third of his annual messages related to foreign policy. Skillfully combining energy, bluster, tact, and patience, Jackson set a course to expand American commerce, resolve long-standing claims, restore American prestige, and enlarge America's territorial boundaries.

As a result of Jackson's leadership, the United States achieved a number of diplomatic triumphs, in addition to the agreement with France. These included the settlement of spoliation claims against Denmark, Portugal, and Spain and trade agreements with Russia, Spain, Turkey, Great Britain, and Siam. The treaty with Great Britain reopened American trade with the British West Indies, while the agreement with Siam was the first between the United States and an Asiatic nation. Partly owing to these diplomatic initiatives, American exports increased more than 75 percent and imports grew 250 percent during Jackson's presidency.

Jackson was not entirely successful in foreign affairs. Missions to China and Japan accomplished nothing, and efforts to dislodge Great Britain's position in South America failed. Most conspicuous, Jackson's attempt to acquire Texas fell short. For years, he had considered Texas essential to the security of the Southwest, and as president, he was willing to spend $5 million to purchase it. He even countenanced the scheming and shady operations of his representative in Mexico, Colonel Anthony Butler, who at one point, for example, proposed that he head a military occupation of Texas. Jackson endorsed the letter "A. Butler: What a scamp," yet he delayed replacing Butler with a more respectable agent until near the end of his presidency.

By that time, events in Texas made further diplomatic efforts impossible. In 1835 fighting broke out between the American settlers and the Mexican government, and by the spring of 1836, the Texans had routed the Mexican army and were appealing to Jackson for recognition and annexation. Despite his desire for Texas, Jackson proceeded cautiously. In part, he was unconvinced that Texas could maintain independence against Mexican military strength. Even more worrisome were possible domestic repercussions, since antislavery forces were already making Texas a slavery and sectional issue. Annexation would further strain national loyalties, divide the Democratic party, and jeopardize Van Buren's election chances.

Jackson therefore rejected annexation and left the initiative for recognition to Congress. Not until 3 March 1837, after Van Buren's election had been safely decided and after Congress had led the way with appropriate resolutions, did Jackson nominate a chargé d'affaires to the Republic of Texas. It was one of his last acts as president. He had not achieved complete success in the Southwest, but he had managed to bring closer to fulfillment his objective of expanding and securing American boundaries in that region.

By the time Jackson retired from the White House, he had significantly altered the office of the president and the course of American history. In expanding the veto power, basing his authority on the will of the people, and intervening in legislative matters, he dramatically enhanced the chief executive's political and legislative powers. The president was now the focal point of national politics.

Jackson also advanced the formation of the Democratic party and, with it, the second American party system. Not only did he encourage the development of such organizational devices as the national convention, but his program and principles became the dividing line that separated Americans into opposing political camps. By the end of his second term, the country had two national political parties, each extending its structure deep into the electorate. This new political system had a distinctly more voter-oriented and democratic style than the previous one. Jackson was by no means exclusively responsible for these changes, but by bringing the presidency and national politics closer to the electorate, he contributed significantly.

Finally, Jackson stamped on the Democratic party a commitment to the principles of limited government, equality, and public virtue as the basis of a healthy republic. Sensing that progress toward a market-oriented society posed dangers to free institutions, Jackson attacked privileged monopolies, paper-money banking, speculation, excessive government expenditures, burdensome taxation, and consolidated power as diseases that sapped republican government and public virtue. He sought to revitalize Jeffersonian principles as a way of reconciling desirable economic advances with the republican ideals of the past.

To be sure, key elements of Jackson's program, such as Indian removal and the gag rule, revealed that his egalitarian rhetoric applied only to whites. Yet in an important way, Jackson succeeded in delineating the conflict between democratic equality and economic development, and he made the kind of defiant effort to reconcile these forces that one would expect of Andrew Jackson.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: